Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


Last December Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest political ally, Alexander Yakovlev, said in a speech: “We probably have no more than two to three years to prove that socialism as formulated by Lenin can work.” Perestroika, or restructuring, had, he said, brought little material benefit to ordinary people, and if it were to fail, the likely outcome would be “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism.”1

At about the same time, Andrei Sakharov and the former Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek, independently of each other, made similar statements.2 Since then, the first Congress of People’s Deputies, which ended in June, has made Soviet politics even more turbulent, lending these statements added force. The recent suppression of the democracy movement in China can only have strengthened Yakovlev’s, Dubcek’s, and Sakharov’s fears. With an avenging conservatism triumphing so easily in Beijing, Sakharov, for example, said on June 17: “I would not rule out that what has just happened in China could occur in the Soviet Union.”3 Notwithstanding the sensational fruits of glasnost and democratization, indeed precisely because they are so sensational, I would not rule them out either.

Like Yakovlev, however, I suspect that even though perestroika’s problems are fast mounting, the period of greatest danger probably lies some way in the future. Since the time when I wondered in these pages whether Gorbachev would show himself temperamentally akin to Nikita Khrushchev,4 he has done exactly that. He has dared again and again, and, with dazzling power plays, he has made his own position at least temporarily more secure.

I suggested last summer that if he were to take this course, “the stakes will go on rising, and the current truce in the Politburo will not last.” The truce was duly broken in September, when Gorbachev brought off a mini-Putsch to outflank his rivals, and the stakes once again shot up.

Before discussing this Putsch, let me clarify two points. First, Yakovlev uses the word conservatism as a convenient term for the wide spectrum of people and groups who are politically to the right of Gorbachev. So do I. Second, if Gorbachev were eventually to be ousted, then, although the conservatives would probably deal a heavy blow to perestroika, this would scarcely doom reformism for all time. Like their soulmates in China, the conservatives still have no convincing program for dealing with communism’s deep and intractable problems. So reformism would live to rise again.

Last summer Gorbachev became increasingly frustrated. At the Party conference in June, he had not been able to purge the Central Committee of conservatives.5 And although he could maneuver them to agree on paper to many of his reform plans, their resistance to reforms in pricing, distribution, and industrial management generally meant that perestroika was not taking off.

Gorbachev’s radical vision of perestroika was, and is, to build a powerful economy based on market socialism and an expanded but still small private sector. Second, he envisions a dynamic society ruled by the Party, but with other groups having a limited political role in accordance with the principle of “socialist pluralism.” To achieve this vision he needs to break up much of the apparatus of the Partycontrolled state, with its 18 million officials who run the society and the economy, and to mobilize the long dormant energies of ordinary people. These energies will, Gorbachev hopes, provide both the engine of perestroika and—to replace the highly suspect and mainly conservative Party-state apparatus—give additional political power to Gorbachev and his associates. The chief instruments for this strategy are glasnost, or openness, and democratization.

Not surprisingly, most of the officials who make up the apparatus see Gorbachev’s strategy as a serious threat to themselves. If it succeeds, they are likely to lose their power and their jobs, and in some cases to face disgrace or even prison. Many of them see radical perestroika as being dangerous to the point of irresponsibility, threatening the future of Party rule as well as the physical integrity of the country. It is, they claim, like an airplane which has taken off without its pilot having any idea where he is going to land. For these reasons, anti-Gorbachev forces have formed over the last two and a half years in virtually all Soviet institutions from the Central Committee of the Party to the armed forces.

How then has Gorbachev been warding off the clear political threat that these forces represent? His long-term solution, as I have said, is to develop a broad base of popular suport that would be able to check and neutralize them. But the continuing failure of perestroika to provide people with effective incentives and a higher standard of living means that this solution is still not working. So up to now he has had to use more negative tactics; he has been trying to prevent different groups of conservatives from consolidating themselves into a coalition that could sabotage his program and perhaps topple him from power.


Last September, Gorbachev’s frustration became palpable and intense. A speech to senior officials in charge of the press and television on September 23 revealed his more authoritarian instincts. Simultaneously defensive and aggressive, he hectored them to do as they were told:

There is a vast inertia in society, it has built up over decades. It will need a colossal effort to get the country out of this condition…. What are the tasks of the party and the press? First, it is essential to provide the organization and ideological support for the policy of perestroika, and decisively to head off attempts to discredit it…. The press…must resolutely avoid incorrect approaches and the compiling of “hair-raising” stories. That is just what the conservatives and the fair-weather progressives are waiting for! Both types will gloat and say: “We told you perestroika was a far-fetched idea and would produce nothing—we told you all along!”

