When I returned to Moscow last June, it was clear from the start that the atmosphere of the place had changed considerably since my previous visit in the winter of 1985. Even the customs officials at Sheremetevo Airport behaved differently. The enormous influx of tourists since Gorbachev came to power must have softened their attitude, for they were no longer interested in the old ritual of spilling out the contents of my bags, and trying without any knowledge of English to tell which of my bedtime novels could be deemed ‘anti-Soviet’. They simply pointed to the bag filled with books (‘any porno-journals?’), and waved me on with a smile. I remember wondering whether this meant that the pornographic treatment of women – and Western women at that – was now considered more harmful than defamation of the Soviet Government, or whether the customs officials had merely become black-marketeers in girlie magazines and videos. Six months and three trips to Moscow later, I am still not sure of the answer.

On Pushkin Square the new atmosphere was very obvious. It is here, next to the Moscow News building – Moscow News is the country’s most sought-after radical newspaper – that people come after work to talk politics in the gruppirovki. It is, in effect, the Muscovites’ Speakers’ Corner. Most are passers-by curious to hear what others have to say. But there are also representatives from Armenia, the Baltic, the unofficial political clubs in Moscow, and the KGB. It is not hard to start up an argument, especially on one of the regular topics – the nationalities question or political democratisation – provided you have a loud voice and are prepared to make some controversial claims. There is a large element of street theatre in all this – people arguing for the sake of argument, rediscovering the joy of self-expression after years of self-repression.

I went for the first time just before the Party Conference in July. At six o’clock, the square was already packed with people. In one of the largest groups, an impressive young woman of about thirty was holding forth on the ills of the one-party system and its inability to reform. She claimed that Stalinism was an unavoidable consequence of the October Revolution. A man standing next to me, who must have been about her age during the reforms of the Sixties, tried to find out which of the political parties that existed in 1917 people would now support: the Kadets, the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, or the Bolsheviks. Few seemed to know the difference: ‘We don’t know our own history,’ a young man called out. Some repeated an argument they had probably rote-learned at school, or heard on television, that in the West power is shared out among the political parties in the corridors of parliament. A little stout man of about forty, who was probably from the KGB, kept insisting that the reforms should be carried out by those who knew best – namely, the Government: the system could be opened a little, but a multi-party democracy was equivalent to anarchy. I fear this began to sway the silent majority when a few moments later four hippies broke into the group, calling on people to join the Party of Free Sex and Rock-and-Roll.

There are several genuine political clubs which regularly campaign on Pushkin Square. Some, like Memorial, are mainly concerned with the re-evaluation of the Stalinist era, or the preservation of historical monuments. But others, such as Perestroika-88, Obshchina (Commune) and the Democratic Union, espouse a wide range of democratic-socialist principles. These are small, sectarian clubs, none of them numbering more than a couple of dozen active members, which have so far spent most of their time attacking each other in obscure samizdat journals. Although the ideological differences between them are insignificant, they have failed to form a common front – the Circle of Social Initiative (AKOI) and the Federation of Socialist Social Clubs (FSOK), both established in August 1987, notwithstanding. When the People’s Front was finally established in Moscow at the end of last June, bringing the capital into line with Leningrad, Kiev and the Baltic cities, one-third of the biggest clubs (including Memorial, Perestroika-88 and Obshchina) refused to have anything to do with it, while Democratic Perestroika, perhaps the most influential of the clubs, soon withdrew from the People’s Front, accusing its leaders of arrogance and bureaucratic intrigue.

