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 people in the cities.

Who is to blame? The trouble is that there are so many plausible candidates for blame—from apparatchiks determined to hang on to the status quo all the way to Lenin and Marx.4 “The whole rotten system is at fault,” is a sentiment now voiced not only in conversation and from public podiums but in print. Increasingly, however, the criticism centers on one person—Gorbachev. Last year many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (“he is trying his best, poor man, but he’s up against the apparat”—or “the conservatives”—or his “Politburo enemies” etc.). Since January Gorbachev has been more and more singled out as the man personally responsible for the country’s monumental ills—or for failing to avert them. Constantly trying to placate his critics on the right and on the left, he has mapped out no discernible and coherent political program, while his economic reforms so far consist of half measures that have caused the economy to decline even further. He has not been able to follow the recommendations of many Soviet and foreign economists that, if it is to work, the national economy needs genuine markets for capital, labor and consumer goods, and firm guarantees of private property.5

The anti-Gorbachev mood can be both parochial and ahistorical. The tendency of some intellectuals to view Gorbachev with a mixture of contempt and irony (“an illiterate boor,” “he can’t even speak Russian correctly”) is an example of the first; the notion that “things were better under Brezhnev” of the second.6 But both testify to the dramatic erosion of Gorbachev’s popularity.


The second issue on everyone’s mind—the political situation and the prospects for a more democratic order—is also bound up with the perception of Gorbachev. Even his bitterest critics on the “left,” such as Boris Yeltsin or the historian Yuri Afanasyev acknowledge that Gorbachev has opened up the political system, changed the once oppressive atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and encouraged pluralistic and democratic institutions to emerge. Yet there has been a growing suspicion that Gorbachev has quietly been making too many concessions to the hard liners who want to maintain the power of the Party-controlled ministries over the economy and the Party over Soviet life generally, and that his own authoritarian inclinations, combined with anger at his left-wing critics, have drawn him back from his promises to make radical political and economic reforms.


Those suspicions became stronger in February, when Gorbachev proposed the creation of a strong executive presidency, vested with special emergency powers. Even before the draft of the new law was published, most of my liberal friends were against it. One evening I attended a meeting of the “Moscow Tribune,” a discussion club favored by the liberal intellectuals—that is, by people who had once been loyal supporters of Gorbachev. For Lev Timofeev, editor of a now defunct samizdat journal, the proposal spelled irremediable disaster. A Russian deputy from Armenia, the much respected ethnographer Galina Starovoitova, proposed organizing another protest demonstration—more than 200,000 people had participated in the one that took place two weeks earlier.

The speaker who made the strongest impression was the widely admired Byelorussian novelist Alexei Adamovic. The idea that Gorbachev could seize absolute power, Adamovic said, was absurd. To invest any one leader with too much power is dangerous, but instead of offering constructive criticism, “many of us, in this hall and beyond, behave like pupils who, having gotten Ds instead of As from their teacher, go about shouting petulantly, “Well, we’ll show him, he won’t get away with it!” This “can hardly be called serious behavior.”

The silence in which the audience heard this was broken when the speaker was handed a slip of paper and read aloud: “Would anyone here like to nominate an alternative to Gorbachev?” At this many people laughed. To most liberals at that time, Gorbachev was irreplaceable. Within a few months, this, like so many other strongly held beliefs, would become obsolete. As the elections, and particularly Yeltsin’s victory were to show, popular new political leaders are now emerging who are capable both of challenging Gorbachev and of carrying on reforms, if not making them more radical.


The controversy about the presidency soon moved to a public and highly visible forum—namely, the all-Union legislature consisting of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies of 2,020 people, and the smaller USSR Supreme Soviet of 750, both of which were elected in 1989. The debates in March revealed that many of the legislators were willing to stand up to Gorbachev, and the debates in the Congress—shown each evening on television and watched by millions—were particularly spirited. Some of the arguments used both in the Supreme Soviet (which approved the first draft of the bill to give Gorbachev strong presidential powers) and in the Congress of People’s Deputies (which approved the revised and final version of it) were similar to those I had heard at the “Moscow Tribune.” Others went much further.

Teimuraz Avaliani, the leader of the 1989 miners’ strike in Kuzbass, appealed to the deputies “not to vote for Gorbachev under any circumstances.” Yevgeni Kogan, a colorful rabblerouser representing the Estonian Interdvizhenie (a Russian nationalist group), who had recently charged Gorbachev with being a CIA spy, denounced the new law as dictatorial.

