When Lenin died in January 1924, Bolshevik mystery displaced the last traces of historical truth. The wing of the Communist Party gathering around Stalin created a cult of Lenin, made sacred his image, and pickled his remains.
It is hard to say now which influences of the past weighed most heavily on the ideologists and embalmers who formed the Immortalization Committee. The Byzantine legacy and its yearning for a heaven on earth was, for Stalin, the ex-seminarian of Tiflis, unavoidable. Lenin is laid out under glass looking very much like the Orthodox priests entombed in the catacombs of Kiev.
But the idea to preserve Lenin for eternal inspection and worship also goes back to the Pharaohs. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Luxor in 1922 remained a worldwide sensation for years to come with every new find. Yuri Steklov, who led the embalming effort, compared Lenin’s gargantuan funeral to those of “the founders of great states in ancient times.” When the mausoleum itself opened to the public in August 1924, one account in the Soviet press compared the achievement to that of the great architects of Egypt.1
The tomb’s design comes directly from the modernist spirit. Kazimir Malevich, the master painter and theorist who would suffer unbearable abuse under Stalin, pushed a Cubist model as the only suitable form for the tomb: “The point of view that Lenin’s death is not death, that he is alive and eternal, is symbolized in a new object, taking as its form the cube. The cube is no longer a geometric body. It is a new object with which we try to portray eternity, to create a new set of circumstances, with which we can maintain Lenin’s eternal life, defeating death.” Malevich, with an anticipatory trace of Marin County crystal-worship, even suggested that believers keep a small cube at home “as a reminder of the eternal, constant lesson of Leninism.”
In a perversion of the Orthodox faith it overwhelmed, the Lenin cult thrived on mystery and kitsch. Lenin’s brain, reputedly much larger than average, was sliced up and preserved at Moscow’s Institute of the Brain and became a source of wonder. His winterized Rolls-Royce is a centerpiece display at the Lenin Museum on Red Square. Images of Lenin, humorless and yellowed, loomed in every office and schoolroom as the required icon. Mandatory classes in Marxist-Leninist scienceare slowly disappearing from the main urban universities, but to this day most Soviet children learn to read not with the help of Dick and Jane but rather “Baby Lenin” or “Grandpa Ilich.”
There have always been heretics opposed to the sacred Lenin: Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Origin of Russian Communism and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago are cornerstone texts of the apostate library. Streetlevel irreverence blossomed during Brezhnev’s reign of irony and rot. Moscow intellectuals referred privately to Lenin in his tomb as “kopchushka,” the smoked fish. A Moscow department store advertised a double bed as a bed “for three” because, after all, “Lenin is always with us.”
The spirit of heresy rose from the catacombs to public discourse, however, only three years after Gorbachev took power. Vasily Selyunin, a free-market economist, published “Sources,” an astonishing article in which he dared to link Lenin to the rise of forced labor camps and collectivization.2 “The idea,” Selyunin told me recently, “was to write a piece so that people would begin to realize that the system itself was stillborn, that we could not blame everything on the devil image of Stalin.”
The following spring, the theater director Mark Zakharov suggested on the popular television program Vzglyad (“View”) that Lenin’s remains be removed from the mausoleum and given the burial the family had requested in the first place. But like dowagers at a peep show, members of the Central Committee cried scandal. A few weeks later, the literary historian Yuri Karyakin repeated the proposal on an even grander scale—from the podium of the first session of the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Soon the debunking came in all forms, from ideological dissection to comic grotesque. Scholar-politicians such as Yuri Afanasyev, men who had grown up in the Party’s ideological citadels and served the cult with brio for years, began calling Lenin a criminal, a tyrant, a fool. Local governments toppled statues of the great man everywhere from Tartu to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. A former guard at Lenin’s tomb writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (“The Independent Newspaper”) revealed that in the mausoleum’s basement there is a control room to monitor Lenin’s “body temperature” and a gym where KGB troops can pump iron before standing watch in the cold. Argumenti i Fakti (“Arguments and Facts”) recounted in clinical detail how when Lenin’s corpse was evacuated from Moscow during the war it somehow became covered with bacteria. A dim-witted caretaker “treated” the body by pouring scalding-hot water over it, causing a massive case of boils. The body, as the paper put it, “never regained its shape.” And so on.
The final grace note to the August coup and its aftermath came when the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, told a session of the Congress that now that the Communist Party and hard-line ideology were dead perhaps it was time to bury Lenin. Gorbachev, even if he had been inclined to object as a matter of faith or habit, had no leverage to stand in the way. The newspaper Izvestia ran a front-page poll showing that the vast majority of citizens supported Sobchak’s proposal.
The mystery had ended, and, with it, the regime.
The return of history began with Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956 and ended, at least poetically, with Sobchak’s uncontested proposal to bury the tattered god-on-earth. Without a full assessment of the past, real reform, much less democratic revolution, was impossible. This return of history to intellectual and political life was the foundation for all that has happened in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. No other modern society had ever done more to suppress, to manipulate, its own history, and sustained the effort for so long.
To recall a life lived outside history and under the lie turns out to be as difficult as it is for a healed man trying to recall his pain. Even for older people in the Soviet Union it is almost impossible to remember clearly the absurdity of it all, the unreality, the mystery.
To regain the past, to see plain the nightmares of seventy years, is a nearly unbearable shock. Television now routinely shows documentary films about the slaughter of the Romanovs, the forced collectivization of the countryside, the purge trials. The “thick” journals and newspapers are crammed with the latest historical damage reports: how many shot and imprisoned; how many churches, mosques, and synagogues destroyed; how much plunder and waste. Under this avalanche of remembering, people protest boredom. But, really, it is the pain of remembering, the shock ofrecognition, that persecutes them. “Imagine being an adult and nearly all the truth you know about the world around you and outside your own country has to be absorbed in a matter of a year or two or three,” the philosopher Grigori Pomerants told me. “The entire country is still in a state of mass disorientation.”
When Gorbachev first raised the question of revealing the past in November 1987 in a major address on the seventieth anniversary of the revolution, he began with small doses of truth, a rhetorical tactic that had as much to do with the necessities of power as the sensibilities of the public. While the Politburo was holding long secret debates on how to approach the Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev had little choice but to play a game of maneuvering and euphemism. What later became known as the democratic opposition hardly existed. The broad range of pro-reform forces, from the former dissidents like Andrei Sakharov to the “informal” groups like Democratic Perestroika, all put their hopes in Gorbachev. That was where the power was. Operating in a political world almost completely dominated by the Communist Party, Gorbachev was faced with a Politburo in which the committed reformers were a minority of four: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Aleksandr Yakovlev. Boris Yeltsin, in fact, was dismissed as Moscow Party chief just before the speech when he jettisoned Kremlin protocol and launched a personal attack on the conservative leader Yegor Ligachev at a session of the Central Committee. Hard liners like Ligachev and moderate conservatives like Nikolai Ryzhkov were in the clear majority. “It would be foolish to think that the conservatives then were any less conservative than the people who led the August coup,” Shevardnadze told me.