The People’s Front and Democratic Perestroika share much the same ideology (power to the Soviets, implementation of the constitution, and the involvement of public organisations in the processes of government), but their strategies are somewhat different. Democratic Perestroika is dominated by academics (its leader, Oleg Rumiantsev, is a prominent theoretician at the Institute of Socialist Economics). It seeks a bigger role for informal social groups in determining government policy (‘the depoliticisation of government and politicisation of public life’) without undermining the domination of the Communist Party: ‘we have to transform the Party from a corporate organisation governing “in the name of the people” into an open socio-political movement of people committed to the democratic ideals of socialism’ (Democratic Mandate to the 19th Party Conference). By contrast, the People’s Front aims to become a mass movement uniting the ‘progressive elements’ of society (mainly students and workers) with the radical Left among the rank-and-file of the Communist Party. This may pose a threat to the Party leadership: although the Young Turks who organise the Front in Moscow, such as Boris Kagarlitsky, have argued that ‘conditions are not yet ready to replace the one-party system with a multi-party one,’ it is implicit in their arguments that they favour this transition.

The July Party Conference was a disappointment for the liberal intelligentsia: I spent many evenings with friends debating its gloomy consequences. Yeltsin – and, it seemed, the whole of the radical platform – had been defeated. Gorbachev had been seen to strike a deal with Ligachev’s provincial ‘partocracy’, whereby the latter agreed to support the programme of modernisation on condition that no more Party officials lost their jobs. It was now doubtful whether the apparatus could be sufficiently cut back to give the infant civil society space to breathe. The Conference culminated in the reform of the Party-Soviet executives, which laid the basis for Gorbachev’s presidential dictatorship, brought into being at the end of September. It was hard to see how this centralisation of power could be squared with the goals of democratisation. Similar worries mounted during the Caucasian crisis, which flared up again in July. The television waged a nightly campaign against ‘extremist’ Armenian nationalists (this became – and even after the earthquake has remained – one of the Armenians’ main grievances), and for three weeks refused to discuss the military suppression of the blockade at Yerevan Airport, which was rumoured to have ended on 5 July with the death of several civilians. Wasn’t the Government begining to act uncannily like its predecessors?

In the weeks following the Party Conference, the Police took to breaking up the Saturday demonstrations on Pushkin Square organised by the People’s Front. But the gruppirovki continued to meet, albeit on the opposite side of Gorky Street. (The Moscow Soviet had decided to dig up Pushkin Square – in order, they said, to widen the pedestrian underpass. Friends told me it really needed improving, but I remain sceptical: there isn’t an underpass in Moscow that doesn’t need some repair.) Policemen stopped people from the gruppirovki stepping on the flowerbeds. But they were friendly, and on several occasions I saw one of them listening to a discussion, and laughing with the crowd. I had never seen so much good humour in Moscow: it was how I had imagined Paris or Prague in the summer of 1968. People exchanged telephone numbers, compared grievances, and spoke frankly about themselves. I remember one occasion when a man was collecting signatures for a petition against the political use of mental asylums: he claimed that he had been sent to one in 1986, simply because he had offered to sell his dacha in aid of a children’s charity. As we walked away, my friend, whom I thought I had got to know very well over the years, confessed that she had herself been imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital after marrying an Algerian immigrant. Her two young daughters from her previous marriage were sent to live with their grandmother, and somehow brought themselves up. How many other families had been similarly crushed by the state during the ‘years of stagnation’?

The summer was also marked by the resurgence of Stalinist elements. The notorious letter written by the schoolteacher, Nina Andreeva, with Ligachev’s support, defending Stalin’s achievements, evidently encouraged others like her to write to the Central Committee demanding the expulsion from the Party of reformist intellectuals, on the grounds that their radical views were a ‘threat to socialism’. A number of well-known publicists received poisonous letters during these months. One historian, well-known for his criticisms of Stalinist collectivisation, showed me a letter from Rostov-on-Don accusing him of ‘counter-revolutionary lies and slander against Comrade Stalin in person’. The writer, as if to remind the unreliable postal service of its duty to deliver the letter, had written in the sender’s box on the front of the envelope: ‘Member of the Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks) since 1917’.

