On April 24, 1991, Pravda published the text of a joint statement signed by Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federal Republic, as well as the leaders of Byelorussia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizia, and Turkenistan. Georgia and the Baltic Republics were notably absent, but nine out of the fifteen Soviet republics signed the statement, representing 98.6 percent of the USSR’s territory and 92.7 percent of its population.1

That Yeltsin had called for Gorbachev’s resignation only a few days before made the publication of the joint declaration seem all the more dramatic; for it said, in effect, that whatever their former differences, the signers were now determined that the country recover from a deep crisis—specifically, “social and interethnic conflicts, plummeting production, decline in people’s living standards,” and the “serious disruption of law and order.” The government’s own “mistakes committed in the course of perestroika” had contributed to the crisis, the statement admitted, and it proposed a broad five-point program aimed at resolving it.

On the one hand the declaration promised to rescind the highly unpopular 5 percent sales tax, imposed last January to soak up money, and to lower the price increases on foodstuffs and other consumer goods that had gone into effect only three weeks earlier, supposedly in order to encourage farmers to put more food in the shops (e.g., a 100 percent increase in the price of milk and eggs, 200 in the price of meat, and 300 of rye bread). It also proposed to improve the production and distribution of consumer goods.

On the other hand, the declaration spoke vaguely of the need for a “special work regime”—which sounded like the old Stalinist talk of strict factory discipline—in certain key industries, and called for a ban on all acts of “civil disobedience,” another ominous-sounding restriction in a country where public meetings in recent years have generally been allowed to take place. Specifically, it urged the nation’s coal miners, as well as other workers then on strike, to go back to work and “to make up for the losses they had caused in the immediate future.”

In one of its most unexpected passages, the joint declaration stressed the need for greater independence and autonomy on the part of the republics. Each must have the right, for instance, to control its own exports and properties. While a new Union treaty and a new USSR constitution must be created as soon as feasible, the republics should be free “to adopt additional economic measures” as they see fit. The republics that refused to sign the statement—the Baltic countries, Moldavia, Armenia, and Georgia—will be able “to independently decide” whether or not they want to join the Union. Gorbachev for a long time seemed to regard the quest for independence as some kind of malignant growth either to be cured or excised (as he apparently attempted to do by sending troops to repress the independence movements in Vilnius and Riga last January). He now in effect provided independence with a mantle of legitimacy. Moreover, the agreement between Gorbachev and the republican leaders may also prepare the way for direct presidential elections in 1992, rather than (as the present constitution states) in 1995.2

The joint declaration is one of the more surprising events of recent months. Only a week earlier, Boris Yeltsin, while on a visit to France, had urged the European Parliament and the French government to bypass the Soviet authorities and deal directly with the Russian Republic—a demand that both Enrique Baron, president of the European Parliament, and President François Mitterrand pointedly rejected. 3 On April 22, the Democratic Russia Movement (DRM), which Yeltsin heads, had called for Gorbachev’s resignation and endorsed the miners’ strike. Yet Yeltsin not only signed the agreement, but called it “a tremendous victory,” praising Gorbachev, and supporting the ban on strikes.4 Small wonder that his new position caused some consternation among his colleagues and admirers, including the Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, a leader of the DRM, who called Yeltsin’s signature on the agreement his “greatest error and a colossal blunder.”5

On the day the text of the joint declaration appeared in Pravda, a plenary session of the Party’s Central Committee opened in Moscow. Gorbachev’s hard-line enemies in the Communist party organizations, the army, and the KGB were hopeful that the meeting would vote to severely censure the General Secretary, or, if possible, to expel him from office. They had been waiting for a long time. Last February, Ivan Polozkov, the first secretary of the Russian Republic’s Communist party, attacked Gorbachev for “giving priority to planet-wide values rather than class interests,” for “robbing the people of their past and their present” without providing them with any “convincing account of what they can expect in the future.” Gorbachev, he charged, was weak, irresolute, indecisive. He had brought the Soviet Union to the brink of disintegration, and permitted


our pseudodemocrats (i.e., the liberal forces) to use any method—slander, defamation, fabrications, blackmail—to discredit socialism.6

On April 24 the same accusations filled the Central Committee meeting hall. Indeed, the atmosphere became so nasty that Gorbachev, on the second day of the session, offered to resign—perhaps a shrewd bluff, perhaps a genuine offer. Either way, his threat to leave sufficiently frightened Party members that he was given an overwhelming vote of confidence. This was not the first time that Gorbachev offered to resign. He did so at the 28th Party Congress last July, and was re-elected with a larger mandate than before.7 In both cases the hard-liners backed off, terrified lest Gorbachev’s departure lead to a schism in the Party and the country, and eventually to their own political demise. Indeed, at the April 24 meeting the hard-liners retreated to the point where the plenum voted to invite representatives of other political parties and movements for political talks, possibly leading to some kind of “coalition government.” However calculated the offer may have been, however unlikely such a coalition, the Communist party had never gone so far before.

