In Gorbachev’s Russia


History should be honest and correct.”

—the historian Roy Medvedev, as written for the Moscow News

History, like Leninist norms, should be honest and correct.”

—the historian Roy Medvedev, as rewritten by the Moscow News1

Moscow—There was a time not long since when the appearance of Roy Medvedev in the Moscow News would have clanged like the bells that signal revolutions. Moscow News is an official Soviet journal, and Roy Medvedev has until now been all by himself as an unofficial Soviet historian.

For more than two decades, he has been Russia’s main and perhaps only repository for critical studies of her history since the death of Lenin. He is the biographer of Nikolai Bukharin, whose short-order shrine as the one old Bolshevik immolated by Joseph Stalin is so far restored to official approval. Roy Medvedev and his twin brother, Zhores, collaborated on a study of the Khrushchev years, and he went on to write on Stalin and is now at work on Brezhnev.

Medvedev has always been barred from the state archives and has had to make do with the memories of survivors who had been allies or opponents or friends or family of his protagonists. He is to historians what Homer was to poets, the reservoir not of written but of oral tradition.

But now, suddenly, Roy Medvedev has found himself to his own small comfort articled to fashion by state decree. After the long years when his works were forbidden in Russia, Novisti, the state publishing monopoly, is offering to sponsor his Brezhnev, and Moscow News is soliciting his journalism.

And was his heart not warmed, a visitor wondered, to be free at last to speak to the fellow countrymen from whom he had so long been walled away?

Not especially,” Roy Medvedev replied. He had submitted his article to Moscow News. “The first editor says he really likes it.” Then a second editor advised that several changes would be necessary. Twenty-seven lines were excised.

Three days ago, a third editor came to show me the changes. It was not the article I’d written, and he reported that other members of the department said that they should change even more.”

The finished version was delivered last week; Roy Medvedev could examine the difference between what he had written and what had been printed. The process had consistently spared him all inconvenient labors with revisions in his own manuscript.

It is difficult to understand why they make changes. Often it doesn’t make sense.”

The governance of tone still extends itself to excise the smallest suggestion of a deviant thought. There is every license to advocate the pursuit of truth so long as the race is run on Lenin’s track and Lenin’s rules.

Moscow News is one of the Politburo’s franchised expressions of the spirit of glasnost. Its editors are Soviet journalists who refused to swim with the brackish current of the Brezhnev years and rejoice in their new liberation.

We have no limits in how far we can go,” Deputy Chief Editor Boris Karadov exulted last week. “What helps us is that we are zealous, stubborn supporters of perestroika. Our life as journalists would be meaningless without it. We are responsible for every damned period and comma in this newspaper.”

Its pride does Moscow News honor; and yet, relax though the state censor’s hand may, the old interior monitor still stands guard when the job at hand is laundering a manuscript of Roy Medvedev’s. “Such is Soviet journalism,” he reflected in all else but a tone disposed to further dips of the toe in the newly temperate waters of glasnost. Roy Medvedev seems resigned to going on as he so long has, alone but never lonely.

Andrei Bessmertny is a no less determined outsider. He works in the American research division of the Soviet Film Institute, and those who think of Hollywood as the fountain for all corruptions of the soul may be surprised to find that Andrei Bessmertny is a Christian believer who founds his faith on the traditions and withholds it from the state-conscripted hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Stalin period smelled of blood and the Brezhnev period smelled of the dead body,” he says, and it was in the Brezhnev years that his troubles came. He was arrested but not confined in the early 1980s. He endured lengthy interrogations by the district attorney; the film institute transferred him from the study of American films to research in Soviet films, the most extreme punishment within its writ.

In due course, he was absolved at an office ceremony where he was preached over by the Party leader, the director of his institute, the district attorney’s representative, and a KGB officer or so, and the catalog of his sins was recited; it was unanimously agreed by all present except himself that he had been saved at the very rim of damnation and that he could be sent forth shriven. A portion of his theological library was returned to him but the police held back John Wyclif’s Bible commentaries as anti-Soviet.

Andrei Bessmertny refuses to mistake his provisional license to believe as any commitment to a duty to obey. “The Council of Soviet Ministers may say that the millennium of our church is theirs,” he promised last week, “but we who are believers will go on saying that it is ours.”

The leaders of the Soviet Communist party appear more than anxious to forgive dissenters, but it does not seem to have occurred to them that there could be several sins for which dissenters may have trouble forgiving them in return.

June 12, 1988


The observances of the one thousandth birthday of Christianity in Russia were spendidly produced and, in accordance with historical custom, their angel, if not their stage manager, was the General Secretary of the Communist party, USSR.

We could come closer to understanding Mikhail Gorbachev if we could decide whether he designed this handsome gesture for foreign or domestic consumption. No answer to a question about Gorbachev can yet be better than a surmise, but, all the same, there are grounds for suspecting that he cares more about what Russians think than about what the world might think.

