Yegor Ligachev
Yegor Ligachev; drawing by David Levine


In the struggle over power and policy in the Kremlin the stakes have risen yet again. At first there was only scattered resistance to a drive by a reasonably united collective leadership to mobilize Soviet bureaucracy and society to carry out long-delayed reforms. But that stage soon passed. The turning point came in early 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates committed themselves to a more radical version of their reform program of perestroika, or restructuring: they made it clear, for example, that they wanted to break the power of many of the officials who are now inefficiently running the economy—including officials of the Communist party. In particular they wanted to reduce sharply the power of the bloated economic ministries, which do more to block production than to encourage it, and to allow much more economic activity to take place in a socialist market.

In response, Yegor Ligachev and other moderate reformers began to organize their own forces in the center and on the right behind a different strategy: they, too, would trumpet the need for perestroika, but in addition they would attack the radical ideas of the Gorbachev camp as being irresponsible and unsocialist. They would, in effect, protect many of the Party officials, bureaucrats, and organizations Gorbachev and his group could no longer tolerate.1 Since the summer of 1987, the dispute between the two groups, which are in fact loose coalitions, has been increasing in intensity, injecting a strong, if usually hidden, struggle for power into the efforts of both sides.

The special conference of five thousand Party delegates, which ended on July 1, has made this struggle fiercer and more visible, but has in no way resolved it. The conference, and the preparations for it, have demonstrated the current limits to the power of both camps, highlighting the weaknesses of each as much as their strengths. On balance, history may well see the conference as a loss on points for the Gorbachev program, though not necessarily for Gorbachev personally. The Soviet leader seemed to move toward the political center, and may thus have made his own position more secure, at least for now.

All this means that the Soviet polity is likely to remain for the time being an arena of fierce politics—and also a rich, unpredictable, and challenging spectacle for Sovietologists, who labored long and hard in the barren vineyards of Brezhnevism.2

What are the broad contours of the course the Gorbachevites3 have tried to take since their leader became secretary general of the Party in March 1985? This is a necessary backdrop to the analysis of the political struggles of the last year. What is truly striking about the Gorbachevite strategy, as it evolves, is its remarkable parallels with Khrushchev’s strategy over the four years after he took over the top Party job in September 1953. Both men went about trying to shake up and reform deeply entrenched, conservative bureaucracies in similar ways; and these bureaucracies resisted their efforts in the same ways, and they soon found spokesmen among the top leaders to do political battle with the reformers. While there are also interesting and instructive differences between the two periods and their leading reformers, and while the account that follows is greatly simplified, nonetheless the most notable difference, in my view, lies not in the content of these programs but in the greater intensity of the processes at work today, and in their higher visibility.

The purpose of comparing the two strategies is neither to conduct an academic exercise nor to imply that Gorbachev will necessarily meet Khrushchev’s fate, but rather to gain additional perspective on the dramatic and confusing events currently unfolding in the Soviet Union. Are the Gorbachevites committing mistakes comparable to Khrushchev’s? Or are they avoiding these mistakes? Despite the deepening of the crisis in the Soviet system during the thirty-five years since Stalin’s death, is it clear whether radical perestroika, however skillfully promoted, will be capable of developing a stronger social and political base of support than Khrushchev’s program did?

Both Khrushchev and Gorbachev came to power when the stagnation of Soviet society had reached dangerous proportions. Both saw that the problems of the economy were most urgent, but also realized the need for a comprehensive program of social and political as well as economic reforms. Although both had some radical tendencies before they became general secretary, Khrushchev did not present himself as a radical until he had been in office for two and a half years, and Gorbachev prepared the ground for nearly two years before making a similar declaration.

As they tried to work out coherent programs of reform, both leaders spoke out more and more about the need for militant efforts to change the system. Reform was essential because the faults of their predecessors had incurred heavy all-around costs for the USSR. But now, at last, both men suggested, inspirational leadership was available, based on a group of people who had identified the problems, and who had begun devising rational solutions and possessed the will to apply them.


To audiences composed of the nomenklatura, or ruling elite, this message included an extra appeal: that younger, more dynamic, and innovative officials could expect quick promotion. In attracting such officials whose support was considered essential, the leaders sought to engage a variety of feelings: personal ambition, patriotism, and, especially in Gorbachev’s case, the fear that without serious reform the Party’s power would decline or even collapse.