In August 1989, the historian Andranic Migranian had published an article in Novy Mir advocating an authoritarian system as a “transitional stage from totalitarianism to democracy.” Democracy was a luxury the Soviet state could not yet afford, Migranian argued; for an unspecified time a strong hand was needed to guide it through the deepening crisis. Migranian’s argument had been heatedly debated in the Soviet press. Yet no one mentioned this debate now. Clearly any appeal for more sacrifices for the sake of the future would not get much of a hearing on the floor of the Congress.

The speakers who attracted the most attention were known foes of authoritarian rule, “transitional” or otherwise, who argued that it was democracy that dictated a strong executive presidency, one answerable not to the Party apparat or to the Politburo, but to the population at large. Some pointed out that although Gorbachev was elected last July for a five-year term by the Congress of Deputies, the president will henceforth be popularly elected by direct and secret ballot. The fate of the economy, the economist Nikolai Shmelev said, could no longer be left to the bureaucrats of the industrial ministries who had shown themselves to be both inflexible and incompetent. Others, such as the widely respected elderly historian Dmitri Likhachev, appealed for the swift election of a strong president, if the country were not to slide into castastrophe.


The constitutional amendment on the president’s power was passed by a vote of 1,542 to 368, while 76 abstained. Gorbachev was elected president by 59 percent (1,329 votes), a small majority by Soviet standards, with 495 deputies voting against him, and 350 abstaining. He was given formidable powers, many of them previously held by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, that is, he is the country’s collective head of state. Among these powers is the power to declare war, to oversee the conduct of the armed forces, to impose martial law or declare a state of emergency within “specific areas” of the USSR, and to issue decrees on economic and social matters, whether on rationing, for example, or a new system for distributing food. Furthermore, Gorbachev was made the head of a new consultative body, the Presidential Council, and of a new Defense Council responsible for internal and external security.

These powers, however, are subject to serious limitations. For instance, the decrees are subject to review by the Supreme Court, which can find them unconstitutional. While the original draft gave the president the potentially dangerous power to dismiss the chairman of the Supreme Court and to appoint the members of the USSR Constitutional Oversight Committee, which can reject decrees as unconstitutional, the final text deprives him of these rights. The president can veto legislation passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet, but the Supreme Soviet can override this veto by a two-thirds majority of its members. Whereas the draft gave the President the right to appeal an override of his veto to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the final law makes the decision of the Supreme Soviet irrevocable.7

The succeeding weeks also seemed to corroborate the claim that the new president would now be in a stronger position to free himself from the Party’s stranglehold: the once omnipotent Politburo of the Party was effectively emasculated, its functions largely taken over by Presidential Council appointed entirely by Gorbachev and by another consultative body, the Council of the Federation.8 The Politburo, the deputy prime minister Leonid Abalkin said on April 9, was no longer the country’s decision-making body.

On March 15, Gorbachev told the Parliament and the nation that he would use his powers “first and foremost” to press for more radical reforms, economic as well as political. There were no grounds to fear any “usurpation of power,” not only because he had no such intentions, he said, but because there were now formidable barriers to the abuse of power—i.e., the Constitution, the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, and the fact that glasnost and pluralism “have become a reality in our country.” In addition, Gorbachev said he would wage a war against the rising wave of “nationalistic, chauvinistic, and even racist slogans”—a promise long overdue.9 These particular statements were welcomed even by some of Gorbachev’s left-wing critics but many of the people I talked to were skeptical even then whether he could or would keep his promises.


The elections during February and March gave many Soviet citizens the first opportunity they have had to make real political choices during the last seventy years. The elections took place in several republics and on several levels: there were candidates running for regional councils, city councils, for republican Supreme Soviets and, in the Russian Federated Republic, for the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies (RSFSR).10 My host, Boris Zolotukhin, was running for the Russian Congress.

Zolotukhin’s career illustrates the changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union during the past few years. A respected lawyer, he defended the dissident Alexander Ginzburg in one of the notorious political trials in 1968, and was immediately expelled at one and the same time from the bar and from the Communist party.11 (The Party officials who threw him out told him that as a lawyer he may have been competent, but as a Party member he had been too zealous in behalf of his client.) He was readmitted to the Party in 1972, only to be expelled again five years later, this time for gathering evidence of official corruption. By this time he had become adviser to Andrei Sakharov on legal and constitutional matters.

