The Turning Point?

Gavriil Popov
Gavriil Popov; drawing by David Levine


The country facing Mikhail Gorbachev on his return from the Washington summit is more troubled and discontented than at any other time since he took office—not only gripped by fear of sharply rising prices and the worst food shortages in decades but more mistrustful of Gorbachev himself than ever before, if not altogether hostile to him personally. In addition, there is now a popular political rival for Gorbachev to deal with—the newly elected president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin. Before he left for the US Gorbachev spoke in pleading tones to his countrymen of the need to continue to support perestroika, but even the word itself has acquired a hollow tone.

The signs that a crisis of confidence was coming were more and more evident during the elections that took place this winter and spring, when I stayed in Moscow at the flat of a friend who was running for a seat in the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Republic (RSFSR), the republic’s highest representative body. I spent much of the day with the editors of Ogonek, the country’s most outspoken liberal weekly, and was able to observe how they dealt with some of the decisive events that took place: the repudiation of the Party’s “leading role” in the Soviet political system; the creation of the new office of president, the elections in the republics, and the emergence of a multiparty system.1 Each day brought yet another example of waning Soviet power (including within the armed forces2 ) and of ethnic turmoil threatening to break up the multinational Soviet state.

The mood of discontent was pervasive. Even in February, criticism was much more intense than it had been a year earlier, and unlike a year earlier, the grievances voiced by the intelligentsia hardly differed from those one heard in the street. In 1987 and 1988 each new disclosure about Stalinist horrors or the misdeeds of Brezhnev’s kleptocracy would produce a tremor of excitement. By now, virtually anything can be said or written3—from bitter attacks on Marxism-Leninism or on Gorbachev’s policies in the Baltic states to praise of the Romanov dynasty and calls for public copulation. The two issues uppermost on everybody’s mind during my visit were, first, the disastrous state of the economy, and, second, democracy and the political system. Everyone complained that the long queues in front of the seedy-looking food stores were longer; shortages of everything from coffee to children’s clothing had grown worse. My friends talked of meat that even dogs refused to touch and toothbrushes whose bristles shredded in their mouths. As workers become more and more reluctant to do a day’s work, the factories, the prominent economist Vladimir Tikhonov pointed out to me, find it easier to produce fewer goods and sell them at higher prices. The collective farms and state farms cannot feed even their own laborers, let alone…

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