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For Whom the Bell Tolls

Moscow: Once again the country has been watching a congress on TV. Not everyone was watching this time, and not as intensely as they had been watching the Second Congress of People’s Deputies in June of last year, when hope still prevailed over distrust. But both then and today most of the delegates sitting in the Kremlin Palace were supported by a minority of the Soviet people that has been growing smaller and smaller. Now the gap between the Party elite and the people has almost reached its limit. On July 3 it was announced on television that 92 percent of Muscovites support the Democratic Platform calling for political and economic pluralism. Yet of the 4,500 delegates in the auditorium, only about one hundred were supporters of the Platform.

In any normal country people would think that there had been something improper about the elections that selected the delegates to the Party congress. But within the Communist party, I am convinced, the elections were scrupulously carried out—as usual. The Party members elected the people who were supposed to be elected. And for that reason alone I can say with confidence that our country is abnormal, pathological, sick. And our “advance guard” Party, until recently the only and the ruling Party, is the sickest organ in the body politic. That is what its elected members are really telling the country when they appear on the screen, even though they may think they are saying something else. The choice of words, the syntax, and the logic of sentence construction combine to form the usual clichés, in which the rare words that are true rattle like pebbles on a sieve—the kind of sieve that is used to separate wheat from chaff.

During the first three days of the congress, live, suffering words of truth were heard only two or three times—notably in a speech by Gorbachev’s liberal adviser Alexander Yakovlev. And when such words were heard not only we viewers (though we could not be mere onlookers when it was our fate that was being decided) but the indifferently applauding, or uninterestedly whispering, crowd in the Kremlin Palace froze. We viewers became hushed with gratitude just to hear the words, although we had no real hope that anything would come of them. The audience in the Party congress on hearing them suddenly became rigid and tense, as if getting ready for battle. A battle for what, and with whom?

The grains separated slowly from the chaff, first one word, then another, as Gorbachev asserted his control over the proceedings. There were only two truthful ideas—the people’s need for property, and their need for power. The first is the most important, the second its consequence. As the people—workers, peasants, young and old, not to mention “Soviet women,” who received more than the usual amount of typically male compliments from the delegates—we have virtually no property and nothing to do with property. The old slogan intended to justify Party control of property, “The people and the Party are one,” no longer works and it wasn’t the people’s fault that this is so. They were in the position of the person who watches the boss light a cigarette and is told “We’re friends, all right, but we don’t share the tobacco.” Or their fate could be described by the old lines, “We ate together, slept together, faced trouble together, and then were shot in 1919.” You can change the year to whichever one suits your family’s history. Thank God, we weren’t all shot. And now it’s urgent that we make sure we are not deceived once again.

Perestroika,” “pluralism,” a “multiparty system,” and the “power of the soviets” will all remain fictions until the Party offers to turn over to democratically elected soviets all of its property. All the regional committee and local committee buildings of the Party, all its houses and palaces, paper mills and printing presses, sanitariums and dining rooms, dachas and car pools, and…. I don’t know what else they have, but no doubt there is much more. Everything owned by the Party must belong to the soviets. Then they will also have some power. All parties, including the Communist party, would be able to rent what they need and what they can afford from the soviets. All the parties must start at the same level. Only then will a real multiparty system be possible; and only then can the struggle among different tendencies become truly democratic and truly ideological. But if the members of the Party elite who were at its congress do not adopt this or some similar idea of nationalization on their own, perhaps the eighteen million rank-and-file members of the Party might help them to do so. Or the entire Soviet society—that is, if we’re not just a crowd but a nation.

I am not suggesting anything extraordinary or unjust. It’s just that I think that people who claim to believe in the slogan “The Party is the mind, honor, and conscience of our era” should also be willing to make some sacrifices. Certainly not of their lives and not even of their styles of life. After all, the result of the seventy-year-old ideological reign of that slogan (or its various modifications) has been that no one has much of anything except the Communist party, which has its property, and the mysterious mafia in and out of the bureaucracies, which has its billions.

July 4, 1990

P.S. At the end of the congress the new Politburo was selected; it is, apparently, to be something like a school for the secretaries of the Communist parties of the republics, so that there would now be a replacement for Vyacheslav Shostakovsky, the rector of the Higher Party School in Moscow, who quit the Party along with his comrades from the Democratic Platform Group. After Boris Yeltsin walked out of the hall, in the congress’s finest moment, the entire country realized yet again that he is the bone stuck in Gorbachev’s throat.

The congress is over. Neither the “right” nor the “left” won. For now the winner is Gorbachev. But what does that victory mean for us? At the end the delegates sang The Internationale. It was like a bell tolling, either for them or for us. We heard the words: “The earth belongs to us, the people—no room here for shirkers!”

They, the people, and we the shirkers! The next day, I am told, a new jingle was being chanted throughout Moscow: “Hey, hey, CPSU! Chernobyl is the place for you!”

A sign of hope, perhaps, that the bell tolls not for us, but for the Party.

July 16, 1990
translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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