In 1988, with his Party and professional status restored under Gorbachev, Zolotukhin resumed his practice, and in late 1989 his friends persuaded him to run for the Russian Congress this winter. Helped by a devoted group of about a dozen men and women (“moia komanda“—“my crew”—as he referred to them), who would show up at his flat at all hours of the day and night to discuss campaign strategy, he spoke at dozens of public meetings in his Moscow electoral district. He won a strong victory in the March election even though several of his opponents tried to make much of the fact that he had been readmitted to the Party not once, but twice (“Unlike some other candidate,” ran the text of one candidate’s leaflet, “I have never belonged to the Communist Party…”)—a powerful argument these days, when to many Soviet citizens a Party card has come to be seen as something like membership in the mafia.12

Zolotukhin ran under the formal sponsorship of “Memorial”—the group set up two years ago to commemorate the victims of the Stalinist terror—which is part of “The Democratic Russia Bloc,” a coalition of social democrats, liberals, radicals, and Communists subscribing to the “Democratic Platform,” which calls for pluralism, the end of Party rule, a market economy, and legally protected rights.13 The other opposition coalition was the “Bloc of Russia’s Social Patriotic Movements,” that is, nationalists and a sprinkling of monarchists. Some of its candidates had the backing of xenophobic and anti-Semitic journals such as Nash sovremmenik, and some (though not formally) of neofascist groups such as Pamyat. In addition, there were independents as well as “regular” Communists running on their local Party platform or the program adopted by the Central Committee of the USSR in February. (The final document is to be adopted at the forth-coming Party congress, in early July.)

The campaign tactics of the nationalists and Party apparatchiks were often nasty. In Leningrad, leaflets warned the electors against “the so-called ‘democrats,”‘ who, once in power, “will usher in bloodshed, hunger, and misery.” The leaflets were anonymous, but according to Izvestia they came from the local Party apparat. In a Moscow suburb the Party secretary told the dean of the local Orthodox cathedral to stage a public prayer for the election of a particularly pliable cleric who was running against a priest who was detested by the Party regulars.14 (The dean refused and the priest favored by the Party lost.) The campaign of the “Social Patriotic” Bloc used such slogans as “The Father-land Is in Danger!” and blamed the “economic crisis” on the fact that the Party, “the guarantor of political and social stability in the country,” has given in to the “left radicals prepared to dismember the Union of Socialist Republics and sell our national riches to Western ‘partners.”‘ It denounced all proposals for “market mechanisms” and demanded that Russians cease pouring “tens of billions of rubles into the budgets of other republics.”15

In an article published in Ogonek the economist Gavriil Popov, who was about to be elected mayor of Moscow, observed that the Social Patriotic platform defended the cause of a “free Russian peasantry,” but it neglected to spell out how such freedom could be attained without abolishing Party control and without providing peasants “with the means of establishing prices on a competitive basis.” The Social Patriots not only reject every form of private property, Popov wrote, but the “patriotic” platform was little more than “another variant of the command-administrative system”—that is, “of Stalinism.”16 Popov thus underlined the tacit alliance between the “patriots” and the hard-line members of the Party—a convergence of interests that has been overlooked by many Western journalists.

The nationalists’ principal adversary, the “Democratic Russia Bloc,” was made up of people who are agreed on general political and economic principles and goals but not necessarily on specific policies. It called for a new federal structure of “sovereign states and nations,” the “abolition of government monopoly in “the means of production” and the “transition to a market economy based on multiple forms of property and an active system of social protection,” the transfer of land to “those who want to till it,” and a multiparty system. The program also called for “democratic reforms of the armed forces” and for depriving the KGB of its “secret political police functions.”17 Some candidates emphasized their own concerns—e.g., Zolotukhin called specifically for legal reforms, such as trial by jury, the independence of the courts, and more rights for defense counsels.18

Although the electoral campaign coincided with the Lithuanian declaration of independence, the “Democratic Russia Bloc” did not take a stand on the future of the Baltic republics. Its program supported “real sovereignty” for Russia, which can be achieved “only if the demands of other nationalities for national revival are met.” Some of the “democrats,” however, supported Lithuania unconditionally and several criticized Gorbachev’s moves against Lithuanian independence, while most felt that the Sajudis had acted precipitously but deserved sympathy. The best-known “democrat” subscribing to the first view is the historian Yuri Afanasyev, a member of the People’s Congress. Another distinguished democrat, Anatoli Sobchak, a law professor who is now mayor of Leningrad, has strongly supported Lithuania’s right to independence while also criticizing its tactics.19