Gorbachev’s victory at the Party plenum and the obviously well-timed joint declaration took the wind out of the sails not only of his Party opponents, but of his foes in the Supreme Soviet as well. Just three days before the declaration, on April 20, the second congress of the hard-line “Soyuz” group of USSR Supreme Soviet deputies had met in Moscow, and heard its chairman, Yuri Blokhin, call for what amounted to a removal of Gorbachev from power, for an immediate state of emergency, with a moratorium on strikes and rallies, the suspension of the activity of all political parties, and military control over transportation. The extreme rightist Colonel Viktor Alksnis, one of Gorbachev’s bitterest enemies, demanded a special session of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies in order to oust Gorbachev from the presidency—a proposal endorsed by the delegates. After the Central Committee meeting on April 24, however, Blokhin asserted that the joint declaration was acceptable insofar as it contained ideas shared by Soyuz, such as the introduction of a “special work regime” in basic industries, such as power, transport, and communications.

The declaration does indeed refer to the need for “a special work regime” in certain industries, but according to Yeltsin those industries will be given “most-favored status” by way of incentives (“various benefits, financing, and taxes”) and the new “order and discipline” must be predicated entirely on these incentives.8 The request for a “special session” of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Blokhin said, would be scrapped.

The import of these events soon became evident. After months in which every decision Gorbachev made seemed to push him further to the right, he named several well-known reformers as his aides, among them the jurist Vladimir Kudryavtsev, the economists Leonid Abalkin and Yuri Yaremerko, and the Ukrainian writer Boris Oleynik. Within two weeks of the declaration of April 24, Yeltsin, despite criticism among his own supporters, was able to use his immense authority among workers to settle the coal mine strike. At the same time, the central government agreed to cede control of the Russian mines (among other industries) to the Russian Federal Republic, with the understanding that the coal fields could be privatized if the miners so desired. (Several of the mines have long been unprofitable, subsidized by the state because of the disastrous consequences to be expected if they were closed down. That now has become Yeltsin’s problem.) In addition, Yeltsin and the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, agreed to establish a separate KGB under the jurisdiction of the Russian Republic.

An even more remarkable sequel to the declaration came in May, nearly a month later, when the Soviet government announced that thirteen of the fifteen republics had agreed on the details of the “special work regime.” The new agreement made it clear that a ban on strikes would be counterbalanced by incentives such as wage increases tied to higher productivity, and the right of enterprises to sell a part of their products on the open market, rather than (as has been the case so far) on terms strictly dictated by the state. Most startling was the fact that thirteen out of the fifteen Soviet republics, with the exception of Georgia and Estonia, agreed to the new economic measures. Equally if not more startling was the trip by Grigory Yavlinsky, the reformist economist, and six other economists, to the United States to discuss with a number of Harvard economists a new plan designed to transfer the USSR to a market economy. As Moscow News reported in the May 26–June 2 issue, the new Yavlinsky effort is supported fully by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and Gorbachev has expressed “his interest and eagerness to see the results.” All of this illustrates how grave is the economic crisis and how momentous the accord reached on April 24.



The events of late April and early May make up what the Russians call a povorot (reversal) or, more strongly, a perevorot (overturn), and it is one in the direction of the left. It followed an earlier povorot, to the right, in November and December 1990, and five months that were, for most Soviet citizens, the grimmest in recent memory. A look at the earlier reversal of direction is necessary to understand the recent one.

Beginning in November 1990, events seemed to point only to one conclusion: that perestroika was finished, and that a new ominous era, routinely referred to as “post-perestroika,” had begun. One telling straw in the wind was Gorbachev’s shift on the “500-Day Plan”—the economic program drafted jointly by a group of economists headed by Stanislav Shatalin and Grigory Yavlinsky. Initially a supporter of the plan, Gorbachev reversed himself and flatly rejected it. In the months that followed, Gorbachev was vested with additional power, and a series of presidential decrees virtually put an end to the Supreme Soviet’s legislative functions. Shadowy, unconstitutional, yet officially recognized “salvation committees” in the Baltic Republics mocked the promises of a “law-based state”; so did the bloodshed when Soviet troops were sent in to repress supporters of independence in Vilnius and Riga. As the liberals, or “democrats,” resigned their positions—most dramatically Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze, and also Shatalin himself—they were replaced by prominent hard-liners such as KGB Major General Boris Pugo and Army Colonel General Boris Gromov, promoted to minister and deputy minister of Internal Affairs respectively, and the former finance minister, Valentin Pavlov, promoted to prime minister.9

By the end of March of this year, Gorbachev’s approval rating dropped to below 14 percent—“a negative reyteeng,” the highly respected sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya told me. (Since then, it has shrunk to about 10 percent.) The public preferred, among others, Solzhenitsyn and Shevardnadze. Five months earlier I still heard people defending Gorbachev, saying: “Well, he did try, at first,…” but when I came back in March, the tone had become overwhelmingly abusive.

Indeed, for most people, the culprit solely responsible for the right-wing povorot was Gorbachev himself. He was seen by most of the democrats I have mentioned as an incipient dictator, a man who never had any use for genuine reforms, a Party apparatchik, whose perestroika was one more in a long history of attempts to prop up rather than alter a rotten system. His was perhaps a more serious attempt, but then the situation was graver than ever before. As soon as the process threatened the foundations of the Soviet system, as well as Gorbachev’s own power, he turned, apparatchik-like, to the traditional methods of intimidation, censorship, and, in the economic domain, to the “administrative command” system.

