Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine


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?”

The most damning comments on Lenin are made by implication in the revised histories of the revolutionary years. In an article “Istoki” (“Sources”), published in Novyi mir, for example, the economic historian Vasili Seliunin disputes the orthodox interpretation of the terror against the peasants in 1918, as a response to the famine that was caused by the peasants’ refusal to turn over their grain to the state. Seliunin writes:

It wasn’t the famine that caused the grain requisitions, but rather the opposite: it was mass requisitions [ordered by Lenin] that caused the famine. The peasants were told to feed the country free of charge…. The evidence clearly points to the fact that the mass liquidation of kulaks took place precisely in the years of “war communism,” and not in the early 1930s.

Thus, though paying lip service to Lenin for having abandoned the “erroneous” policies of “war communism,” the author presents him in effect as Stalin’s ideological and political precursor. Another historian, Nikolay Popov, has gone even further, clearly stating in one of his articles (Sovetskaiakultura, April 26, 1988) that Lenin lay the foundations of the Stalinist state.

Marx and Engels, it now can be said, were not infallible. Lenin was frequently wrong. Stalin was psychotic, Brezhnev corrupt, Khrushchev tried to change the system but was done in by his rivals, Andropov had no chance to prove what he could do, and Chernenko was nothing but an insipid historical footnote. Who, then, truly belongs in the pantheon of Soviet heroes? The most obvious candidate is Nikolai Bukharin, “Lenin’s most faithful disciple” and champion of the New Economic Policy, who was murdered by Stalin in 1938, and whose conception of a liberalized economy and political order is the basis for many of the recent discussions of reform. But as Lenin’s policies themselves come under scrutiny, a hidden history is being uncovered, not only of his long-suppressed allies, such as Trotsky, but of his opponents as well.

At a meeting with students at the Historical-Archival Institute, arranged by its rector, the outspoken historian Yuri Afanasev, I asked them what they thought of the official syllabus,8 which lists as “required reading” on the October 1918 Revolution only works by Lenin and selections from Gorbachev’s October and Perestroika: The Revolution Continues (Moscow, 1987), while, for the 1920s, it recommends articles by Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev—under the heading of “Supplementary Reading.”

I said to the students that this was just more Party-line history. Why was there no mention of Trotsky? And what of works by Mensheviks and Socialist revolutionaries? How could a course on Soviet history overlook the March 1917 Revolution?

Both the students and their teacher at once agreed. They pointed out that only three years ago the very mention of Zinoviev would have been unthinkable, but that they now see his books and documents, although in special sections of libraries and archives that cannot be entered without special permission; they expected they would soon be able to read the works of Trotsky, which are to appear in 1989.

To Professor Afanasev, one of the most respected and most radical of Soviet historians, the word “rehabilitation” itself is despicable. “The business of a historian,” he said, “is to write history, not to hand out certificates of good behavior. Most of our historians still regard history as an ideological instrument. And there is still no sign that the authorities will accept the demand for a law allowing access to archives. You have to stand on your head to get permission to see certain materials, say at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s all part of our daily struggle—and it must go on.”


Borba idyot. “The struggle goes on.” “The struggle has just begun.” The phrases I heard every day of my visit in the Soviet Union suggest that nothing—not the latest Party pronouncement, not a decision by a local bureaucrat, or a government decree—can be taken as the final word. More than anything else, these words, optimistic and uncertain at the same time, define the atmosphere in Moscow. One day I heard that the director of a popular television show, Dobryi Vecher, Moskva (Good Evening, Moscow), had just been fired for approving news reports that were “distortions of Soviet reality.” I asked Natalia Ivanova, the poetry editor of the monthly Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of Peoples), if he had no chance to get his job back. “Oh, no,” she laughed, “the struggle has just begun. The staff will do everything to have this decision reversed—you can be sure of that.” In late February I was told he had returned to his job.