The “patriots”—contrary to predictions of rising right-wing sentiment—suffered a huge defeat and the real winners were the “democrats.” Not one of the Social Patriotic Front’s nominees was elected to the Russian Republic’s Congress of People’s Deputies. Particularly galling to the nationalists was the defeat of the writers and artists they supported, including the painter Ilia Glazunov and the editor of Nash sovremennik, Stanislav Kunyayev, who thinks the “Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion” is a genuine document, and that the “Zionists” were responsible for the Nazi Holocaust.20 In Leningrad, the democrats won 80 percent of the city’s seats in Russia’s parliament, and 65 percent of seats in the Leningrad City Soviet. In Moscow, “Democratic Russia” won 55 of the 65 seats allotted to the Moscow region in the Russian Republic’s Congress, and 263 of the 465 seats in the Moscow City Soviet. There were similar victories in other republics, where liberal and democratic candidates ran with the backing of popular fronts, such as Rukh in the Ukraine, and Sajudis in Lithuania. In the Russian Republic the votes for regular Party candidates came largely from small towns and rural regions where the opposition’s organization is weak and the Party apparatus still puts up most of the candidates. Of some 1,000 seats in the Russian Republic Parliament, the Democratic Bloc won about a third.

On April 24 the Moscow Soviet elected Gavriil Popov mayor, and another liberal, the historian Sergei Stankevich, deputy mayor. Popov had promised that he would apply his economic principles to the administration of the city—e.g., by closing unprofitable enterprises and creating various social welfare agencies for the needy.21 And Stankevich, in outlining some of his plans, such as providing new business enterprises with office space, observed, “We do not intend to wait until the relevant all-Union or republican laws are passed, but will move ahead of events.”22 Popov’s and Stankevich’s general plans call for privatizing housing and service industries in Moscow, but a large question remains whether the Moscow Soviet will be free to act without interference by the central authorities.


The elections last spring were not only the freest expression of opinion since 1917, but they were the first tangible signs of an emerging multiparty system. During the past year and a half, hundreds of political clubs, associations, and full-fledged parties have sprung up—including Christian Democrats, Constitutional Democrats (a middle-class party in the last years of the tsarist Empire), Greens, Socialist Christians, Anarcho-Syndicalists and Social Democrats, Monarchists, as well as parties representing cooperatives and private farmers. The Communist party, too, is becoming fragmented: in addition to the “official” Party program, over 108 local parties have endorsed the platform of the “Democratic Platform Groups.” There is also a group drawn from several radical “Marxist Party” clubs. In addition, the well-known Stalinist schoolteacher Nina Andreeva, announced that her Yedinstvo (Unity) group has decided to turn itself into a party dedicated to the struggle against “the petty bourgeois, social-democratic, revisionist distortions” of “the rightwing opportunist group of Gorbachev, Yakovlev, and Shevarnadze.” 23

Last February, the principle of a multiparty system was endorsed by the Party’s Central Committee, as well as by the USSR Congress of Deputies. Once passed, the law on political parties will enable political parties to participate on an equal basis with the CPSU, and though coalitions may again be formed, the choice to do so will be up to the individual parties.

The parties likely to get the most support during the next few years will be those claiming to have inherited the principles and traditions of “social democracy,” but just what these words mean is so far clear only when it comes to general principles, not to specific programs. The new Social Democratic party of the RSFSR—formerly the Social Democratic Association—ended its first congress on May 5 without its members issuing a clear-cut political program.24 But their basic direction is that of the Democratic Russia Bloc I have already described. Most who call themselves social democrats would agree with the statement of the Democratic Platform group approving

the concept of democratic socialism, meaning the priority of human over class values, pluralism of forms of ownership and a market economy regulated by society instead of command planning, social solidarity and nonviolence instead of class struggle, political pluralism and the granting of equal rights to all political parties and organizations instead of the party-state apparatus’s monopoly on power, the guarantee of political rights and freedom of the individual instead of total state control, establishment of norms of morality and social justice instead of a system of privileges for the nomenklatura.

The social democratic “norms of morality and justice” being talked about by Social Democrats in the press emphasize the wish to incorporate into any new market system the guarantees of public welfare that have been won, for example, by the Social Democrats in West Germany and Sweden—guarantees of equal access to education, medical care, and protection against exploitation by employers. Soviet social democracy sounds, in short, like the welfare states favored by the Social Democrats in Scandinavia and the SPD in the Federal Republic.

The same language is being used by some of the people around Gorbachev. At the end of April, Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s closest advisers, told an audience in Moldavia that he was in favor of a rapid move toward a Western-oriented market economy because that is “the basis of a democratic society.”25 And two weeks later, in the May 9 issue of Economic Review, he advocated the creation of a “new model of socialism,” one that would “embrace the Western practices of social security, the positive heritage of social democracy.” So far Gorbachev himself has not used such words in public.


