Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

In my last commentary in these pages, in August 1989,1 I suggested that “while Gorbachev is probably safe for the time being, perestroika is in deep trouble.” Moreover, because Gorbachev would “not be able to go on knocking the conservatives off balance forever,” there was a growing danger that “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism” might soon threaten to take power. Unfortunately these fears are now becoming confirmed by events.

The world’s last major empire is no longer just fraying at the edges. Its very heart is starting to convulse in what looks like the early stages of a prolonged and probably far from peaceful death. The main reason for this is that since 1988 the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics have, in their different ways, won steadily more freedom from the control of the central government. But now the conservative forces of the center, including the military-industrial complex, the Party apparatus, and the KGB, have seen the danger that this freedom poses to themselves, and are urgently rallying to attack it. Gorbachev meanwhile, clinging to power, has allied himself with these forces in the apparent belief that he can control them and, when the crisis has passed, distance himself from them again. Whether or not he can achieve this improbable-seeming feat, the wider question is how much the center’s new authoritarianism will derail the republics’ drive for genuine sovereignty.

Two factors complicate the imperial decline of the USSR, distinguishing it from that of, say, the British or the French empire. First, the Soviet imperial “metropolis” is not, as in Britain or France, a country, but is simply the institutions of the USSR’s federal government. By contrast, Russia is one of the republics trying to establish its own sovereignty by, among other things, transforming this government into the weak center of a loose confederation. Thus the several million people who currently work for the federal government—for example, serving in the military or the KGB—are understandably anxious about their futures. Should they fight to preserve the status quo? Or should they work for the breakup of the federal institutions and the transfer of most of them to the republics—a process certain to involve the loss of many jobs?

Second, the double collapse of empire—in Eastern Europe and now “at home”—has been coinciding with a related but different process, the onset of political revolution. Already several republics and a number of cities have elected noncommunist or anticommunist governments. These governments have removed busts of Lenin from view, restored pre-communist names to streets and squares, and introduced other revolutionary changes. At the same time, the public approval rating of the Communist party has sunk into single figures.

How then has the man who holds most of the center’s power in his hands, President Gorbachev, a Communist, reacted to the simultaneous erosion of both Communist rule and the Soviet empire—an erosion for which, incidentally, the only useful historical analogy is the simultaneous decline of the tsarist empire and the autocratic rule of the Romanovs? For two years, as Gorbachev’s revolution from above was overtaken by various mini-revolutions from below, he sounded the alarm at fairly frequent intervals, but took remarkably few countermeasures that had any impact. In 1990, as central government drifted indecisively, the president, who has never been popularly elected to any office, found his approval rating had fallen to less than 20 percent. Eventually realizing he must turn left or right, he opted in the autumn for the rightist path of communism and empire.

The main reason why Gorbachev’s personal authority has almost disappeared is that, notwithstanding his domestic boldness in the years between 1986 and 1989 and his conciliatory, farsighted foreign policy, which surely deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, he has failed disastrously on two basic issues—economic reform and relations between the center and the republics. These extremely complex problems might have been handled no better by other leaders. But the fact is that under Gorbachev the economy has slipped into an alarming downward spiral, and no one has any confidence that his compromise reform program—recently adopted after a year of demoralizing indecision—will do anything more than contribute to the growing chaos.2 According to some estimates, the standard of living may decline in 1991 by up to a third.

On December 19 the outgoing prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, summed up this failure accurately at the Congress of People’s Deputies:

Perestroika has broken many established structures…. But so far nothing effective…has been created to replace them. This has been directly reflected in the economy, where there is now neither a plan nor a market.

As for the republics, if in 1988 Gorbachev had anticipated their fermenting nationalism and proposed a looser, more flexible basis for the Soviet federation, then their subsequent declarations of sovereignty and independence might have been averted. As it is, the republics have been steadily investing their paper declarations with real content, thus rendering his current belated attempt to push through a workable new union treaty a hopeless task. They are now busy making economic, political, and diplomatic deals with one another. They are also sending their delegations abroad, including to the recent Paris meeting on European security, setting up their own institutions—even police and military forces, and trying to assert control, or at least veto power, over the activities of the many federal institutions located on their territories.