Thus opponents from the left and the right have become “bed-fellows.” Both “leftists” and “rightists” are sowing confusion in society and attacking perestroika.

At times Gorbachev sounded like Khrushchev haranguing intellectuals in 1962 and 1963, hardly aware of the contradictions he was uttering—sometimes within a single paragraph. Glasnost, for example, was to be both unconfined and confined:

We are not talking about any kind of limits on glasnost or democracy. What limits? Glasnost in the interest of the people and socialism should be without limits. I repeat—in the interests of the people and socialism.

Elsewhere, ironically, his more intelligent and democratic qualities broke through, underscoring the threatening tone of the rest of the speech:

It is essential to rid society’s consciousness of that most harmful complex—faith in a “benevolent tsar,” an omnipotent center, someone imposing order from above and organizing perestroika.

Earlier he had explicitly admitted the continuing need for an “omnipotent center,” in a way that foreshadowed his imminent Putsch:

We can see that some problems are not going to be solved until we intervene in the old way, as we did before. But what can you do? That’s life.6

The coup came a week later, in early October, at brief meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet, which were suddenly called on successive days. In a series of clandestinely planned moves he ousted some opponents and curbed the power of others, notably his potential rival Yegor Ligachev. He promoted some of his supporters, especially Anatoly Lukyanov, whom he elevated to the Party Politburo and the senior vice-presidency of the Supreme Soviet. He effectively abolished the Party’s main executive body and nerve center, the Secretariat, and, without inviting discussion by the Central Committee, replaced it by a weaker organization answerable chiefly to himself. He had himself “elected” as president of the Supreme Soviet with not a word of debate. At the same time, without acknowledging that his purpose was to reduce sharply the power of the Central Committee and the entire Party apparatus, he followed through on a policy initiated earlier, and declared to the Supreme Soviet that the hierarchy of legislative soviets, the locally elected councils, must, along with their executive governmental organs,

become the real and supreme masters on their own territory, and correct the abnormal situation that has arisen in many places as a result of dictatorship by central ministries.7

His failure to add that the emasculation of the soviets since 1919 was the result of their constant domination by the Party as well as by the government ministries served to emphasize the extreme sensitivity of this planned assault on the prerogatives of the Party apparatus. True, Gorbachev’s momentous strategy of trying to transfer most day-to-day power from the Party to the soviets has made only slight progress since last fall, and may ultimately fail. But the threat must seem real enough to the Party apparatus. Gorbachev is, after all, now the head of the hierarchy of soviets as well as of the Party. This change, which recalls Khrushchev’s taking the office of premier as well as Party leader in 1958, gives him additional freedom of maneuver.

Certainly the same speech showed that he intended to impress people with his increased power and authority. Acute impatience and a populist, almost demagogic tone permeated his oratory:

We can no longer get by with just stormy discussions and meetings and analyses of past mistakes. We need practical movement ahead and a genuine improvement of the situation in all aspects of our work…. The working people are not satisfied with the way our soviets and economic bodies, our public organizations, and many Party committees work….

Nothing can be put off till a later date. Whatever can be done today must be attended to and decided on by the soviets at all levels.

Gorbachev’s plot had apparently begun at least three weeks before, when Ligachev and others went off on their long summer vacations. But when Gorbachev spoke to the press and television officials on September 23, he gave little away. He referred to two forthcoming Central Committee plenary meetings on specific themes, but dropped no hint that the next meeting would in fact take place only a week later, on September 30. Even senior politicians like Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were not informed of the plenum until September 27, and several had to scurry back early from foreign trips. As for the Supreme Soviet, its next session had been announced for October 27, yet suddenly it was set for October 1.


The meetings themselves were planned and conducted with military precision. Each was stage-managed down to the last detail, and ended within an hour. All participants knew they would risk reprisals if they did not not keep quiet and raise their hands obediently for each of the many votes. All did so. Glasnost and democracy were absent. This combination of political ruthlessness, secretive planning, and public railroading has certainly been noted by Gorbachev’s opponents, and may well rebound against him at some point in the future. Nothing so daring, it seems, has occurred in Soviet politics since the palace coup that ousted Khrushchev in 1964.