In the first years of perestroika, Communist Party officials across the country were simply in no mood for full disclosure. A few months before Gorbachev’s speech, the local Communist Party boss in Magadan, a city that was the gateway to the notorious Kolyma camps in the Far East, told a group of visiting Western reporters that the issue of the Stalinist purges “does not exist here for us. There is no such question.”
“We lived through that period, and this page in history has been turned,” the official, Aleksandr Bogdanov, said. “It’s not necessary to speak constantly about that.”
Gorbachev understood the inherent perils of the system, remarking at one point, “The most expensive mistakes are political mistakes.” To lose completely the support of such dinosaurs as Bogdanov could have meant an immediate end to the Gorbachev era. Sobchak, in his engaging new memoir, writes that “a totalitarian system leaves behind it a minefield built into both the country’s social structure and the individual psychology of its citizens. And mines explode each time the system faces the danger of being dismantled and the country sees the prospect of genuine renewal.”
Despite the clear political perils, Gorbachev did push the Politburo hard on the question of filling in what he called the “blank spots” of history—even if he was prepared to fill in some blanks and not others. Yakovlev, who was the lead author of the speech, told me that many members of the Politburo tried to strike out a crucial phrase in which Gorbachev called Stalin’s acts criminal. Ligachev rang Gorbachev on the phone and said, in a rage, “This would mean canceling our entire lives. We are opening the way for people to spit on our history.” But the general secretary knew his prerogatives. The phrase remained. He spit on Stalin—but carefully.
“To stay faithful to historical truth,” Gorbachev said in his address, “we have to see both Stalin’s indisputable contribution to the struggle for socialism, to the defense of its gains, as well as the gross political mistakes and the abuses committed by him and his circle, for which our people paid a heavy price and which had grave consequences for society.”
Especially if read now, this “balanced,” Aesopian language is repulsive. At the time, many historians in the West, including Richard Pipes and Adam Ulam, called the speech a huge disappointment, if not a sell-out. But even Yakovlev, a man justly regarded as the leadership’s singular figure of intellect and integrity, also carried off the same cynical, if politically necessary, act. The day after the speech, Yakovlev appeared at a press conference prepared to lie and feign outrage. Asked by a reporter whether Gorbachev was not holding back when he said that “thousands” rather than millions hadbeen killed in Stalin’s purges, Yakovlev said that such figures coming out in the West over the years “should be on the conscience of those who think them up.” And asked why Khrushchev’s “secret speech” had not yet been published in the Soviet Union, Yakovlev snapped, “What difference does it make to you? It has been published in the West!”
But for all the glaring insufficiencies of the speech—its unwillingness to criticize Lenin, its praise of a collectivization campaign that left the villages of the Ukraine and southern Russia strewn with millions of corpses—Gorbachev opened the gate to the return of history. Intellectually, politically, and morally, the speech played a critical role in undermining the Stalinist system of coercion and empire. The Kremlin’s reluctant “discovery” in 1989 of the secret protocols to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which signed over control of the Baltic states from Nazi Germany to Moscow, accelerated the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. A round-table discussion published in Pravda simply arguing the merits of the 1968 invasion of Prague came just before hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks demonstrated in Wenceslas Square. The Pravda article confirmed the Kremlin’s shifting attitude toward its own past and helped rob the Czech Communist Party of its last shred of “legitimacy.”
Perhaps no example of the return of history and its impact was more dramatic than that of Gorbachev’s announcement on April 13, 1990, that the Soviet Union, and not Nazi Germany, was responsible for the methodical slaughter of 15,000 Polish officers forty-seven years earlier. As Allen Paul makes plain in his often moving history of the Katyn massacres, Stalin’s execution order was a deliberate attempt to eliminate the Polish educated classes and clear the ground for eventual Soviet dominance of the country. The day Gorbachev made his announcement marked the end of an era of subservience.
Faul’s book is filled with horrifying detail, especially from Polish witnesses, but the return of historical truth has been so swift that just as the book has appeared in the stores, there has been a rush of new information, new voices. Now the executioners themselves, all of them in their seventies and eighties, are talking. The Soviet military prosecutor’s office, which has for the past year been investigating the Katyn massacres under an order from Gorbachev, leaked to the British newspaper The Observer the videotaped testimony of secret-police officers who organized and carried out the nighttime executions of Polish officers at Katyn, Kalinin, and Starobelsk.
Vladimir Tokaryev, eighty-nine and blind, described for the prosecutors how in April 1940 his unit of the secret police in Kalinin shot one Polish officer after another, 250 a night, for a month. The executioners
brought with them a whole suitcase full of German revolvers, the Walther 2 type. Our Soviet TT weapons were thought not to be reliable enough. They were liable to overheat with heavy use…. I was there the first night they did the shooting. Blokhin was the main killer, with about thirty others, mainly NKVD drivers and guards. My driver, Sukharev, for instance, was one of them. I remember Blokhin saying: “Come on, let’s go.” And then he put on his special uniform for the job: brown leather hat, brown leather apron, long brown leather gloves reaching above the elbows. They were his terrible trade mark.
They took the Poles along the corridor one by one, turned left and took them into the Red Corner, the rest room for the prison staff. Each man was asked his surname, first name and place of birth—just enough to identify him. Then he was taken to the room next door, which was sound-proofed, and shot in the back of the head…. Blokhin made sure that everyone in the execution team got a supply of vodka after each night’s work. Every evening he brought it into the prison in boxes. They drank nothing before the shooting or during the shooting, but afterwards they all had a few glasses before going home to bed…. When [the graves were dug] the three men from Moscow organized a big banquet to celebrate. They kept pestering me, insisting that I should attend. But I refused.3
And on the blind man drones, pointing his finger at “the others,” denying the importance of his own role, no less a cruel, bland beast than Eichmann in Jerusalem.
And so the Kremlin’s book of laughter and forgetting has ended. On a trip to Magadan last spring, I discovered that the amnesiac Party boss Bogdanov had been forcedout of office and that the local chapter of the Memorial society had set up, nearly forty years after the fact, a museum exhibit on prison camp life in Kolyma. The local newspaper was running long lists of the names of rehabilitated victims. Local officials were helping the émigré sculptor Ernst Neizvestny build a huge monument to the three million killed in Kolyma during the Stalin years.
