Can Gorbachev succeed?

John Barber

  • Crisis in the Kremlin: Soviet Succession and the Rise of Gorbachev by Richard Owen
    Gollancz, 253 pp, £12.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 575 03635 4
  • The Waking Giant: The Soviet Union Under Gorbachev by Martin Walker
    Joseph, 282 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2719 6
  • The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha edited by Jon Halliday
    Chatto, 394 pp, £5.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2970 0

Where is the Soviet Union going? Despite the many striking changes since the death of Brezhnev in November 1982 and particularly since the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in March 1985, it is still far from clear what their result will be. For all the turnover in the leadership, more extensive than at any time since Stalin’s purges of the late Thirties; for all the attack on corruption, with ministers, Central Committee members, regional party secretaries arrested and punished; for all the drive for discipline, with hard-hitting measures against alcoholism and a squeeze on unearned income; for all the innovations in industrial management, agriculture and foreign trade, it is too soon to tell whether the Soviet system is undergoing radical reconstruction or merely modest improvement.

That there is a new, more optimistic and more critical atmosphere in Moscow is unquestionable. Gorbachev’s repeated call for glasnost, openness, publicity about negative aspects of life, has led to unprecedented revelations in the Soviet media: about the negligence responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, about links between drugs and crime, highlighted by the attempted hijack of a plane in Siberia, about fatal accidents such as the sinking of a Black Sea cruiser. It has encouraged intellectuals to begin speaking out more boldly than in the past. Both the Film Makers’ and the Writers’ Unions dismissed their leaders this summer, installing in their places reforming successors. The influential journal of the Writers’ Union, Literaturnaya Gazeta, even published an article in September proposing the nomination of several candidates for each post in elections to the Soviets.

But what does it all add up to? Little more, sceptics argue, than a new image: nothing fundamental has changed or will change. What we have seen, they say, is not the prologue to a great reform, but a streamlining of the system that leaves its structure unaltered. The role of the Party is as all-embracing as ever, with power still concentrated in its leading organs, the economy remains highly centralised, the KGB has strengthened its position, critics continue to pay a high price for nonconformity. Whatever the new atmosphere, there have been nothing like the radical reforms seen, for example, in China.

Such scepticism has a point. While Gorbachev’s demand for change has been insistent, the practical measures taken to date have been less radical. There are three possible explanations: that he is engaged in a public-relations exercise to persuade the population that relatively superficial changes will achieve the transformation many groups and individuals hope for; that his efforts to implement major reforms are being blocked by conservative opponents or simply paralysed by the inertia of the system; or that he has so far been clearing the ground for fundamental changes whose details are still being worked out.

Only time will tell where the truth lies. The evidence so far available suggests that Gorbachev is a genuine reformer. At the Party Congress earlier this year, he went out of his way to identify himself with radical reform. He has deliberately raised people’s expectations, inevitably increasing pressure for change. The openness he has repeatedly called for is an essential pre-condition for any analysis of the problems facing Soviet society and for selection of the most appropriate solutions. And he has been energetic in removing officials appointed in the complacent Brezhnev era. It may be that the Politburo got more than it bargained for when it chose Gorbachev as General Secretary: not only a dynamic leader able to shake the system up, but one who appears to have chosen to lead from the radical wing of the Party.

The two latest studies of Gorbachev’s impact on the Soviet Union make valuable contributions to assessing the prospects for change. Richard Owen was the Times correspondent in Moscow from 1982 to 1985, while Martin Walker has been the Guardian’s correspondent since 1984. Their approaches provide an interesting contrast. Owen’s, as his title indicates, is avowedly Kremlinological, and the chapter headings reflect the personal, power-politics focus: ‘Andropov undermines Brezhnev’, ‘Chernenko fights back’, ‘Andropov’s Final Days’, ‘Chernenko makes a comeback’, ‘Gorbachev manoeuvres’, and so on. He gives a close analysis of the Soviet leaders’ statements and actions since the death of Brezhnev, together with much speculation about the intrigues, scandals and shifting coalitions behind the scenes. Walker takes a broader perspective. He looks beyond the Kremlin, devoting attention both to major parts of the state apparatus (such as the Armed Forces, the Party organisation, the KGB) and to social topics (the position of women, youth, consumers and ‘Soviet lifestyles’). Their conclusions, too, are markedly different. Owen is sceptical of the prospects for real change, seeing ‘Gorbachev the reformer at odds with Gorbachev the apparatchik’. However genuine Gorbachev’s desire for change, he argues, the fact remains that the system he heads ‘is by its nature corrupt, un-dynamic and bureaucratic ... The cards are stacked against him.’ Walker is more optimistic. While recognising obstacles to reform, he sees Gorbachev as the leader of a new generation whose time has at last come.