For economic perestroika to have any chance of success,8 at some point Gorbachev had to launch a major attack on the Party apparatus’ traditional function of supervising and sometimes almost directing much of the state-run economy. He did this in September—against high-level opposition—by abolishing most of the staff departments of the Central Committee that are concerned with the economy, and leaving the committee with only two such departments, each responsible for providing assistance to one of the committee’s six new commissions. All these bodies were to concentrate primarily on issues of policy, and not on running the economy, and, above all, they were not to interfere with government departments. A similar pattern was prescribed for the lower levels of the apparatus in the republics and regions.

It is still too soon to see clearly how this reform is working out in practice.9 But up to now, its main purpose has been to eliminate the Secretariat, consisting of some ten directors of the Party apparatus, as a separate institution. This is not surprising, because Yegor Ligachev had run the Secretariat since 1985 and accumulated enough power to be able to hamper Gorbachev’s initiatives.10

Another reason that the Party apparatus acutely resents Gorbachev is that he has allowed, even encouraged, popular front organizations advocating such causes as ethnic rights and more glasnost in various parts of the country. These organizations developed last year with particular speed in the Baltic republics, becoming embryonic political parties. Since they include Communists among their members and their policies are more radically reformist than the Party’s, the Party found itself faced not only with a sudden loss of its monopoly of political activity but also with an incipient split in its own ranks. In response, the Party leaders in the Baltic made concessions to the opposition’s radicalism. Last fall, for example, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia voted to interpret Estonian sovereignty as including the right to reject federal legislation that it disliked. Although on November 26 the federal Supreme Court ruled this vote out of order, the Estonians remain militantly committed to the view that they should be able to reject Moscow’s orders, except in the spheres of defense and foreign policy, the Lithuanians and Latvians soon followed Estonia’s example, and, in the absence of an authoritative constitutional review body, a stalemate has ensued. The Kremlin’s effort to establish such a review agency at the recent Congress of People’s Deputies was postponed by Gorbachev when the Lithuanians staged a dramatic walkout in protest.11

The tension between Gorbachev’s followers and the Central Committee showed itself again in January over selection of the group of one hundred Party members who were to serve as deputies in the Congress of People’s Deputies. The Politburo selected the deputies from among many nominations and presented the Central Committee with a fait accompli—a list of exactly one hundred names. Ninety-nine of these received unanimous approval, thus highlighting a single abstention on Ligachev’s nomination.12 Two months later committee members were allowed to vote for or against these names, but the degree of intimidation from above was evidently high, and all one hundred candidates got more than the required 50 percent. As for the Politburo members on the list, Ligachev had the largest number of “no” votes—seventy-eight—a figure possibly inflated by committee members who sensed that his star was on the wane.13 The second largest “no” vote, fifty-nine, went to Yakovlev, the associate of Gorbachev’s most heartily hated by conservatives (just as his ideological opposite, Ligachev, is despised by liberals).

Viktor Chebrikov, by contrast, with only thirteen votes against him, had an intriguingly low “no” vote (next to Gorbachev, with twelve). As a conservative and head of the KGB until last September, he seemed to have formed a natural alliance with Ligachev; at that time, however, Gorbachev evidently persuaded him that his future would be safer if he shifted his position. In any event, Gorbachev offered him the chairmanship of the new Commission on Legal Policy and he accepted. Since then his commission has taken on wide responsibilities, exercising supervision over the military, the police, the legal system, the trade unions, and the extremely important question of relations among ethnic groups.14 All this suggests that Chebrikov was probably supported in the vote both by his natural constituency of conservatives and by liberals who saw him as now working more smoothly with Gorbachev. Certainly the outcome was favorable to Gorbachev, who removed a possible foe from direct command of the organization most useful to potential plotters, and simultaneously increased Ligachev’s isolation.

Nonetheless, the conservatives as a whole, who probably make up a majority of the Party-state apparatus and also of its elite upper echelon, the so-called nomenklatura, could not be so easily tamed. Despite their lack of leaders and of workable programs of their own, their instinctive impulse to defend their political power did not fail them. Early this year the alarm set off in their ranks by Gorbachev’s many moves against them became acute when they realized that elections to the Congress set for March 26 posed a deep threat, not only to hundreds of them individually, but also to them all, as the major group of officials in the Soviet political system. First, Gorbachev and the liberals had changed the traditional rules and encouraged contests among several candidates. Second, they had expanded the entire sphere of political life by enabling outsiders like Sakharov to compete. And third, they had allowed candidates extensive freedom in carrying on election campaigns.