Perhaps the best proof of the fundamental importance of the return of history is the unconcealed agony of the hard liners, their desperate attempts to balance somehow a portrait of slaughter and rot with glorious achievements. Ligachev told me that when history was taken out of the hands of the Communist Party, “it created a gloomy atmosphere in the country. It affects the emotions of the people, their mood, their work-efficiency, when from morning to night everything negative from the past is being dumped on them. Patriotic topics have been squeezed out, shunted aside. People are longing for something positive, something shining, and yet our own cultural figures have published more lies and anti-Soviet things than our Western enemies ever did in the last seventy years combined.”
The men that organized the military Putsch against Gorbachev were so deluded about their own country that they even believed they could put a halt to the return of history, that they could shut it down with a decree in Pravda. On the first day of the coup, officers from the Kalinin KGB showed up at a site where representatives from the Soviet military prosecutor’s office were busy exhuming the graves of the Polish officers. “They told us that our work was unnecessary and that they would not guarantee our safety,” said Major General Vladimir Kupiets, who was leading the investigation.4 Like the protesters on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kupiets refused to return to the past, except to study its bones and bitter lessons. He ordered his men to continue digging.
One of the incidental benefits of the opening of history has been the death of Kremlinology, a pseudoscience not a great deal more helpful in understanding the Soviet Union than phrenology or the I Ching. I once asked Boris Yeltsin about that great staple of cold war power analysis, who stands where on the Lenin Mausoleum during the May Day parade: “Who gives the signal?” Yeltsin smiled. “They tape a little list to the wall,” he said. “Simple, isn’t it?” It was Yeltsin, the bull in the ideological china shop, whose memoir smashed the pretense of Kremlin reticence once and for all. Crammed with inside dope on the marble baths and tennis courts at the Kremlin dachas and the foibles of the Politburo members, Against the Grain5 sold wildly last year in metro stations and at corner bookstands across the Soviet Union.
Despite opening the way to a more thorough evaluation of the country’s past, Gorbachev has shied away from talking or writing too deeply about his own life. He waited, for instance, until 1990 before he told an audience that while he was growing up in rural southern Russia both his grandfathers were arrested on trumped-up charges.
The August Coup is not much of a memoir; it is, instead, a thin, passionless exercise in spin control, combining a newsless narrative of the coup and an argument for maintaining a Moscow-centered union that few seem to want anymore. The story behind the book says more about the author’s current diminished status than the text itself. Gorbachev’s advisers, in a feverish attempt to restore the stature of their man, won agreement from Harper Collins to publish the manuscript within a few weeks. But the product was a flop. Even Time magazine, which has been one of Gorbachev’s most vigorous boosters in the American press, did not publish an excerpt. Yeltsin, for his part, is reportedly asking for a $1 million advance for his version of events, and he has informed publishers that he will not do any publicity tours. He is busy.
So far, there are no decent, much less definitive, biographies of Gorbachev. Not even his fascinating career before 1985 has been treated with any depth. Gerd Ruge, an intelligent West German TV journalist and writer, has produced Gorbachev, but like a number of other books of its kind, it provides little more than some interesting interviews with old acquaintances and friends and a sketch of events readily available in any newspaper morgue. Despite the twilight aura gathering around him now,Gorbachev will surely be counted as the dominant politician of the second half of the twentieth century. (Sakharov somehow transcends the category of politician. He was a modern prophet.) Unfortunately, the reader will probably have to wait some time for a deeper record of Gorbachev’s history and accomplishments.
There is some help on the way, at least. Now that the taboo against historical truth has collapsed, the literary market in the Soviet Union and abroad is inundated with memoirs. Even Ligachev has written his own history, a self-justifying, if entertaining, memoir excerpted in the mass circulation weekly Argumenti i Fakti and the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya. In the excerpts and in his recent US tour of colleges and institutes, Ligachev does his Barry Goldwater routine—a hard liner trying to portray himself as a sensible, cuddly conservative amid the radical rabble. The excerpts reveal a yearning for a leader, tough and disciplined, someone like Yuri Andropov or, say, Yegor Ligachev. The implication throughout is clear: after a few years of gradualist reform, Gorbachev sold out the Party and socialism itself and joined forces with reckless “adventurists.”
“Do you know a good agent in the States?” Ligachev once asked me in Moscow. “I think Americans will be interested in my version of history.” Pantheon will publish the book, tentatively titled The Gorbachev Enigma, early next year.
In every case, these Moscow memoirs are hasty productions, and only Sobchak has a sense of narrative and an impulse to go deeper than self-aggrandizement. Raisa’s question-and-answer session is padded with homilies of the Erma Bombeck variety. Shevardnadze teases the reader with the hint of revelation and then goes strangely, and self-righteously, mute. “I should warn that readers will be disappointed if they expect this book to be the sensational story of the ‘human factor’ as exemplified by certain specific personages,” he writes. Translated from the Newspeak: if you want to know how the Politburo decided to react to the revolutions in Eastern Europe or withdraw troops from Afghanistan or join the alliance with Washington against Iraq, look elsewhere. “The time has not yet come for that,” Shevardnadze advises us, and now that he has returned as foreign minister, we know one likely reason for his reticence.
Still, these books do contain intriguing nuggets that begin to fill out the existing portraits of Gorbachev. They reveal a politician tailor-made for a critical moment in history, one capable of both dogged sycophancy and intellectual idealism, a reformer with ice water in his veins.
After finishing a degree at Moscow State University’s law faculty, Gorbachev returned to the peasant towns of southern Russia and worked for a while in the prosecutor’s office near Stavropol. His letter dated June 20, 1953, to Raisa (as she recounts it in her book) reveals a young man immensely ambitious and faced with the sort of timeless petty bureaucrats found in the pages of Dead Souls:
I am so depressed by the situation here. And I feel it especially keenly every time I receive a letter from you. It brings with it so much that is good, dear, close and understandable. And one feels all the more keenly how disgusting my surroundings are here. Especially the manner of life of the local bosses. The acceptance of convention, subordination, with everything predetermined, the open impudence of officials and the arrogance. When you look at one of the local bosses you see nothing outstanding apart from his belly. But what aplomb, what self-assurance and the condescending, patronizing tone!