Whose forecast is more plausible? Both authors turn to history to support their arguments. Owen examines previous succession struggles, in the process making some curiously elementary errors for a pupil of Leonard Schapiro. Sverdlov, for instance, far from being a key figure in 1922-24, died in 1919. Bukharin by then had abandoned his leftist views and was a critic not a leader of ‘the so-called Democratic or Left-Wing Communist faction’. The famous criticism in Lenin’s ‘political testament’ was that he was too ‘scholastic’, not ‘too professional’. The Workers’ Opposition never demanded that ‘the Party should allow bourgeois specialists from the ancien régime to help run industry’: on the contrary, it criticised Lenin for allowing precisely this. Stalin did not ‘rule with Zinoviev and Kamenev’ in the late Twenties; their alliance had collapsed in 1925. Nor is it true that he ‘did not take part’ in the 19th Party Congress in 1952: Stalin attended and spoke, though he did not deliver the main report. Owen concludes from his study of Soviet history that Gorbachev has got to the top because he is an archetypal party politician. He sees the struggle for power in the Soviet leadership as never-ending: in his view, Gorbachev’s main occupation for the foreseeable future is likely to be eliminating rivals rather than implementing controversial reforms.

Walker, on the other hand, examines change as well as continuity in Soviet history. While he acknowledges the heavy legacy of the past – authoritarianism, centralisation, secrecy, defensiveness – he is more interested in the political effects of social and economic change. For him, Gorbachev is the product of a social revolution, the spokesman for ‘professional, educated groups ... a new coalition of academics, intellectuals and media figures’, ‘a man of the right generation, the right educational background and professional training’, to implement urgently needed changes. These qualities explain, as one of his chapter headings puts it, ‘why the time is right.’ Whether this judgment is correct remains to be seen. What is certain is that Walker has written the most original and thought-provoking book on contemporary Soviet society and politics to have appeared for a decade. It should be required reading for any politician, diplomat, journalist, businessman or ordinary citizen wishing to understand the nature of the changes currently taking place in the USSR.

In any analysis of the prospects for Gorbachev, the fate of Khrushchev and his attempt to replace the centralised, bureaucratised system bequeathed by Stalin, and the failure of Kosygin’s economic reform in the mid-Sixties, are important reference points. Pessimists will point to the way in which both Khrushchev and Kosygin came up against entrenched interests in the Party hierarchy, the heavy industry sector and the Armed Forces, which were unwilling to countenance any loss of their authority and influence. Optimists will argue that the situation today is different in two crucial ways. First, the post-Stalin reformers were hasty, ill-prepared, simplistic in their approach. This impression is confirmed by the remarkable memoirs of the recently deceased Albanian leader, Enver Hoxha, which throw fascinating light on Soviet politics and the international Communist movement in the Khrushchev period. Even allowing for the totally self-justifying character of Hoxha’s accounts of disputes with other leaders and his hostile, indeed paranoid portrayal of Soviet motives and actions, it is clear that Stalin’s successors saw little need to persuade anyone of the necessity of their policies or to test their feasibility. By contrast, Gorbachev seems to have learned from Khrushchev’s failure. He is introducing the more radical and crucial reforms, particularly in economic management, carefully: carrying out experiments in selected sectors, rather than immediately implementing wholesale changes.