Thus as nominations and campaigning got under way, the conservatives found to their bewilderment that in a considerable number of cases they could not control what was happening. Worse still, in some of the constituencies where they had successfully prevented candidates uncongenial to them from standing, their candidate failed to receive the required 50 percent of the vote: too many voters struck out his name. Moreover, in a handful of politically charged contests, the dirty tricks used by the conservatives angered many voters and helped the mavericks to win. The previously disgraced Boris Yeltsin, the former Party boss of Moscow, the most volatile maverick in the history of Soviet politics, won a spectacular 89 percent of the vote in his Moscow-wide district, and thus gained a formidable base of popular support.

The outcome of a complicated election in which 750 out of 2,250 seats were reserved for deputies elected by established Party and other official organizations, was that well over half the successful candidates won against opposition of some sort, and about 300 of them turned out to be committed liberals on most issues. A similar number, it seems, were committed conservatives, while most of the remaining 70 percent had no deep convictions. At the first Congress, they formed the core of what liberals branded “the aggressively obedient majority.”

What stung the conservatives most sharply was the shattering humiliation of several dozen candidates from the established circles of the Party and the soviets, as well as the military and cultural establishments, who lost either to upstarts, or, perhaps worse, because their names were deleted by the pens of the voters. Each of these men had been a tsar in his fiefdom, whose word was law, instilling fear and obedience. Now his authority had vanished.

Almost at once, the conservatives’ reaction gathered force. They redoubled the efforts they had made before the election to force the Gorbachevites to crack down on dissent.15 Their aim was to intimidate the liberals before the Congress opened, and thus, as far as possible, to neutralize this threatening new institution in advance. At the same time, it seems that deeper and darker plans took shape, although in circles whose exact identity is, tantalizingly, still not clear.


A week after the election, on April 2, Gorbachev and his ally, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, flew off on a six-day trip to Ireland, Cuba, and Britain. On April 4 the Leningrad Party organization met for a three-day post mortem on the elections; its members drew up a long list of Gorbachev’s policies which, they felt, were mainly to blame for the humiliation of the conservatives, six of whom were the most powerful politicians in Leningrad. The members wanted a similar meeting to be convened for the whole Party. On April 6 First Deputy Minister of Defense Konstantin Kochetov and a Central Committee official turned up in Tbilisi, where Georgian nationalist demonstrations were under way, and began conferring with local officials.16 At about the same time, the final drafts of new laws penalizing political opposition were prepared for Gorbachev’s signature. While the revised version of Article 70(on anti-Soviet agitation) was only slightly improved, the new laws mysteriously included one—a replacement for Article 190-1 about defamation of the Soviet system—that was inserted at the last minute without the knowledge of the legal experts who had been involved in their drafting. These experts, along with Foreign Ministry officials, had been predicting for over a year that Article 190-1 would be abolished and not replaced; but now the new version (Article 11-1) was in some respects more repressive than its predecessor.

Late on April 7 Gorbachev returned from his grueling trip. On April 8, if the official text17 is to be believed, he signed the new laws. Whatever the circumstances of his signing, and whatever his real attitude to the laws, a few weeks later he endorsed the liberal demands at the Congress for the repeal of Article 11-1—and this soon occurred.

That same April 8 the final decision was taken to suppress, that night by force, the politically militant, but peaceful, demonstrations taking place in Tbilisi, using sharpened shovels and lethal gas. A large number of army units and internal security troops brought in from other republics attacked unresisting demonstrators. Twenty died. Several thousands of people were poisoned by gas or injured, among them Georgian policemen who had tried to defend demonstrators from the troops.

The question of who was responsible for this disaster has rocked Soviet politics ever since. The conservatives were quick to put forward their views in an ominous-sounding front-page editorial in Pravda on April 11, which appears to have been prepared during Gorbachev’s absence. Its aim was to capitalize on the simultaneous publication of the new antidissident laws, and on the suppression of the Tbilisi demonstrators. The writer, whose prose had a Ligachevian ring, claimed that “self-appointed leaders” and “extremists” had stirred up trouble in republic after republic, and had now caused deaths in Tbilisi. All this was “subversion of the foundations of our society,” and demanded prosecution. He quoted approvingly letters from readers arguing that “democratization without observance of the law is threatening to produce anarchy and unforeseeable consequences.” Now, however, Pravda’s editorial writer believed, an “important step” had been taken that should stop the rot. New laws had been adopted that would facilitate “severe punishment” of all the subversives. They should be “uncompromisingly implemented.”