Intellectual groups were not only allowed to organize meetings and publications with much less interference than before but found themselves being urged to debate in public, to produce new ideas, to refine the ones the politicians adopted, and in general to promote an atmosphere of liberation and fresh thinking in society. Dissidents were released from prison and encouraged to take part in these activities. The entire intoxicating process was called “The Thaw” in Khrushchev’s time and glasnost in Gorbachev’s. In each case it has had the same basic functions of creating a constituency for reform and encouraging collaboration in reformist thinking. As for ordinary people, the leaders aimed to inspire them by the promise of less regimentation and a better standard of living, in return for harder work. Young people found themselves addressed more in their own language; in particular they were allowed more access to international pop culture.

The leaders also solicited support from both Communist and capitalist leaders abroad as they set about reducing tensions with foreign countries. The aim was to win a breathing space, or peredyshka, in which to tackle domestic problems and to see whether defense spending could be held steady or even reduced. In the most dangerous region, Eastern Europe, Khrushchev introduced the notion of different roads to socialism, or polycentrism, and Gorbachev has done the same. This highly risky approach produced for Khrushchev the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and his first major political crisis. Whether the historic boldness of the Gorbachevites in withdrawing from Afghanistan suggests that they will react with an equally unprecedented tolerance to the next East European explosion, when it comes, remains what the Russians call a rokovoi vopros, or fateful question, of the first magnitude.

For Khrushchev in 1956, and for Gorbachev in 1986, it became clear that dismissing old or unsuitable officials and appointing younger ones on anything like the scale they wanted was politically impossible because of opposition to such firings at the top level of the Party. They then turned their thoughts more insistently to changing entire structures of the command economy and the main bureaucracies as well as many of their long-standing procedures. Such structural changes would both help to ease the exasperating problems of firing and hiring large numbers of people and simultaneously create new or modified institutions with which to carry out the planned reforms.

A relatively easy change for both Khrushchevites and Gorbachevites was the virtual dismantling of the many-tentacled apparatus of censorship known as Glavlit, and replacing it with the principle of trusting editors to obey centrally issued guidelines. More difficult was gaining the nomenklatura’s acceptance of proposed new mechanisms to democratize and thus revivify the Party, the soviets—the hierarchy of legislative councils—and work places such as factories and farms. Gorbachev became a radical on these issues in 1987, at an earlier stage than Khrushchev, but even by the end of the recent Party conference he had still not obtained the full-blooded support that he clearly wants.

The biggest structural changes of both leaders centered on the system of economic management and planning. Both saw the urgent need for innovation, flexibility, and financial discipline in running the economy, and the consequent necessity, above all, of breaking the strangle-hold on the economy of the top-heavy state corporations, known as ministries, each of which runs a particular economic activity—whether textiles or steel, machine tools or natural gas. Khrushchev’s approach was to make a frontal assault. In 1957 he simply abolished more than half the economic ministries. He restricted the central planners to long-term tasks and set up a network of councils (sovnarkhozy) to plan and coordinate the economy at the regional level. He ensured that these were under the supervision of regional Party bosses and enjoined Party officials at the grass roots not to interfere in the day-to-day running of enterprises. He called on the local soviets and their executive organs to take a stronger hand in supervising the local economy.

In June 1987 and at the recent Party conference the Gorbachevites gained approval for a somewhat similar group of reforms, which will, if carried out, break the ministries, curb the planners, give “all power to the soviets,” and bar Party officials from meddling in enterprises. But while the overall pattern resembles Khrushchev’s scheme we should stress important differences. Only a few central ministries have been abolished outright. The general working principle since January 1988 has been to reduce ministerial staffs by some 50 percent within a year. Also, the largely unsuccessful sovnarkhozy have not been revived. The functions these had (between 1957 and 1965) are to be taken over from the ministries in part by a steadily expanding socialist market based on freely negotiated contracts between state enterprises; in part by a much smaller but also expanding free market involving cooperatives and private family businesses, and in part by the soviets.


The Party conference made a controversial decision about the future of the soviets reminiscent of Khrushchev’s subjection of the sovnarkhozy to Party supervision. It voted, against some opposition, that the local Party boss should assume a second office as chairman of the local soviet. This formula violated the principle of the Gorbachevites that there should be maximum disengagement by the Party from the soviet and ministerial hierarchies. But it helped to mitigate the sense of grievance of the Party apparatus that the reforms are threatening to strip it of many of its powers and reduce it to little more than a political debating club.