Whatever the merits of that view, it rests in part on an underlying sense of personal betrayal. This is how the writer Lyudmilla Saraskina put it in her article “Comforted by Lies” in Moscow News (March 24–31, 1991):

We cherished and maintained our delusions mainly out of a desire “to participate in creating a new life,” and rationalizing lies as tactical ruses against hard-liners…. We have corrupted the authorities by our laissez-faire attitude, so that they no longer feel hypocritical about their treatment of us and they cast off the pretense that they have our interests at heart. Their pleasant face in a bad game has been changed into a cynical and shameless scowl.

Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who together with other reformers like Abel Abeganyan strongly influenced Gorbachev’s early reforms, told me that she

believed in Gorbachev for a long time, and tried to excuse his reluctance to act firmly on crucial matters such as private land ownership, full economic decentralization, or curbing the power and prerogatives of the party apparat. I harped on his difficulties, the obdurate resistance of the bureaucracy, the pressure he’d been under. I was never “the lady who has the ear of Gorbachev” as some of the Western papers have called me. In fact, I have never seen him alone. Still, I attended several meetings with Gorbachev, and was impressed—a common phenomenon among people desperately wanting to believe, after years of Brezhnevshchina, that a new day was dawning. But now I have changed my mind. Sure he’s been under pressure, but often he uses “pressure” as an excuse for doing what he wants to do anyway.

Others saw Gorbachev’s tilt to the right as a reflection of authoritarian views and the habits bred by Russia’s political culture, whether tsarist or Marxist-Leninist. Gorbachev, on this view, was merely reacting in traditional fashion. “Democracy,” said Leningrad’s mayor, Anatoli Sobchak, in a characteristic remark, “has never sunk roots in our country. So it isn’t surprising that Gorbachev is not behaving in a democratic fashion.”

Others turned that same argument around. Gorbachev, in their view, became little more than the official head of a nation incapable of transforming itself politically, unable to outgrow deep-rooted mental attitudes: a nation, as one writer observed only semi-facetiously, not of workers (rabochye) but of slaves (raby).10 But some of the politicians and writers who knew him best scoffed at the idea of Gorbachev as a born-again rightist. In the light of the April 24 agreement, it is worth recalling that even some of Gorbachev’s severest critics—Shevarnadze, Anatoli Sobchak, Yegor Yakovlev (editor of Moscow News), and Shatalin—considered his turn to the right, however reprehensible, a tactical step, rather than a reflection of a change of heart. “The idea,” Shatalin told me,

that Gorbachev has suddenly turned into a rightist, or that he had always been a rightist in disguise, is absurd—as absurd as the tendency, prevalent in the West, to lump all army officers into one huge monolithic right-wing camp. I know the army, and I can assure you this is simply not so. And I know the KGB, too—even there, plenty of people want to turn the KGB into a normal and decent organization, and who support democratic reforms in general.

Shevardnadze, who had warned of the dangers of “dictatorship” when he resigned in December, rejected the notion that Gorbachev had become a “rightist” when I talked to him in late March. “If he really became one,” Shevarnadze told me in late March, “he would have to shoot himself.”

On March 12 in Nezavisimaya gazeta (“Independent Newspaper”), one of the best of the new Soviet publications, the editor in chief, Vitali Tretyakov, published an article entitled “Apologia for Gorbachev or Perestroika’s Epitaph,” which was remarkable both because Tretyakov, formerly an editor of Moscow News, has been a consistent critic of Gorbachev, and because among the intelligentsia—which makes up most of Nezavisimaya gazeta’s readership—any kind word about the president was regarded as a well-nigh unpardonable sin.

The author listed “forty-six theses in defense of Gorbachev.” (He could, he said, just as easily have listed 146 against, but he felt that a corrective to the widespread view of the president as a hopeless “rightist” was in order.) Gorbachev embarked on many of his policies, said Tretyakov, not because of “objective circumstances,” that is, not because (as the conventional view would have it) he had no choice, but out of conviction and his own moral sensibility:

Gorbachev had other options, he could have smothered the new child [perestroika]; instead, he helped the baby get on its feet and develop its own character.

Among the “theses,” in effect accomplishments, listed by Tretyakov were the “destruction of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union and thus also of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe,” loosening the Party’s monopoly of power, weakening the instruments of mass repression, and forcing the nomenklatura to engage in an open contest for power. Referring to the constitutional clause mandating a direct presidential election, and the elimination of “safe” seats, he wrote, “Thank God he has created a system which will eventually allow us to get rid of the imbeciles sitting on the necks of the people.”

Tretyakov’s defense was unusual. The most common refrain was that Gorbachev had finally “shown his true face,” or, more charitably, that he had become a zalozhnik, “hostage,” of the right (the army, KGB, and the Party apparat)—“if you will, a voluntary hostage,” in the words of the political scientist Yevgeni Ambartsumov.