The controversy over the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s writings is another example. Early in December the new Party chief in charge of ideology, Vadim Medvedev, announced that Solzhenitsyn’s books would not be published in the Soviet Union. A week later, there were two well-attended meetings in Moscow in honor of Solzhenitsyn’s seventieth birthday. Novyi mir’s editor, Sergei Zalygin, says he still intends to publish Solzhenitsyn; so does Julian Semyonov, the author of spy thrillers who is president of the International Association of Crime Writers and now edits a new literary magazine.9 In the meantime, yet another work by Solzhenitsyn has been published—his 1967 Letter to the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers, demanding the abolition of Soviet censorship and protesting the persecution to which he had been subjected. Whether more of Solzhenitsyn’s work will be published has become a symbolic issue and an intense one.

On December 29,the USSR Council of Ministers published a decree imposing price ceilings for “cooperative”—i.e., independently financed and run—restaurants, and prohibiting a number of other cooperative activities, among them the “production of works of science, literature, and art,” the “making of movies, films, and video programs,” the organization of lectures, and certain forms of “medical assistance.”10 The setting up of thousands of cooperatives that are independent of the economic bureaucracies has been publicized in the USSR as one of the most dramatic successes of perestroika. I asked Nikolai Shmelev, one of the more respected Soviet economists and a short story writer, what he thought of the decree. The price ceilings, he felt, were justified, because restaurants were charging outrageous prices. The restrictions, on the other hand, were “a serious blow, but by no means the final word on the subject.” For the resolution to acquire the force of law it will have to be approved by the future standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, to be elected this March. “And I confidently expect there will be a fight.”11

The struggle predicted by Shmelev has already begun. Moscow News recently published an article by Vladimir Meleshkin, chairman of a production and trade cooperative, warning that if the official attacks on cooperatives continue, they may lead to the eventual “self-liquidation of the cooperative movement.” A similarly grim note was struck in another article in Moscow News. The two authors, Alexei Klishin and Nuriman Sharafetdinov, both of them research associates at the State and Law Institute, openly condemned the new decree, observing that “no one can now guarantee that, in a couple of months, other activities will not be recognized as out of bounds for coops.”

Another issue that has come about as a result of the growth of freedom and the erosion of the fear that once paralyzed Soviet society is that of an independent advokatura, or association of lawyers. In the past, the role of defense lawyers, especially in political trials, was largely to assist the prosecution in bringing the defendants to “justice.” The presumption of innocence was dismissed as nothing but a “bourgeois concept” and the lawyers, by way of defense, could, at best, enter appeals for milder sentences.

The new criminal code installed under Khrushchev put an end to this, as well as to many other grotesque features of the Stalinist system of justice. However, the defense attorney’s freedom to defend his client remained severely circumscribed by the power of public prosecutors and the judges, all controlled by the Party and by local administrative bureaucracies. Lately, a number of legal scholars have called for the creation of an association of defense lawyers that would be independent of government control. This proposal was much discussed at meetings of various “collegiums”—i.e., local associations sanctioned by and completely subordinated to the Ministry of Justice—and it was approved by the Nineteenth Party Congress last July; but it was attacked as illegal by the Ministry of Justice. Moreover, the ministry sabotaged a conference called to discuss the creation of an independent lawyers’ association by telling 162 lawyers’ groups that the conference had been called off, and having the participants’ hotel reservations canceled. Nevertheless, twenty-two of these lawyers’ groups managed to hold a meeting and voted unanimously for an independent association. They were later joined by twenty-two other lawyers’ groups. The first congress of the new association was set to take place in December.12

