Gorbachev the Bold

Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev

by Dusko Doder
Random House, 339 pp., $19.95


In the autumn of 1985 I suggested in these pages1 that Soviet Union might be about “to change its course.” Its leaders might be deciding, I felt, “that economic progress is more important to their long-term interests than grimly hanging on to every form of police control while their political legitimacy slowly ebbs away.” Mr. Gorbachev would probably continue to dismiss old officials and build his own power base; then he would “launch a program of reforms.” He seemed to realize that “economic reforms will never be really effective without social and political reforms too.” As a result, Soviet professional people could now “hope for more constructive relations with Gorbachev’s regime.” Moreover, the reform coalition in which they could be expected to take part would be greatly strengthened if he also made “concessions to the dissidents.” In such a situation the latter were, I thought, “sure to respond positively, at least at first.” A logical concomitant to all this would be “a broad relaxation of cultural controls.” For the demoralizing drain of outstanding cultural talent to the West—through emigration and defection—had become “a national issue waiting to be grasped by a bold politician.”

There was also, however, a less encouraging side to the Soviet situation. The jobs of many powerful members of the ruling class, or nomenklatura, were at risk—“either because Gorbachev wants to give them to his own supporters, or because the reforms he has in mind may soon lead him either to abolish the jobs or to remove their occupants as being unsuitable for new tasks.” Both this and the radicalism of Gorbachev’s reform rhetoric had brought into being a defensive coalition of conservatives and reactionaries which would “make the optimistic program I have outlined so hard to launch, and even harder to carry out.” The most likely outcome to the raging conflict between the two sides would, I reckoned, be “some sort of victory—probably a partial and confused victory—for the forces of reform.” Gorbachev’s faction might, however, “fail to hold the line, and then have control seized from it by a rival faction.”

A year and a half later, events seem to be unfolding more or less according to the sequence I outlined. And to help us in making assessments and in posing new questions we have books by Dusko Doder and others, illuminating various aspects of the Kremlin scene in the 1980s.2

The most interesting questions now appear to be these: Can Gorbachev the Bold hope to succeed where Khrushchev the Intrepid failed? Is his coalition strong enough to devise, introduce, and carry out workable reforms that come anywhere near to the radical proposals that he is now making? Is his personal power firmly based? Should the West do anything to assist him, and if so, what?

Doder confronts all these questions, except the last, in his engaging, valuable, and original book, Shadows and Whispers. Most of his answers understandably betray ambivalence. His heart wants Gorachev to succeed, but whenever it gets carried away, his head reasserts itself, dousing his hopes with doubt and skepticism. Referring to the five-year period between 1981 and 1986, for example, most of which he spent in Moscow as bureau chief for The Washington Post, he declares: “What I witnessed was the transition from entrenched power to a new generation favoring reform. Gorbachev has set out to modernize his country and de-Stalinize its political and economic system.” At this point, just as a note of euphoria seems to creep in, Doder writes: “It remains to be seen whether he will be able to subordinate the system to his purposes.”

In the final pages of the book the ambivalence becomes intense:

Undoubtedly, the process of change…will continue as Gorbachev defines his policies. Undoubtedly, new men and women will be coming to the fore if [sic] the momentum for change is maintained.

Yet the problems are enormous and perhaps insurmountable. His country’s…exceptionally conservative society cannot easily be manipulated; in the past it has responded mostly to force. In this context, Gorbachev appears almost a tragic figure…. The challenge he has presented may prove to be too exacting and too ambitious. He started out as a serious reformer, but he could become an autocrat if the inherited problems prove intractable and if his people exhaust the energy and commitment of the new Kremlin management team.

Doder can brilliantly evoke the texture of power politics in Moscow; he has fine insights into the personalities of key figures like Andropov, and he knows his way around Moscow. But these virtues lead him to put rather too much emphasis on politics at the expense of society and culture, on personality at the expense of system, and on Moscow at the expense of the country as a whole (let alone the entire Soviet empire).

The consequences are several. Influenced by the Moscow sophisticates who were his main sources, Doder was baffled at first by the accession of Chernenko to Andropov’s place. He did not appreciate the political strength of the Party apparatus around the country, which preferred the safe Chernenko over the risky future represented by Gorbachev. True, when Doder himself ventured into the provinces, “the vastness and the complexity of the land made me more aware than I had been in Moscow of the difficulty of Gorbachev’s mission.” But his perspective remains centered on Moscow. That he also has very little to say about Eastern Europe contributes further to his tendency to underestimate the political risks of economic reform. For if the USSR radically reforms itself, Eastern Europe will tend to do likewise—with, as recent history suggests, potentially disastrous political results.