Though the “hostage” theory struck me as rather far-fetched insofar as it suggested Gorbachev’s utter dependence on his putative “captors,” I found its emphasis on the vast, powerful, and anxious bureaucracy considerably more persuasive than the speculations on the weight of history or Gorbachev’s personal proclivities. Certainly, Gorbachev has long been the target of conservative hostility. The attacks I have mentioned by Ivan Polozkov, the first secretary of the Russian Federal Communist Party, were typical. At the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, held in June and July 1990, Gorbachev and the liberals who were then his allies—Aleksandr Yakovlev, Leonid Abalkin, and Edvard Shevardnadze—were harshly attacked by hard-line Party leaders and army officers, and indirectly but unmistakably by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. They were blamed for damaging Soviet security by “losing” Eastern Europe and dissolving the Warsaw Pact, “heaping mud” on Lenin’s memory, and betraying Soviet workers via “capitalist” reforms. When Colonel Viktor Alksnis criticized first Yakovlev and then Gorbachev for encouraging Baltic separatism, the applause was so loud that Gorbachev had to request that the chief of the general staff restore order.11

On November 13, Gorbachev faced a hostile audience of 1,100 army officers and other defense officials. They charged him with neglecting the elementary needs of the military (housing, schooling, and so on), allowing “antipopular, antisocialist, and separatist forces” to “wage a determined struggle for power,” and for advocating military cuts that would endanger national security.12

The pressure on Gorbachev continued unabated. On December 22, 1990, the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossia, the unofficial organ of Russia’s nationalists, reactionaries, and anti-Semites, published an open letter to Gorbachev asking him to declare a state of emergency so the country would not fall prey to a “dictatorship” of “separatists,” “antipopular and antisocialist” forces, and “criminal wheeler-dealers.” The fifty-three signatures were said to be those of “public figures,” though few of them had any claim to either fame or accomplishment. The one interesting exception was the Russian Patriarch, Aleksy II—interesting in the light of the tendency of some Western observers to see the “increased role of religion in the USSR” as an unmitigated blessing.


Pressure alone, however, could not make Gorbachev a hostage of such reactionary forces. Did a right-wing cabal actually present Gorbachev with an ultimatum at the end of 1990, as some of my informants believed: an ultimatum that he either reject the 500-Day program, suppress the Baltic independence movements, and censor outspokenly critical television programs, or else be driven from office? There was much speculation about such an ultimatum, but no evidence that it was actually issued or that the right-wing forces had the power to make good on it. Moreover, such a challenge does not explain Gorbachev’s previous reluctance to carry out Shatalin’s plan and his failure to reach a working accord with his democratic supporters. (Indeed, his anger had exploded on many occasions: in the summer of 1989, for instance, Gorbachev bitterly criticized reformists in the USSR Supreme Soviet and several outspoken periodicals for their “inflammatory” and “irresponsible” articles that “endanger perestroika.”13 ) For this reason, the threat—tacit or explicit—of coercion from the right seems a less convincing reason for Gorbachev’s turn to the right last autumn than a more complex combination of reasons: Gorbachev’s uneasy relationship with the liberal intelligentsia, on the one hand, and the purely pragmatic dividends to be gained from leaning on the right, on the other.

It is probably true, as many people who know him well believe, that Gorbachev has never felt entirely at home with liberal, and particularly flagrantly anti-Communist, intellectuals. Yet the democrats themselves have contributed in some measure to the breakdown of the alliance with Gorbachev. The historian and philosopher Alexander Tsipko, who has written some of the most astringent criticism of Marxism to have appeared in the Soviet press, cites the failure of many democrats to present Gorbachev with clear alternative programs. The complaints of such democrats as Arkady Murashov, secretary of the Interregional Group of People’s Deputies or of the well-known jurist Victor Sheynes “that their pleas for collaboration had been wilfully ignored,” he told me, “are not quite true. The pleas were always accompanied by innuendoes and abrasive comments that Gorbachev must have found insulting.” Shevardnadze was blunter: “The democrats have always been too disorganized to give Gorbachev the support he needed.”

The Interregional Group of People’s Deputies, founded in July 1989 and one of the first groups to set itself up as part of the democratic opposition, is a case in point. Consisting of both USSR Congress and Supreme Soviet deputies, some of them, like Sakharov, nationally and internationally famous, and others novices, the group has resolutely rejected setting itself up as a political party, and has from the first been divided by controversy over political and economic issues. In the spring of 1990, some of its members were in favor of vesting Gorbachev with more power, while others regarded this as a step toward Gorbachev’s personal dictatorship.14 Later the group disagreed—over the 500-Day Plan, and the extent to which the struggle for the independence of the republics should be encouraged.15 These and other controversies have prevented the group from adopting clearly defined programs.16

In addition, the inflammatory rhetoric of some of their leaders has often dismayed members of the group. In July 1989, when reaching an accord with Gorbachev was high on the Interregional Group’s agenda, Yuri Afanasyev, who had just been elected the group’s co-chairman, was so sweeping and unrelenting in his attacks (he asserted, for example, that Gorbachev’s rule was “illegal”) as to stymie all efforts at collaboration.17 Afanasyev’s tendency to make wholesale indictments has undermined his influence. Viktor Danilov, author of some of the best works on the collectivization of agriculture, told me that at a conference of historians Afanasyev disparaged colleagues who had written Party-line propaganda, forgetting that he had done exactly the same thing before Gorbachev had come to power. The death of Afanasyev’s co-chairman, Andrei Sakharov, deprived the Interregional Group and the democratic movement in general of their most illustrious leader. It also led to an erosion of the group, which has shrunk to half its original four hundred or so members.

The relationship between the democrats and Gorbachev also became frayed for purely pragmatic reasons. The right wing, as the political scientist Igor Klyamkin put it pungently, has all the necessary levers of power—the army, the KGB, the Party apparat, control over finances, and to a considerable extent control over the public media. “What do the democrats have to offer? Next to nothing that can be used to implement political change.” The opinion polls supporting the democrats’ view of the right wing have only been converted into power locally, as in the Baltic countries and the miner’s strikes.