Two days later Gorbachev, by contrast, appealed for calm in Georgia. 18 He tried to reassure the Georgian population, calling the events a blow to perestroika. He took a firm stand against separatists, warning against the “extraordinary dangerousness” of their actions, but he in no way encouraged the sort of mass arrests the Pravda editorial had called for. At the same time Gorbachev sent his own emissaries to Georgia who managed to restore order through skillful negotiation with Georgian leaders and by setting up a local commission of inquiry (others were soon set up in Moscow). The half-dozen dissident leaders who had been jailed were released a few weeks later.

Nonetheless, the situation remained tense, because key actors in the events lied about what had happened, and others kept quiet. A widespread belief that the killings were part of an elaborate conspiracy to force a change of course in the Kremlin began to appear in the press. A group of deputies to the Congress, for example, who went to Tbilisi to investigate, feared that the events represented “a sort of model of how perestroika could be brought to an end.”19

A month later at the Congress, the general who was in command of the attacks on demonstrators tried to justify his actions, receiving more thunderous applause from the “obediently aggressive majority” than the main Georgian speaker got from the liberal minority. A Lithuanian refused to stay in the same hall as the general, calling him a self-confessed “murderer.” Other Balts recounted how in 1988 violent repressive action of the type carried out in Tbilisi had been halted in Lithuania and Latvia only at the last moment. Senior politicians from Moscow and Georgia tried to demonstrate they were not to blame for the tragedy, but others like Chebrikov and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, whose names came up in connection with it, remained silent. All this led an exasperated Russian liberal to ask:

Who sanctioned this murder?… Do you think our government doesn’t know?… In that case, no one needs this government! I ask for a vote of no confidence in our government, which doesn’t know which of its members gives orders to destroy its own people.

The historian Roy Medvedev made the point that whenever Gorbachev “goes on vacation or goes abroad…the whole of state policy…changes direction by 60 and sometimes 180 degrees.” Examining in detail episodes of this sort since 1987, Medvedev saw Gorbachev’s absence in April 1989 as the latest example. He had just returned to Moscow when someone said, “Gorbachev is sleeping, so let’s break up the demonstration [in Georgia] now.” Medvedev continued: “We don’t know who sanctioned this in Moscow,” but probably, he believed, it was officials present in the hall.20

Gorbachev insisted that the deputies’ commission to investigate the matter establish the whole truth, no matter whom it implicated. If it ever fulfills this daunting task, a political earthquake seems likely.


In April the conservatives probably considered the Tbilisi massacre and their related moves to be only a partial success. The massacre set a precedent for the use of a “strong hand,” but it did not force Gorbachev into making the wave of arrests they craved. This was not, however, for lack of conservative effort in the press. The much-weakened censorship was somewhat tightened,21 and every day horror stories appeared about rising crime or anti-Soviet rallies. Demonstrations by nationalists in Georgia and by the Democratic Union, a fearless dissident organization, in Moscow provided opportunities for conservative comment deploring lawlessness and disorder.22 A Democratic Union rally was broken up by security troops, and fifty-nine of the detained participants were imprisoned for a week or two, or heavily fined.

As for crime, the overall rate had gone up by 31 percent over the previous year, serious crime by 46 percent, and theft of state property by 63 percent.23 During the last fifteen months, 342,000 economic crimes had been committed.24 Criminals were brazenly killing policemen, who were inadequately armed.25 In Leningrad, doubtless with official encouragement, the police had mounted the first demonstration they ever carried out, demanding, among other things, better firearms.26 In Moscow, a special twentyfour-hour round-up by 35,000 police and volunteers had netted 8,000 criminals. 27 And finally, on the eve of a Central Committee meeting suddenly called for April 25, sensational reports of two bomb incidents and one gas explosion appeared on the same day.28

Just before the Central Committee met in April, a liberal journalist nearly summed up the basic conflict, and also revealed his own preference:

Let us decide at long last what we prefer—Stalinist “order,” or democracy with all its inevitable flaws…. Democracy does not and cannot solve all problems. But it creates conditions, entirely new ones, for their solution.29

At the plenary meeting of the Central Committee Gorbachev had every reason to expect a torrent of conservative grievances about the outcome of the election of deputies to the Congress, the deterioration of political and social “order,” the mounting shortages of consumer goods, and the declining power and status of the Party apparatus.30 He could not avoid hearing this litany of complaints. To blunt the impact, though, and throw the conservatives off balance, he had thought up a brilliant and highly productive diversion. At the last minute, and without publicity, he persuaded ninety-eight members and candidate members of the committee who were already pensioners that it would be both noble and prudent of them voluntarily to resign on grounds of age. This enabled him to open the meeting by dramatically announcing their collective request to retire, and then taking time for graceful tributes to them. All present must have understood the sort of pressure that had been likely exerted on the pensioners, especially the threat of loss of material privileges. They also realized that with the disposal of these mostly conservative old-timers and the promoting of twenty-four younger candidates to full membership, Gorbachev’s position in the committee became significantly stronger.

