Russians and the Russian Past

John Barber

  • The Long Road to Freedom: Russia and Glasnost by Walter Laqueur
    Unwin Hyman, 325 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 04 440343 7
  • Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia by Alec Nove
    Unwin Hyman, 251 pp, £15.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 04 445340 X
  • Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution by R.W. Davies
    Macmillan, 232 pp, £29.50, July 1989, ISBN 0 333 49741 4
  • Beyond Perestroika: The Future of Gorbachev’s USSR by Ernest Mandel, translated by Gus Fagan
    Verso, 214 pp, £34.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 86091 223 X
  • Perestroika in Perspective: The Design and Dilemmas of Soviet Reform by Padma Desai
    Tauris, 138 pp, £14.95, July 1989, ISBN 1 85043 141 8

Observers of Soviet politics in recent months might be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The summer began with the first sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, whose open controversy and criticism of all aspects of Soviet life continued where the 19th Party Conference of June 1988 had left off. Then followed an uneasy month while Mikhail Gorbachev took his annual vacation. As last year, some members of the leadership took advantage of his absence to make thinly-veiled attacks on current policies, claiming that socialism was being undermined. Pessimistic rumours about his and perestroika’s prospects began to circulate. Then, within a few days of returning to Moscow, he took action. Politburo critics were sacked or demoted, and Gorbachev moved to strengthen his position. Last year he secured his election as President; this year he persuaded the Central Committee to bring forward the next Party Congress, and thus the time when he can change its membership.

On the surface, then, the situation seems relatively unaltered. In fact, over the past year a change of great importance has taken place in Soviet political life. Something not seen, except in rare and short-lived outbursts, for at least six decades has reappeared: mass political activity, open, independent and tolerated. Some of its manifestations have been astonishing. Elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies which most people expected to be firmly controlled saw party officials humiliatingly rejected and their radical critics endorsed by voters in dozens of constituences. Boris Yeltsin, expelled from the Politburo sixteen months earlier, won the all-Moscow seat with 89 per cent of the vote; while Yuri Soloviev, a Politburo member, lost in Leningrad. Popular Fronts and ‘informal associations’, embryo parties in all but name, were formed all over the country. Demonstrations of hundreds and thousands, or tens and hundreds of thousands, became a normal means of expressing political demands. Violence between ethnic groups erupted in several areas. Strikes, formerly rare and small-scale occurrences, swept traditional proletarian regions this summer, and won major concessions from the authorities.

In short, public opinion, until now merely a potential ally for the reform movement, has become a force in its own right. And for the first time since his election as General Secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev has begun to look like a man on the defensive. The Party’s role is now openly challenged. The action programme of the ‘Inter-Regional Group’ of 388 People’s Deputies, who in July formed the first independent organisation to exist in a Soviet political institution since 1921, and whose co-presidents include Yeltsin and Sakharov, has among its objectives the removal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, recognising the Party as the ‘directing and guiding force in Soviet society’. Demands for national independence, either within a genuinely federal Soviet Union or completely separate from it, flood into the Kremlin – from the Baltic republics, whose own Communist Parties now call for autonomy, from the unruly Caucasian republics, from the largest non-Russian republic, the Ukraine, and even from tiny Moldavia. The slumbering giant of Russian nationalism stirs, as neo-populist writers lament Mother Russia’s lost heritage, and the extremists belonging to Pamyat denounce her exploitation by the smaller nationalities, particularly the Jews.

So far removed is all this from the conventional image of Soviet politics that to some it seems to verge on anarchy, with Gorbachev’s reforms in real danger of being overtaken by events. He may control the state, but does the state control society? From the outset people have asked whether Gorbachev and perestroika can succeed. Now the question is whether the USSR itself will survive, and pessimistic, even apocalyptic answers are suddenly in vogue.

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