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The Turning Point?


The country facing Mikhail Gorbachev on his return from the Washington summit is more troubled and discontented than at any other time since he took office—not only gripped by fear of sharply rising prices and the worst food shortages in decades but more mistrustful of Gorbachev himself than ever before, if not altogether hostile to him personally. In addition, there is now a popular political rival for Gorbachev to deal with—the newly elected president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin. Before he left for the US Gorbachev spoke in pleading tones to his countrymen of the need to continue to support perestroika, but even the word itself has acquired a hollow tone.

The signs that a crisis of confidence was coming were more and more evident during the elections that took place this winter and spring, when I stayed in Moscow at the flat of a friend who was running for a seat in the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Republic (RSFSR), the republic’s highest representative body. I spent much of the day with the editors of Ogonek, the country’s most outspoken liberal weekly, and was able to observe how they dealt with some of the decisive events that took place: the repudiation of the Party’s “leading role” in the Soviet political system; the creation of the new office of president, the elections in the republics, and the emergence of a multiparty system.1 Each day brought yet another example of waning Soviet power (including within the armed forces2 ) and of ethnic turmoil threatening to break up the multinational Soviet state.

The mood of discontent was pervasive. Even in February, criticism was much more intense than it had been a year earlier, and unlike a year earlier, the grievances voiced by the intelligentsia hardly differed from those one heard in the street. In 1987 and 1988 each new disclosure about Stalinist horrors or the misdeeds of Brezhnev’s kleptocracy would produce a tremor of excitement. By now, virtually anything can be said or written3—from bitter attacks on Marxism-Leninism or on Gorbachev’s policies in the Baltic states to praise of the Romanov dynasty and calls for public copulation. The two issues uppermost on everybody’s mind during my visit were, first, the disastrous state of the economy, and, second, democracy and the political system. Everyone complained that the long queues in front of the seedy-looking food stores were longer; shortages of everything from coffee to children’s clothing had grown worse. My friends talked of meat that even dogs refused to touch and toothbrushes whose bristles shredded in their mouths. As workers become more and more reluctant to do a day’s work, the factories, the prominent economist Vladimir Tikhonov pointed out to me, find it easier to produce fewer goods and sell them at higher prices. The collective farms and state farms cannot feed even their own laborers, let alone people in the cities.

Who is to blame? The trouble is that there are so many plausible candidates for blame—from apparatchiks determined to hang on to the status quo all the way to Lenin and Marx.4 “The whole rotten system is at fault,” is a sentiment now voiced not only in conversation and from public podiums but in print. Increasingly, however, the criticism centers on one person—Gorbachev. Last year many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (“he is trying his best, poor man, but he’s up against the apparat”—or “the conservatives”—or his “Politburo enemies” etc.). Since January Gorbachev has been more and more singled out as the man personally responsible for the country’s monumental ills—or for failing to avert them. Constantly trying to placate his critics on the right and on the left, he has mapped out no discernible and coherent political program, while his economic reforms so far consist of half measures that have caused the economy to decline even further. He has not been able to follow the recommendations of many Soviet and foreign economists that, if it is to work, the national economy needs genuine markets for capital, labor and consumer goods, and firm guarantees of private property.5

The anti-Gorbachev mood can be both parochial and ahistorical. The tendency of some intellectuals to view Gorbachev with a mixture of contempt and irony (“an illiterate boor,” “he can’t even speak Russian correctly”) is an example of the first; the notion that “things were better under Brezhnev” of the second.6 But both testify to the dramatic erosion of Gorbachev’s popularity.


The second issue on everyone’s mind—the political situation and the prospects for a more democratic order—is also bound up with the perception of Gorbachev. Even his bitterest critics on the “left,” such as Boris Yeltsin or the historian Yuri Afanasyev acknowledge that Gorbachev has opened up the political system, changed the once oppressive atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and encouraged pluralistic and democratic institutions to emerge. Yet there has been a growing suspicion that Gorbachev has quietly been making too many concessions to the hard liners who want to maintain the power of the Party-controlled ministries over the economy and the Party over Soviet life generally, and that his own authoritarian inclinations, combined with anger at his left-wing critics, have drawn him back from his promises to make radical political and economic reforms.

Those suspicions became stronger in February, when Gorbachev proposed the creation of a strong executive presidency, vested with special emergency powers. Even before the draft of the new law was published, most of my liberal friends were against it. One evening I attended a meeting of the “Moscow Tribune,” a discussion club favored by the liberal intellectuals—that is, by people who had once been loyal supporters of Gorbachev. For Lev Timofeev, editor of a now defunct samizdat journal, the proposal spelled irremediable disaster. A Russian deputy from Armenia, the much respected ethnographer Galina Starovoitova, proposed organizing another protest demonstration—more than 200,000 people had participated in the one that took place two weeks earlier.

The speaker who made the strongest impression was the widely admired Byelorussian novelist Alexei Adamovic. The idea that Gorbachev could seize absolute power, Adamovic said, was absurd. To invest any one leader with too much power is dangerous, but instead of offering constructive criticism, “many of us, in this hall and beyond, behave like pupils who, having gotten Ds instead of As from their teacher, go about shouting petulantly, “Well, we’ll show him, he won’t get away with it!” This “can hardly be called serious behavior.”

The silence in which the audience heard this was broken when the speaker was handed a slip of paper and read aloud: “Would anyone here like to nominate an alternative to Gorbachev?” At this many people laughed. To most liberals at that time, Gorbachev was irreplaceable. Within a few months, this, like so many other strongly held beliefs, would become obsolete. As the elections, and particularly Yeltsin’s victory were to show, popular new political leaders are now emerging who are capable both of challenging Gorbachev and of carrying on reforms, if not making them more radical.