In the second place, circumstances have changed, and not for the better where the USSR is concerned. In the Fifties and Sixties, the Soviet economy was expanding rapidly, reserves of labour and energy seemed plentiful, the Soviet Union was catching up with the USA in economic, scientific and military fields alike. In the Eighties the picture is far less rosy. The Soviet Union’s growth rate has slowed alarmingly, an acute manpower shortage looms, the development of new energy supplies is proving hugely expensive and technologically difficult. Worst of all, the West has recovered surprisingly well from its problems of the Seventies, with several leading countries growing faster than the Soviet Union and moving further and further ahead in science and technology. The prospect of the Soviet Union being unable to maintain its hard-won strategic parity with the USA, while at the same time being diplomatically contained by an alliance of the USA, Western Europe, Japan and China, has become an all too frighteningly real possibility for Soviet leaders. If anything will concentrate their minds on fundamental reform this will.

It is therefore very likely that a genuine desire for radical change exists within the Soviet establishment. But can Gorbachev achieve it? One value of Owen’s analysis is to remind us that conflict and disagreement are as likely in the Soviet leadership as in any other. Consensus may have predominated in the Stalin and Brezhnev periods, but for very specific reasons: terror in the one case, a conservative reaction against Khrushchev’s reforms in the other. Radical changes to the status quo are never carried through without struggle, without victories for some and defeats for others. There are bound to be clashes of interest. It is impossible for every interest to benefit equally from reform. There are also bound to be differing views on how best to achieve commonly-desired objectives. While all members of the present Politburo may agree on the need to revitalise the economy, eliminate corruption, incorporate the masses more closely within the system, there will inevitably be disagreements over the appropriate means to achieve these desirable ends. Some will have more confidence in the central organs, whether these are the economic ministries or the KGB; others will want to give more opportunity to harness the energies of ordinary citizens, will favour decentralisation. Some will want to borrow from foreign experience, whether of the West or of other socialist countries which have introduced significant variations on the Soviet model, such as Hungary or China; others will be deeply suspicious that such imports will produce diseases worse than those they are intended to cure. Some will place a high value on détente with the West; others will place strict limits on concessions worth making to reach agreement with anti-Communists such as Reagan.

Gorbachev will use all his considerable powers of persuasion to reassure influential circles in Soviet government that a general improvement in the organisation of society and the economy will benefit everyone. But he is unlikely to succeed indefinitely in being all things to all men; and his power is not absolute. While recent rumours of an assassination attempt on Gorbachev in Vladivostok may have no substance, they are a reminder that a reformer has enemies as well as supporters. It is quite possible that at a certain point those concerned about the effects of his policies will coalesce in an attempt either to block further change or to try to remove him. After all, two years after Stalin’s death, Malenkov, his immediate successor and the proponent of a ‘new course’, was overthrown by a coalition led by Khrushchev. (Some Russians have made gloomy comparisons between Gorbachev and Malenkov.) In 1957 Khrushchev himself was confronted by a majority of his colleagues, the so-called ‘anti-party group’, whom he defeated – only to fall victim in 1964 to a plot by his erstwhile supporters. Depending on how quickly his reforms bring concrete results, Gorbachev may have to take action to overcome covert or overt opposition. It was being suggested in certain Party circles in Moscow this summer that well before the next Party Congress is due in 1991, he might summon an extraordinary congress to obtain a mandate for removing opponents and implementing more radical reforms.

Whether the reform programme will succeed or not is very much an open question. It is not, however, an academic one for the West. While it may not find the prospect of a reinvigorated Soviet Union altogether comfortable, the alternative is still less appealing. A more prosperous, confident USSR may participate more constructively in resolving international problems, furthering détente, and improving the condition of its population and the populations of countries dependent on it. A USSR in relative economic decline, obsessed with the external threat and internally divided, is hardly likely to treat its population more humanely or to behave in a rational, predictable or co-operative way in world affairs.

Gorbachev’s replacement by a more traditional, more confrontational Soviet leader would undoubtedly be a blow to Western interests and to world peace. Yet to date this has been made more likely by the West’s reaction to his initiatives in foreign policy and arms control. The rejection of Soviet proposals on nuclear weapons tests, on strategic and intermediate missiles, chemical weapons and conventional forces, together with the use of SDI to block agreement at Reykjavik, can only reduce Gorbachev’s credibility in the Soviet leadership. His impatience to reach solid agreements on arms control with the West and his public frustration over recent American actions may well be genuine. As Khrushchev discovered, a Soviet leader does not have unlimited tenure of office.