In response to this mounting, daily flouting of federal authority, and in order to deal more firmly with the economy, Gorbachev has repeatedly demanded additional powers for himself. Last March he got a first batch, when 59 percent of the parliament voted for him as the only candidate for the new executive preidency, which he had designed. In September he got a second. And in December, since most of his decrees were being ignored, he demanded and got a third, along with permission to set up a formidable array of new executive bodies directly subordinated to himself. As Boris Yeltsin observed, this gave him more powers than Stalin or Brezhnev possessed, powers that virtually amounted to a constitutional dictatorship.

On November 16 Gorbachev had been commendably frank about the symptoms of what he called the “vacuum” and “paralysis” of power. Whenever he issued decrees, he said, “Debates begin: ‘What sort of decree is this? Do we have to carry it out, or not?’ ” His disgusted comment was: “This way we’ll never get an executive that functions properly.” One of his subsequent remedies was to issue a decree deploring the nonfulfillment of his decrees, and demanding that they be obeyed.

Gorbachev’s paralyzing lack of real authority (as opposed to formal powers) has indeed been a major cause of his inability to deal with the Soviet Union’s problems. As one of the deputies, Sazhi Umalatova, said when she demanded his resignation at December’s congress:

The country doesn’t have a boss, and since there’s no boss, there’s no one to implement our decisions. What a vast number of rights and powers we’ve given the President! You can’t count them all, but there aren’t any results.

All Gorbachev does is travel abroad “with his begging bowl,” she said, then he comes back to “tell us who has given us what handouts.” Such gifts “profoundly offend and humiliate me.”3

I was in Moscow during the congress, and almost everyone I met shared Umalatova’s sense of humiliation and her opposition to food aid from abroad. Yet Gorbachev was so desperate to prove that someone still respected him that night after night television reported on the arrival of the aid that he had just solicited from this or that Western government. Another night he spoke about his generosity in donating his Nobel prize money to charity. Craving approval and support, he rambled on for fifteen minutes, thus probably setting most television viewers against him.

Gorbachev’s acute if unspoken sense of his own lack of authority has also shown in the wild accusations he has made against some of his liberal critics. The Communist youth paper, he charged, was a vehicle for materials “commissioned by forces opposed to the stabilization” of the country.4 Also, the liberals led by Yeltsin, whose popular authority he deeply envies, were, he claimed, systematically plotting against him.5

By turning to the right-wing forces in the autumn, Gorbachev hoped to avoid the danger of being overthrown by the long-delayed reaction of the conservative central institutions, and to gain authority by working with them to “restore order” across the board, thus alleviating popular yearnings for social and economic stability. The result of his righward turn has been a steady stream of conservative initiatives. These have been aimed at satisfying the main complaints of the military, especially regarding attacks on its failings in the newspapers and on television and regarding its demand that it have the right to defend itself vigorously against nationalist harassment in the republics. They have also been aimed at reducing press criticism of the establishment in general, especially on television; at curbing the spread of pornography; at combating crime of all sorts; at curtailing the black market, especially its control of food supplies; at intimidating small republics like Latvia and Moldavia with ultimatums and threats of martial law; at scaring all the republics into signing the new Union Treaty; and finally, on December 27, at browbeating the Russian republic into changing course and financing the federal government at a much higher rate than 20 percent of the traditional level, a provocative percentage recently decided on by the Russian government. This overwhelmingly conservative trend was not, moreover, offset by any serious liberal initiatives.


At the congress session of December 19 Gorbachev’s conservative zeal was especially clear. “Without losing a single day,” he declared, “we must resolutely change the nature of the entire system.” Needed were “not only new structures, but also new people….” As regards people, he has in recent weeks made a vigorous start, once again failing, at least so far, to offset his conservatism with even occasional liberalism. The head of State Television and Radio was not tough enough for Gorbachev, and was replaced by Leonid Kravchenko, who promptly tightened the screws on television commentary—banning, for example, a discussion of Shevardnadze’s resignation. The liberal minister of the interior, Vadim Bakatin, who had eventually allowed the Latvians to appoint an interior minister of their own choice, was dismissed in mysterious circumstances and succeeded by Boris Pugo, a Party official and former KGB chief in Latvia, and also—nominally as Pugo’s deputy—by Boris Gromov, a young army general long believed to have political ambitions. The liberal minister of justice, Veniamin Yakovlev, was put into a less important post and replaced by an apparently pliable younger man.