It would be rash, though, to believe that he can now count on the support of a firm majority in the committee. Almost all the main speakers on April 25 had harsh complaints to make, and most of these had an implicit anti-Gorbachev edge to them.31 One speaker warned that when the press boasts about “the praise showered on perestroika by the leaders of bourgeois parties [e.g., Reagan, Thatcher, Genscher]…the people recall Lenin’s instruction: Think things through again if the class enemy praises you.” Another played on Gorbachev’s partiality for the intelligentsia by urging that since the working class was much worse represented in the new Congress than in the old Supreme Soviet, a special congress of workers’ deputies should be convoked. He also deplored the fact that liberalism in the press was causing young people to look on the Party as nothing more than “a Party of mistakes and crimes.”

But the most telling and relentless critic was an apparent friend of Gorbachev, Vladimir Melnikov, Party boss of the Komi Republic.32 Some excerpts from his speech follow.

The reality of our lives has become mass refusals to work, hunger strikes, unsanctioned rallies and demonstrations, even strikes….

In many districts sugar is rationed…. Everywhere soap and washing powder have disappeared from the stores…. There are not household appliances, children’s clothes, or footwear. And people understand that it’s quite simply impossible to blame many of these problems on the period of stagnation [under Brezhnev]….

Comrades! Ahead lie new [local] elections. The secretaries of district and city Party committees are now declaring that in the present situation they won’t run in these elections, because it is 100 percent certain that they will not be elected….

The Central Committee apparatus has little interest in our reports or our opinions…. The apparatus clearly shields the general secretary [i.e., Gorbachev] from knowing the acuteness of the situation at the grass roots….

Plenums of the Central Committee are not always noted for their careful preparation…. They often disappoint…. Long speeches and contributions by the same few speakers have become the rule….

It must be clearly said that socialism and strikes do not go together.

In the face of all this, Gorbachev was diplomatic and somewhat conciliatory, but he said little to make the regional Party barons feel that relief was in sight. And he restricted the meeting to a single day. When, morever, Melnikov emphasized the demoralization and defeatism of Party officials, and evoked shouts of approval when he did so, Gorbachev preferred sarcasm to sympathy, interrupting to ask, “So the Party should decline to take part in leadership and the elections, then?” As the meeting made clear, the Party bosses face a new and threatening situation: since they must now serve as heads of their local soviet as well as run the Party office, they must successfully court voters to elect them to the soviet. Yet, as Melnikov and others report, many current bosses foresee certain defeat. The recent defeat of Polish Communist leaders by Solidarity can only have added to their fears. In any case, in May the Kremlin postponed until next year the elections to local soviets originally planned for the fall, presumably to gain time to find a way out of a seemingly insoluble dilemma.

Finally, the Party plenum showed the same process at work that eventually proved fatal to Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s. Among Gorbachev’s critics were people who were his associates in the past, and whose promotions doubtless owed much to him. But such officials are often not liberals or conservatives in any simple sense. They judge leaders by how effective they are—by how easy or difficult they make life for Party officials. Thus their loyalty can easily shift from one leader to another. This danger would now seem to be creeping up on Gorbachev.

The Congress of People’s Deputies which opened on May 25 was shapeless, exhausting, intensely emotional, an occasion for national catharsis that recalled the first sessions of its distant ancestor, the parliamentary Duma in 1906. All the issues I have touched on in this essay, as well as countless others, were raised. With scant concern for the rules of procedure or good manners, the debate was often fierce and personal. Only Gorbachev’s skill as a firm, but flexible, ringmaster, cajoling but driving, averted cataclysm and breakdown. Here I can deal only with a few aspects of the Congress that help to clarify Kremlin politics.