Shevardnadze knew Gorbachev in the 1950s when both men were working as officials in the Young Communist League, the Komsomol. Shevardnadze, who has attacked Gorbachev ferociously in the past year, nevertheless remembers the future general secretary as “always devoid of that artificial Komsomol modesty I had always found so annoying; more important I could see that his thinking went beyond the boundaries of prescribed norms.” Later Shevardnadze recounts how the two men, vacationing in the early 1980s on the Black Sea, confided in each other their disgust for the state of the Kremlin leadership and the country as a whole.
“Everything’s rotten,” Shevardnadze said to Gorbachev as they walked along the beach at Pitsunda. “It has to be changed.”
“We cannot live this way any longer,” Gorbachev replied.
Although Yakovlev, Ligachev, and other Politburo officials have told me that it is preposterous to think that Gorbachev and his allies came into power with much more than a general determination to provide more individual freedoms and improve acollapsing economy, it is also evident that Gorbachev had a clearer sense than anyone else in the leadership-in-waiting that change was not only possible, but inevitable. “I was depressed,” Ryzhkov says of the Chernenko interregnum, in the superb BBC TV series The Second Russian Revolution, “and felt I wasn’t needed. I said to Gorbachev, ‘Our work is superfluous.’…Gorbachev said, ‘One day, life itself will force radical changes in our country.’ ” What he did not anticipate was that the Party and the system itself were doomed.
Try as they might, the Communist Party reformers cannot hope to create a pristine history of their own pasts. Even the best among them must stand before the memory of the dissidents with a sense of shame and repentance. As both the police chief and later the Party leader of the republic of Georgia, Shevardnadze was capable of brutal attacks on local dissidents, a fact he glosses over with convenient ease in his memoir. Yakovlev, for his part, was prepared to work in the Party ideology department of the Central Committee for the beastly “gray cardinal” Mikhail Suslov. Yeltsin’s best-known act as the Party boss of Sverdlovsk in the Urals was to bulldoze the last residence of Nicholas II to prevent its becoming a royalist shrine. All of them were prepared to compromise to make their way up the Party ladder.
And yet when it came to the cynical sport of Kremlin politics, none was a match for Gorbachev. Aleksandr Tsipko, a prominent radical in Moscow who once worked on the Central Committee staff, says that while Yeltsin’s performance in the past two years has been extraordinary, the Russian president would have “broken his neck” trying to navigate the political riptides necessary to gain power in 1985 and make the first historic initiatives of glasnost and foreign policy. Yeltsin’s stubbornness and defiance, qualities he would later use for heroic ends while standing on a tank at the start of the August coup, had no place in the Communist Party political culture. He was never capable of the sort of stroking or subtlety needed to become a general secretary.
From the start, Gorbachev was a master prodigy of Party politics, winning for himself a series of powerful patrons that included Fyodor Kulakov, Yuri Andropov, and Andrei Gromyko. The BBC series is filled with extraordinary moments, but none better than when Gorbachev receives a medal from Brezhnev, now deep in the mists of his dotage. Poor Brezhnev’s eyes are so glazed, his movements so stiff, he seems the work of a Kremlin taxidermist. He cannot quite remember why he is pinning the medal on Gorbachev.
“The dam?” Gorbachev says, prompting the old man without embarrassing him.
“Yes, yes, the dam,” Brezhnev says.
Sobchak, a politician who worked as a university law professor and never in the hermetic world of the Party apparatus, is properly mystified by the phenomenon of Gorbachev’s personality, his manipulation of others, and his powerful ego:
Gorbachev remains a mystery to me…. During the decades of his ascent in the communist hierarchy Gorbachev learned the apparat’s structure. This immense impersonal construct awaits its Dante. Gorbachev could tell us much we do not know about how a man feels, doomed to daily renunciation of his own will in favor of that of his superiors, compelled to daily self-abasement for the sake of his career…. To me, the greatest mystery is how Gorbachev managed to retain his individuality, the ability to shape his own opinion and set it against the opinion of others. Evidently, it was to preserve his own self that he developed his almost impenetrable mask. He learned to conceal his disdain for those whom he must have despised, to speak with them in their own language.
Gorbachev appears to have few illusions about his double face. Years after coming to power, he told Vitaly Korotich, until recently the editor of the crusading Ogonyok magazine, “In those days, we all licked Brezhnev’s ass—all of us!—but now it is necessary to unite all those who are for reform.”
As the BBC film series and its companion book show so well, the struggle for power while Konstantin Chernenko was wasting away was also a contest of cynical will. Gorbachev was quick to humiliate the man considered his strongest rival for power, the Moscow party chief, Viktor Grishin. In August 1984 journalists at the government paper Izvestia presented the editor, Ivan Laptev, with a startling exposé of corruption at Moscow’s favorite food store for the Partyelite. The article, which clearly implicated Grishin, was too forbidding for the censors. So Laptev turned to Gorbachev, clearly the leader by now of the small liberal wing in the leadership.
“Print it,” Gorbachev told Laptev, “but it is on your responsibility.”
The day the story appeared, Laptev was bombarded with calls from Grishin’s furious allies. Their man had been disgraced. But there was little they could do. Laptev kept his word and Gorbachev scored the sort of Willie Hortonesque maneuver that leads to the top job.
Even in power, Gorbachev often treated politics as a performing act, a game of feints and sudden attacks. This tactical game was an absolute necessity, for as he admits in The August Coup, Gorbachev knew that his position was never wholly secure. Somehow he had to convince men born and bred in the Stalinist tradition that the reform of the system was in their interests. Somehow he had to clear out the “dead souls” in the Central Committee before they could crush him.
Gorbachev implies, and I think rightly so, that it was largely due to his political skill that a conservative counterrebellion, swift and effective, did not come years before the August coup. His ability to manipulate the Communist Party hierarchy made Sam Rayburn’s legendary control of Congress seem like child’s play. In one theatrical instance, Gorbachev pleased the apparat by shouting at the liberal editor of Argumenti i Fakti, Vladislav Starkov, and then used that capital just a few days later to fire Viktor Afanasyev, the Brezhnev loyalist who had been running the Party paper, Pravda. It was only when political power transcended the Communist Party, when the public invested trust in a new generation of non-Party officials through democratic elections, that this sort of gamesmanship lost importance. But for at least three years, Gorbachev was its master.
Korotich recounts in his often amusing memoir, The Waiting Room, being summoned to a meeting with Gorbachev in February 1988 and listening in awe as the general secretary reamed him out, “cursing like a docker.” Gorbachev patted a stuffed portfolio and said, “What did you say about the Minister of Defense in Leningrad? Here in this portfolio I have the information they’ve prepared for me.”