This last point helps to explain a notable difference—over agriculture—between the two leaders. Khrushchev was able to improve farm output, and thus public morale, in his early years by removing many restrictions from the peasants’ private plots. But Gorbachev has been unable to gain acceptance for the widespread introduction of family farming that he favors, which would have the same effect. While the reasons for this are complex, a critical factor seems to be the refusal of the Party apparatus to give up a function that employs thousands of its officials as de facto managers of much of Soviet agriculture. For the Gorbachevites, meanwhile, the hard fact is that continuing food shortages are undermining their credibility as reformers.

As for the military forces, both the Khrushchev and the Gorbachev leaderships took the opportunity to remind them of their subservient status by dismissing their defense ministers in humiliating circumstances—Marshal Zhukov in 1957 and Marshal Sokolov in 1987. But the Khrushchevites waited until 1960 before embarking on radical military reform, and the Gorbachevites, too, are biding their time.

The leaders’ treatment of the KGB reveals one of the few sharp contrasts between the two reform strategies, but it derives from special circumstances. Khrushchev was fortunate enough to block Lavrenty Beria’s grab for power in 1953; he thus gained the opportunity to reform the secret police and severely cut its apparatus and status down to size during the period after Beria’s execution. The Gorbachevites have had no such opening, and since one of their opponents, Chebrikov, heads the organization, they have so far directed no more than occasional oblique criticisms at it.

Finally, on the supremely difficult issue of how to handle the national minorities, Khrushchev in his early years in power took a liberal position, only to reverse it later. By contrast. Gorbachev’s first tendency was to tighten central controls, since many of the minority republics had degenerated into corrupt, feudalistic, and surreptitiously nationalistic fiefdoms. This line led to closing down many economic ministries in most of the republics and an apparent reduction in the republics’ economic autonomy. At the same time, it soon became clear that the Gorbachevites have not developed a consistent policy for reconciling the increasingly nationalist aspirations of some of the ethnic minorities with their policies of democratization and dynamic economic reform.

By the middle of 1988, the disarray of the Gorbachev camp concerning national minorities had become its biggest single problem and its most acute point of vulnerability. In parts of Armenia and Azerbaidzhan prolonged police and military action is only just keeping the lid on boiling hatreds and almost genocidal emotions. At the same time, the Baltic republic of Estonia has called for something not far short of economic independence, and for true sovereignty for all Soviet republics,4 thus raising the specter, however distant, of a potential Yugoslav-type erosion of federal authority. Although Estonia is in some ways a special case, similar trends can be observed in Latvia, Lithuania, and elsewhere. It is not yet clear what degree of blessing such heretical “national communism” has received from Moscow, or how ardently local Party leaders will pursue it in practice. In the Baltic, Armenian, and Azerbaidzhani republics these leaders are under unprecedented pressure from nationalist movements fired up by glasnost, and recent moves by several of them—endorsing demands of these movements for more autonomy—appear to be a rather clumsy attempt to divide or buy off such opposition.


The radicalism of both Khrushchev and Gorbachev became stronger after a couple of years in office, at least partly in response to the resistance of most of the nomenklatura to proposed reforms and to extensive changes in personnel. In turn, the leaders’ increased radicalism soon provoked their more moderate or conservative colleagues into going further in their resistance, and plotting how to remove or at least curb them. In Khrushchev’s case, his de-Stalinization campaign and assault on the ministries were key factors in provoking Georgi Malenkov and other members of the “anti-Party group” into an attempted coup against him in 1957, which almost succeeded. When Khrushchev managed to turn the tables and oust the plotters, he went on in early 1958 to increase his personal power still more by becoming prime minister as well as first secretary of the Party.