It is easy to see the appeal of this argument, however self-serving, for Gorbachev in the autumn of 1990. The Union was coming apart at the seams. The central government’s power, like his own, was crumbling. So was the economy. The 500-Day Plan, supported by some economists, was criticized as impractical by others, and—to judge by the results of a similar plan in Poland—was likely to produce high unemployment, social unrest, and political backlash, not exactly a comforting prospect.

And so Gorbachev chose “stabilization”—that is, law, order, and avoidance of contentious reforms, and an alliance to the forces that could bring it about—the army, the KGB, and the Party apparat. It is only in the light of such developments, it seems to me, that Gorbachev could have been seen as a zalozhnik of the right. In early December 1990, at a meeting with industrial managers, one of the speakers warned him that he had to “decide whom to turn to in a difficult moment—to Communist executives or to someone else.”18 The “difficult moment” had arrived; he turned to “Communist executives.”


The povorot of April 24 is clearly an attempt to mend fences with at least some portion of the broadly defined democratic opposition. But what instruments had the opposition fashioned to achieve its goals? The goals are admirable—authentic political pluralism, an end to the power and privileges of the Communist party apparat, complete freedom of information, a market, or “mixed,” economy, public control over the military and intelligence services. But how are they to be realized? Some would say through the political parties, more than one thousand of which (not all, certainly, democratic in character) have sprung up since the end of 1989, and especially since the passing of the law on public associations in June 1990, which legalized political parties for the first time since 1918, except in the Baltic Republics and Georgia, where political parties took part in elections and were granted legal status in 1989.19

Last November I talked to some of the leaders of the Russian left-of-center groups—the Democratic, Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, Socialist, Green, Anarcho-Syndicalist, Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) parties and some members of the Interregional group of deputies in the USSR Supreme Soviet, all organized in the Russian Republic—so far there are no Soviet-wide parties. The parties are small. They have not as yet been able to run in elections, but most expect to put forward candidates for the election to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the Supreme Soviets of most of the republics, now scheduled for 1994, but likely to be held in 1992.

Everyone seems to agree that the Democratic party is the largest, with perhaps 30,000 members. To judge by the attendance at its meetings, the Social Democratic party is also fairly popular but it has only about 5,000 members. As the Leningrad political journalist Sergey Andreyev recently argued, these democratic political parties often fail to take into account the concrete interests of social groups. It would, he believes, make more sense to have separate parties representing the workers, the peasants, the intelligentsia, and so on. 20 Their programs tend to be wordy and vague: “The Declaration of Principles” of the Party of Free Labor (Partiia Svobodnovo Truda), for instance, speaks of the

values that are embodied by the party—the values of world civilization, those that are usually called “humanitarian,” but which in point of fact have been engendered by societies with market economies and democratic political structures. Hence our ideal is a free market and a democratic state.

But “a free market and a democratic state” are also the basic principles of the Democratic party, as its leader Nikolay Travkin assured me. Indeed, these very words appear in the Democratic party’s platform, as well as in the platforms of the Social Democrats and other similar parties. There are distinctions, to be sure: the Democratic party wants to get rid of any “government interference in the economy, politics and private life [of the citizens],” while the Social Democrats “are not so enamored of private property as is the Democratic party. We fear,” one of their leaders, Pavel Kudikin, told me, “that a rush to the free market, such as the one advocated in the 500-Day Plan, may lead to the emergence of a rapacious capitalist class, and we place great emphasis on the need for adequate social safeguards.”

In the end, however, differences among the parties are obscured by lofty declarations and by personal squabbles among the leaders. An article in Moscow News early this year reported that Nicolay Travkin and G. Khatsenkov, leaders of the Democratic Party of Russia, were quarreling over their party’s financial affairs and that the leaders of Shchit (Shield), the union in defense of army men, were also badly split. The revolutionary Leningrad city council attacked its respected chairman, the lawyer Anatoli Sobchak, and was itself accused of corruption on the TV program 600 Seconds.

The only group that has tried to combine several parties in a large coalition is the Democratic Russia Movement (DRM), which includes the Democratic party, the Social Democrats, the Republicans (formerly Democratic Platform), and Christian Democrats. But as its name signifies, it sees itself as a broad and loosely linked “movement,” rather than as a political party with a well-defined political and economic program. Some of its members have accused one another of ties with the KGB.

New parties, however small, insignificant, or ineffective, are organized every week. “Aren’t you a Western journalist?” a man in his late forties asked me in the Rossia Hotel, where I went to interview several leaders of the miners’ hunger strike. He then announced proudly that he had just formed a new party. “It’s called the Conservative party,” he said, “and I have written a terrific political and economic program. Could you have it printed in the West?” I asked whether he might not be the only member of his party. “Oh, yes,” he replied without hesitation, “but you must understand that my program is better than any other—any other!”

A number of party leaders have become widely known. One of them is Oleg Rumyantsev of the Social Democratic party, a principal author of the new liberal constitution of the Russian Republic, still to be passed by Russia’s parliament; and one hears much talk about Nikolay Travkin, leader of the Democratic party, who, unlike almost all of the other leaders, comes from a working-class background. Travkin has been accused of being power-hungry and authoritarian, but I found him clearheaded and sensible. “The business of a political party,” he told me, “is to take power. That’s why I put such an emphasis on organizational matters. Our party must be democratic, open to differing views, but at the same time disciplined, centralized, and capable of acting effectively once a decision is reached.” When I said that this made him sound suspiciously “Leninist,” he grinned and replied that “the only good thing Lenin ever did in his life was to create a political party.”