Doder gives illuminating portraits of each of the four Soviet leaders he observed. With one of them, Chernenko, he was lucky enough to have had a formal interview; but the portrait of Andropov is not only the fullest and most original of the four, but also the centerpiece of the entire book. A forty-five-page tour de force, it displays the kind of subtle and painstaking research that distinguishes Doder’s work. He won the confidence of friends and relatives of recently deceased Soviet politicians, collected information from them, used intuition and experience to assess the accuracy of whatever he could not cross-check, and then published his findings without revealing much about particular sources. What emerged from his inquiries about Andropov

was a portrait of an enigmatic figure full of contradictions; he was a mixture of boldness and timidity, enlightenment and obscurantism and reaction, ruthlessness and gentleness, stubbornness and feebleness, a secret-police chief who hounded dissidents but wrote poems to his wife and friends.

One of these poems, of which Doder reproduces the handwritten original in facsimile, reveals Andropov as capable of poetic feeling and of competent versification. In a somewhat old-fashioned poem on his reluctance to accept the idea of death, Andropov writes: “At the appointed hour I too, like everyone, will die, and the memories of me will be washed away by Lethe’s grey waters.”

Doder’s finely done character sketches may give the reader the impression that the personality of a leader can be as important in Soviet politics as it is in Western democracies. This is not usually the case. As Doder himself stresses elsewhere in the book, a future Soviet leader cannot much reveal his personal qualities until he reaches the very top. Gorbachev, for example, made “dull and droning” speeches as a junior Politburo member,

yet only a month after his accession he displayed stunning oratorical skills. Obviously he had been willfully denying a natural gift for all the previous years.

Even since 1985 he has not been able to put a clear personal mark on the Kremlin leadership; he could not, in Western fashion, bring in a new administration after his election but has had to fight for every demotion and promotion. As for Andropov, he had to show unquestioning loyalty to Brezhnev for fifteen years, and when he at last succeeded him in 1982, and could reveal something of himself, it was too late: he was dying.

While Doder steadily strives for objectivity in his political analysis, he does not refrain from forthright comment when circumstances warrant, especially when Westerners are naive about the Soviet system. Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow in 1982, which was secretly orchestrated by the KGB, is one of the more revealing episodes he describes at some length. Graham’s church services were packed with KGB officers—“young, clean-shaven men standing quietly and looking pious.” Graham made the occasion “even more grotesque when he declared at a news conference that he had encountered no restrictions on religious freedom during his six-day visit…. We were all outraged by his remarks, since the Soviets were so open about their opposition to religion.” Graham then implied that Russians ate better than Americans, saying, “I have had caviar with almost every meal I’ve had here.” Doder comments:

The KGB operatives in the audience must have been delighted. This was at a time of food shortages so severe that Brezhnev proposed that same month a new “food program” to reassure the population that steps were being taken to alleviate the problem.

Although Doder makes occasional references to Nikita Khrushchev, the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union from 1957 to 1964, neither he nor other commentators have explored sufficiently the remarkable parallels between Khrushchev and Gorbachev. While there are many differences between the two men, the similarities in their temperaments, in the circumstances in which each assumed the helm, and the broad strategies they adopted to break through the inertia they inherited, are indeed striking. What, then, are Gorbachev’s chances of avoiding Khrushchev’s fate of being ousted after a few years in a palace coup? Are the USSR’s problems more susceptible of treatment today than they were thirty years ago? Can more support be found for Gorbachev’s bold but risky strategy of modernization through democratization and glasnost than was available for the similar strategy of Khrushchev? Can Gorbachev, with his superior education and less impetuous style, outdo his predecessor?