When Gorbachev appointed the conservative Party official Gennady Yanayev as his vice-president, this caused deep offense to the ethnic minorities, since Gorbachev had earlier indicated he would set this post aside for them.6 Then one of Gorbachev’s two close liberal associates during the last few years, Alexander Yakovlev, lost his last remaining official position with the abolition of the presidential council, and now seems set for retirement. The other, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned dramatically as foreign minister on December 20, warning that

Dictatorship is imminent…. No one knows what sort of dictatorship it will be, or…what sort of dictator…. But…I cannot reconcile myself to the events that are occurring in our country, or to the sufferings that await our people.

“I nonetheless believe,” he added, “that dictatorship will not succeed, and the future lies with democracy and freedom.”

It is still too early to interpret Shevardnadze’s resignation with confidence. But my tentative view is that the forces of the right, especially their strong military component, had probably mounted such intense pressure on Gorbachev to remove his friend from the post that he felt he could not afford to resist. At the same time Shevardnadze had already been contemplating resignation, partly because of the conservative offensive charging, among other things, that his policy in the Gulf has been pro-American, and pro-Israel, and unjustifiably opposed to Saddam Hussein, who is much admired in right-wing circles. Partly also, it would seem, because this offensive could easily lead to military action against the new anticommunist government of his native Georgia, whose armed forces now occupy the homelands of two ethnic minorities that want to secede from Georgia. Such action would put him in an awkward position if he were still in the federal government.

By contrast, a firm and dignified resignation would enable him to retain more political stature than, say, Bakatin had retained. His resignation would also tactically help Gorbachev, who was in danger of not gaining the congress votes needed for approval of his proposed restructuring of executive power. Shevardnadze could—as he apparently did—sway some moderate conservatives by convincing them that Gorbachev was moving into their camp, and also that a dangerous dictatorship would ensue if Gorbachev were ousted.

While Gorbachev’s policies and personnel changes of the last two months make his rightward turn starkly clear, we should now consider how sincere and unconditional it is. Also, if the right wing is now, as I suspect, fairly close to holding him hostage, how will it want to use him?

“If Gorbachev continues to pursue the right policies, then he will probably stay on as leader.” This was the view of Anatoly Salutsky, a well-known conservative writer, when he talked to me exultantly about the right’s triumphant progress in, among other things, sweeping away Bakatin and Shevardnadze. He then told me about his close ties with the conservatives’ young Turks in the legislature, Colonel Alksnis and Colonel Petrushenko, and their elder statesman Yegor Ligachev, whose political memoir he has just helped to write. These three were prominent in the exuberant public rejoicing that took place in right-wing circles. Petrushenko, for example, said that he has both “explicit and implicit” support from the country’s military leaders, and stated boldly: “The democrats have had their day. We, the patriots, will now dictate the future direction of the country.”7 In another comment he seemed to say that no coup would be necessary because power would be openly and more than willingly handed to the military. “If a colonel indeed comes to power,” he said, “they will bring it to him on a bluerimmed dish and say: ‘Comrade officers. Take power. We civilians are incapable of exercising it.’ “8

Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, though formally Gorbachev’s chief military adviser, now seems to have an equally cavalier attitude toward Gorbachev. In mid-November he issued a strongly phrased demand for an immediate countrywide crackdown on “counterrevolution,”9 effectively joining forces with Alksnis. A month later, when asked what direction Gorbachev was moving in, he reacted impatiently and said: “You ask him. I have no idea. All I know is that the time for words is over.”10

Against this background Gorbachev’s hints that his tougher course will only be needed for a year or so, and his exhortation of December 18 that “the important thing…is not to smash each other’s bones,” are bound to sound unsatisfactory to conservatives whose distrust and hatred for him is deep. One of their favorite ideologists, Alexander Prokhanov, for example, recently wrote of Gorbachev and the reformers: “They will go down in history. For millennia they will be praised abroad and damned in the fatherland. The emperor of perestroika is naked, blindingly naked.”11

All this suggests that the right wing aims to steer and direct Gorbachev, and only get rid of him when he has prepared the ground for its takeover, or if at some point he bridles too much. A key test, according to Salutsky, will be whether now, as his most urgent task, Gorbachev obediently emasculates the dominant “antipatriotic” forces in the press and television. That he do so is the most immediate demand of the right wing. At the same time it awaits the partial crackdown implied by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov’s insistence on December 22 that the country must be ready “to accept the possibility of bloodshed if we are to bring about order.”