Two days previously, Korotich had indeed been at a public forum where he told the audience that he hoped the Soviet Union would “get rid of its biggest missiles and its biggest idiots.” He also denounced other conservatives in the leadership, Ligachev and the then KGB chief, Viktor Chebrikov.
“Are you against Ligachev and Chebrikov?” Gorbachev said angrily. “I work with them and know better than you who they are as men. Do you intend to teach me who is my friend and who is my enemy?”
After a while, Gorbachev calmed down and said that Yakovlev would show Korotich to the door. In a vestibule outside, Yakovlev, with an impish smile, explained that in fact Gorbachev had been defending Korotich, that the tantrum was really all a performance for the tape recorders rolling a quarter mile up the hill at Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB.
For a year or so after his Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev was the country’s principal historian. Looking at the period after Lenin’s death, Gorbachev saw an opportunity lost, a dream betrayed. His rejection of Stalinism and embrace of a socialist “alternative” was the basis of his vision and the long-held hope of an entire generation of Party officials and intellectuals who became idealists during the Khrushchev thaw.
These shestdyesatniki—“men of the Sixties”—were half-brave, half-cynical careerists, living a life-in-waiting for the great reformer to come along and bring Prague Spring to Moscow. While they took few of the risks of the dissidents, the best of them refused to live the lie, finding subtle ways of declaring at least a measure of independence from the regime. Some hurt their careers by refusing to join the Party. Others joined research institutes or publications in the provinces or Eastern Europe where they could express themselves a bit more freely. They kept something alive within themselves. When Gorbachev took power, he put members of this thaw generation in positions of influence. They edited key newspapers and magazines, led academic institutes, and even made policy recommendations to the leadership.
Gorbachev permitted a few artists to help undermine Stalin’s own textbook of Soviet history, the infamous “Short Course.” Mikhail Shatrov, a mediocre playwright with undeniable ideological importance, staged works like Onward…Onward…Onward that dared to criticize Stalin andpraise his enemies. Anatoly Rybakov published Children of the Arbat, a wooden novel that also assaulted the Stalinist past in a way that reached a mass audience. The Georgian film director Tengiz Abuladze, with the help of Shevardnadze especially, was finally able to screen Repentence, a remarkable drama about the persistence of evil in a society that refuses to acknowledge its own history.
Gorbachev’s court historian, in a sense, was Roy Medvedev, a committed Marxist whose unusual access to archives and interviews with Old Bolsheviks in the Sixties made him a pariah to the Brezhnev regime and an invaluable source of information for Western scholars. Under Gorbachev, Medvedev was finally able to publish at home his major work on Stalinism, Let History Judge, and was commissioned to write a debunking portrait of Brezhnev. With time, scholars and writers who had done far less for reform in the days when it was dangerous condemned Medvedev as hopelessly out of touch and branded him a conservative. Maybe they were right. Medvedev, like Gorbachev, regarded himself as a convinced Marxist and saw nothing unseemly about accepting an invitation to become a member of the Party’s Central Committee. By last spring, Medvedev was criticizing even Gorbachev for going too fast with reform and took positions closer to those of Anatoly Lukyanov, the former Supreme Soviet chairman who is now in jail, charged with complicity in the coup. It seems Medvedev’s moment in the vanguard has passed. He is now leading the campaign to build a new Communist Party, a party of “leftist orientation.”
Clearly, Gorbachev wanted to control the outpouring of history, keep it within bounds. Yuri Afanasyev, an editor at Kommunist who became rector of the Historical Archives Institute, soon discovered that while archives on the Stalin era were forthcoming, papers critical of Lenin and other first-generation leaders were not. A popular documentary released in early 1988, More Light, made a demon of Stalin but stepped lightly around Lenin and the Red Terror. Gorbachev’s Party ideologist, an incredibly dense character named Vadim Medvedev, told reporters there was no way the Politburo could allow publication of Solzhenitsyn, especially considering the anti-cult heresies in Lenin in Zurich.
In its way, Gorbachev’s schematic view of the Soviet past was as ideologically driven—though not as pernicious—as the old Party version. To legitimize his plans for a liberalized socialism, Gorbachev and his generation in the Party intelligentsia created a PC for perestroika, even a new set of icons. They emphasized the “late Lenin” of the relatively liberal New Economic Policy; the NEP ideologist Nikolai Bukharin who was executed by Stalin in the purges; and, more subtly, Khrushchev, the initiator of the anti-Stalinist thaw.
Gorbachev, as general secretary of the Party, had no choice but to find a Lenin of his own. But if Gorbachev intended to appear the humanist Party man, a Soviet Dubcek, he could not well look to the fury of Lenin’s State and Revolution or his bloody-minded letters and cables (“We need more terror!”) after the Bolshevik coup. To highlight a slightly more forgiving and flexible spirit in the Leninist canon, Gorbachev’s circle leaned heavily on a few late essays such as “On Cooperation” and “Better Fewer, But Better.”
Bukharin was another matter. The Party intellectual whom Lenin had called the “favorite” of the Bolsheviks had forcefully rejected Stalin’s “Ghengis Khan” schemes and endorsed a far less Draconian collectivization, a more mixed economy and a limited pluralism. He was no democrat, but he was hardly a butcher. His ascent (unlikely as it was) would not likely have led to a civilized state, but it might have saved countless lives. Although he spoke of mass-producing “standardized” socialist intellectuals “as if in a factory,” Bukharin is also remembered as the one Party leader willing to protect Osip Mandelstam. Bukharin’s performance at his own trial is different from Rubashov’s in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Stephen F. Cohen, in his important biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, argues convincingly that Bukharin did not confess at all to his “crimes,” as Rubashov does. Instead, Bukharin’s mock confessions were carefully followed by subtle but unmistakable denials—an artful strategy that did not save him from the firing squad, but did help his historical reputation and may have saved his family from execution.
In the Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev praised Bukharin, and in February 1988 Bukharin was rehabilitated. Soon a kind of mini-cult arose: the Museum of the Revolution on Gorky Street displayed Bukharin’s papers and memorabilia. At a reception at theSoviet embassy in Washington, Gorbachev made it a point to greet Cohen warmly and told him how much he had enjoyed his biography of Bukharin—a book that was still banned from official sale in the Soviet Union at the time. Soon, Bukharin’s essays and Cohen’s biography were published officially. And Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina, emerged from obscurity. She gave a series of fascinating interviews to the press, appeared at Bukharin “evenings” to reminisce, and published her remarkable memoir, Unforgettable.