First, the contrast of the Congress with the Party plenum, whose one-day meeting had little coverage on television or in the press, could not have been more striking. The Congress unwound over two weeks, with unbroken exposure on TV and innumerable press briefings. 33 The message was clear, if unspoken; power and authority were shifting; the Gorbachev camp was trying to pass a large share of both to the Congress, the Supreme Soviet and the president (both of which the Congress elected), and ultimately—under the 1917 slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” which was revived in 1988—to the entire hierarchy of governing soviets, or councils; the inevitable loser would be the Party apparatus, long used to wielding real power on its own.

How far the shift will go in practice is another matter. One of the main reasons why Sakharov and other liberals were disappointed with the Congress was their belief that the Party-state apparatus had, despite the scathing attacks on it, prevailed, and therefore no radical shift toward political democracy would in fact occur. Moreover, the liberals argued that since Gorbachev had not been popularly elected, but only nominated to the Congress by the Party, the office of Supreme Soviet president did not carry enough authority, a fact that made him, in addition, more vulnerable to potential coups.

Liberals such as Sakharov were also distressed that the respective powers and functions of the two components of the legislature, the Congress and the Supreme Soviet, remained largely unclarified, even after the Supreme Soviet’s first major session on June 10. (See his final speech to the Congress published in this issue on page 25.) Reformers feared that since the Supreme Soviet appeared to have an even more conservative tendency than the Congress, the Party-state apparatus would probably be able to control it and prevent it from becoming an expression of the popular will and an effective instrument for executive accountability. However, the fact that the Congress was able to reject a number of ministers nominated by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov held out some hope that the apparatus could be weakened; so did Ryzhkov’s announcement that the number of ministries and similar bodies would be sharply cut, to fifty-seven in all, and that they would no longer be allowed to interfere in production.34

But the conservative forces remain strong, with a likely prospect of increasing their strength in the coming year or two. Severe reductions in the staffs of ministries, the Party apparatus, and the armed forces are under way; and since the KGB’s activities in maintaining internal security are apparently slated for drastic pruning, the same cutback in jobs may take place there as well. This painful process will put some conservatives out of work but those remaining will doubtless try to consolidate their power. Then, too, the continuing rise of ethnic tensions and separatist tendencies create fears of the country’s disintegration that the conservatives will exploit. They are already using the worsening economic situation as evidence against the Gorbachev camp. Neither of these issues, the intractable economy or ethnic tensions, can be dealt with quickly by the center-left Gorbachevites.


The Congress provided ample evidence of the conservative tendencies I have mentioned. Sakharov was furiously criticized by the right for having criticized the military’s performance in Afghanistan. Other speakers severely denounced the cooperative movement of privately owned businesses, although the cooperatives are a cornerstone of the reformers’ program. A former Politburo member, Kirill Mazurov, attacked “those who advocate introducing elements of the capitalist market economy and even a multiparty system in our country.”35

True, Ligachev’s star continued to fall at the Congress, even though several deputies defended him from attack. But he was devastatingly mocked as a man who “understands nothing” about his current responsibility for agriculture, and who has also “completely failed at ideology.”36 He was also criticized for his alleged involvement in a case involving extensive bribery in which a number of officials were prosecuted or arrested in Uzbekistan, while, according to two investigators from the public prosecutor’s office, the senior politicians whom they paid off in Moscow are still at large.

This case, which is already six years old, may eventually prove even more explosive than the Tbilisi massacre. Before the Congress opened, the Supreme Court and other high-level bodies issued statements attempting to discredit the two investigators for their apparently unscrupulous methods; and soon after, deputies and journalists took up positions on the case with extraordinary speed and intensity. As a result of the conservatives’ maneuvers to undermine the bribery case a former associate of Ligachev’s who was accused of involvement was released from pretrial detention. But all this only made the two investigators anti-establishment heroes and got them elected as deputies. They then made more wide-ranging charges of corruption at the Congress. A number of top politicians seem very nervous about a case in which, for example, the public prosecutor’s office has reportedly destroyed compromising evidence and put pressure on witnesses to recant testimony. Gorbachev, however, supported the setting up of another commission by the Congress, and said he wanted the truth to come out.