By the time I arrived in Moscow, the ministry had taken a new tack: Boris Kravtsov, the minister of justice, said the idea of an independent lawyers’ association was fine—so long as it was under the control of his ministry. A prominent jurist then wrote in an article in Ogonek that the tactics of the ministry were a farce. On December 19, Pravda published an open letter from seven prominent professors and writers denouncing the ministry’s “arbitrary methods.” Yuri Feofanov, Izvestia’s legal correspondent, told me that the ministry’s proposal was a “mockery of justice.” “We are not going to take it lying down,” a lawyer I talked to said. And, indeed, they haven’t. On February 25, two thousand lawyers gathered in Moscow to set up a Soviet Advocates’ Association, in the face of the opposition from the ministry, and despite the energetic efforts of some of their own “conservative” colleagues (called “boot-lickers” and “provocateurs” at the meeting) to subordinate the association to the ministry. Among the topics discussed at the meeting were the rightof defense attorneys to see their clients from the moment of arrest, guarantees for the independence of judges, and equal rights for the defense and prosecution.13 The question now is whether the Ministry of Justice will try to sabotage the new association.

At stake in such controversies, I was told again and again, is the very future of the Soviet Union. The current attempts at reform may well amount to the last chance in our time for the country to emerge from the poverty and backwardness that are the legacy of a succession of corrupt and repressive regimes. But just who is fighting whom is a more complex question. The formula, so popular in the West, that Gorbachev and his allies are on one side and their foes are on the other—“Gorbachev vs. the conservatives”—is misleading. It is true that during the past few years Gorbachev has had to fight continually with opponents of perestroika in the Politburo and Central Committee, and he still has enemies in both groups. But according to nearly everyone I have talked to, his personal power is now more secure than ever before. Although he has thus far not been able to pack the four hundred–member Central Committee with a majority of perestroika supporters, he has succeeded in gaining control of the ruling Politburo. This means, according to Shmelev, that Gorbachev for the time being does not have to worry “about challenges from contenders for power.”

But to say that Gorbachev has consolidated his personal position (and will continue to do so when he is elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, thus combining the two most powerful posts in the country) is certainly not to say that he is free to pursue his plans for reforms. Nor is it to say that his supporters form a monolithic group. Three loosely defined tendencies can be discerned among the Soviet groups that are involved in public life. At one extreme are the Party apparatchiki and government bureaucrats who, while proclaiming their loyalty to reform in general, are flatly opposed to reforms in particular; at the other extreme are those who urge a more radical and swifter pace of change and feel that any delays, compromises, or retreats play into the hands of the “anti-reformers,” who are thought of as “right-wing.” Finally there are “centrists,” who feel that excessive speed would only help to strengthen the opposition. As for Gorbachev, according to Alexander Bovin, one of Izvestia’s most prominent columnists, he is somewhere “on the left of the center.”

What are some of the main fears and criticisms of the “radicals”? Many of them—for instance Boris Kurashvili and Garvril Popov, editor of the official Soviet monthly Voprosy Ekonomiki (Problems of Economics)—were, like Sakharov, appalled by the new electoral law adopted last December. So, to judge by the numerous comments that have appeared in the Soviet press (and on television), are many ordinary Soviet citizens. It is an exaggeration to say—as do some Western commentators—that the new law has enabled the Party to “rig the elections”; but it is true that by having a third of the 2,250 members of the People’s Congress elected by the Party and the “public organizations” the Party controls, and by then having the 450 members of the regular legislature (Supreme Soviet) elected by the People’s Congress rather than by the voting public at large, the principle of open and direct vote has been betrayed, and the Party apparat has been assured of controlling at least one third of the nominations. This is not simple “rigging,” but neither is it what Soviet citizens had been led to expect—an unambiguous step toward greater democracy.14

Two other provisions of the new electoral law have caused intense concern: first, that the Party’s General Secretary will also be Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (a clear violation of the principle—advocated by Gorbachev himself—of separation of powers), and second, that the authority to pick the final list of candidates is vested in the 1,538 “electoral commissions” “appointed” by local soviets, whose selections are made behind closed doors. Whenever all the candidates for a seat are in support of reform, a pro-reform candidate will be chosen. But whenever the various lists include both pro- and anti-reformers, the commissions are likely to choose the anti-reform candidates.

