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The Gorbachev Prospect

I became closely involved in the Soviet Union early in 1987 after Gorbachev summoned Sakharov to return to Moscow to “resume his patriotic work.” After extensive negotiations with Soviet officials, I set up a foundation called “Cultural Initiative” for the expressed purpose of helping the Soviet Union to evolve into a more open society. Its Board of Directors reads like the Who’s Who of glasnost. It includes:

Yuri Afanasyev, the prominent historian and rector of the Historical Archives Institute, who is a founder of Memorial, an organization created to rehabilitate the victims of Stalinism;

Tenghiz Buachidze, a philologist and chairman of the Georgian Cultural Foundation and former minister of culture of Georgia;

Daniil Granin, a writer and one of the founders of the Miloserdia movement to encourage volunteer work in social welfare;

Valentin Rasputin, a writer and environmental activist noted for his conservative pro-village sentiments;

Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a sociologist, head of the newly formed public opinion reasearch institute, and one of the first architects of perestroika;

Grigorii Baklanov, a writer and the editor of Znamya, the liberal literary and political journal;

Boris Raushenbakh, a scientist who is a leading expert on rocket control systems as well as a member of the Academy of Sciences, and a specialist in religious history and iconography.

The first five were recently elected to the Supreme Soviet.

The Cultural Initiative Foundation, the only organization of its kind in the history of the USSR, accepts applications directly from Soviet citizens, and the first forty projects that have been selected for funding give a sense of its approach. They include support for two oral history projects dealing with repression during the Stalinist period; an independent town planning group; a professional association of lawyers; a consumer group; the building of a cooperative for manufacturing wheelchairs; a summer school in England for Soviet sociologists; a training program for Soviet lawyers in the United States; a new Russian encyclopedia that will be compiled independent of government; and a number of research projects on subjects such as disappearing Siberian languages, gypsy folk songs, a study of the ecology of Lake Baikal, and so on.

My experience with the foundation has given me a vantage point from which to observe the evolution of Gorbachev’s new thinking, and the changes being made in Soviet society; and it has helped me to understand what Gorbachev is trying to achieve in international relations, internal politics, and economic reform.

I believe that his vision is clearest and most far-sighted in international relations—indeed, in the USSR the expression “new thinking” is usually applied to international politics. That is also where he can count on the most competent professional advisers, because Soviet officials who have spent time abroad are among the strongest supporters of his reforms.

Gorbachev’s primary goal is to break the isolation of the Soviet Union and to bring it back into the community of nations. His reasons for doing so are not difficult to understand. He recognizes that the Soviet Union can no longer survive in isolation. It has been materially and intellectually depleted to a point where it cannot support the burdens of a superpower. Another reason is the genuine fear of a nuclear holocaust. My personal impression is that Russians in responsible positions have a greater fear of nuclear war than their counterparts in the West, and with good reason: they know at first hand the rigid and inefficient command structures that characterize the Soviet Union.

But by far the most powerful of Gorbachev’s motives is a desire to destroy a system of thought that flourishes only in isolation—the dogmatic mode of thinking that was imposed on the Soviet Union by Stalin’s terror and preserved by the power structure that he left behind. Once the isolation is broken, the huge discrepancy between dogma and reality becomes exposed and dogma loses its power to persuade.

Many in the Soviet Union were unaware of this discrepancy and are understandably confused now that it has been revealed; but for those who were aware of it, nothing has been more urgent than to reveal it. Thus Gorbachev’s new thinking about international relations is aimed at transforming the Soviet Union internally, and not the other way around. Professional observers and Western officials engaged in superpower relations find this point hard to accept. They have been trained to believe that the interests of the state will determine its policies. The principle may be valid in normal times, but this is an exceptional time in the Soviet Union, when the interests of the state are in the process of being redefined, with the announced aim of replacing superpower rivalry with superpower cooperation.

Gorbachev’s new thinking manifests itself in the proclaimed desire to disarm, accompanied by actual cuts in weapons and forces, in the demonstrated willingness to settle major regional and political conflicts, in the use of scarce dollars to pay up long withheld UN dues, and in the new slogan of a “common European house.” The change in Soviet foreign policy seems almost too sudden and too radical to be believed. I attended the East-West conference on disarmament in Potsdam in June 1988 at which the Soviet participants first floated their plan for conventional arms reduction. A serious private discussion of the plan during the morning deteriorated into public posturing before the press by delegates from both sides in the afternoon, as the Soviet delegates talked at length about the attractions of a nuclear-free world and the Western delegates demanded publication of the costs of the Soviet defense budget, knowing that such figures do not exist.