Larina, who waited a half-century for her husband’s name to be cleared, writes passionately of her life as the widow of an “enemy of the people,” her years in the camps, her separation from her son. She describes how, in the days before his execution, Bukharin made her memorize a last testament, a call to the “future generation of party leaders.” Imagine Gorbachev’s sense of connection when he read Bukharin’s call to his inheritors “to exonerate me….Know, comrades, that on the banner you will carry in your victorious march to Communism there is a drop of my blood.”
Just as Larina became a kind of celebrity of history in Moscow political and intellectual circles in 1988 and 1989, so too did Sergei Khrushchev, an intelligent and kindly spokesman for his father. I remember one Khrushchev “evening” at the Cinematographers Union at which the family sat beaming in the front rows as one speaker after another took the podium to describe the thrill of the cultural thaw and to express the hope that Gorbachev would deepen that process. Fyodor Burlatsky, a leading journalist of the Sixties generation, wrote the first major revisionist profile of Khrushchev, describing the “courageous” act to destroy the Stalin cult and denounce the slaughter of the Stalin era. According to wellinformed sources, Gorbachev was consumed with the Khrushchev precedent and privately told members of his circle that his goal was to resume the spirit of the “thaw” but at the same time avoid the political mistakes that led to Khrushchev’s overthrow in 1964.
Sergei’s book, Khrushchev on Khrushchev, is an extremely rosy picture of his father—a man, after all, who was at Stalin’s side for years and survived largely because he seemed far less of a threat than Trotsky or Bukharin had in earlier years. Still, as Solzhenitsyn has written, Khrushchev’s emergence was a miracle. In fact, the miracles of Khrushchev and of Gorbachev were much the same: in a political culture so aggressively hostile to change and inconvenient truth, they took power and used it largely to good purpose. Neither man recognized quickly enough the need to transform the economic system, neither could give up the notion that, in the dialectic of history, the Soviet Union had chosen an ideology that would prove more prosperous and humane than any other. And yet both had an instinct rare in Communist Party politics that led them to attack the most coercive and brutal aspects of the Stalinist legacy.
According to his son, Khrushchev spent much of his retirement regretting his inability and unwillingness to push reform farther. He describes his father as a man of emotion and political instinct, one who did not quite understand the totalitarian machine he was steering. Khrushchev’s attempts to be at once fair-minded and a man of the Party are comic and grotesque. In one scene, Khrushchev is sitting alone in his screening room at his country house watching Fellini’s 8 1/2, which had just won the Second Moscow International Film Festival—a decision that caused a scandal in the Communist Party’s Ideological Department.
I walked into the room, sat down on the couch next to Father, waited several minutes, and then started to whisper: “Fellini is a genius. This film created a furor all over the world. It symbolizes….”
Here I stumbled, and Father flew into a rage: “Get out of here and don’t bother me. I’m not sitting here for the fun of it.”
Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes is a short book of outtakes considered too sensitive to publish in the original two volumes of memoirs. It offers a few historical curiosities. For one, Khrushchev says, Stalin himself confirmed that the Rosenbergs made “very significant” contributions to Moscow’s atomic bomb project. He also claims that during the Cuban missile crisis, Castro had urged Moscow to fire nuclear weapons at the United States.
But the supreme moment comes when Khrushchev apologizes for suppressing Doctor Zhivago. “My only excuse,” he writes like a guilty undergraduate, “is that I didn’t read the book.”
Itis not hard to understand why so many in the intelligentsia readily celebrated these new icons of socialism with such enthusiasm. Merely to have the chance to search the past for the alternatives to Stalinism seemed, for a time, like liberation itself. Hard to believe now, but it was only a few years ago in the Soviet Union that public mention of Khrushchev or Bukharin, except to vilify them, was, at best, forbidden, and, at worst, worth a stay in a labor camp. Although the economy was degenerating quickly and millions of ordinary people were beginning to yearn for the relatively prosperous era of the Seventies, the policy of glasnost was, for these scholars, writers, artists, and journalists, a new life. They were winning positions of power, traveling abroad, publishing their books.
“It was a heady time for us, and it deceived us into thinking that the dream of ‘reforming socialism’ was possible,” Vyacheslav Shostakovsky, the former head of the Higher Party School, told me.
“But after a while,” he added, “the evidence pointed elsewhere. It was clear that there was really, broadly defined, one main direction of healthy development in the world: democratic, a market economy. That encompasses everything from Scandinavia to Japan to the US, but it has little to do with Marx or Lenin.”
Released from one set of chains, history could not stay prisoner to ideology and the Communist Party for long. At the first session of the Congress in May 1989 Sakharov and other radical deputies echoed the growing sense throughout the country that “renewed” socialism was not an adequate prescription for an empire in its death throes. Many young intellectuals saw the socialist legacy only as a burden to be scorned and shed, a litany of disasters and executions all in the name of utopia and the False Vladimir. Instead, they immersed themselves in an eclectic reading list of Russian and Western liberals that included Berdyaev, Solovyov, Mill, and The Federalist Papers. For some of them, Ronald Reagan became a hero. “He called us the ‘Evil Empire.’ So why did you in the West laugh at him? It’s true!” Arkady Murashev, a leader of Democratic Russia close to Yeltsin, once told me. Murashev is now the chief of the Moscow police department. The forces of reform that had once seen Gorbachev as their hope were now forming a left-wing opposition and growing increasingly frustrated with the Soviet leader’s vacillations and hesitation. Democratic Russia, Democratic Platform, the Popular Front groups in the Baltic states, Birlik in Central Asia, and a bouquet of nascent political parties won widespead support—all to Gorbachev’s irritation.
As the spectrum of political opinion widened, the twin icons of Bukharin and Khrushchev soon faded in importance. Even the reformers in the Kremlin leadership knew they could not rely on them any longer. If they were to speak of a multiparty system, they could hardly romanticize Bukharin, who once remarked of a two-party system, “one must be the ruling party and the other must be in jail.” As for Khrushchev, he “committed a heroic deed at that 20th Party Congress,” Aleksandr Yakovlev told me. “But the tragedy was that he never could take the next step toward democratization…. Instinctively, he understood it was necessary to move forward, but he was thigh-high in the muck of the past and he couldn’t break free. When he grew older, in his memoirs he regretted that he had not gone forward. But memoirs do not make up for a man’s life.” Gradually, Yakovlev said, he came to think of Bolshevism as a code of violence and of socialism, at its best, as a set of goals resembling a liberal welfare state.
