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Moscow: The Struggle for Reform


I arrived in Moscow in December, for the first time in nearly thirteen years. When I was last in the Soviet Union in 1975, no one except outspoken dissidents would talk to me freely, unless we were sitting together in a park or in some out-of-the-way restaurant. This time I heard the most devastating criticisms of official policies in newspaper offices, academic institutions, and, even more so, at public meetings attended by hundreds of people. More than a dozen prominent scholars and writers accepted my invitation to contribute to a book on the prospects of the current reforms in the Soviet Union, and the deputy editor of Moscow News asked me to write a piece for his combative weekly.

A visit of several weeks in Moscow makes one aware that the time of astonishment at changes in the Soviet Union is over. No subject seems sacred, even at public meetings where stone-faced policemen and the familiar contingent of plainclothes KGB agents stand by, watching. And what is spoken is sooner or later likely to be published. In December I heard rumors of suppressed chapters in Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s memoirs describing Stalin’s executions of Soviet officers in 1938, and his disastrous behavior as chief of the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II. No one was able to predict whether these pages would be published. Then on January 20 of this year they appeared in Pravda.

Some skeptics in the West, and in the Soviet Union, say that documenting the atrocities of the Stalin era (or, as the more venomous term Stalinshchina, has it) has become a “safety valve” to divert the public from criticizing current realities. But in fact those realities are constantly the subject of attack. The Soviet press contains many reports on ecological blight, on declining living standards,1 the awful state of the country’s public health system, housing shortages, and the power of “mafia” gangs that specialize in extortion and “protectionism,” and demand a percentage of store sales or steal goods for sale on the black market.2 In addition, hardly a week passes without a news story about how Soviet chinovniks (officials) are conspiring to sabotage Gorbachev’s reforms. (See the box on the next page.)

Nor should one underrate the effect of disclosures about the past (including the “period of stagnation,” or Brezhnevshchina) in opening the present to public scrutiny. The most interesting forum for such disclosures is the Memorial Society, of which Andrei Sakharov is chairman. The society was founded in 1987, when a group of young people began to collect signatures on petitions to erect a monument to the “victims of Stalinist repressions.” Despite police harassment, the group won the support of Literaturnaia gazeta and last July the official approval of the Party at its Nineteenth Conference. By then more than 50,000 people had signed the petitions. Shortly thereafter, Literaturnaia gazeta and the weekly Ogonek, together with the USSR Unions of Cinema and Theater Workers, Architects, Artists and Designers, formally set up the society, which was headed by a “Public Council,” with Sakharov as chairman.

The society holds frequent publicmeetings that are addressed by historians and by surviving victims of the Stalinist terror and their relatives. “How was it possible,” the historian Leonid Batkin asked at a meeting of the society that I attended, “for a mediocrity like Stalin to defeat such infinitely more gifted people like Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin?” Only if we study how Stalin rose to power, he said, can we begin to understand how a “grayocracy” (serokratiia) of aging mediocrities has been able to rule this country for over half a century. Similar speeches followed, and the fivehour meeting adjourned after passing a resolution denouncing Stalinism for “having brought our country to ruin” and calling for the opening of all archives and the publication of the names of Stalin’s accomplices, extinct and extant.

A few evenings later, at the suggestion of the young critic and historian Boris Kagarlitsky, I attended a rally sponsored by the Moscow “Popular Front” (Narodnyi Front), a coalition of opposition groups that now has several thousand members.3 The meeting was held in one of Moscow’s many nondescript “Houses of Culture.” Unlike the audience at the Memorial meeting, the five hundred or so men and women who packed the hall were mostly in their twenties and thirties. Many of them were students, but some were unmistakably workers.

On the walls were posters with hand-printed slogans like “Put the KGB under the Supervision of the Soviets!” One speaker after another (not all of them members of the Front) rose to denounce the government for tolerating attacks on the Armenians in Azerbaijan, for with-holding “basic information” such as accounts of the Supreme Soviet proceedings, and for its failure—“despite all the talk about freedom”—to do away with the articles in the Criminal Code dealing with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”4 Another demanded “an international tribunal such as the one in Nuremberg” to try those responsible for “Stalinshchina and Brezhnevshchina.”