The cumbersome electoral procedures have been a source of bitter disillusionment not only to the “radicals” but to”centrist” reformers, and Gorbachev has made it clear that some of the rules work against him. While some of the candidates nominated by the Party and other “public organizations” are known perestroishchiki, most are not. The local Party and public organizations are dominated precisely by the kind of people Gorbachev has been trying to get rid of. Because voting on nominations is done in secret, many prominent citizens have not been elected by their respective organizations, just as Andrei Sakharov was recently rejected by the Academy of Sciences. All of this has caused widespread anger directed not only at the apparat, but often at Gorbachev himself.15

Many “radicals,” for instance Boris Kurashvili, deplore the government’s failure to end the horrendous food shortages, to install a new system of prices, and generally to dismantle the USSR’s “command-administrative” economic system. Two years ago, for example, the government announced an implicitly revolutionary program by which peasants would no longer have to work on collective farms but could lease land for fifty years. According to a recent poll conducted by the distinguished economic sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, only a tiny fraction of the Soviet public welcomes the new decree. But this, as several economists told me, is not because the Soviet peasants are opposed to having their own land, but because they remain deeply suspicious of the conditions under which leases are being offered. The local bureaucrats in the collective and state farms who have been put in charge of this reform have so far put limits, varying between five and fifteen years, on most of the leases granted. The peasant has no guarantee that his land won’t later be taken away from him or that he won’t be forced to make deliveries of grain or other produce to the state, instead of selling it at market prices. Some economists maintain that only the complete abolition of collectivized agriculture, as in China, can encourage the peasants to grow more food.

What I found most striking, however, is that not even his most radical critics are ready to give up on Gorbachev. They give him credit for starting the most extensive process of change in the history of the USSR, and for some large achievements. Shmelev, for instance, for all his criticism of the new cooperative system, regards it, with its nearly million members, “as the single most successful step in setting up market incentives in the Soviet Union.”

More than a few enterprises, ranging from shoe factories to photographic processing plants, have already begun to work on the profit principle. Joint ventures with foreign investors (which now allow most of the shares to be controlled by the Western partners) are increasing, particularly with West Germany; and the new law on joint ventures, which goes into effect this April, promises to encourage this process even further. A number of “free economic zones” have been created, in which deals with foreign firms are allowed without interference from the state. (Estonia has just signed a contract with Aer Lingus—the first of its kind in the history of the Soviet Union.) The long-promised reform to bring prices in line with the demand for products has been delayed, thus threatening one of the central tenets of perestroika, but several plans for a new price mechanism have been drafted and vigorously discussed in the Soviet press. And although the proposals of economists such as Shmelev and Popov to import food in order to satisfy immediate consumer needs have been rejected by Gorbachev, many economists agree with his view that the country must reorganize its production and distribution system and not rely (as it did under Brezhnev) on the West to bail it out of its troubles.

Indeed, many of the radicals do not blame Gorbachev personally for all the compromises and setbacks they have experienced, or ascribe them to sinister motives. But they criticize him publicly for “obtuseness” and for “lack of sensitivity” in dealing with the grievances of nationalities such as the Baltic peoples and the Armenians. Gorbachev, practically everyone agrees, should have acted much more decisively a year ago, at the time of the first protests on behalf of the Armenians living in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan who wanted to become part of the Armenian Republic. Still, on January 19 the Soviet government announced that Nagorno-Karabakh would be placed under the direct rule of the Supreme Soviet—a clear concession to the Armenians, who will in effect be administering the region.16

Nor is Gorbachev’smove to combine the positions of Party Secretary and Supreme Soviet Chairman seen necessarily as an opportunistic, vulgar attempt to gain power; as Sakharov has said, it is a dangerous step intended to prevent Gorbachev’s opponents from challenging the entire process of perestroika. Both the “centrists” and the “radicals” emphasize that despite all its problems and setbacks, perestroika has already had considerable successes. While the Supreme Soviet is not what the perestroishchiki had hoped for, for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union there will be a continuously active legislature, whose deputies can be replaced at regular elections, and whose Chairman’s tenure is restricted to two five-year terms. With all the talk and protest accompanying the elections, the electoral fever has been spreading; and while the Party apparatchiki are trying as hard as they can to contain it, Soviet citizens themselves, as recent events have demonstrated, are no longer cowed by them.