The Democratic Platform, a social democratic faction that split off from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and later rechristened itself as the Republican party, was in the news a year ago but its membership has since fallen from 30,000 to 20,000.21 A great many liberal-minded Party members have been reluctant to join the Democratic Platform because its leaders are unimpressive. In the words of Yegor Yakovlev, the liberal Party members would “be only too ready to leave the sclerotic hard-liners to their own designs and rally around Gorbachev, if he only were to issue the call for a new and reformed Party.” (Yakovlev himself quit the Party after the Lithuanian crackdown this January.)

A year ago Gorbachev could have forced a significant split within the USSR Communist Party. At its last congress, in June and July 1990, his prestige was still high, and the other liberal democrats high in the party—Aleksandr Yakovlev, Sobchak, and Shatalin, possibly even Yeltsin—would have joined him. Since then, an estimated two million Party members have quit, the conservatives have become more powerful, and most of the remaining rank and file make their feelings of apathy plain. No doubt there are still dissidents in the Party. The Russian Federal parliament, for instance, includes a group of 179 deputies who are members of the Communist party, but who call themselves “Communists for Democracy.” But there is little chance that the dissidents would form a new “social democratic party,” as Shatalin and the editor of Literaturnaya gazeta, Fyodor Burlatsky, have urged.22


The fragility of the democratic opposition suggests that the democrats would have done better to consolidate their ranks before challenging an enemy who, whatever his standing in the polls, was still firmly in control of the central mechanisms of power and thus capable (as experience has shown) of sabotaging the democrats’ best laid plans. Many talk of the urgent need to create a party open to representatives from many different republics that would stand for at least basic ideological and strategic principles; but all attempts to organize such a group have failed. Most recently, forty-one parties participated in the “Congress of Democratic Forces,” held in Kharkov, Ukraine, on January 27 of this year. Only twenty-six of the parties, some of them so small as to be nearly invisible, agreed to sign the final platform.

Such efforts consistently founder on the nationalities problem—that is, the difficulty of reconciling the aspirations and demands of individual republics. According to both Sobchak and the chairman of the Ukrainian “Green World” party, Yuri Shcherbak, the only agreement on human rights that was passed in Kharkov was a statement to the effect that such rights were a good thing. Some of the participants demanded that the statement condemn violations “wherever they occur,” but a majority of the participants said the republics might resent having their actions criticized—and that any such discord should be avoided. A number of representatives found objectionable even the hollow statement that was finally passed, and they withdrew from the congress. Among the parties that refused to sign the resolutions, for instance, was Lithuania’s Sajudis.

The representatives of the republics can be capable of ugly, undemocratic, and nationalistic intolerance. Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s president, for instance, is greatly admired for his courage and firm defense of his country’s interests. Nonetheless, liberals (within and outside Lithuania) criticize his lack of tolerance of political opponents, his encouragement of a “cult of personality,” his reluctance, even refusal, to cooperate with democrats in other republics. And after the Congress of Democratic Forces, Gavriil Popov, the liberal mayor of Moscow, criticized “with bitterness and distress” the refusal of Sajudis and other republican parties to sign the Kharkov documents.23

To be sure, Landsbergis is not to be compared with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the one-time chairman of the Georgian Helsinki Committee, who was elected chairman of the Georgian parliament last year and president of the country on May 26 of this year. Gamsakhurdia has turned into a ruthless and chauvinistic autocrat, appointing local prefects responsible only to himself, and arresting his political rivals as “enemies of the Georgian people.” He has placed the republic’s press under government control and expelled several foreign reporters. Gamsakhurdia is also a nasty demagogue, combining religious with nationalistic rhetoric in his frequent speeches. “Let the whole world be aware,” he said recently,

that we struggled and continue to struggle for the rebirth of the religious and national ideals of our ancestors, and that the Almighty has endowed Georgia with a great mission. We are struggling against the eternal night of godlessness and injustice, our righteous cause is protected by the Almighty, and this is why we shall triumph.

(The Patriarch of All Georgia, Catholicos Iliya II, strongly supports the Georgian president. He recently announced that “whoever kills a Georgian, regardless of the latter’s guilt, will be regarded by the Church as an enemy of the Georgian people.”24 )

Nowhere is Gamsakhurdia’s religious and nationalistic fanaticism more evident than in his dealings with the Georgian Muslim minorities, which make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s population. When the South Ossetian Autonomous Region declared independence this year, he used Georgian troops to bloodily suppress the Ossetians, in fact killing more people than the Soviet troops did on the streets of Tbilisi in 1989.25

None of this prevented Boris Yeltsin from traveling to Georgia in March, and signing an agreement with Gamsakhurdia establishing joint police and army patrols “in the territory of the former South Ossetian region.”26 Yeltsin acted unilaterally, without the consent—or even, apparently, the knowledge—of the Russian Supreme Soviet. As the constitutional expert Oleg Rumyantsev, a Social Democrat and a consistent admirer of Yeltsin, commented disapprovingly, “Boris Yeltsin, I am afraid,” he said, “takes more and more steps without taking anyone into account, for which I can find no justification.”