Khrushchev’s goal, after the stifling immobilisme of Stalin’s later years, was to “get the country moving again.” He wanted to reinvigorate the economy and society, put less emphasis on world revolution and more on peace, and improve relations with virtually all foreign countries. This strategy would, he hoped, secure Party rule and the USSR’s defense, and, as the state of the economy and society improved, would promote communism abroad by force of example, thus augmenting the more traditional methods. To give legitimacy to the new direction and mobilize the population, Khrushchev revised Marxist-Leninist ideology, spelling out the stages by which the “construction of communism” would be achieved. He offered the population a variety of material incentives—a wider spread in wages, ambitious programs for housing, health, and education (to be paid for by greater productivity and reducing the military budget), and the promise of material abundance for all by 1980. The “moral” and political prospects he opened up were even more ambitious—first, an end to oppression by releasing millions of political prisoners, severely curbing secret-police powers, and rewriting the legal codes; second, he vigorously promoted the democratization of Soviet society and the “withering away of the state,” which, jointly, would lead to “popular self-government”; and third, he aimed to advance social justice through curbing the privileges of the nomenklatura—the hierarchy of officials—and raising the status of non-Party members and women.

To do all this and to secure his power base, Khrushchev gave high importance to firing a large number of Stalinist officials. In their place he promoted dynamic, fresh-minded, professionally qualified cadres in their forties. One of his major instruments for doing this—and boosting his program as a whole—was glasnost. True, the term itself was not much used, but the refreshing opening up of the mass media, although this process remained controlled and in the service of the regime’s policies, was identical in nature to the glasnost policies of the last year or so. Like Gorbachev, Khrushchev needed glasnost to learn the real state of affairs in many spheres, to stimulate debate on issues like economic reform, to promote a cultural revival, to help him to purge opponents, and to impress the West with the pace and extent of change. To foster glasnost he called for “criticism and self-criticism” in all aspects of life.

Along with incentives, Khrushchev also believed in discipline. Especially in his later years, he clamped down on corruption by, for example, introducing the death penalty for a wide range of economic offenses. And he launched campaigns against drunkenness and shirking.

Administratively, Khrushchev tried—often through badly thought-out schemes—to improve the efficiency of centralized economic planning by reducing the powers of the established middle-level authorities (in the republics and regions). He tried to diminish the centralized control of factory managers, and to encourage the involvement of workers in management decisions. He showed a keen interest in the Yugoslav system by which workers elect their own managers, and also experimented with multicandidate elections in local government councils, or soviets. In the Party, he took the radical step in 1961 of requiring a regular turnover, through elections, of almost all Party officials. At the same time, he showed no inclination—in any of his democratizing reforms—to change the basic aspects of Soviet rule, above all the monopoly of state power by the Party.

Finally, in foreign policy, Khrushchev’s goals included international arms control and attaining equal status as a superpower with the United States. He was determined both to demonstrate that the Soviet Union had its own claims to power and could not be pushed around (this led to rash actions in Berlin and Cuba), and also to have frequent summit meetings with the US president.

Does all this have a familiar ring? In fact, the general pattern of Gorbachev’s strategy and actions in his first two years reveals a strong similarity to what Khrushchev attempted three decades ago in an environment that was not very different. To demonstrate this, I will first review Gorbachev’s record so far, and then, bearing in mind that the often naive radicalism (and in some cases ineptness) of Khrushchev’s policies steadily estranged the key groups on which his power depended, and led to his downfall, I will try to assess the present and future impact of Gorbachev’s policies on his own prospects for holding power.


Like Khrushchev, Gorbachev has given the highest priority to the economic and social development of the Soviet Union. But he does so in a less optimistic setting. Whereas Khrushchev foresaw domestic triumphs converting the entire world to communism, Gorbachev repeatedly stresses that his program of “reconstruction” (perestroika) is essential if the USSR is not to move backward. Just to maintain living standards and a sure defense, he said in 1985, the country’s economy needed to grow at 4 percent a year, not the current rate of 3 percent. If, moreover, the USSR failed to meet this challenge, “the fate of socialism in the world” would be affected. More recently he said: “If reconstruction peters out, the consequences will be extremely serious for society as a whole, and for every Soviet person in particular.”3

This rejection of traditional communist triumphalism features also in the new Party program, adopted last year. As Doder points out in his book, this authoritative document no longer heralds the “downfall of imperialism” and the worldwide victory of communism, but holds only that “mankind’s movement towards socialism and communism” cannot be reversed. Gorbachev’s speeches are in tune with this new emphasis. Their clear aim is to stimulate Soviet patriotism, i.e., a concern for the country’s welfare; spreading communism abroad is not referred to even in passing.

It can of course be argued that this new position is tactical and deceptive, as were Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” and Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence”; and that it is just the latest example of the strategy of reculer pour mieux sauter. This argument is probably true in a theoretical sense. One can imagine that such a justification for the reforms is made in high circles in Moscow; and if so, the theory doubtless finds some expression in Soviet international planning. But it seems to me wiser to regard the USSR, for the time being at least, as a great power pursuing great power interests, i.e., to take Gorbachev’s claim at its face value.

To carry out this strategy, Gorbachev says, the vast “untapped resources of socialism” must be mobilized. Central planning and the latest technology are very important, but the least used resource is “the human factor.” The Party must therefore arouse the mass of the Soviet people from their apathy and persuade them that each citizen has a stake in the success of “reconstruction” (perestroika). This requires, in Gorbachev’s words,

the serious, deep democratization of Soviet society…which will enable us to involve in reconstruction its decisive strength—the people…. We need democracy like air. If we don’t understand this…our policies will founder and reconstruction will collapse, comrades.4

The need is for more “socialist self-government by the people.” After all, “order can only be created in a house by a person who feels himself its master.”5

All this, along with the many other components of perestroika, needs deep changes in the psychology and attitudes—not only of ordinary people, but also—as Gorbachev repeatedly stresses—of officials at every level. Exhortation alone will not bring about such changes. Hence Gorbachev’s most radical proposals to date—that elections to Party and soviet bodies should be made more democratic, and that workers should elect their own managers. For the first time, Party elections would be genuinely secret and the voters would have a real choice of candidates. The dramatic refusal of the Central Committee to endorse these proposals in January apparently did not daunt Gorbachev. A month later he launched a fierce counterattack against his critics. (Their speeches were barred from publication, a fact that reveals the limits of glasnost.) In an address to the trade unions at the end of February, he pointedly took up and rejected the claims that were evidently made against him:

We are not moving away from socialism. Through reconstruction we are developing the potential of the socialist system. We are not moving away from democracy…. We need such powerful forms of democracy as glasnost, criticism and self-criticism, to change radically every area of social life….

Those who have doubts about the expediency of further democratization apparently suffer from one serious failing…they do not believe in our people. They claim that democracy will be used by our people to disorganize society and undermine discipline, to undermine the strength of the system….

Democracy is not the opposite of order. It is order of a higher degree, based not on…the mindless carrying out of instructions, but on wholehearted, active participation by the whole community in all of society’s affairs.

Democracy is not the opposite of discipline. It is the conscious discipline and organization of working people….

Democracy is not the antithesis of responsibility. It signifies no absence of controls, no mentality that everything is permitted.

Democracy means self-regulation by society, confidence in the civic maturity of Soviet people and in their awareness of their social duty. Democracy is a union of rights and duties….

The more democracy we have, the faster we shall advance along the road of reconstruction and social renewal, and the more order and discipline we shall have in our socialist house.

So it is either democracy, or social inertia and conservatism.

There is no third way, comrades.6

The general direction of the Gorbachev faction’s “moral” or inspirational incentives—with their dangerous whiff, to conservatives, of anarchosyndicalism—should now be clear. What else do they offer the population?

Apart from a general attempt to promote Soviet patriotism through greater attention to the country’s cultural heritage, a more liberal approach to popular culture, and the attempt to foster popular pride both in leaders who are no longer frail old men and also in the USSR’s growing world stature and campaigns for peace, the most notable efforts have to do with the liberal intelligentsia, who are being mobilized in support of Gorbachev’s program with notable success. The Gorbachevites are listening to the ideas of policy-minded intellectuals on possible reforms, and to their reports on many subjects, including previously taboo topics like drugs, abortion, suicide, the homeless, and so on. They are gratifying other sections of the intelligentsia by relaxing cultural controls, and also allowing more glasnost in scholarship, literature, and the arts. And they are making a strong political gesture by releasing more than one hundred people with close connections to the liberal intelligentsia—often friends and relatives—from the labor camps for political prisoners, and promising to release many more.

Glasnost, it should be clear, is a two-edged policy. It can hope both to increase the leadership’s credibility and to enlarge the reformers’ camp by opening people’s eyes to the urgent need for reform. But the frank, bleak picture of social and economic ills that it presents may actually breed apathy as much as activism. And the frequent, candid references to the pervasive opposition to reform must reassure conservatives everywhere that they are not alone, and suggest that they need only hang on until the time comes for them to counterattack.

The release of political prisoners, by contrast, has, at least in the short term, yielded tangible dividends beyond merely pleasing the liberal intelligentsia. Favorable publicity has been spread abroad, and Andrei Sakharov has, without compromising his integrity, called for support of Gorbachev’s general line and criticized the American SDI program. Glasnost has not, however, been liberal enough to allow Moscow’s Literary Gazette to publish an interview it conducted with Sakharov. So far, moreover, the Kremlin’s record on human rights generally has been spotty, and has not yet approached the degree of liberalism the regime allowed between 1974 and 1979.

It is true that more than one hundred well-known prisoners have been released, that many humanitarian cases involving foreigners have been resolved, that the BBC’s radio broadcasts are no longer jammed, that a few demonstrations have been tolerated in Moscow, and that Soviet diplomats are at least permitted to discuss human rights cases.

But it is worth emphasizing that only a small proportion of the several thousands of political and religious prisoners have so far been released, and some freed prisoners have been threatened with arrest if they do not keep quiet. New arrests of some dissenters, notably Baptists, continue, as do psychiatric internments, if in both cases at a diminishing rate. Foreign radio stations other than the BBC are still being jammed.

Even in Moscow, the showcase of liberalism, some demonstrations are still being dispersed by strong-arm methods. The severe conditions of the penal system have yet to be improved. And—a potential source of foreign and domestic tension—the laws on emigration that went into effect this January are tougher, not more liberal, than before. Some eleven thousand long-term Jewish refuseniks may be allowed to leave this year as a special gesture. But if the law is then strictly applied, only a small proportion of the more than half a million Jews, Germans, and Armenians who have indicated their wish to emigrate will qualify to do so.

What of Gorbachev’s line on material incentives? First, he holds out the hope of dramatic advances in living conditions by announcing what are probably much too ambitious goals for the economy in the year 2000. Second, he has made a “wager on the strong” by pushing for greater differentiation in wages, with rewards for the able and industrious, and harsh treatment for slackers, drunkards, embezzlers, and bribe takers. And third, he has put great stress on “social policy” and the Kremlin’s determination to improve the quality of life.

Here a severe dilemma arises. At the January plenum Gorbachev tried to win support for his policies by making some realistic-sounding points:

People will judge our policies, will judge reconstruction—and more severely as time passes—by the tangible results in improving the work conditions and lives of the millions: by how much more sensibly production work is organized, how much fairer people’s pay is, whether housing construction has speeded up, whether stores, household services, city transport, medical services, and hospitals have improved, and whether the moral climate in a party organization or a work unit has got better.7

A little later, however, he repeated an earlier warning that no substantial improvement in the standard of living should be expected before about 1990. Will the Soviet people work harder for five years under Gorbachev when the promised payoff is so distant and so uncertain?

When we turn to the tactics of the Gorbachev faction for dealing with political and social problems, the picture becomes more blurred. Nevertheless, some broad principles are fairly clear. The hierarchies of the Party and ministries, which run the huge state sector of the economy, are to be reduced in size; the small cooperative and private sectors of the economy seem set for at least modest growth. Market forces will play a bigger part than before, administrative orders a lesser one. The power of the middle tier of economic management—in the republics and the regions—is to be sharply reduced and reallocated between the central administration on the one hand and the factory managers at the grass roots on the other. Younger, more dynamic leaders (mostly, at the regional level and upward, in their late fifties and early sixties) are being appointed to many important posts. In agriculture Gorbachev favors the opposite course to Khrushchev—instead of shoring up the traditional collective and state farms, he is, more sensibly, moving (in practice if not in theory) toward small-scale cooperatives and greater use of free markets.

Still, when it comes to real political programs the picture is more confused. Advocates of different specific policies disagree with one another about what needs to be done, so no reforms of real substance are yet in place and no coherent scheme for such reforms has been devised. “Each group of experts has its supporters among the party-state leaders,” one apparently knowledgeable observer reports, and “as a result, experiments and measures reflecting the views of the different groups, and contradicting each other, are being undertaken simultaneously…. The ruling group is compelled to live only from day to day.”8

What then is the base of political support that the Gorbachevites are trying to consolidate? In simple terms, they are attempting to mobilize the most dynamic elements in both the nomenklatura and the society generally. Their most visible success to date has been with sections of the intelligentsia, the media, and the foreign policy apparatus. They have also made special appeals to broad social groups that were neglected by Brezhnev, such as women, young people, and non-Party members. Within the nomenklatura, the Gorbachev line seems to appeal either to people who are ambitious to be promoted into positions still held by Brezhnevites, or to those who feel a patriotic anguish and frustration at their country’s condition, or to people who fit both categories. Those in the first category, we should note, are bound to be fair-weather friends for Gorbachev: their anti-Stalin equivalents of the 1950s, though promoted by Khrushchev, did not hesitate to turn against him when he lost political momentum in the early 1960s.