Opposition to Gorbachev began to emerge in early 1987. Sharp if usually indirect attacks on him and officials close to him began to occur, and he had to accept some messy compromises when the Ligachevites objected to some of his policies. When, for example, Gorbachev, Ligachev, and others clashed over how negatively or positively to evaluate the Stalin and Brezhnev periods, Gorbachev ended up reading a speech full of contradictions that was clearly the patch-work product of many hands.5

The most contentious issues between the Gorbachevites and the Ligachevites have now become fairly clear. First, Gorbachev sees the Soviet Union as being in a graver situation than Ligachev does Gorbachev constantly seeks to deepen the anxieties of his audiences about Soviet backwardness, seeing this as a key device for mobilizing support Ligachev is more restrained, less critical. Recently, Gorbachev proclaimed that the main achievement of perestroika to dale is that people are changing, “are emerging, from a state of social apathy and indifference,…are becoming concerned and are feeling anxious.”6 By contrast, Ligachev does no emphasize backwardness. He regards perestroika mainly as a corrective to the ill effects of the moral decay that corrupted the Brezhnevite leadership in the 1970s.7

Second, Gorbachev holds that officials of the older generation need to be replaced more urgently and in larger numbers than Ligachev would want. Each, of course, wants to promote officials with views similar to his own.

Third, concerning economic reform, Gorbachev is much more attracted to market socialism than Ligachev, who sees the market as unsocialist and likely to produce unemployment, dangerous wage differentials, and other socially undesirable, destabilizing effects. Moreover, whereas Gorbachev believes workers should elect their own foremen, councils, and factory directors, Ligachev seems to feel that such a system would lead to indiscipline, inefficiency, and a dangerous loss of Party control—in brief, to incipient anarchosyndicalism.

Fourth, on the broader issue of political control in general, Ligachev is notably more cautious than Gorbachev. Within the existing political system he is not enthusiastic about many of the reforms the Gorbachevites have been pushing, such as those involving more freedom of choice in Party elections, multiple candidates, secret balloting, and a compulsory retirement age. Ligachev himself is sixty-seven. Nor does Ligachev welcome Gorbachev’s proposal for more freedom of choice in elections to the soviets, with, in particular, multiple candidates as the norm.

Regarding groups outside the traditional political system, Ligachev seems skeptical about the lengths to which Gorbachev has been promoting glasnost and democratization. Gorbachev and his allies have been sharply reducing the jamming of foreign radio stations, tolerating street demonstrations and samizdat, releasing political prisoners, virtually halting political arrests, and encouraging the growth of unofficial groups. All this apparently strikes Ligachev as irresponsible liberalism—liberalism which is already bearing evil fruit in the form, for example, of nationalist demonstrations and even riots in the union republics.

Such measures, in Ligachev’s view, tend to have harmful cultural as well as political consequences. In particular, he has made much of his opposition to hard rock music, seeing it as symbolic of the rotten, insidious Western values that the Gorbachevites are not only tolerating but even in some ways encouraging as they try to engage Soviet youth by means other than ideological lectures. More broadly, he feels that traditional Russian values are being threatened by an excessive deference to the West.

All these differences between the two main trends in the Party leadership are reflected daily in the Soviet Union in polemics in the press and in struggles, often ferocious, over power and policy within virtually every institution and profession.

It is sometimes said that the Ligachevites are politically of little consequence because they have allegedly, no program of their own. This is becoming less true as time passes. Their program is not as distinctive as that of the Gorbachevites but it could be summed up as favoring a moderate not a radical, perestroika of Soviet institutions and thinking. The Ligachevites appear to be saying that if as many expect, Gorbachev’s radical perestroika eventually fails in the face of economic confusion and poor performance as well as growing political disorder, then their moderate perestroika, representing a middle course between Brezhnevism and Gorbachevism, will be seen as the right path.

This path would involve attacking corruption, a moderate turnover of officials, and better consultation procedures in Party and state bodies, but without excessive liberalization of electoral mechanisms. It would mean streamlining the economy, with tighter central control and only minimal use of markets, tougher treatment of dissidents, less liberalism in the Soviet press, stronger controls over the penetration of Western ideas and popular culture, concessions to Russian nationalism, and more caution on foreign and defense policy—in short, a more efficient welfare authoritarianism than Brezhnev was able to achieve.

It seems fair to argue that a moderate perestroika of this sort would have little or no chance of solving any of the Soviet system’s deep-rooted problems. But in circumstances in which radical perestroika was clearly failing, that would not be the point. Ligachev’s view would be that a switch to moderate perestroika would avert impending catastrophe, and that since, after this change of course, there would no longer be an immediate threat of economic and political chaos, time would still be available to work out a new and more effective set of reforms.