Can the conservative offensive succeed? Certainly the chance of an aggressive liberal counterattack now seems nonexistent. As Alexander Yakovlev said, reinforcing parts of Shevardnadze’s resignation speech,

An offensive is underway by conservative and reactionary forces which are vengeful and merciless. I am very worried by the inertia, exhaustion, dejection, and preoccupation with petty matters, which characterize the democratic forces.12

On the other hand, Yeltsin remains self-confident and has calmly and firmly kept on criticizing Gorbachev for demanding excessive powers and not understanding that the only way to preserve the union at all is to facilitate, not oppose, genuine sovereignty for the republics. Apparently he believes that while Gorbachev and the right wing may be foolish enough to launch military operations against a few small republics, these will prove as futile as the economic program of the conservatives and should not pose a serious direct threat to Russia and its leaders. Certainly this was the view of one of his economic consultants, the engaging Vasily Selyunin, when I met him in Moscow in December, and also of the economist Larissa Piyasheva. Piyasheva stressed the potential benefit to the left wing of being forced into unequivocal opposition for a time, and thus no longer being in the position of having to exercise responsibility for the economy and other matters without possessing real power.13 Eventually, she said, the federal government would see the need for a center-left alliance in order to push through radical economic reform. Selyunin argued that a major crackdown on liberal forces would be impossible to carry out, in view of the current deep divisions within each of the forces that would have to take part—the military, the KGB, the MVD, or Interior Ministry, troops, and the Communist party—and the equally deep aversion of most soldiers to risking death in morally dubious and probably fruitless actions.

I spoke, however, with well-informed people in Moscow who did not share Selyunin’s cautious optimism. An experienced journalist and scholar of about sixty, a Jew, said that never before in his life had he felt physically afraid. But now he did, because the frustration and aggressiveness of the right wing were so extreme that it was quite capable of irrational violence without any regard to the consequences either at home or abroad. A microcosm of all this could be found each evening, he said (and other friends confirmed his account) in the main clubhouse of the Writers’ Union, where we were then sitting. After about six o’clock the house was “taken over” by aggressive right-wing members of the union and, then, as my friend himself had observed, Jews and their liberal friends were subjected to anti-Semitic insults and threats. At first these were whispered from neighboring tables—“Jews aren’t needed here,” “Hitler should have finished you all off,” “Jew-lover!” But if the offending members did not take the hint and leave, the volume would be turned up and young toughs would come up to their table and provoke a fight.

Even at three o’clock in the afternoon, I felt some of this thuggishness in the air and I linked it not only to the right-wing political offensive, but also to recent unsolved murders of liberal activists who have been the object of right-wing vilification. I thought, too, of many other Moscow encounters in which people talked of their own yearning and that of all classes for order at almost any cost, and of their own feelings of hopelessness. “All we know how to do is to fight each other,” “Ours is a country of barbarians,” “We have no shame left,” and so on. Such moods, whose sources in Soviet history are discussed in Yuri Afanasyev’s powerful article in this issue, would seem open to exploitation by demagogues of all types.

The Kiev economist Vladimir Chernyak seemed to me accurate when he told the congress on December 21, “A creeping reactionary coup is taking place in the country.” President Bush presumably influenced by concern for the anti-Iraq coalition, was in my view quite wrong to make light of the Soviet situation and to claim: “The main thing is—there’s a determination to keep going down this path of reform.” 14 Chernyak was also convincing when he suggested that the truly fatal flaw in the central government was the lack of legitimacy of the president and the legislature—and urged that new popular elections should be held, although of course there is no current prospect that this will happen. Finally, in view of the strength and legitimacy of nationalism throughout the USSR today (as compared to the Russian empire of eighty years ago), the Ukrainian nationalist leader Bogdan Horyn does not seem to me to exaggerate when he says:

There are no forces that will ultimately be able to hold back the fall of the empire…. The question is: Does change come peacefully, gradually, politically, or does it end in blood?”15

December 31, 1990

This Issue

January 31, 1991