Among the papers and periodicals promoting the “social democratic” view, perhaps the most energetic is the weekly Ogonek. For many years the weekly was edited by a Stalinist hack, Anatoli Sofronov, who had a taste for sentimental literature and social realism and published many attacks on international Zionism. Under its new editor, the Ukrainian poet Vitaly Korotich, Ogonek has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. Korotich once wrote a book vehemently attacking the US and he published an enthusiastic review of Brezhnev’s memoirs, but even his former critics acknowledge that he has shown courage and perseverance in changing the magazine.

Korotich was appointed editor in late 1985 by the Party’s Central Committee (the magazine is published officially by the Pravda publishing house—something which the editors say they hope will soon change). He fired most of the staff (first making sure that they would be provided with nontaxable pensions), and brought in a new group of editors and writers, nearly all of whom told me that Ogonek made them feel that for the first time their work had some point. The magazine’s circulation quickly rose from two million to nearly five million copies, which—passed hand to hand—probably reach thirty million readers.

Korotich recalled to me his first day at the office:

I came into a sparsely furnished room. The desk was empty, with only one item resting on its glossy surface: a list of all Politburo members and their birthdays, each accompanied by a note as to whether Ogonek should mark this important date with a portrait in color or in black and white. This was my predecessor’s only legacy to me. It so happens that the birthday of one Politburo member, Dinmukhammed Kunaev, was coming up, and I had to decide—publish or not? In a quandary, I called a high official at the Central Committee for advice. He answered pithily: we shall make no decision, and we shall raise no objections to your decision. I was reminded of the story about a Jew asking a rabbi whether he could shave on shabes, and being told no, only to realize that the rabbi himself had shaved on that day. Puzzled, he asked for an explanation and was told by the rabbi: “Ah, but you see—I don’t have to ask anyone!” Well, I decided to ignore Kunaev’s birthday and see what happens. Nothing happened. I realized I had far more elbow room than I had thought.

The new Ogonek first tested its freedom by publishing writers and artists whose work had been banned (the first in 1986, was the poet Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova’s husband, who was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921). It then began to publish accounts of Stalin’s victims by historians and journalists as well by surviving relatives (e.g., Bukharin’s widow and the daughter of Karl Radek). By now few of Stalin’s crimes have not been explored, from the mass murder in Katyn to the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and no aspect of the political thought of Trotsky or of such leading Mensheviks as Yulian Martov, is any longer taboo.26

The Brezhnev years have been the subject of long critical articles, and so are current social problems: crime, AIDS, the crisis in medical care, the occasional use of psychiatry as a political punishment, bullying in the army, the treatment of homosexuals. (Until recently homosexuality was a crime punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment. Ogonek’s attempt to deal with the subject sympathetically was seen as blasphemous by the conventional Moscow press,27 ) Ogonek has also published serially a number of Western novels, the latest of them John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

One subject that Ogonek has been pursuing relentlessly—and often with corrosive wit—is anti-Semitism. Thus this year’s “April Fools” section (in issue No. 14) carries a piece by the writer Tatyana Tolstaya,28 called “I Can No Longer Be Silent,” a parody on the kind of demented “exposés” that appear regularly in Russian nationalist publications. “Pushkin,” the piece begins, “was a Jew. His real surname was Pushkind.” It goes on to “disclose” that Lermontov, too, was Jewish (“his real name was Moishe Lerman”), as was Gogol (he wrote a piece of slander on Russia called Dead Souls), and Herzen (real name “Yakovlev,” which “as every child knows stands for Yakovlev,… [that is,] Yakobson”—a reference to the claim that Aleksandr Yakovlev and Edouard Shevarnadze are “Zionists”). Articles such as this one have made Ogonek the nationalists’ favorite bête noire; they call Korotich (who is not a Jew) “Gospodin Bekitzer,” a play on words: bekitzer is the Yiddish/Hebrew word for “briefly,” and korotko means “short” in Russian.

“After reading an issue of Ogonek,” Vladimir Chernov, in charge of the arts, told me disapprovingly, “you might as well go and hang yourself—it appears that everything was rotten, is rotten, and will be rotten till the end of time.” But Lev Gushchin, the first deputy editor, says that the magazine simply reflects the spirit of the times. “We are, in effect, an alternative party,” Gushchin said. “Once a multiparty system is established, we’ll be in a different position.”