There is little mystery why the majority of the Soviet public could not bear to make heroes of committed Communists, present or past. Anything to do with the Party or Bolshevism in any form was politically and emotionally intolerable. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the Soviet Union with his eyes open knows why. Life remains a degrading hustle of lines, petty humiliations, and meaningless work. Now that the relative wealth and efficiency abroad is on constant display in the press and television, the humiliation is all the more profound. If Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the breakthrough text of Khrushchev’s thaw, Benedikt Erofeev’s stunning novel, Moskva-Petushki (Moscow Circles), is the representative text of the period of Soviet decline and collapse. A Dead Souls for its time, Moscow Circles waswritten more than twenty years ago, but it still captures the hopelessness and vodka-soaked benders of an age of continuing disintegration, no belief, no work, no hope:
This is what we would do. One day. we would play poker, the next day we would drink vermouth, on the third day we’d play poker and on the fourth day it was back to vermouth…. For a while everything was perfect. We’d send off our socialist pledges once a month and we’d get our pay twice a month. We’d write, for example: “on the occasion of the coming centenary we pledge ourselves to end production traumatization.” Or: “in honor of the glorious anniversary we will struggle to ensure that every sixth worker takes a correspondence course in a higher educational institution.” Traumatization! Institutions!… Oh, what freedom and equality! What fraternity and freeloading! Oh, the joy of non-accountability! Oh, blessed hours in the life of my people—the hours which stretch from opening to closing time! Free of shame and idle care we lived a life that was purely spiritual.
This is not a description of the “culture of envy” or a “lazy people” that finds its way into some of the current journalism and pop sociology about the “Russian character.” It is instead the description of a political system that is such a total failure, such a pompous wreck, that its citizens can endure on a daily basis only through the mastery of irony.
Two years ago or so, the political consciousness of millions of Russians, Balts, and other nationalities took a huge turn. Support for a policy of a new and improved socialist system, complete with inane billboards (More Socialism! More Democracy!), dwindled. From Yeltsin to the grass-roots level, it was becoming clearer that without a multiparty democracy and a market economy, without independence for republics thrown together by coercive tsars and general secretaries, there would be no “shining future.”
Gorbachev’s personal tragedy is that his own conversion, his rethinking of his historical place and political allies, came so late and so grudgingly. The same man who had opened the way, if reluctantly, to the creation of a multiparty system was furious when historical developments hurtled beyond his grasp. The same man who did nothing to prevent the liberation of Eastern Europe did all he could to resist the will of the Baltic states. He used the Party machinery to smear Yeltsin and tried to deny him the Russian leadership. He appointed cretins and crooks to the highest posts of government. He failed dismally to understand the moral and political genius of Andrei Sakharov. He saw only collapse when others saw necessity.
In January 1990, Gorbachev went to Lithuania, confident that he could somehow finesse the alarming developments there, that he could use his charm and talent for balancing powers to slow down the sprint to independence. Yakovlev had already been to Vilnius and had admitted it would be “immoral” to deny the Lithuanian argument that Moscow was still running a coercive empire.
Gorbachev plainly disagreed. In one striking incident in Vilnius, Gorbachev confronted an elderly factory worker who was carrying a sign reading “Total Independence for Lithuania.”
“Who told you to write that banner?” Gorbachev asked angrily, according to a reporter for Agence France-Presse.
“Nobody. I wrote it myself,” the worker said.
“Who are you? Where do you work?” Gorbachev said. “And what do you mean by total independence?”
“I mean what we had in the 1920s, when Lenin recognized Lithuania’s sovereignty, because no nation is entitled to dictate to another nation,” the worker replied.
“Within our large family, Lithuania has become a developed country,” Gorbachev said. “What kind of exploiters are we if Russia sells you cotton, oil, and raw materials—and not for hard currency either?”
The worker cut off Gorbachev. “Lithuania had a hard currency before the War,” he said. “You took it away in 1940. And do you know how many Lithuanians were sent to Siberia in the 1940s, and how many died?”
Gorbachev finally could not bear this impudence. “I don’t want to talk to this man anymore,” he said. “If people in Lithuania have attitudes and slogans like this, they can expect hard times. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
Raisa tried to calm down her husband.
“Be quiet,” he snapped.
The crackdown in Lithuania one year later—the first of two rehearsals for the August coup—was a conversion experience for nearly every major figure of the Gorbachev generation. Shevardnadze had warned of disaster, ofan incipient dictatorship, and now it had shown its face. The army and KGB, masquerading as a Committee for Salvation, tried to overthrow the democratically elected government in Lithuania and killed at least thirteen people in the process. Gorbachev did not apologize or take action; in fact, the morning after the raid he barely expressed sympathy for the dead. Instead he defended the thugs surrounding him, indulged their most cynical lies about the operation, and even took a stab at rolling back a law on press freedom.
Many people had long since given up on Gorbachev, but for the remaining reform-minded loyalists of the thaw generation this was the breaking point. Moscow News editor Yegor Yakovlev, liberal aides such as Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov, and such eminent scholars as Tatyana Zaslavskaya quit Gorbachev’s orbit and the Communist Party and joined Yeltsin’s opposition. Though they had always been uncomfortable with Yeltsin’s penchant for the bombastic gesture and his authoritarian tendencies, they could not deny any longer the contrast between the country’s two leading politicians. While Gorbachev persisted in defending the indefensible, Yeltsin went immediately to Tallinn and supported the elected governments of the Baltic states. One man had cast his lot with reactionaries in the name of stability and tactics, while the other had learned, evolved.
During that terrible winter of 1990—1991, I was among many reporters hanging out in the halls of the Kremlin waiting to spot one official or another as the legislature met. Suddenly, I saw Gorbachev coming up the stairs and, before he headed toward the cameras, I asked him if it was true that he was now moving sharply to the right.
Gorbachev, his expression weary and pained, said, “I’m going around in circles.” His confusion could not have been more evident. The same skill that helped elevate Gorbachev to power and navigate the first years of perestroika—the ability to balance forces and steer a “middle course” toward essential reform—was now his worst enemy. While the reformers abandoned him, Gorbachev did what he could to please the Party, the KGB, and the military. He listened to them unquestioningly, even to their wildest deceptions. Yakovlev told me that Gorbachev believed the KGB last March when he was told that the reformers were actually planning to storm the Kremlin walls using “hooks and ladders.” Against Yakovlev’s advice, Gorbachev ordered troops and armored personnel carriers to form an iron cordon around the Kremlin on March 28, the day Yeltsin convened the Russian Parliament.