On February 12, The New York Times carried a remarkable account by its Moscow correspondent, Bill Keller, of a woman who was able to persuade the voters in one electoral district to defeat the local Party candidate. When the Party leaders tried to stop the debate, a seventy-four-year-old pensioner, Vladimir Lovin, “stepped up to the microphone and silenced the crowd with a burst of indignation: ‘We have waited 70 years for this and now they want to shut us up!’ ” This, Keller wrote, “turned the tide.” Similar stories about stormy election meetings in factories and enterprises appeared in the Soviet press throughout December and January. They suggest something of the hopes one encounters in Moscow. The hopes are not expectations that life will suddenly improve. Gorbachev himself has said that there will be no clear economic improvement for at least four years, and meanwhile the continuing shortages of food and consumer goods remain a source of anger and irritation. The hopes are based on the prospect that major institutions are being transformed, however slowly, and that citizens will continue to be able to advocate more changes and more reforms.

What of the forces opposed to change? They come, first of all, from the middle and lower levels of the Party and the administrative bureaucracy—a formidable group of some nineteen million people whose chief talent, in the words of Ogonek’s editor, Vitaly Korotich, “is to shuffle papers and make sure that the income that should rightfully go to those who work be channeled into their own coffers.” Among the millions of bureaucrats who stand to lose most from radical reform are apparatchiki in collective and state farms, the millions employed by the State Planning Commission (Gosplan), who determine the inputs and planned output of nearly all the large and small enterprises in the country, and local officials afraid of losing their jobs and raison d’être if the number of independent entrepreneurs and factories no longer dependent on the whims of the authorities begins to increase. Such people will do what they can to hold these jobs.

The strongest resistance to reform—and it is very powerful—is not so much political as social and psychological, a consequence of the by now deeply embedded values, habits, and attitudes that the Soviet system has produced during more than sixty years. For the ordinary citizen, as a factory worker I met told me, what counts is “real pay, meat in the stores, a glass of vodka, and a decent apartment—and not all this talk about perestroika and glasnost.” But since 1985, practically all such rewards, goods, and services have diminished. In Moscow recently even such a staple as buckwheat (kasha) has been extremely difficult to find. According to some of my informants, such complaints are even more widespread in the provinces.

Practically everyone agrees that the condition of the country is extremely bad, but the slogan that most appeals to ordinary citizens is “don’t rock the boat.” The demand that business initiative be encouraged as the key to improving both the economy and one’s personal situation may be all right for the adventurous, for people who are seen as hustlers, but not for those who are happy to go on in the same old grooves as long as their elementary needs are met. “We are dealing with a society,” Yuri Bandura, deputy editor of Moscow News, told me, “that is bogged down in hoary stereotypes and that fears any new ideas.”

This resistance is not organized. It has no “program.” The only organized resistance with anything like a distinctive program to offer is the Russian nationalists and anti-Semites, who are drawn to “Pamyat” (Memory) and similar groups. For them the advocates of perestroika are “Jews and Masons,” who are now conspiring to deliver the country into the hands of “international Zionism.” Lunatic though it may sound, these notions strike a chord in many Russians, including young people, as I was able to see for myself by attending a session of the literary club “Fate of Man,” which was full of Pamyat people. When one speaker, a sociologist, observed that various nationalities are underrepresented on the higher levels of the regime, and mentioned the Jews as one of them, he was met with cries of “Don’t tell us about those zhidy [kikes],” while a speaker who described Trotsky and the Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov (both of them Jews) as the chief instigators of the “massacres of thousands of our Russian brothers” during the civil war was loudly cheered.