In the fall of 1987 the skirmishing between the two main trends in the leadership heated up, as the Party conference set for June 1988 drew near. The skirmishing revolved not only around policy, but also, as was to be expected, around power. The moderates’ first goal was to try to prevent Gorbachev personally from escaping from the collective control of the Politburo, i.e., to subject him to the disciplines of oligarchic rule—disciplines he repeatedly threatened to violate. This goal was in considerable measure achieved when the moderates succeeded in removing Gorbachev’s enthusiastic supporter Boris Yeltsin in October–November 1987. In the confrontation between Yeltsin and the moderates, Gorbachev at first stayed on the sidelines, but soon felt compelled to turn against his own man in what was a serious blow for radical perestroika.8

The second major confrontation between the two camps began in March this year, and has not, as yet, received close enough attention in the West. It illustrates well most of the central themes I have mentioned. 9 While the Gorbachevites were maneuvering for advantage in the months before the conference, using traditional methods such as manipulation of the press and television, the Ligachevites evidently decided to go further and find out what support they could count on for a possible move designed to neutralize (or even oust) Gorbachev.

As Gorbachev departed in March on an extended visit to Yugoslavia and his closest ally, Alexander Yakovlev, set off for Ulan Bator, and with serious problems of political order causing alarm in Armenia and Azerbaidzhan, the Ligachev people arranged for Sovyetskaya Rossiya,10 the chief daily organ of Ligachev’s main power base, the Russian Republic, to publish a militantly conservative, anti-Gorbachevian, almost neo-Stalinist political manifesto. Identified as a letter from a Leningrad lecturer, Nina Andreyeva, it was, in fact, a full-page article that combined Andreyeva’s words with those of the chief editor of Sovyetskaya Rossiya, Valentin Chikin, and a member of his staff, Vladimir Denisov.

The political message was highly provocative to the Gorbachevites; it made telling criticisms of the points on which they are most vulnerable to the Ligachevites’ attacks. The Gorbachevites represented, she implied, “left-liberal intellectual socialism.” Such people “eschew proletarian collectivism in favor of the notion of ‘the intrinsic value of the individual.’ ” Further, she suggested, they refuse “to recognize the leading role of the party and the working class in building socialism and in perestroika.” This was of course wrong. The working class and the traditional, sound forces of the Party should, she implied, in a natural alliance, determine policy on perestroika—not Gorbachev and his allies among the individualistic intellectuals. The central question, she said, “is which class or stratum of society is the leading and mobilizing force of perestroika?”11

Without delay, Ligachev reportedly gave two briefings to selected journalists, at which he singled the article out as worthy of extensive discussion. At the same time, Party meetings were organized in many parts of the country to discuss the article, and in Leningrad a forum set up to support the article was reportedly televised. At other such meetings in Leningrad speakers referred to “gross errors” by Gorbachev.12 According to later Soviet press accounts, opponents of perestroika gleefully recounted how the article was being used as a basic text in the Party’s political education network, and it was also reprinted in dozens of local and army newspapers.13 Finally, a rash of conservative articles on controversial topics appeared in the press, widening the front opened up by Andreyeva’s piece.

On their return from abroad, Gorbachev and Yakovlev quickly learned what was happening. They took careful soundings to gauge how many provincial Party leaders had reprinted the article. They waited until Ligachev left Moscow, reportedly called a special meeting of the Politburo, and may have gained its approval for some sort of rebuke of Ligachev. On April 5, after twenty-three days of silence from the Gorbachevites, a major reply to Andreyeva appeared in Pravda, which forcefully denounced the “desire to turn democratization and glasnost against perestroika,” and attacked those who were trying to reverse perestroika “on the sly.” The anonymous article’s arguments and rhetoric recalled the well-known style of Gorbachev and Yakovlev. But its anonymity reduced its authority.

As most of the press dutifully followed, with orchestrated letters from professional and other groups, Gorbachev took aim at Ligachev’s power base in a speech in Tashkent on April 9. He denounced the “very many people who regard their factory, village, collective farm, district, or city as their personal fiefdom.” Such officials were “nostalgic for the past.” They worshiped the “command and administer system,” and felt contempt and distrust for the people. 14 This, of course, was Gorbachev’s description of what Andreyeva (and presumably the Ligachevites) prefer to see as the sound, healthy core of the Party.