The middle-aged, middle-ranking bureaucrat, determined to defend his privileges, is often described as the main enemy of perestroika. This is dangerously superficial, since it underestimates the residual influence of Stalinist ideology in Soviet society. Stalin’s conception of progress through ‘class war’ captured the minds of a whole generation of people, barely literate and new to the city. It gave them black-and-white explanations of the confused world in which they lived, and goals in which to believe as a remedy for their poverty. Many of these people have remained unshakeable in their Stalinist convictions, if only because they have no other means of explaining the sacrifices they were forced to make in the name of socialism. When the Old Bolshevik from Rostov-on-Don who condemned my historian friend recounted his own experience of collectivisation, it proved to be identical with the propaganda image of collectivisation put out under Stalin: his own memory had been collectivised. Forcing this old man to give up his illusions, making him recognise that the class warfare in which he took part had not, after all, been undertaken in the name of Socialism, would be to annihilate him. Like millions of others, he was ultimately a victim of the crimes he must have perpetrated on behalf of Comrade Stalin.

Another diehard of the old system is the petty clerk in the state institution, whose job satisfaction seems to be derived from obstructing the public. There used to be a lady called Vera, employed to receive orders for photocopies in the Lenin Library. She could always find some excuse to turn down a book: it was too old, or it was in a special collection, or it simply couldn’t be copied. She had learnt to refuse my books as soon as she saw me (was it me, or my subject?), so that one day, as a joke, I brought her a volume of Lenin’s Complete Works. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s part of a multi-volume work, and cannot be copied.’ When I returned to Moscow last summer, Vera had been put on her pension (a major victory for perestroika), and I had no more trouble. Then one day, one of the ladies lost the paperwork (worst of all mishaps) for some of my books. Unable to find it, yet unwilling to admit her own fault, she took the only recourse: ‘These books,’ she said with a vicious smile, ‘are too old to be copied. I am sorry. Goodbye!’ Bureaucratic rules may be altered overnight, but people change more slowly.

By the end of November, when I was last in Moscow, the pattern of political change had been set. Gorbachev’s centralisation of power had weakened the Old Guard, but undermined the radical Left and the unofficial groups. The latter now stand about as much chance of ‘breaking the mould’ of Soviet politics as the SLD in Britain. As for the gruppirovki, in October they retreated from Pushkin Square to the relative safety of the Izmailovsky woods on the eastern side of town. The meaning of Gorbachev’s ‘socialist pluralism’ was beginning to emerge: ‘talk among yourselves, while we carry out policy!’

The social climate is still volatile. There has undoubtedly been a general shift of opinion in favour of perestroika, despite the increased shortages of alcohol, foodstuffs and soap, and popular resentment of the high prices charged by the new co-operatives. But this shift may not be anything more than a re-emergence of the old feeling that ‘things can’t go on as they were’ – under Brezhnev people used to say: ‘at least there isn’t a war!’ Many people, I suspect, are deeply confused about what perestroika is supposed to stand for. While the old system has been thoroughly discredited (and partly dismantled), no coherent ideology has yet been put in its place. I can see people becoming disorientated in this ideological limbo – neither knowing, nor being told, what to think. Why should they believe in socialism, now that it has been all but conceded that the old system was not socialist after all? Older people understandably feel betrayed. Yet the obsessive interest many of them take in picking at the wounds of the past – an interest encouraged by the media under glasnost – may prove detrimental: if Soviet society becomes too retrospective, it will not find the moral resources to meet the difficult challenges of the future. This is why it is a matter of urgency that new ideals are found – the Government may call them ‘socialist’ if it likes – that have meaning for ordinary people.

The crisis of belief debilitates the young even more than their parents. The plain fact of the matter is that many of those who grew up in the Seventies and early Eighties, when the official ideology was pretty bankrupt, are completely alienated from the rest of society, and think only of emigration. Their nihilism has been reinforced by the regime’s negation of its past. As one student put it in a letter to Komsomolskaya Pravda, ‘it will be a thousand times harder for us to rise to our full height, because we never managed to gain faith, let alone lose it.’ To give them something in which to believe will take more than a redefinition of socialist ideals. Let us hope that the Soviet intelligentsia, powerless leaders of the people, will be able to carry through this cultural revolution.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences