Resisting Gorbachev

In the struggle over power and policy in the Kremlin the stakes have risen yet again. At first there was only scattered resistance to a drive by a reasonably united collective leadership to mobilize Soviet bureaucracy and society to carry out long-delayed reforms. But that stage soon passed. The turning point came in early 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates committed themselves to a more radical version of their reform program of perestroika, or restructuring: they made it clear, for example, that they wanted to break the power of many of the officials who are now inefficiently running the economy—including officials of the Communist party. In particular they wanted to reduce sharply the power of the bloated economic ministries, which do more to block production than to encourage it, and to allow much more economic activity to take place in a socialist market.

In response, Yegor Ligachev and other moderate reformers began to organize their own forces in the center and on the right behind a different strategy: they, too, would trumpet the need for perestroika, but in addition they would attack the radical ideas of the Gorbachev camp as being irresponsible and unsocialist. They would, in effect, protect many of the Party officials, bureaucrats, and organizations Gorbachev and his group could no longer tolerate. Since the summer of 1987, the dispute between the two groups, which are in fact loose coalitions, has been increasing in intensity, injecting a strong, if usually hidden, struggle for power into the efforts of both sides.

The special conference of five thousand Party delegates, which ended on July 1, has made this struggle fiercer and more visible, but has in no way resolved it. The conference, and the preparations for it, have demonstrated the current limits to the power of both camps, highlighting the weaknesses of each as much as their strengths. On balance, history may well see the conference as a loss on points for the Gorbachev program, though not necessarily for Gorbachev personally. The Soviet leader seemed to move toward the political center, and may thus have made his own position more secure, at least for now.

All this means that the Soviet polity is likely to remain for the time being an arena of fierce politics—and also a rich, unpredictable, and challenging spectacle for Sovietologists, who labored long and hard in the barren vineyards of Brezhnevism.

What are the broad contours of the course the Gorbachevites have tried to take since their leader became secretary general of the Party in March 1985? This is a necessary backdrop to the analysis of the political struggles of the last year. What is truly striking about the Gorbachevite strategy, as it evolves, is its remarkable parallels with Khrushchev’s strategy over the four years after he took over the top Party job in September 1953. Both men went about trying to shake up and reform deeply entrenched, conservative bureaucracies in similar ways; and these bureaucracies resisted their efforts …

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Letters

An Exchange on Perestroika November 10, 1988