Does Pamyat enjoy support from higher up? Most of my informants believe so. Otherwise, they say, why do the police allow it to hold meetings while other organizations, such as the “Democratic Front,” “a pitifully small group” the Ogonek editor Vitaly Korotich told me, can’t? No one knows exactly who its protectors are. What is clear is that some well-known Soviet writers, including Valentin Rasputin, Viktor Astafyev, and Yuri Bondarev—the latter the head of the powerful RFSFR Writers’ Union—as well as journals such as Nash Sovremennik (Our Contemporary), have espoused some of the most virulent views of the ultranationalists and anti-Semites, and have viciously attacked as decadent and unpatriotic Soviet radicals such as Lev Timofeyev, editor of the samizdat publication Referendum, and Sergei Grigoryants, editor of the samizdat journal Glasnost.17 In the recent nominations to the Congress of Peoples Deputies, Pamyat has not succeeded in electing any of its members or outright sympathizers, but it has managed—often in connivance with local Party apparatchiki—to prevent people like Korotich from running for office.


I left Moscow both exhilarated and apprehensive: it is exhilarating to watch the gradual disappearance of fears, lies, and hypocrisy, and to see a degree of freedom that no one—not I, not a single Soviet expert I know—had predicted would emerge so swiftly and so dramatically in so short a time. Yet the process has uncovered such appalling realities that one is apprehensive about the still more staggering problems ahead.

In recent months it has become increasingly fashionable in the West either to pronounce eulogies over the imminent demise of the reforms and of Gorbachev himself or to dismiss the changes as “much glasnost and hardly any perestroika.” It is difficult to imagine, however, that the process could be reversed, although it could be halted. No counter-revolution ever succeeds in obliterating all the traces of a revolution. And what is going on in the Soviet Union today is surely that: a glance backward to conditions in 1948 or even 1968 makes this clear.

While everyone agrees that the most spectacular change has been made in glasnost, it is also true that without the freedom to expose the misdeeds of the past as well as of the present, no attempt to undo them, and no search for different solutions, could possibly take place in the USSR. Conversely, perestroika encourages criticism. It is precisely because of the hopes raised by the law on cooperatives, passed over a year ago, that the latest decree about them has provoked so much spirited protest; and the recent protest may lead to the annulment of the decree’s most objectionable features.

In my view, no one, either in the West or in the Soviet Union, can predict the outcome of what is taking place in the Soviet Union. No one can assess the weight of the forces conspiring against the reforms on the one hand, and those (including both “radicals” and “centrists”) determined to push ahead on the other. Frequent speculations by Western observers about Gorbachev’s political future are for the most part senseless, if only because there are no precedents for what is happening and there is no way of measuring the shifting sentiments for and against his reforms. For the moment, borba idyot seems a good short summary of how things stand.


The following is from an article in Moscow News, Number 1, 1989, by Alexander Bovin, a regular columnist for Isvestia.

It is clear to everyone that if the country is not supplied in the next few years with foodstuffs, and people with clothing, shoes, furniture, electric appliances, and so on; if at least some kind of order is not brought into the services industry; if millions, tens of millions, are not delivered from the exhausting and senseless queues and from the systematic humiliation by anyone in charge of such “services,” all faith in perestroika will evaporate and the Party will be deprived of the people’s confidence. Responsible and very responsible comrades must realize this. But what are they doing?

They are continuing to grant the peasant “freedom” and appeal to his sense of being master on the one hand, while on the other, they flood collective and state farms with papers, tightly swaddling leaseholders and trampling underfoot every sprout of a peasant’s independent spirit. And what is happening to cooperatives? It is utterly impossible to count all the obstacles, procrastinations, and bans put in their way. Thousands of controllers and inspectors treat active and industrious people with righteous wrath. And what about the touted principle of freedom for “individual labor activity”? How does it fare under the vigilant eye of ideological and economic censorship? We have been told that “everything that is not prohibited is permitted.” But it isn’t true. Furthermore even those things that are really and truly permitted are continuously obstructed by our command-and-administer system.

This Issue

March 30, 1989