Moscow: The Struggle for Reform

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,…

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