Since he signed the Joint Declaration on April 24, and since Gorbachev’s substantial concessions to him, Yeltsin seems stronger than ever. He was ready to join with Gorbachev in endorsing the Shatalin plan last autumn and was cast aside; but now he has an apparent alliance with him that incorporates some of his principal aims. As a result, he seems to have shelved the demand he made early in March for a new united political party. He clearly commands a larger following than any other leader, at least in Russia. He is the man who has stood up to Gorbachev, who has courageously attacked the corruption and privileges of the Communist party, who wants a strong Russia, and who promises to bring both freedom and bread to its citizens.

Yet Yeltsin has also been criticized for the coarseness of his populist slogans and his demagogic proclivities. His March 8 speech, in which he called Gorbachev a “liar,” and his political critics “enemies who must be fought, not embraced—even women” (sic) dismayed many of his supporters—so much so that he was forced to apologize for his remarks a few days later.

Some critics maintain that Yeltsin is trying to imitate if not outdo Gorbachev. Gorbachev demanded presidential powers: so has Yeltsin. Gorbachev has opposed “excessive” demands for sovereignty within the USSR: Yeltsin, who endorses the Baltic demands for independence, has denounced similar demands of the Tatar Autonomous Republic, on the grounds that the time for granting more autonomy to the Tatars “has not yet arrived.” Gorbachev tries to convert indecisiveness into a virtue: Yeltsin refuses either to endorse or repudiate the March 17 referendum.

In a recent issue of Moscow News, deputy chief editor Stepan Kiselyov called Gorbachev and Yeltsin “Siamese twins” dealing in “demagogy and lies.” He was particularly scathing about Yeltsin’s practice of

playing up the separatist tendencies in the union republics with a view to weakening his rival [Gorbachev]. By so doing, Yeltsin is planting a time bomb under his own chair. The nationalist conflicts that have undermined Gorbachev’s power may soon flare up inside Russia. Then Tataria or North Ossetia [the part of Ossetia inside the RSFSR] may one day become hotbeds of unrest like today’s Georgia or Lithuania. And that may wake up the terrible beast—Russian nationalism—which would not go back to its lair until it tears the whole country apart.27

Notwithstanding Yeltsin’s success in settling the miners’ strike, his great test may well come later this year, when having been elected president of the Russian Republic, he finds himself demonstrably unable to make good on his promises. As Igor Golumbiovsky, deputy editor of Izvestia, who recently survived a campaign by apparatchiks to dislodge him, told me: “The country knows him as a fighter, but thus far not as a deyatel” (roughly, “doer”). This may be unfair, but it suggests the current tone of the Soviet populist politics.


The common thread in many criticisms of Gorbachev, particularly since the povorot of last winter, including his use of force in the Baltic Republics and the stream of presidential decrees, was the charge that he has been heading toward a dictatorship.28 Yet quite apart from Gorbachev’s indignant denials of any such intent,29 the plain fact is that his power has not increased, but manifestly declined. Paradoxically, in fact, the more de jure powers he gained, the less power he had de facto. Gorbachev has been issuing one ukase after another, but many of them have been calmly ignored. What recent events illustrate above all is the strength of the forces unleashed by Gorbachev and of the institutions they have produced, particularly in the press and television. The Soviet state and the CPSU still control most publishing facilities and distribution of paper. But since the press law went into effect in June 1990, the grip of the central authorities has loosened to a remarkable extent. (The law confines the censorship apparatus, Glavlit, to strictly limited military and security matters, removes Glavlit’s representatives from publications and gives the editors the right to name their founders [uchrediteli], which is important for making contracts on their own.) Many newspapers have become more radical; many new publications have appeared, such as Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kuranty, Kommersant, Stolitsa, Megapolis EXPRESS, Moskovskii kurier, and Russki kurier. No longer sold only by individual vendors clustered around Pushkin Square, they are widely available in newspaper kiosks and bookshops.

Television freedom is far more constrained. When Gorbachev appointed the pliant bureaucrat Leonid Kravchenko as head of Gostelradio (now All-Union Television and Radio Company), Kravchenko took the popular Friday evening show Vzgliad (“View”) off the air, and turned the lively and informative daily news program Vremya (“The Times”) into a tool of pre-perestroika-like agitprop. In addition, he fired a number of talented news broadcasters.

I experienced the new television climate when I agreed to be interviewed for the daily program “120 Minutes,” only to find after the show that some of my critical remarks had been cut. One of my interviewers, a smooth young man with an unctuous grin, who had assured me that my tape “would not be tampered with,” now explained that “Mr. Kravchenko, as head of the company, feels he has the right to decide what should and what should not go on the air.” In doing so, he was repeating Kravchenko’s line, which is that as a “company director” he is not duty-bound “to serve anyone but his chief.”

Such squalid tactics, however, may prove to be no more than a temporary nuisance. Kravchenko has been violently criticized in the press, and on April 12 he was expelled from the USSR Journalists’ Union. Nearly all the republics have their own radio and television stations, which are not subordinate to Gorbachev’s man in Moscow. The Leningrad radio and TV stations, though nominally responsible to Kravchenko, have successfully defied him, and according to Sobchak set themselves up as independent share-holding companies fully independent of the central authorities (their signal strength extends to Moscow and other areas far away from Leningrad). At the end of March, a newly formed independent television company began to operate in Siberia. Its head, Vladimir Mukusev, has announced that he would run a program under the name of Vzgliad, and probably employ some of its Moscow staff.30

Most important, the Russian Republic has now formed its own television company. While its management is still bickering with Kravchenko in order to get exclusive control of the one available channel, it has already begun broadcasting several hours every day, without any censorship from Kravchenko. Its morning and evening new programs increasingly resemble the outspoken national news show Vremya before Kravchenko censored it. Russian television will probably obtain a whole channel for its own use before very long. When it does, most of the broadcasters from Central TV will join the Russian Republic company (as many have already), and Kravchenko, although still in control of widely broadcast programs, may be left looking for a staff.