At the same time, Gorbachev admitted that those opposing perestroika were not just concerned with power but were making a criticism of policy as well. In all the clashes and upheavals generated by change, he acknowledged, “disapproving voices can be heard saying: ‘This is what your democracy has led to; this is where your perestroika has got you.’ ”

Between April 11 and 18 Gorbachev convoked three meetings of Party leaders from throughout the USSR for “urgent” talks, and reportedly told them defiantly that there would be no retreat from perestroika. It was unprecedented that the meetings—marked by “lively” discussions—were officially described as being called by Gorbachev personally, not by the Party leadership as a whole.15

At around this time a partial truce seems to have been worked out, probably because the Ligachev forces put up a strong self-defense behind the scenes. Pravda admitted that 25 percent of the letters it received in response to its publication of the apparently crushing denunciation of Andreyeva on April 5 actually came to Andreyeva’s defense.16 And although Ligachev took—or had to take—a brief holiday, not appearing in public for nine days (April 13–21), he did not recant in any way, and an official spokesman pointedly announced that there had been no change in the responsibilities of the top leaders.17 After his return, he and Gorbachev appeared together on several occasions, demonstratively giving the appearance (presumably false) of relaxed mutual amity. On May 4 Ligachev met with newspaper editors, and the next day Sovyetskaya Rossiya, which had earlier made a weak apology for having printed the Andreyeva article, implicitly withdrew the apology, proclaiming, “There must not be a taboo placed on diverging points of view and judgments.”

This trend culminated in a call by Gorbachev, on May 10, for a period of national unity and more tolerance by his own supporters for those people who had been panicked by the confusion of perestroika. He explained: “I wouldn’t regard those who have panicked to be irresponsible people or people opposed to perestroika on principle.”18 However, such people existed, he admitted for the first time, “not only at the grass roots, but also at the top.”

What conclusions can one tentatively draw from the Andreyeva episode? In late April the bold Gorbachevite commentator Vasily Selyunin (see note 9) described the Ligachevites’ moves as “a well-organized provocation” and “a plot against Gorbachev.” “We [the Gorbachevites] survived by a miracle,” he said, pointing to a near parallel with the successful overthrow of Khrushchev in 1964. Referring to the troubles in Armenia and Azerbaidzhan, he said that “the opponents of perestroika need a failure. They need, so to speak, their own Reichstag fire.” Another prominent reformer held that the conservative leaders want “a Jaruzelski—someone who will stop the liberal trend.” They saw Ligachev as fitting the bill.19

Ligachev’s own views, we should note in passing, do not seem to be as militantly conservative as Andreyeva’s. He may however have calculated that to make a successful move against the Gorbachevite left he (a) needs the support of militant conservatives of the right, and (b) might find it tactically advantageous to situate himself in the middle of a center–right coalition—where he anyway seems naturally to belong.

In assessing what for convenience may be called the Vasily Selyunin view of what happened, we should note first that the threads of the Andreyeva episode do indeed lead to Ligachev. The Sovyetskaya Rossiya journalist Vladimir Denisov, who reportedly went to Leningrad to work with Andreyeva on her article, was between 1978 and 1982 the paper’s correspondent in Tomsk, where Ligachev was then completing his eighteen-year stint as Party boss.20 Sergei Manyakin, whom Selyunin names as a key promoter of Andreyeva’s article, was for many years, until his promotion to be chairman of the People’s Control Committee, Ligachev’s opposite number in neighboring Omsk. And neither Ligachev nor his supporters have denied the roles ascribed to them by Vasily Selyunin.

In estimating the political weight behind the move against Gorbachev, we should direct attention not just to Tomsk, but also to more shadowy Leningrad connections. It is hard to see how Andreyeva’s article could have been publicized so vigorously in Leningrad without the concurrence of the Leningrad region Party chief, Yuri Solovyov, who is a candidate member of the Politburo. And he is unlikely to have sanctioned such risky activity without at least tacit support from his predecessor Lev Zaikov, who is now a member of both the Politburo and the Central Committee Secretariat—and therefore one of the most powerful four or five men in the regime.

In any case, if one assumes there were plotters taking soundings for a possible coup, Gorbachev’s inability to deal with the organizers more severely (or his calculated preference not to do so) is, in my opinion, evidence of the limited and uncertain hold that he and his supporters have on power. There would seem, in fact, to be some inexact but interesting parallels between this episode and the coup attempt of the anti-Party group in 1957—which, as we have seen, Khrushchev decisively crushed.