Stalinism, without and even in spite of the ghost of Joseph Stalin, has been the mold for Soviet party secretaries ever since that terrible old despot’s death freed them from his ravagings.2 We need not be confounded, then, if we notice how reminiscent of Stalin’s foreign policy Gorbachev’s present course is.

Even monsters, after all, have their point of view. Once we set aside a distinct cast of homicidal mania in his temperament, Stalin’s outlook can seem rather moderate, especially when he was functioning as a world statesman. In the Thirties, he turned the European Communist parties from all revolutionary pursuits and into exclusive service to the felt necessities of Soviet foreign policy.

The French Communist party dutifully cheered when he signed a treaty of mutual self-defense with the egregious Pierre Laval, then France’s foreign minister, and what remained of the German Communist party was obediently silent when he made his pact with Adolf Hiter. Stalin was as cautious when it came to dealings abroad as he was ruthless in domestic affairs; and even as late as 1945, when he had swelled enough to alarm the Western world, he was still trying to bully Mao Tse-tung into accepting a junior partnership with Chiang Kai-shek.

The German invasion of Russia in 1941 confronted Stalin with the first crisis he could not solve with the instruments of mass terror. He had until then been safe in relying on his people’s fears, but now he had to touch their deeper loyalties; And so he roused them to fight not for Soviet Communism but for Russia herself. Even now, when the Russians speak of the Great Patriotic War, they are employing a term of Stalin’s coinage. The Russian Orthodox Church was his wholehearted ally in those days and enjoyed liberties of worship unfamiliar before or since, because Stalin reshackled its limbs as soon as their free play was no longer useful to him.

Gorbachev’s crisis is hardly the size Stalin’s was in 1941, but it is large enough. When he talks of the stagnation of the last fifteen years, he actually refers to the failure of seventy years of revolutionary indoctrination. The Soviet Union abounds with drunks, and even official statistics, such as they are, guess at seventy million religious believers. These two heresies, the drink that inarguably ruins and the religion that possibly saves, survive in millions of Russians who have never been taught any other gospel except the one that has preached incessantly against both.

The drunks might be contained, but the believers must be reached, and they can only be reached by a government that accepts their right to belief and worship in the mass. Gorbachev must call upon the resources that come from below as Stalin had to in 1941. He may indeed need to rally the people against his own benumbed and inert Soviet Communist party, an idea until now so unthinkable that Gorbachev seems scarcely to dare think about it or, if he has, to be taking only the most gingerly steps in its direction. Still, he can do nothing else if he is to have any hope of success, for his is a situation of the commander of the revolutionary order that his predecessors froze into the czarist pattern and that can only be thawed by an authentic revolution of the sort that was never allowed to happen.

The notion that Gorbachev, like Stalin, has turned his thoughts to home and means, by however infinitely milder methods, to make life better there was fortified by the bearing of the Vatican legates who met with him on June 15. They carried a message from Pope John Paul II sketching the Roman Church’s grievances against Soviet treatment of her congregants. But afterward, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the papal secretary of state, took care to say that none of these points of difference had been raised in the morning’s discussion. When his interpreter reported that the cardinal had expressed himself as looking forward to “regular contacts” between the Kremlin and the Holy See, Casaroli was quick to interject that the most he anticipated in the near future was “the forms of regular contact.”

This subtle distinction defined the caution with which the dance has begun. But begun it has, and the inference is unmistakable that the Vatican, which has better intelligence sources and rather more of the serpent’s wisdom than we poor Protestants have, has assessed Gorbachev as a man with whom business can be done if only after a very long trip through intricate mazes of exploration. But the Church could not be this patient if it did not entertain hopes worth the wait to realize.

That kind of patience is routine for a church that thinks of whole generations as no longer than a blink of the eye, while Gorbachev labors to manage the society that looks forward to every five-year plan as an eon. Gorbachev would do well to pick up the Vatican’s habit of thinking in terms not of years but of half-centuries.

The road before him is not hop, skip, or jump; then, if he gives way to the illusion that it might be, perestroika will trail off as just one more of those new beginnings that wind up as dead ends in the history Dostoevsky tellingly encapsulated 118 years ago when he spoke of “the time of the first rumors of the emancipation of the serfs, when the whole of Russia suddenly rejoiced and was making preparation to be completely regenerated.”

June 16, 1988

  1. 1

    The above sentence does not appear in the June 24 Moscow News’s final version of Medvedev’s commentary. Perhaps it was excised even after it had been sanitized; or, more probably, Medvedev offered it as a succinct illustration of the sort of treatment to which his original work had been subjected. In any case what Moscow News printed is marked throughout with official pieties so at variance with his usual tone of discourse as to indicate editorial intrusions heavyhanded enough to more than sustain his complaint.

  2. 2

    I owe this insight to Seweryn Bialer.