On Gorbachev: A Talk with Andrei Sakharov

The following exchange with Andrei Sakharov took place at a meeting at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington on November 14.

PETER REDDAWAY (Secretary of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies): Since 1953, i.e., since Stalin’s death, the general pattern of Soviet economic and political development has been two steps forward and then one step back. In other words, under Mr. Khrushchev, there were two steps forward; under Mr. Brezhnev, there was one step back; and now we are making two steps forward again under Mr. Gorbachev. You, Andrei Dmitriyevich, were quoted in the press a few days ago as predicting some sort of rather major disaster in the Soviet Union if Mr. Gorbachev should fail with his perestroika program, the implication being that there might be on this occasion, say, three or four steps back rather than just one. And so my first question is to ask you what your reflections and views are on that sort of model, the very crude model that I’ve just put forward.

ANDREI SAKHAROV: Stalin’s epoch and the preceding time, of course—the history of my country from 1917 to 1953—made a truly profound imprint on the entire structure of society. We could use all sorts of words to characterize those times, like Stalinism, administrative-command system, or even harsher expressions. But what is important is that there emerged a certain highly stable structure well-nigh impervious to change, although the need for change was felt by many. I do think the two-steps-forward-one-step-backward-and-again-two-steps-forward model is valid. What Khrushchev did in the context of his time was a veritable revolution and a badly needed one at that. We know that he indeed changed a great deal. He achieved much in absolute terms, but as far as changing or shaking up the system his efforts, on the contrary, had a negligible effect. Besides, Khrushchev did things intuitively, in a groping manner, and made many mistakes. But most important, Khrushchev was very much an ideological captive of his entire previous experience, his life, his educational background.

Gorbachev came to power by climbing the steps of the conventional Party and administrative hierarchy—in much the same way, I believe, as any other of our national leaders. He arrived at the top at a time when, as he says himself—and he is certainly right in this respect—a “crisis situation” set in. I have no idea—maybe someone else does—whether he had a comprehensive, coherent plan of overcoming the crisis, a plan of changes he was to make. My impression rather is that he has been improvising, now and then making deals with the opposing forces that often successfully subvert his initiatives and sometimes even turn them to their own advantage. So, to sum up, I have no idea if he has any long-term goal other than what he says he wants. At any rate, what he has been doing lately is very much at variance with his early …

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