Another possible conclusion is that ever since Yeltsin’s dismissal Gorbachev has been inclined to give up as no longer tenable his previous position of leading perestroika from the left. He has therefore tried to present himself as almost a centrist and was further pushed in this direction by the Andreyeva episode. An early example of the new position occurred in January, when he said that perestroika had both radical and conservative critics, and “we are often criticized by some people from the right and by others from the left.”21

In May, however, as the crucially important election of delegates to the Party conference drew near, he temporarily reverted to type, warning that the opposition “are trying to scare us.” Moreover, “Our opponents are making their own plans and calculations,” and so in selecting delegates to the conference “the main political imperative is to elect active supporters of perestroika.”22 Here he was echoing an even franker call for manipulation of the elections in a Pravda editorial.23 This warned that there must be “no mistakes” in choosing delegates, since they would need to give “a firm rebuff to the conservatives.”

In fact, the election of conference delegates turned out to be a clear victory for these “conservatives.” They were certainly a bitter disappointment to the Gorbachevite left, which appears to have made up only a small minority of the delegates. In response, the left charged that the elections in various cities had been undemocratically manipulated by conservatives. Public demonstrations organized by Gorbachevites and dissidents in a dozen cities supported this view, and the demonstrators called, in vain, for new elections. This line of discrediting some of the delegates, and thus reducing the conference’s authority, was taken further when the liberal magazine Ogonek charged that certain Uzbek delegates had committed felonies and the charge was repeated on the conference floor. An investigation was ordered. However, the conference officials announced that the mandates of all delegates were valid.

Another response by the Gorbachevites to the election results was to downgrade sharply their expectations of the conference. Earlier they had expressed through a variety of channels their hopes for the conference. They wanted it to produce substantial shifts, in a radical direction, in the membership of the Central Committee, to be followed by similar changes in the Politburo. They also wanted amendments to the Party rules to make changes in the composition of these and other Party bodies easier in the future; and they hoped for a wholehearted endorsement of the radical aspects of perestroika, on which the Central Committee had been dragging its feet.

The first two goals were simply dropped, presumably because there was no chance that the delegates would support them. The last two met with partial but uncertain success; the resolutions passed were in most cases acceptable to the Gorbachevites, but it was unclear whether or not these would later be translated into satisfactory legislative form. The fact that for the first time in half a century of high-level Party meetings some of the resolutions were not approved unanimously contributed a further element of uncertaintly.

After his long opening speech, which seemed tailored to be less radical than his average address, Gorbachev may have lowered his expectations still more. In the words of one observer, the delegates were “ominously silent for the first sixty minutes” and only “finally broke into scattered clapping when he sounded a conservative note.” In general, “applause only came after Gorbachev made either formalistic or conservative statements.” It was loudest when he “promised not to carry out any massive purge of Party officials.” 24

Certainly, throughout the conference Gorbachev played the part of a centrist or perhaps center-left balancer of the Party’s radical and conservative wings. On the one hand he criticized dogmatists and conservatives and made some bold new proposals. On the other he compromised by agreeing that local Party bosses should head local soviets as well, and whereas Yeltsin, in a truly radical speech, demanded a mandatory retirement age for officials of sixty-five, Gorbachev explicitly dropped his support for the proposal. While dissidents and others were demonstrating in large numbers throughout the conference, Gorbachev attacked a group of dissidents that had formed an opposition party as having abused democratization. In all this, there was, however, more than a whiff of tactical artifice. It is hard not to believe that the Gorbachevites had a large say in the decisions that enabled Yeltsin to speak and allowed the dissidents to carry out demonstrations. Such decisions made it easier for their man to look like a moderate centrist.

While the Gorbachevites avoided any serious criticism of Ligachev, they kept up their indirect attacks on him and his allies. They appear not only to have used Yeltsin’s radicalism to underline Gorbachev’s moderation, but also to have encouraged him to imply that Ligachev and others should retire, since they are over sixty-five, and to call for the removal of the top politicians who served complaisantly in the Politburo under Brezhnev “and are still there.”25 (Before the conference, moreover, Yeltsin advocated Ligachev’s retirement openly, in an interview with the BBC.) There also seemed something orchestrated about Gorbachev’s request to a conference speaker to name those responsible for the earlier policy of stagnation who should now retire and answer for their actions. The speaker promptly named two of Ligachev’s allies in the Politburo, Andrei Gromyko and Mikhail Solomentsev, as well as the flexible but conservative editor of Pravda, Viktor Afanasiev.