Ogonek favors the views of the “democrats” or “social democrats,” but one soon sees from its articles how divided these views are. Virtually all the reformers say they agree that economic progress depends on dismantling the “command economy” and introducing some form of market economy. This would mean abolishing the present artificial and centrally controlled pricing mechanism in favor of one based on demand and supply, the creation of a banking system, the conversion of the ruble, denationalization of state assets, decollectivization of the land, guaranteeing private property, and creating large new cooperative and private sectors in agriculture and industry.

How to carry out such changes is a matter of bitter controversy. Some time ago, for instance, Gavriil Popov proposed introducing food ration cards as a way of providing everybody with a minimum of essential food supplies. The proposal was supported, although with qualifications, by the widely respected sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaia, a member of the Academy of Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Public Opinion. It was criticized by other, equally reform-minded, economists, such as Vasili Seliunin, for undermining market principles and encouraging large-scale manipulation and corruption by the apparat.29 The economist Nikolai Shmelev attacked the rationing proposal, while his own plan to pay some peasants in hard currency was criticized, among others by the prominent academician Oleg Bogomolov, on the ground, Bogomolov told me, that only kolkhoz farmers would benefit from it.

Such technical differences are less important however, than those between the advocates of Polish-style “shock therapy”—that is, immediate abolition of all subsidies, lifting all controls on prices and wages, and closing unprofitable enterprises—and those who urge that both state enterprises and controlled prices be phased out more gradually.

The radicals include two official advisers of Gorbachev, Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov, as well as Gavriil Popov. Among those who seem no less committed to market mechanisms but say they are concerned about the enormous sacrifices they would exact is the Deputy Prime Minister, Leonid Abalkin, whom Gorbachev appointed in the summer of 1989 as chairman of the State Commission on Economic Reform. One soon becomes aware that the rhetoric of “caution” on the one hand and, on the other, the “need for boldness” have become a kind of political shorthand. In the statements of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov about the need for caution one hears echoes of Abalkin’s concerns—but Ryzhkov has also ignored Abalkin’s warnings that any further delay in installing market mechanisms will lead to even greater economic and social unrest. Ryzhkov, in the opinion of most market economists, such as Vladimir Tikhonov, has consistently blocked the more radical reforms by Abalkin in an effort to appease the industrial (that is, Party) bureaucrats. He has again chosen to support the discredited “administrative” methods of a command economy, which rely on “plans” and orders imposed from above, rather than on market forces. Gorbachev has thus far seemed unwilling to directly challenge Ryzhkov.30

Ogonek has published the views of virtually all the reformers—from the moderate to the most radical.31 But, perhaps in line with Korotich’s observation that “we must play the role of a social democratic opposition,” it is more favorable to those who defend “social welfare” ideology than those who favor the “liberal” theories of economists such as Milton Friedman or Friedrich von Hayek.

“Read Yuli Olsevich’s article,” I was told by Korotich. “This is basically our approach.” The article, called “Is a Crisis Inevitable?”32 fiercely attacks “the school of liberalism” for advocating policies that would lead to pauperizing large parts of society and to conditions similar to those prevailing under a “command economy.” The criteria for a “socially-oriented market,” the author says, must not be the extent of privatization or control of the inflationary spiral (as has been the case, thus far, in Poland), but “the level of real income of different social groups” and the availability of “commodities of final consumption.”

The “Polish model” of how to transform a command into a market economy has been criticized by another frequent contributor to Ogonek, Pavel Bunich, an economist and deputy head of the Supreme Soviet Committee on Economic Reforms. Bunich is scathing about the Soviet government’s responsibility for the “backsliding” of the economy and its “idiotic” opposition to private property, “without which there can be no market.” But this, he wrote, does not mean that the USSR should rush to follow the Polish model. It is hardly “professional,” Bunich says, to judge an economy “by the fact that the stores are full of goods but where the population has no money because the prices are so inflated.” He observes that living standards in Poland have fallen by 30 percent since the new plan was put into action last December, and production is down. True, the Polish government enjoys remarkable support, despite “all the suffering imposed on the people”—but for how long? And could any Soviet government count on the kind of broad cooperation that the Poles have given Prime Minister Mazowiecki?