The controversy about the presidency soon moved to a public and highly visible forum—namely, the all-Union legislature consisting of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies of 2,020 people, and the smaller USSR Supreme Soviet of 750, both of which were elected in 1989. The debates in March revealed that many of the legislators were willing to stand up to Gorbachev, and the debates in the Congress—shown each evening on television and watched by millions—were particularly spirited. Some of the arguments used both in the Supreme Soviet (which approved the first draft of the bill to give Gorbachev strong presidential powers) and in the Congress of People’s Deputies (which approved the revised and final version of it) were similar to those I had heard at the “Moscow Tribune.” Others went much further.

Teimuraz Avaliani, the leader of the 1989 miners’ strike in Kuzbass, appealed to the deputies “not to vote for Gorbachev under any circumstances.” Yevgeni Kogan, a colorful rabblerouser representing the Estonian Interdvizhenie (a Russian nationalist group), who had recently charged Gorbachev with being a CIA spy, denounced the new law as dictatorial.

In August 1989, the historian Andranic Migranian had published an article in Novy Mir advocating an authoritarian system as a “transitional stage from totalitarianism to democracy.” Democracy was a luxury the Soviet state could not yet afford, Migranian argued; for an unspecified time a strong hand was needed to guide it through the deepening crisis. Migranian’s argument had been heatedly debated in the Soviet press. Yet no one mentioned this debate now. Clearly any appeal for more sacrifices for the sake of the future would not get much of a hearing on the floor of the Congress.

The speakers who attracted the most attention were known foes of authoritarian rule, “transitional” or otherwise, who argued that it was democracy that dictated a strong executive presidency, one answerable not to the Party apparat or to the Politburo, but to the population at large. Some pointed out that although Gorbachev was elected last July for a five-year term by the Congress of Deputies, the president will henceforth be popularly elected by direct and secret ballot. The fate of the economy, the economist Nikolai Shmelev said, could no longer be left to the bureaucrats of the industrial ministries who had shown themselves to be both inflexible and incompetent. Others, such as the widely respected elderly historian Dmitri Likhachev, appealed for the swift election of a strong president, if the country were not to slide into castastrophe.

The constitutional amendment on the president’s power was passed by a vote of 1,542 to 368, while 76 abstained. Gorbachev was elected president by 59 percent (1,329 votes), a small majority by Soviet standards, with 495 deputies voting against him, and 350 abstaining. He was given formidable powers, many of them previously held by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, that is, he is the country’s collective head of state. Among these powers is the power to declare war, to oversee the conduct of the armed forces, to impose martial law or declare a state of emergency within “specific areas” of the USSR, and to issue decrees on economic and social matters, whether on rationing, for example, or a new system for distributing food. Furthermore, Gorbachev was made the head of a new consultative body, the Presidential Council, and of a new Defense Council responsible for internal and external security.

These powers, however, are subject to serious limitations. For instance, the decrees are subject to review by the Supreme Court, which can find them unconstitutional. While the original draft gave the president the potentially dangerous power to dismiss the chairman of the Supreme Court and to appoint the members of the USSR Constitutional Oversight Committee, which can reject decrees as unconstitutional, the final text deprives him of these rights. The president can veto legislation passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet, but the Supreme Soviet can override this veto by a two-thirds majority of its members. Whereas the draft gave the President the right to appeal an override of his veto to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the final law makes the decision of the Supreme Soviet irrevocable.7

  1. 1

    For a discussion of the debates on a multiparty system, see my article “Moscow: The Struggle for Reform,” The New York Review, March 30, 1989.

  2. 2

    Of the many ills afflicting the armed forces, widespread resistance to the draft, already involving tens of thousands of potential conscripts, is the most critical. (See “Draft-Dodging Season,” by Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post, May 6, 1990, p.1)

  3. 3

    There are also the occasional attempts to make trouble for recalcitrant journals—e.g., by limiting their printrun on grounds of ostensible “paper shortages.” I deal with the latest case involving the journal Novy mir, later in this article.

  4. 4

    To cite but one recent issue (No. 4, 1990) of the Party journal Kommunist, the head of the USSR Political Association and one of the chief advisors to Gorbachev, Georgi Shakhnazarov, contends that communism has never been a workable idea, that Marx’s notions on this subject were “utopian,” and that the country ought to forget about “building” it.

  5. 5

    I do not include here the right-wing enemies of Gorbachev and peddlers of nostalgia for Stalinism, such as the much-publicized schoolteacher Nina Andreeva: “The years when Stalin was in power were the most glorious period for the people. Everything was right while we considered ourselves cogs in the machine; when we became persons, everything went wrong.” (Quoted by N. Marinich in “The Iron Lady from Leningrad,” Vechernaia Moskva, January 24, 1990.)

  6. 6

    The economy was in better condition during the first few years of Brezhnev’s rule, largely because of the effects of some of Khrushchev’s policies, such as greater investments in consumer goods industries. By the 1970s, what with the failure to change any of the basic mechanisms of the command economy, the economy again deteriorated. See Otto Latsis, “The Deep Roots of Our Problems,” in A. Brumberg, editor, Chronicle of a Revolution—A Western-Soviet Inquiry Into Perestroika (Pantheon, 1990), especially pp. 173–174.

  7. 7

    See Dawn Mann, “Gorbachev Sworn In as President,” and Elizabeth Teague, “The Powers of the President,” in Report on the USSR, Munich, No. 12, 1990, pp. 1–7.

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