Gorbachev himself is a good example of combined ambition and patriotic anguish. He is also, for the time being, not just the main spokesman of his own power base, but probably also the strongest and most effective force within it. His striking courage, forceful personality, skills of persuasion, flexible mind, inexhaustible energy, lack of vanity, mastery of maneuver, and unceasing aggressiveness in keeping his opponents off balance, make him a formidable politician. His strong populist streak and his ability, rare in a Soviet politician, to talk spontaneously with ordinary people, also serve him well, at least for now. He made this populism explicit in a recent remark to a foreign communist leader: “They are trying to make me a god, but I am not one. If there is a god, it is the Soviet people.”9

The danger here is that if he should fail to produce the economic goods for the people, they will hold him personally responsible. And at that point his persuasive skills might turn to empty exhortation or worse, and his maneuvering to the strong-arm methods of an autocrat.

It must be of concern to Gorbachev that his colleagues on the supreme body, the Politburo, seem often to prefer not to join him in storming the bastions of the status quo. As we have seen, his attempt to put the weight of the Party behind the electoral principle was rebuffed at the January plenum; he then redoubled his efforts and organized some experimental new-style elections in such places as Kemerovo and Latvia. His senior associates in the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov, then made important trips to the provinces, during which they supported some of Gorbachev’s policies but virtually ignored the key issue of sharpening the electoral principle.10 No one in the Politburo, it should be stressed, owes his career to Gorbachev personally; and everyone in the Politburo has a common interest in preventing Gorbachev from accumulating too much personal power.

Gorbachev has built up strong support in the pivotal Central Committee Secretariat, but among the 307 members of the committee itself the situation seems very different. He devoted most of his final speech at the January plenum to hitting back at those members (reportedly about half11 ) who had blocked or challenged him on the electoral and other issues. Moreover, by declaring: “At this point we must end the debate on whether or not reconstruction is necessary,” he made it clear that even his broad strategy was still under fire.

In the days following the plenum Gorbachev felt the need to make implied threats to resign over this fundamental issue. He said, for example, “I believe deeply in what we have begun. I believe deeply. And if I were told that we must stop the process of reconstruction…. I would never agree. I do not want to be associated with any other policy.”12

None of this is so surprising if we note that important newspapers and authoritative figures such as the political commentator Alexander Bovin, the poet Andrei Voznesensky, and senior politicians like Gorbachev himself, have been sounding the alarm for the last year about enemies of reform who make up “a very strong reactionary group,” “have not lost hope,” “are biding their time,” have honored an official convicted of corruption, “are again becoming brazen” and trying “to bury everything new.” This is the atmosphere in which an underground videotape attacking Gorbachev’s wife can circulate.

Perhaps most revealing of all, the leaders of the Russian Republic Writers’ Union staged in late March what amounted to a lightly disguised and sustained attack on the Gorbachev line from a Brezhnevite position, followed by a ringing call for the counterattack to begin. The high point of this demonstration came when the writer Yuri Bondarev, a longtime conservative, claimed that “the flame of glasnost” had been “stolen from the forces of justice and truth” by the “false democrats of literature.” The latter, he said, had been given a monopoly of glasnost “by our information and print media.” This “all-destroying” group had “laid siege” to Russian literature, and like the Nazi invaders of 1941, had forced it to retreat to avoid complete destruction: “If this retreat continues and the moment for a new Stalingrad does not come, the result will be that the nation’s values and everything that constitutes the spiritual pride of the people will be hurled into the abyss.”13

For such a meeting to be organized in the first place, and then reported at length in the press, powerful political patrons must have been in favor of it. Most likely they were in or near the Politburo, and were allowing the gut feelings of the conservative section of the nomenklatura, in all the main institutions of the country, to be expressed in a literary forum. The anarchosyndicalist overtones of Gorbachev’s program—exemplified most clearly by the lengthy extracts from his February speech I have quoted—must have rung an alarm among conservatives. The orgy of democratization he proposed would “lay siege” to the familiar system they knew, and, unless resisted, exert an “all-destroying” effect on it. In the conservative view, it would have exactly the effect that Gorbachev demogogically claimed it would not have, i.e., it would be used by the people “to disorganize society and undermine discipline, to undermine the strength of the system.” For the conservatives, Gorbachev was simply naive to hold that democratization—which would indeed bring fresh forces into the nomenklatura at all levels—could produce unity rather than division.