When a Party official then stood up and called for a vote of thanks “to our Communist party and the Soviet Army” for their part in “defending peace,” and to Gorbachev for “bringing democracy to the Soviet Union,” the audience erupted with derisive laughter, and there were shouts of “demagogue!” (At every public meeting I attended Party speakers were shouted down. When I mentioned this to a Russian friend, he said: “Now you can see why Gorbachev insisted that a third of the deputies to the Congress of People’s Deputies be elected by the Party and other ‘public organizations.’ Without that, God knows how many apparatchiki would be elected!”)


The criticisms I heard in Moscow go to the very heart of the Soviet system and Communist ideology, and thus far beyond the limits that Gorbachev has set. The question of a multiparty system is a case in point. Although Gorbachev has called for greater social and political “pluralism,” he has made it clear that this does not mean more than one party. The “leading role” of the Communist party, which is to say its political monopoly, is still central to the Soviet political order.

Yet in the climate of glasnost the words of the General Secretary no longer seem to carry the same weight as before. At the Popular Front meeting, several speakers called for “the rule of the people and not of the Party.” An elderly worker denounced Marxism as “the apotheosis of force,” the Bolshevik Revolution as an “unmitigated tragedy,” and the Leninist principle of “democratic centralism” as “having paved the road to Stalin’s rise to power” and to the creation of “our monstrous one-party state.” During the intermission, a number of young people flocked around him as he continued to expound views that four years ago could have landed him in a camp.

The merits of a multiparty system had also become a legitimate subject of scholarly discussions.5 On November 15, for instance, Izvestia ran articles by two prominent legal scholars, both members of the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Science. The first, Professor B. Lazarev, claimed that “pluralism of interests can be fully expressed, by a one-party political system.” The other author, Dr. Boris Kurashvili, disagreed. “A socialist multiparty system,” he asserted, “is a major component of a developed socialist democracy.”

When I went to see Dr. Kurashvili at his Moscow office, he told me, “I consider myself a democratic socialist. All the forms of socialism we’ve had in this country so far—from ‘war communism’ of 1918–1919 all through Brezhnev’s brand—have been soaked in authoritarianism.” Unlike some of his Soviet colleagues (and some Western scholars), Kurashvili is not an uncritical admirer of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which granted considerable scope to private business. “True,” he said, “in 1921 the Red Terror came to an end when the NEP was put into effect, but elections to the Soviets were still undemocratic. Practically everyone who could be labeled as a member of the old ruling class was stripped of his civil rights, and power stayed entirely in the hands of a single ruling party. Democracy inside the Party virtually disappeared.”6 For Kurashvili the time has come to work out a new model of socialism, in which

the existence of many parties, including one of a bourgeois-liberal type advocating the private ownership of industry, would not be seen as a danger, but a guarantee for the further development of a genuine socialist democracy. By the same token, it would provide a safeguard against the bureaucratization, corruption, complacency, servility, and mania for self-glorification that have taken root in our country because of the absence of a real political arena.7

Kurashvili is by no means the most radical of the dozens of prominent intellectuals who are talking openly about a “new model of socialism.” In fact, it is just this topic—in Gorbachev’s words, “the philosophical and political principles of the renewal of Soviet society”—that the Central Committee has announced it will take up at its next meeting in April. It would not be surprising if the question of a multiparty system were placed on the agenda of the conference, with Gorbachev’s tacit approval, although he is clearly against such a system and there seems hardly any chance of the Central Committee endorsing it. In a recent speech, he emphasized that the Soviet “people made their choice—they are for ‘socialism’ and for ‘a one-party system.”’ Neither on this nor on any other occasion, however, has he ruled out discussion of a multiparty system. Those who advocate such views, he said, are “mistaken.” (See Pravda, Moscow, January 22, 1989.)