Not only did Gorbachev’s attempts to control the media fail. Discussions between the central authorities and representatives from the Baltic states resumed in March and now seem more likely to open the way to eventual independence. Gorbachev’s two most notorious decrees—establishing joint army-police patrols to enforce “law and order,” and authorizing the militia and KGB to enter any establishment suspected of engaging in “speculation” and inspect its books—have become a dead letter. Except in small provincial towns, where the local Communist authorities retain considerable power, the patrols are nowhere to be seen, and no businesses have been invaded by the KGB during the past few months.

In fact, the evolution toward a rule of law continues, and the courts continue to function. Work on the revised Russian Republic criminal code is nearly finished. Last autumn one of Pravda’s writers, Vladimir Petrunya, accused several “democrats,” including Galina Starovoitova, a radical USSR Supreme Soviet deputy, of deliberately creating food shortages in Moscow in order to prepare a “counter-revolutionary coup.” Starovoitova sued Petrunya and Pravda for slander. The court found Pravda guilty, and ordered it to publish an apology. If Pravda fails to obey the order, Starovoitova has vowed she will sue the newspaper for damages—and “keep suing it until the end of my life.”31 In February of this year, the journal Ogonek won a similar slander charge against the military journal Voenno-istorichesky zhurnal, which had accused the authors of a declaration by the DRM published by Ogonek of holding Nazi views.

Another notable development has been the activity of the USSR Supreme Soviet Committee for Constitutional Oversight, which has nullified several presidential decrees as unconstitutional, including Gorbachev’s decree that established “military political organizations” in the armed forces. The organizations must therefore be abolished. According to many observers in and outside the Soviet Union, this prepares the way for abolishing Communist party control over the army—one of the major demands of the democrats.


The reversals of power and policy during the past eight months should be suggestive for understanding other povorots to come.

First, the tendency to interpret every disturbing or reprehensible development in the USSR, whatever its magnitude, as yet another indication of the intransigent nature of Soviet totalitarianism should now be seen as the superflous remnant of a bygone era. Worrying as the situation was in the winter of 1990, it was by no means as calamitous as many people in and outside the Soviet Union imagined. Those who murmured darkly about the “resurgence” of Stalinism, or an impending “dictatorship,” or the strangling of democratic institutions, failed to take into account the fact that these are no longer realistic possibilities, that Soviet society can not be regimented as it once was, and that the incipient “dictators” have so far lacked the means, the strength, the nerve—perhaps even the wish—to bring them about.

Second, just as the alarms about the impending death of democracy in the Soviet Union proved premature, so too are any excessive expectations about the new turn to the left likely to be disappointed.

The second povorot of April 1991 was caused by the dismal failure of relying on right-wing forces to bring about the necessary economic and political changes, and by the widespread anger and frustration that failure aroused. But right-wing forces—and here I am speaking particularly of the huge bureaucratic apparat—are still very much a part of the Soviet scene, and not about to relinquish their power. In spite of their recent setbacks, they will do their best to undermine Gorbachev and the democrats by exploiting economic difficulties and the conflicts between national groups. Soviet life, with its immense unresolved economic, ecological, ethnic, religious, and political problems, will continue to be subject to instability and tension.

A closer collaboration between Gorbachev and the “democrats”—if the democrats can agree on a common stratgey—would no doubt alleviate some of those problems, and every setback for the right is a victory for its opponents. The attendance of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin on May 21 at the Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress, presided over by Elena Bonner, seemed to suggest that a new phase of collaboration between Gorbachev and the democrats has already begun. But the problems will remain.

Third, some of the conventional views of Mikhail Gorbachev, too, should be put aside. He has never been the tyrant, “dictator,” or “dogmatic Leninist,” that many in the West and in the USSR claim him to be, in spite of his sponsorship of glasnost and perestroika; nor has he ever justified the adulation he has often inspired in the West. His role, however central until now, will probably diminish in the years or perhaps even months ahead. His critics both on the right and left may still consider him, all their objections notwithstanding, as indispensable to Soviet stability, but they are likely, in my opinion, to revise their view in the very near future.

Gorbachev is not likely to be removed from power by a political plot. He is not likely to resign, as urged upon him recently by the miners and some radical intellectuals. Nor is his popularity rating about to improve more than marginally. Rather, the revolution that he unleashed and for several years marked with his powerful impulses and visions will find new channels and new leaders as elections take place nationally and in the republics. The latest accord between Gorbachev and the republics sets the stage for the passing of the Soviet empire. Open and direct elections for a new president could provide a legitimate and democratic way for Gorbachev to turn over power to a federal candidate whose name will not be predictable for months to come. (Yeltsin, if he becomes president of the Russian Republic, is not likely to run for president of the USSR.) If elections do indeed take place in 1992 as reported, Gorbachev will be owed much for having lasted so long without being a “hostage” to anyone except himself.

This Issue

June 27, 1991