With regard to domestic political issues, Gorbachev’s “new thinking” is more tentative. At the special Party conference last summer he vacillated over the relationship between the popularly elected Soviets and the Party hierarchy, and it became clear that his goal is to reform the Party, not the one-party system. He faces two major obstacles: the unwillingness of the Party apparatus to relinquish power, and the desire of various non-Russian nationalities for increasing their autonomy, not excluding total independence. To the first obstacle a solution has emerged. Gorbachev is trying to sidestep the influence of the Central Committee, where his control is tenuous, by establishing a presidency based on popular elections. At the same time he is trying to maintain a link between the Party apparatus and the popularly elected Soviets by insisting that the chief official at every level must be approved by the Soviets.

As for the nationalities, I suspect that if Gorbachev were to describe his hope for the future he might speak of the gradual transformation of the Soviet Empire into a commonwealth. But the analogy with the British Empire has never been used publicly, and it is taken for granted that the nationalities must remain within the Soviet Union. To discourage secessionist tendencies, the institutions of law and order, including the KGB and the local military police, have been even more centralized.

The result has been to concentrate power in Gorbachev’s hands. It has become fashionable in the West to speculate on how long he can remain in control, but events have been moving in the opposite direction. He has consolidated his position to the point where only the military could remove him from power—and the Soviet military has no tradition of intervening in political affairs. Party officials tried to manipulate the recent elections so as to preserve their own power. For instance, in January the bureaucrats of the Soviet Academy of Sciences deleted the names of all the popular candidates among the Academy members, including Andrei Sakharov and Roald Sagdeev; and in Moscow the entire Party apparatus was mobilized to try to defeat Boris Yeltsin in the March elections. But their efforts backfired. Yeltsin was not only elected in a landslide but when Communist party members were instructed to vote against him, they disobeyed; the vote opposing him was smaller than the membership of the Moscow Party.

It is interesting to note that when the ballots of Soviet officials stationed overseas were counted as part of the Moscow constituency, Yeltsin got 84 percent of the vote from those in France and over 90 percent from those in Bulgaria. In the Academy of Sciences, the official candidates did not get the required number of votes and in April the popular candidates, including Sakharov, were reinstated. The rebuff to the Party hierarchy was widespread. Of the eighty or so first secretaries who stood unopposed, no fewer than thirty-six were rejected. In Leningrad, a candidate member of the Politburo was defeated. The elections gave Gorbachev an enormous boost: they strengthened his hand against the apparat; they had the effect of making him seem a centrist by showing that he has opposition from reformers as well as conservatives; and, most important, they allowed him to increase his hold on the Central Committee by bringing about the retirement of members of the old guard in April.

Gorbachev’s “new thinking” is weakest in economic matters. Throughout the Soviet Union, including the highest levels of leadership, there is virtually no comprehension of even elementary economics. A top official told me: “We are afraid to ask questions because we would betray our ignorance.” In China, by contrast, the Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang is an accomplished economist, with a think tank of brilliant young minds at his disposal. There is nothing comparable in the Soviet Union.

Every Soviet reformer agrees that the role of central planning must be reduced and that workers, consumers, and local managers must have greater freedom of action; but fewer of the reformers understand that, under the present system, greater freedom does not necessarily lead to a more rational allocation of resources. Consumers and workers can be expected to try to protect their own interests; but when it comes to state-owned enterprises, nobody is concerned to protect the interest of capital, and, as a result, capital is wastefully used. To mention only one example, it takes an average of ten years to build a new plant, so the huge resources devoted to construction throughout the USSR remain idle and unproductive for long periods.

The problem of obtaining adequate return on invested capital is not unique to the Soviet Union; it has played havoc with economic reform in China and Hungary. But in these countries at least the problem is beginning to be understood. In the Soviet Union, economic reform is mired in confusion. Profit is associated with capitalism, and Gorbachev is far from abandoning the basic tenets of socialism. All incentives associated with profits continue to be distrusted.

The idea of equality is deeply ingrained in the Soviet tradition—indeed, as exemplified in the village communes called obshchina, it predates the Soviet system. But the reality is very far from dogma; Soviet rulers enjoy proportionately greater privileges than rulers anywhere else in the world. The reformers want to abolish these privileges, and they also want to maintain an egalitarian approach to wages and prices, which is incompatible with economic reform. They embrace the concept of self-management—long after it has proved unworkable in Yugoslavia—but they are unwilling to reward entrepreneurial ability and risk-taking.

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