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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.

1.

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 pronouncements.

In political terms, his recent strategy can be fairly accurately described as a campaign to achieve democratic change through nondemocratic means. The way I see it, it is an extremely dangerous strategy, threatening to bring forth unworkable antidemocratic structures we’ll have to contend with for a long time. I mean the constitutional reform, the plan of instituting indirect elections to the Supreme Soviet, with all power vested in the person of the head of state who doubles as the General Secretary of the Party—and let me emphasize, it is the only political party in the country. The new draft constitution never so much as mentions even the possibility of political pluralism and has no constitutional provisions for a multiparty system.

As a result, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet will be empowered, in between legislative sessions, to issue directives that have the force of law. The Supreme Soviet is to be elected by the Congress of People’s Deputies under conditions that can in no way be called genuinely democratic. There is little doubt the elections will be fully controlled by the Party and state machinery. In other words, the 2,250 people’s deputies will be little more than window dressing, while the 400 of them to be elected to the Supreme Soviet in no sense of the word can be considered democratically elected. And the very system of election of the people’s deputies also abounds in pitfalls. Thus the range of public organizations allowed to nominate candidates does not include the newest mass movements, such as the Popular Fronts in the Baltic Republics.

I could go on attacking the draft constitution. It has come in for intense, and in my view quite justified, criticism from many quarters. Simultaneously, there is an antidemocratic draft press law. Antidemocratic laws on public assembly have expanded the powers of the Interior Ministry internal troops. This is to illustrate the point that Gorbachev has been using antidemocratic methods. The outcome is anyone’s guess. Maybe he will manage to outwit everybody and go on implementing his plans. But the problem is he is facing not just subjective obstacles, but also powerful objective difficulties: the administrative-command system, the Stalinist system, dominates the entire structure of the country—both political and economic, from top to bottom. It is not altogether clear how it is to be transformed and at what point the transformation is to stop. It is not even clear whether the system is amenable to even partial reform, partial correction. Maybe a partially reformed system will turn out to be even worse than the old system, because partial change entails major dislocations and brings on a crisis.

Let me try to explain. There is a plan, apparently the basis of the economic reform, to put industry entirely on a self-financing basis. A question arises whether this system can be effective under noncompetitive conditions, whether a factory can operate in the absence of a free market for its products as well as for the raw materials it needs. It is easy to imagine what will happen. “The Perestroika Spotlight” TV show provides ample glimpses of things to come. Here is an elementary example: soap production. A number of state-owned enterprises forming a single production unit manufacture soap. There used to be a variety of soap brands on the market, ranging from cheap to expensive. But in financial terms the factory has much to gain from manufacturing 90-kopek bars of soap rather than the 19-kopek variety; a smaller production volume will yield the same income at substantial savings of raw materials and labor. And, indeed, the factory switches entirely to the luxury product lines at the expense of the cheap brands.

You should realize that similar trends are cropping up all across the board. Thus a factory manufacturing automotive electrical equipment may find it more profitable to switch to some other product; a plant manufacturing gas pipes will concentrate on pipe sizes that it finds the most convenient and profitable, disregarding the actual needs of its customers. And so on and so forth. The only way of overcoming such trends in the absence of competition is to bring back the administrative-command system. I just tried to respond to the first question by sharing with you some of my thoughts and feelings, which are not just mine alone, they are quite widespread.

2.

JAMES BILLINGTON (Librarian of Congress): A question in two parts. Is there, in addition to the democratic movement of which you are such an inspiring leader and which looks fundamentally to universal enlightenment values and their possible application to Russia, is there also a movement not so much to reform the system along universal democratic lines but to rediscover values that are distinctively Russian, what might roughly be called a Russian nationalist movement, as it is sometimes contended? And if there is such a movement going on at the same time, to what extent does it conflict with and to what extent does it potentially support the broader democratic movement?

By conflicting with, I would assume we are talking about militarism, chauvinism, nationalism, anti-Semitism—that whole range and complex of thoughts. By possible support, I assume we are talking about the rediscovery of a deeper historical identity, possibly the movements connected with the millennium of Christianity and the environmental movement, all of which have shown great strength. As regards the nationalist movement, is there a positive as well as a negative side from the point of view of the democratic movement? Do you believe it to be of comparable importance? How would you assess the balance between the two?

SAKHAROV: Earlier, any independent group in our country would be nipped in the bud immediately in a repressive manner. So they simply could not exist. Nowadays, a great variety of unofficial movements, as we call them, are flourishing. A few of them, in all likelihood, have been nurtured by the powers that be, but certainly not all. Among such unofficial movements some indeed are nationalistic, Russian chauvinistic. Of these, the most notorious is the so-called Pamyat. But to the best of my knowledge, “Pamyat” is not a monolith; it includes people of different political views and different degrees of moral rectitude. But of course, it is predominantly a Russian chauvinistic and anti-Semitic movement. Besides, there are suspicions that “Pamyat” is supported to an extent by the KGB, which might have a whole slew of reasons for backing the jingoists: steering their movement in a desired direction, having a tool for provocations—you name it.

Extremely powerful nationalist movements have mushroomed in the constituent republics, such as, to cite the most obvious example, the Popular Fronts of the Baltic Republics. They also have a strong, I would even say dominant, nationalist element. But at the same time, they pursue democratic goals. Similar popular fronts have emerged elsewhere, in Russian cities. As for the Baltic Popular Fronts, they have a very strong power base, enjoying the support of virtually the entire population, including top Party officials. A parallel with Czechoslovakia in 1968 would be appropriate. On the other hand, the central authorities have assumed a wait-and-see attitude toward these movements and refrain from any repressive steps; maybe they even intend to cooperate with and use them in some way. But mind you, I said maybe, for I don’t know their plans. I think it would be worth your while to hear Sergei Kovalyov, whom many of you know as a former prisoner of conscience and former editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, speak on the subject of unofficial groups.

SERGEI KOVALYOV: As for the first question about the positive aspects of the Russian national movement. I am not in a position to give a responsible answer. Personally I have no reason to believe in the existence of a full-fledged, formally constituted Russian national movement. Still, to the extent it exists, I think that even at the highest intellectual level, at the level of widely known writers who are anything but hacks—like Belov and Rasputin,* obviously gifted men—the Russian nationalist movement gives off a very strong odor of chauvinism.

SAKHAROV: I believe Belov is less malodorous.

KOVALYOV: To the contrary, he is more chauvinistic than others. Well, judging by Belov’s latest book, he is maybe less chauvinistic than Astafyev, but far more so than Rasputin.

So as regards healthy national movements, imbued with a wholesome nationalist spirit and constituting a positive phenomenon, I’d rather point again to the Baltic areas, Armenia to some extent, maybe the Ukraine and some other areas that I don’t know much about. I don’t know if there is any point at this time to talk about unofficial groups other than the nationalist movements.

SAKHAROV: As for the Baltic and Armenian nationalist movements, we believe they are making a positive contribution.

translated by Eugene Ostrovsky

Letters

Village Prose: An Exchange February 2, 1989

  1. *

    Translator’s note: Valentin Rasputin, born in 1937, and Vasily Belov, born in 1932, are both known as writers of “village prose”—a genre particularly concerned with preservation of the rural environment and often critical of urban values. So is Viktor Astafyev, who is referred to below.

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