Bunich argues that a transition to a market economy can only be “healthy” if the social needs of the population are respected and provided for. This, Bunich says, should be done not only by creating a system in which the unemployed will be trained and prepared for other useful labor, but also by giving workers a financial share in the success of their enterprise—a share he can save and/or invest for his future.33

Reading the essays by Bunich and the other advocates of reform in issues of Ogonek one notes that they mercilessly attack the “leadership” and the “government” for causing the current economic disasters, but never mention Gorbachev by name. This has little to do with state censorship, and everything to do with the views of the editor in chief. The government censorship office, Glavlit, still exists, and has a censor installed at Ogonek and in every other periodical. But the censor cannot stop anything from being published and can only give advice on articles concerning “military and/or state secrets.” (“I don’t even want to hear who he is,” I heard one of the Ogonek editors say.) The final decision is made by the editor in chief; even if the censor should object to an article on the ground that it discloses classified information, and even if the censor should appeal for support to higher authorities (e.g., Glavlit or Central Committee officials) the editor, according to the law passed last year, is still the supreme arbiter; and the draft of the new press law, soon to be passed by the Supreme Soviet, will do away with preventive censorship altogether. Glavlit will be able to raise objections only after publication and then only by making a complaint in court.

Some editors—Yegor Yakovlev of Moscow News, or Viacheslav Starkov, the editor of Argumenty i fakty, whom Gorbachev tried, unsuccessfully, to have fired last year—have not been reluctant to criticize Gorbachev by name. Korotich feels that any explicit attack on Gorbachev would play into the hands of his “principal enemy—the military. The day may come when we will no longer want to restrain ourselves. But not yet.” In view of the present political climate, that day may come soon. All of Korotich’s colleagues I talked to agreed that sooner or later Ogonek will be making explicit criticisms of Gorbachev himself.

Concerning government pressure on the press, what matters, in the opinion of Ogonek’s contributing editor Benedikt Sarnov and of many others, is whether the government will continue to be the sole owner of most publications and all broadcasting stations—ownership whose pernicious effects are most visible in radio and television. In Kremlin Square this past May Day, when hundreds of marchers carried posters with caricatures of Gorbachev and loudly jeered him when they passed the reviewing stand, Soviet television broadcasters simply omitted these scenes from their reports and neither Pravda nor Izvestia mentioned them the next morning. During the days that followed, the unprecedented demonstrations against Gorbachev were discussed in the press and on television but meanwhile the authorities had shown they could shut down coverage if they wanted to. Yet the government may soon be losing some of its control over broadcasting. The newly elected city council of Leningrad has recently dismissed the conservative head of the city’s television.34 The Soviet press has also carried articles demanding the creation of “alternative” TV channels—that is, stations not under the control of any governmental bodies at all.35

Journals, too, can be hounded by officials. Thus the monthly Novy mir, which has been publishing Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, has not appeared since March of this year; the authorities informed its editor, Sergei Zalygin, that they had insufficient paper to print the magazine. That paper is in short supply is indisputable: other, less controversial journals, such as Sovetskaia literatura and Druzhba narodov, have been held up for the same reason. Though Zalygin himself is bitterly critical of the authorities, he refuses to speculate on the other possible reasons that the printing of his journal was held up until he has concrete evidence. But many people in Moscow suspect that the authorities are seizing upon the paper shortage not to prevent Novy mir from publishing Solzhenitsyn but to stop publication of a chapter from an extraordinary exposé of the party apparat—Michael Voslensky’s book Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class. (The book, by a former Soviet official now living in the West, was published by a Russian émigré publishing house several years ago and has just come out in English.)


The fate of a free—or freer—press will depend less on formal legislation than on the changing nature of power within the USSR. The mounting conflict within the Party will come to a head at the next Party congress, in early July. Gorbachev may at that time decide not to run for the post of general secretary, thus leaving the Party, or what’s left of the Party, with less and less control over Soviet life as well as undermining its role of ideological watchdog. Vadim Medvedev, the Party’s secretary for ideology, whose occasional utterances defending the Party’s importance sound increasingly archaic, could soon be an ambassador, in, say, Ulan Batur, leaving his Central Committee censors hardly anything to do.

But the economic bureaucracies that derived their authority from the Communist party will still be in place and still be trying to block real reforms, and the overriding question is whether Gorbachev can finally displace them and give a new direction to economic life. Thus far, the situation does not look encouraging. On May 23, after weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and more than two months after Gorbachev’s solemn pledge to carry out radical changes, the Ryzhkov government unveiled a plan for a “regulated market economy,” which, in the words of Pavel Bunich, amounts to all “shock and no therapy.” As another prominent economist put it, it will impose controlled price rises “without real progress toward the market.” Although several important bills are to be presented to the Parliament in September, none of the structural reforms are scheduled to go into effect until 1993, while the prices of bread will double after July 1, and other prices will start to go up by early 1991. Moreover, only 15 percent of the prices are to be dictated by the market, and the rest will be determined in one way or another by the government.