Ligachev’s most eloquent defender was the Russian nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin. After a characteristic denunciation of the depraved music, sex mania, violence, and immorality that was being promoted by the Soviet press and television under glasnost and that reminded him of the late Roman empire, Rasputin referred to Ligachev and asked: “Is it really not clear that in the struggle for power, which is not a secret for anyone here, the first figure, against whom an organized campaign has long been waged, has been marked for removal?” Then he added, apparently alluding to Gorbachev and warning him not to dump Ligachev: “There’s no need to remind you who the next one will be.” 37

However, Ligachev’s personal fate is not as significant as the strength and identity of the forces that share some or all of his positions. In this connection, a recent interview with Boris Yeltsin 38 is of unusual interest. He says that Ligachev is currently backed in the twelve-man Politburo by three full members (Vadim Medvedev, Viktor Nikonov, and Vitaly Vorotnikov), and he also has the support of a powerful candidate member, Georgy Razumovsky. In addition, although Chebrikov does not support Ligachev’s views in the Politburo, he also does not contradict them. The partial surprises in this list are Medvedev, who has, however, a contradictory record, and more particularly Razumovsky, whom most observers have seen, without much hard evidence, as a supporter of Gorbachev. If Yeltsin is correct, this may be important evidence of shifting positions at the top.

Yeltsin himself spoke with courage and subtlety during the Congress, and successfully established himself as the most obvious potential challenger for Gorbachev’s position of president in five years’ time. He put forward strong positions on populist issues such as pensions, poverty, housing, and official privileges.

Not surprisingly, the question of Gorbachev’s chances of survival, which rightly haunts Soviet liberals as well as many people abroad, came up at the Congress. Gorbachev had already shown himself sensitive to this issue, when, evidently responding to a Washington Post article on the subject, he brushed the matter aside, saying that the issue was the reforms, not personalities.39 In his final Congress speech he denounced rumor-mongering and said, “I assure you that there is no danger of coups or anything similar. I state that firmly.”40 He also denied any ambition to concentrate power in his own hands, arguing convincingly that this is not in his character; but he missed the liberals’ point that when he is eventually replaced, the enormous power he has amassed might pass into less scrupulous hands, with disastrous results.

More serious for him, though, is the fact that after four years in office he now desperately needs some successes in economic policy to reinforce the formal institutional power he has acquired. While his gains in foreign policy are useful, they count for relatively little in Soviet politics. He has also reduced the threat of an upheaval in Eastern Europe by tolerating radical change there. But the problems he faces of the country’s economy and nationalities are another matter. On July 1 he struck a somber note when he devoted his first television “fireside chat” with the Soviet people to “the enormous danger” of clashes between ethnic groups. The forces behind this mounting threat, he said, “could lead to disaster for all of us.” With regard to the economy, popular hopes for the long-awaited upturn in the supply and quality of goods and services seem to be declining in an ominous way. An official poll of public opinion, reported on June 11, showed that 42 percent of all respondents thought that the first Congress of People’s Deputies would not lead to economic and other improvements in the country’s situation, while only 39 percent thought the reverse. More worrying still, only 27 percent believed that the main legislature, the Supreme Soviet, would succeed in its task, while 43 percent were not optimistic. These figures help to explain the large-scale miners’ strikes that have recently broken out not, as previous strikes had, in the peripheral republics, but in the Russian-Ukrainian heartland. The conciliatory way in which the Kremlin has so far responded to this alarming development may well buy peace, if at a high price. But such a response also runs the risk of encouraging similar damaging strikes in other sectors.

The most knowledgeable Soviet economists are sounding increasingly apocalyptic. At a recent press conference Leonid Abalkin, a deputy prime minister, reported: “Our studies show clearly that if the economy is not stabilized over the next one and a half to two years, and things don’t start to improve, a rightward swing by society is inevitable.” A colleague of Abalkin’s said that unless radical reforms take hold quickly in agriculture, “we can expect famine in the very near future.”41

Views of this sort are not exceptional. One perceptive commentator wrote in June of growing fears of a violent takeover comparable to Jaruzelski’s coup in Poland in 1981.42 And Yeltsin said in the interview I have mentioned: “Drastic measures are needed to improve the living standards of our people. I do not think people’s patience will hold out more than a year or so…. I do not think our leaders are capable of understanding the people’s moods…. A revolutionary situation will arise if things do not change.”

This alarm may be exaggerated. But while Gorbachev is probably safe for the time being, perestroika is in deep trouble. The increasing uncertainty about the future undermines the conditional faith that many people have placed in Gorbachev, preventing him from developing the popular base that is central to his strategy. In these circumstances, with all his courage, imagination, and skill, he will not be able to go on knocking the conservatives off balance forever. Yakovlev’s fear of “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism” may then become real.

July 20, 1989

This Issue

August 17, 1989