Such reasoning comes naturally to orthodox officials of all four pillars of the Soviet system—the Party, the ministries, the KGB, and the military. These officials could easily make up a stronger coalition than the limited and relatively fragile power base that Gorbachev currently enjoys. If so, and if the former Soviet official Michael Voslensky is right that shifts in nomenklatura opinion translate quickly into a new balance of power at the top,14 then it seems to me that Gorbachev will have either to retreat, or to risk being removed from office á la Khrushchev within the next few years. Given his temperament and his recently stepped-up radicalism, the second course may be the more likely.

For the time being, however, he seems safe enough. Apart from his skill at political infighting, the trauma of the three successions chronicled by Doder is still fresh enough in the nomenklatura’s mind to inhibit potential plotters. Moreover, Gorbachev appears to be subtly curbing the power of his current potential rival, Yegor Ligachev. If, however, like Khrushchev, he should persist in his radicalism, and also fail to produce a steady improvement in the standard of living, then it is hard to see how he could survive for many more years. No one can rule out the possibility that the Gorbachev reforms could gather a momentum leading to unprecedented changes, but the Soviet system is not, in my view, more susceptible of transformation today than it was thirty years ago. I suspect that the only likely remedies for this situation may be the ones that have been required in Russian history for nearly two centuries—either a serious breakdown in public order, or defeat in a war.

Finally, is it in the West’s interests for Gorbachev to survive and entrench himself? It is hard to say, and anyway foolish for us to think that we can affect the situation much, at any rate in ways that are predictable. One might, however, hazard the view that Gorbachev is currently in serious need of tangible achievements, and may therefore be open to a considerable number of deals with the United States over a wide range of issues. The current negotiations on arms control seem to bear this out. Such deals could be advantageous both to Gorbachev and to the United States.

  1. 1

    Waiting for Gorbachev,” The New York Review (October 10, 1985).

  2. 2

    In Comrade Chairman: Soviet Succession and the Rise of Gorbachev (Arbor House, 1987), Richard Owen, Moscow correspondent of The Times of London from 1982 to 1986, covers the same period as Doder but precedes it with a substantial section on Soviet successions from Lenin to Brezhnev. His strong historical and political analysis helps to shape his skepticism about the success of Gorbachev’s reformism. Martin Walker, Moscow correspondent of The Guardian of Manchester since early 1984, argues in The Waking Giant: Gorbachev’s Russia (Pantheon, 1986), that Gorbachev “will succeed partially,” and devotes space to Soviet social and economic problems, as well as politics. In Gorbachev’s Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology (Norton, 1987, forthcoming in May), Marshall Goldman focuses on the economy and reaches somewhat more skeptical conclusions. Timothy Colton, by contrast, in the expanded edition of The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union (Council on Foreign Relations, 1986), sees Gorbachev as a skillful “moderate reformer” who is likely to be successful with moderate economic and social reform but unlikely to want to change much in the political system.

  3. 3

    Speech to the Soviet trade union congress (Pravda, February 26, 1987).

  4. 4

    From Gorbachev’s concluding speech at the January plenum of the Central Committee (Pravda, January 30, 1987).

  5. 5

    Gorbachev’s opening speech at the plenum (Pravda, January 28, 1987).

  6. 6

    Pravda, February 26, 1987.

  7. 7

    Pravda, January 30, 1987.

  8. 8

    See the article by “N. Beregov,” The Washington Post, Outlook section, April 19, 1987. According to the Post, Beregov is the pen name of a long-time Moscow dissident of social-democratic views who is closely connected to the Soviet elite. Another penetrating analysis by Beregov appeared in the same section on December 7, 1986.

  9. 9

    The Washington Post, March 10, 1987.

  10. 10

    Pravda, March 6 (Ligachev) and March 10 (Ryzhkov), 1987. In April Ligachev appeared to become more enthusiastic about the electoral principle.

  11. 11

    Challenges Grow to Gorbachev’s Reform” (The Washington Post, March 10, 1987).

  12. 12

    Radio Moscow, February 19, 1987.

  13. 13

    Speech by Yuri Bondarev, Literaturnaya Rossiya (March 27, 1987).

  14. 14

    See Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura (Doubleday, 1984).