The Gorbachevites emerged from the conference with some gains. Their attacks on the ministries were well received. The potentially momentous reform of giving “all power to the Soviets” and therefore taking much power away from the Party apparatus was at least launched,26 even if it is hobbled for now by the compromise of allowing Party bosses to head local soviets. The general principle limiting officials to two terms in office was approved, as, apparently, was a plan (first proposed by Khrushchev in 1961) to erect a monument to the victims of Stalin. So was the radical proposal to restructure the top legislative bodies and strengthen the powers of the presidency. The resolution on these points left many questions unanswered, but most observers believed that Gorbachev would in due course be able to assume the presidency, as Brezhnev did in 1977. Finally, although many of the delegates clearly disliked much of what Gorbachev stands for, he impressed them with the force of his personality and his apparent readiness to compromise. The conference delegates must also have noted that none of his colleagues challenged his position as the leading oligarch.

All this said, Ligachev was their man and received, by all accounts, the most thunderous applause. His speech was skillfully calibrated to appeal to their tastes, articulating above all the deep loathing of glasnost in its more radical forms that was the unifying feeling of the center-right majority at the conference. He said the Central Committee must take proper note of this feeling (an implied rebuke to Yakovlev) and endorsed by name the most eloquently venomous of all the denouncers of glasnost, the writer Yury Bondarev, who maintained in his speech that glasnost had allowed literature to be dominated by critics whose creed was:

Let every weed flourish and all the evil forces compete. Only through chaos, confusion, and an epidemic of literary scandals, and only by shaking belief to the core, can we fashion a uniform thinking tailored personally to ourselves.

Yes, he continued, “these critics lust after power, and casting off ethics and conscience, they threaten to bring ideology to the brink of crisis.”27

Ligachev also attacked Yeltsin’s speech with a cool, controlled anger, and reminded Gorbachev that he owed his election—in a cliff-hanging vote in the Politburo—to Ligachev’s allies Gromyko, Solomentsev, and Chebrikov, and also to the support of a lot of regional Party secretaries. He professed loyalty to Gorbachev and insisted on the cohesiveness of the Party leadership.

In the light of the conference’s outcome, one might speculate that Ligachev and his supporters think along these lines: Gorbachev is politically fairly strong. He is generally outstanding in his handling of foreign policy. We shall support his sensible initiatives, curb his irresponsible ones, and do our utmost to keep him under the oligarchy’s control. He is a formidable politician, but we appear to have frightened him by our activities in March into shifting his stance somewhat. We have staked out clearly enough our own program of moderate perestroika, so if major crises occur and he stumbles, we and our program are poised to step forward.

Ligachev himself may well feel he is not consumed by personal ambition, and that his age severely limits his plans for the future. Above all, he sees himself as defending the interests of the regime and of its core, the Party apparatus, in whatever ways seem best. That he was designated by the Politburo as day-to-day director of the Central Committee Secretariat (he got this on the record for the first time during the conference) gives him great power to this end.

The big question of power politics is whether Gorbachev’s move toward the center has been a serious commitment on his part or a temporary tactical maneuver. If he is committed to the center-left positions that he took at the June conference, then the current, apparently workable truce with the Ligachevites may hold. But now that quick and substantial changes in the membership of the Central Committee are presumably ruled out, radical perestroika may well, whatever laws and resolutions are passed, be sabotaged and fail to take off. In that case Gorbachev would be deeply disappointed, but would repeat to himself his slogan that politics is the art of the possible. If, on the other hand, he is temperamentally akin to Khrushchev and his current position is tactical, then the stakes will go on rising and the current truce in the Politburo will not last.

In either case, however, glasnost and democratization have today gone far enough that the social and political base for at least some sort of perestroika is now slowly developing. Even though many conference delegates denounced glasnost’s excesses so passionately, and forced Gorbachev into conceding points on the issue, the limited but unprecedented freedom of the debates at the conference and the high level of candor that has developed in the press and elsewhere may have generated enough momentum to prevent heavy interference from the censor.

More ominous issues are the current economic situation, about which delegates expressed considerable alarm, the intractable and mounting problem of keeping the national minorities under control, and the smoldering opposition in the Eastern European countries. These are the biggest threats to perestroika and Gorbachev. However much Gorbachev maneuvers, any or all of them could, without much warning, play into the hands of Ligachev and the forces he represents.

—July 21, 1988

This Issue

August 18, 1988