As the search for a new basis of Communist legitimacy—both within the Party and without—continues, the wisdom of Marx and Lenin is for the first time being challenged. “Is Marx Necessary for Perestroika?” is the title of an article by the historian G. Lisichkin in a recent issue of Novyi mir. Only in the most general terms, is the reply. (Among other heretical views the author says that “there is more socialism in countries which officially are not socialist—for example, Sweden.”)

As for Lenin, the editors of even the most outspoken journals are not likely to print any outright attacks on him; Gorbachev’s reforms are claimed to derive from his teachings. A journalist showed me passages from one of his recent articles that had been cut out by his editor (himself a staunch “perestroishchik“), in which the journalist referred to Lenin’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1918, the trial of Socialist Revolutionaries in 1922, and to the link between Leninism and Stalinism.

You can say that Lenin committed mistakes,” the journalist said, “provided you also say that he had come to correct them. This is sheer sophistry. First Lenin brings this country to the brink of disaster, then he’s forced to change his policies. What kind of genius is that who can’t foresee the consequences of his actions?”

  1. 1

    To cite but one example, the economist Aleksandr Zaichenko pointed out that the annual per capita consumption of meat in the Soviet Union is half the US figure, and that it is twenty-six kilograms lower than the figures for czarist Russia in 1913. See Moscow News (No. 34, 1988), and the journal SShA: Ekonomika, Politika, Ideologiia (published in the US as Economics, Politics, Ideology, December 1988).

  2. 2

    The crimes committed by the mafia “are blows against you and me, against our living standard, and they are one of the reasons we are still waiting in lines, having difficulty in obtaining basic items, while many people simply cannot make ends meet” (Yuri Feofanov, Izvestia‘s legal correspondent, Izvestia, January 2, 1989). According to an article by L. Kislinskaia in the December 31, 1988, issue of Sovietskaia Rossia, “one of every five organized criminal groups…has accomplices in Soviet and party organs, the court, prosecutor’s office, and the militia.”

  3. 3

    The thirty-year-old Kagarlitsky is a leader of the “Socialist Initiative Club,” one of the organizations included in the Popular Front, and the author of The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State, 1917 to the Present (Verso, 1988). The Popular Front should not be confused with a rival (and much smaller) organization, the “Democratic Union,” which advocates, among other things, turning over most of Soviet industry to private ownership, and has often come in conflict with the authorities. The Popular Front has a moderate Socialist program, and sees itself as part of Gorbachev’s “loyal opposition.”

  4. 4

    Although the text of the new criminal code has yet to be published, the draft of the new Principles of Criminal Legislation of the USSR, published a few days after the Popular Front rally (Izvestia, December 17, 1988), suggests that some of the laws that had been used against political opponents will be dropped and others drastically revised. For instance, Article 190-1, which provides penalties for activities such as the dissemination of “fabrications discrediting the Soviet political system” is to be dropped altogether. As to the other subsections of this article, including the one that provides for punishment for participation in groups “which grossly violate public order”—which has recently been used to break up “unauthorized” meetings and to arrest the organizers—their fate is still unclear, and they may be maintained. According to the draft law, the notorious Article 70 will no longer prohibit most of the forms of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” that have been punishable by imprisonment and will now provide only for relatively mild sentences against those who call publicly for the violent overthrow of the Soviet system. And “flight abroad or refusal to return to the USSR” is no longer to be considered a crime. We must wait until the law is promulgated to see precisely what modifications have been made. (See Julia Wishnevsky, “Draft Principles of Soviet Criminal Legislation Published,” Report on the USSR, Munich: RFE/RL, January 13, 1989, pp. 1–4.)

  5. 5

    The “Popular Fronts” in the Baltic republics have in effect converted themselves into political parties by running their own candidates for their local legislators.

  6. 6

    The Tenth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, held in 1921, adopted two resolutions outlawing factions and investing the highest Party organ, the Central Committee, with full disciplinary power, including power of expulsion from the Party. Both resolutions were drafted by Lenin. See Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Random House, 1959), p. 211.

  7. 7

    This is from the first of two manuscripts in which Kurashvili develops his views, “The Formula of Socialism” and “Socialism and the Problem of a Multiparty System.” Both are soon to appear in print.

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