Gorbachev the Bold

Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev

by Dusko Doder
Random House, 339 pp., $19.95
Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine


In the autumn of 1985 I suggested in these pages1 that Soviet Union might be about “to change its course.” Its leaders might be deciding, I felt, “that economic progress is more important to their long-term interests than grimly hanging on to every form of police control while their political legitimacy slowly ebbs away.” Mr. Gorbachev would probably continue to dismiss old officials and build his own power base; then he would “launch a program of reforms.” He seemed to realize that “economic reforms will never be really effective without social and political reforms too.” As a result, Soviet professional people could now “hope for more constructive relations with Gorbachev’s regime.” Moreover, the reform coalition in which they could be expected to take part would be greatly strengthened if he also made “concessions to the dissidents.” In such a situation the latter were, I thought, “sure to respond positively, at least at first.” A logical concomitant to all this would be “a broad relaxation of cultural controls.” For the demoralizing drain of outstanding cultural talent to the West—through emigration and defection—had become “a national issue waiting to be grasped by a bold politician.”

There was also, however, a less encouraging side to the Soviet situation. The jobs of many powerful members of the ruling class, or nomenklatura, were at risk—“either because Gorbachev wants to give them to his own supporters, or because the reforms he has in mind may soon lead him either to abolish the jobs or to remove their occupants as being unsuitable for new tasks.” Both this and the radicalism of Gorbachev’s reform rhetoric had brought into being a defensive coalition of conservatives and reactionaries which would “make the optimistic program I have outlined so hard to launch, and even harder to carry out.” The most likely outcome to the raging conflict between the two sides would, I reckoned, be “some sort of victory—probably a partial and confused victory—for the forces of reform.” Gorbachev’s faction might, however, “fail to hold the line, and then have control seized from it by a rival faction.”

A year and a half later, events seem to be unfolding more or less according to the sequence I outlined. And to help us in making assessments and in posing new questions we have books by Dusko Doder and others, illuminating various aspects of the Kremlin scene in the 1980s.2

The most interesting questions now appear to be these: Can Gorbachev the Bold hope to succeed where Khrushchev the Intrepid failed? Is his coalition strong enough to devise, introduce, and carry out workable reforms that come anywhere near to the radical proposals that he is now making? Is his personal power firmly based? Should the West do anything to assist him, and if so, what?

Doder confronts all these questions, except the last, in his engaging, valuable, and original book, Shadows and Whispers.…

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