The scene on the streets of Moscow that day should have been an adequate warning to the Putschists of just how much the country had changed, how fearless so many had grown. Tens of thousands of people defied the Kremlin’s order against demonstrations and flooded the areas around the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and the Arbat Metro station. If the attack on the Lithuanian television tower was the rehearsal for the coup, the steadfast protection of the Lithuanian Parliament and the Moscow demonstrations last March were rehearsals for the resistance. And the resistance looked far more impressive. How could the KGB have ignored that? What’s more, how could Gorbachev?
In the weeks before the coup, I interviewed a number of Gorbachev’s closest aides, men who refused to cooperate with the plot. Giorgi Shakhnazarov, Andrei Grachev, Yevgeny Primakov, and others of lesser rank had no illusions about the animosities of the leaders of the army, the KGB, and the Communist Party. There could not have been more warnings, more hints, more evidence that a fullscale conservative offensive was possible, if not probable. The plotters had already made their intentions known in Lithuania and later in the Supreme Soviet; their apologists were publishing fanatical manifestos in the newspapers Dyen (“The Day”) and Sovietskaya Rossiya. And yet these liberal advisers, like their boss, seemed to be living a wish. When Yakovlev told Gorbachev that he was surrounded by enemies, Gorbachev expressed surprise, then anger: “You exaggerate!” he said. When George Bush warned him of a coup, Gorbachev told him only “madmen” would attempt such a thing. He awaited betrayal with the hubris of a Shakespearean monarch.
Shevardnadze, whose instincts and judgments have been uncanny since the day of his resignation speech, sees in his friend Gorbachev a man who is a prisoner “of his own nature, his conceptions, and his way of thinking and acting.” Writing after the August coup, Shevardnadze sympathizes with Gorbachev, but, he says, it was
none other than Gorbachev himself [who] had been spoon feedingthe junta with his indecisiveness, his inclination to back and fill, his fellow-travelling, his poor judgement of people, his indifference toward his true allies, his distrust of the democratic forces, and his disbelief in the bulwark whose name is the people—the very same people who had changed thanks to the perestroika he had begun. That is the enormous tragedy of Mikhail Gorbachev, and no matter how much I empathize with him, I cannot help but say that it almost led to a national tragedy.
After Yeltsin’s singular leadership helped smash the coup, Gorbachev could only return to Moscow and, after initial hesitation, take part in the dismantlement of the Party, the old KGB, and the unitary structure of the state.
Gorbachev yielded, and held on to his presidency. But his power is fast draining away. The center hardly exists and he remains a force only at the pleasure of the republics. He acts now like a glorified foreign minister and an occasional opposition moderate. What is more, Gorbachev’s lack of democratic legitimacy is more embarrassing by the day. He has never faced the voters and was made president by a parliament that was hardly democratic. Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of the newspaper Nezavisimya Gazeta, wrote editorials in the months preceding the coup defending Gorbachev against his most dismissive critics, reminding the Soviet audience just how much Gorbachev had accomplished in the first years of reform. But when the Putsch collapsed, Tretyakov wrote of Gorbachev, “It seems that during the days of the coup, he was a victim, and for a while the victim’s halo will keep him on the surface. But today we need him only to personify the resurrection of our constitutional order.” George Bush, who has long been dismissive of Yeltsin, seems to regard Gorbachev as the master of Moscow. Nostalgia is probably not a useful emotion in the conduct of foreign relations.
In his slender book on the coup, Gorbachev provides no new details of his capture and three days under house arrest. He passes lightly over the drama in Moscow and somehow gives the impression that it was his own brave face that won the day more than the resistance at the Russian Parliament building. He is mistaken. But what Gorbachev does reveal is an insistence on socialism as “an idea” and the very same version of history and development that first appeared in the Revolution Day speech of 1987:
I am one of those who never concealed their convictions. I am a confirmed supporter of the idea of socialism. It is an idea that has been making a way for itself for many centuries. It has many supporters and they have headed the governments of a number of states. There are various branches of the socialist movement, because it is not a kind of model into which society has to be driven. No, it is an idea, precisely an idea, which embraces values developed in the course of a search for a juster society and a better world. It is an idea that draws strength from many achievements of Christianity and from other philosophical tendencies….
The thought does not leave me that, had it not been for Stalin’s Thermidor in the mid 1920’s, which betrayed and trampled on the ideas of the Great Revolution—a revolution that was genuinely popular and for the people, it might still have been possible to direct the country along the path of democratic progress, revival and economic prosperity….
People make ironical comments about the socialist choice but they do not see that the rejection of socialism in the public mind took place because socialism was associated with Stalinism…. I am convinced that the discrediting of socialism in the eyes of the masses is a passing phase. People’s striving for social justice, freedom and democracy is indestructible. It is, it might be said, a global process, in the same stream as the general development of civilization. The next generation will surely return to this great idea.
What a strange and elegiac voice in these passages. Gorbachev leaches “socialism” of its tragic history, of all the repression and blood shed in its name. He blames all on Stalinism as if the Chinese and Cuban landscapes were merely reproductions by the Master. He describes the Bolshevik revolution as popular when he knows well that Lenin crushed the Constituent Assembly just months after the revolution because the Bolsheviks failed to win more than 24 percent of the vote. He abandons the dogma of Marxand Lenin and leaves us with a fuzzy sort of impulse, a kinder, gentler socialism. He leaves us with an “idea.”
But of what? Gorbachev makes his “socialism” sound like the principles of the New Deal or the left-of-center parties of western Europe. We can only be grateful that he does not mention that last refuge of socialist yearning: Sweden.
This tone has been in vogue for quite some time among Gorbachev’s more liberal confidantes, key aides like Shakhnazarov and Anatoli Chernayev. They speak of “socialism” and “capitalism”, as having “no meaning” in the modern world. If this is so, then why, when one mentions the word “socialism” in Russia, does everyone roll his eyes? No, the discrediting of socialism as an ideology is no “passing phase.” It is the heart of the matter.
Part of Gorbachev’s drama is that after playing the lead role in dismantling one of the most ruinous regimes in human history, his voice cracks a little with a nostalgia for what never was. The revolution he began has buried Lenin’s own. But now, as Gorbachev begins his gradual descent from power, as he moves into the late stages of a great career, his sense of triumph seems tinged with regret.
December 19, 1991
Most of the details here on the history of the origins of the Lenin cult come from Nina Tumarkin’s excellent study, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Harvard University Press, 1983). ↩
“Sources,” Novy Mir, No. 5, 1988. ↩
The Observer, October 6, 1991, p. 1. ↩
The Observer, October 6, 1991, p. 1. ↩
Summit, 1990. Reviewed in these pages on May 17, 1990. ↩