Why has Gorbachev offered yet another compromise, and not one of the bolder plans urged upon him by the reformist economists including those on his own staff? The obstinate resistance of the Party-backed industrial bureaucracy which is enjoying the protection of Ryzkhov is one reason. Concern about the social consequences of a stringent program, such as strikes, mass demonstrations, and the like, is another. A third reason is closely related to the second—namely, the further erosion of the regime’s legitimacy. That it enjoys little popular support has been frankly admitted by Soviet leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Abalkin. If in Poland, where the Mozowiecki government still benefits from a remarkable degree of public confidence, the radical economic policies are seriously endangered by social discontent (as illustrated by the recent railroad strike), how much more dangerous are unpalatable measures sponsored by a discredited regime?

In a recent poll conducted by Tatiana Zaslavskaia’s Center for the Study of Public Opinion, as reported in Moscow News (No. 15, April 1990), about half of the respondents said the Party had lost the initiative: 60 percent said that the Party had led the country on the wrong path; 90 percent blamed the Party for the economy’s decline. Two years ago, when Gorbachev was at the height of his popularity, he might have introduced far-reaching market reforms, unpopular though they would have been. Now, after countless delays, half measures, compromises, and errors in judgment (such as the campaign to cut down on alcohol consumption), Gorbachev has more reason than ever before to be apprehensive, while his mandate is more limited.

This is not to say that the reforms that Gorbachev had launched five years ago are about to be wiped out, or that Gorbachev himself will be toppled from power. The grim predictions of some Western observers notwithstanding, there is little to indicate that Gorbachev is threatened by a military or other right-wing Putsch: he has firmly consolidated his control over the military and removed himself from the control of the Party; and his presidential status protects him (as it does, for instance, Mitterrand) from the fall of successive governments.

Nor are the current reforms the last word on the subject. Gorbachev, who fully identified himself with the Rhyzkhov proposals a few days after they were announced, may yet revise and redefine them in the months to come.

But Gorbachev’s personal authority in the Soviet Union is at an all-time low. His policies are under attack from the right as well as from the left, and while until this spring most of his left-wing critics thought him irreplaceable, the notion that someone else may replace him before long is slowly gaining acceptance.

The main cause of this change is Boris Yeltsin’s election—following his raucous campaign, a fierce attack on him by Gorbachev, and two inconclusive votes—as president of the Russian Republic. Indeed, Yeltsin’s victory may prove to be the most decisive political event since the advent of perestroika. The rules of Soviet politics have already been considerably rewritten, and they are now bound to be rewritten even further. By effectively putting pressure on all of the “democrats,” including those who have been less than enthusiastic about his candidacy, to support him against a Stalinist apparatchik, and by offering a deal to share power with his moderate foes, Yeltsin succeeded in changing the political process not only of the Russian Republic, but of the USSR as a whole. From now on many different kinds of parliamentary political mechanisms, from tactical alliances and compromises to public campaigns based on pragmatic rather than strictly ideological issues, will be of increasing importance. With the demise of the Party’s political power and credibility and with the growing attraction of the new political organizations I have been discussing, a functioning multiparty parliamentary system is coming into being.

The new system is not necessarily a threat to Gorbachev; it might in fact help him to consolidate his position on a much firmer basis, one depending less on populist appeal, or behind the scenes maneuvers, and more on proven merit. His merits as a world statesman, as the leader who has succeeded in bringing the cold war to a virtual halt, are a matter of record. Now he must deal with the apparently overwhelming domestic challenges that face him, from the catastrophic economy to the national assertiveness of the largest nationality in the USSR—the Russians—as well as of the Balts, the Moldavians, the Armenians, the Ukrainains, and others whose voices may soon be heard.

He may, of course, fail. Or he may yield to the temptation to deal angrily with his political adversaries, as he had by attacking Yeltsin a few days before the latter’s election, rather than by tolerant dialogue and persuasion—as he himself repeatedly has recommended as part of his program of demokratizatsia. Just as the devolution of the Soviet multinational state into a loose confederation or into a string of sovereign states, is now a central political issue in the USSR,36 so the eclipse of the architect of perestroika and glasnost may eventually take place—not as a result of palace coups or (to take the worst case) of violent popular unrest, but of the open political processes that are considered normal in democratic countries. This would be a singular achievement in a country where “normalcy” has been far more the exception than the rule.

May 31, 1990

This Issue

June 28, 1990