Glasnost

John Barber

  • Socialism, Peace and Democracy: Writings, Speeches and Reports by Mikhail Gorbachev
    Zwan, 210 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 1 85305 011 3
  • Gorbachev by Zhores Medvedev
    Blackwell, 314 pp, £5.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 631 15880 4
  • The Sixth Continent: Russia and Mikhail Gorbachov by Mark Frankland
    Hamish Hamilton, 292 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 241 12122 1
  • Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev by Dusko Doder
    Harrap, 349 pp, £12.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 245 54577 8
  • Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine by Angus Roxburgh
    Gollancz, 285 pp, £16.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 575 03734 2
  • Utopia in Power: A History of the USSR from 1917 to the Present by Michel Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich
    Hutchinson, 877 pp, £25.00, August 1987, ISBN 0 09 155620 1

Of the various words which Gorbachev has used to describe his reforms, there can be no doubt which has had the most impact. Though perestroika (‘reconstruction’) conveys the intended transformation of the system, it is a vague concept to which all subscribe in theory but whose practical implications few understand. Economic akseleratsiya and political demokratizatsiya remain worthy but as yet unrealised goals. But glasnost – the policy of openness, frankness, candid discussion – has already produced dramatic and highly controversial results, and has even entered the international political vocabulary.

Yet of all the developments in the USSR since Gorbachev’s election as General Secretary in March 1985, this was the least predicted – by Western commentators, by the Soviet public, probably by the political élite. When the Politburo chose its youngest member as its head, it must have been looking for dynamic leadership, a renewed drive against corruption and indiscipline, and the introduction of economic reforms. But there was no reason to expect this exemplary representative of the Party apparatus to initiate debate about key social, economic and cultural questions on a scale comparable with that of the Khrushchev period, and in some respects going even further. True, Gorbachev from the beginning stressed the importance of glasnost: but this was nothing new. Lenin used the term on numerous occasions, and thereafter it became a standard term. It even figures in the Soviet Constitution enacted under Brezhnev. During Gorbachev’s first year, as under Andropov, it amounted to little more than a willingness to criticise openly the mistakes, mainly in economic policy, of the Brezhnev leadership.

By the 27th Party Congress in February 1986, however, two things had become clear to Gorbachev and his supporters. First, that the economic problems which were, and remain, their most pressing concern had deep roots, social and political, ideological and cultural. Glasnost was now seen as essential if resistance was to be overcome and these problems solved. It would, in addition, have a quicker impact on people’s attitudes and behaviour than economic or political reforms. It takes less time to publish a critical article than to introduce a system of management. The shift in Gorbachev’s strategy is nowhere better reflected than in his recent writings and speeches, now made available to the English reader. Although the incisiveness and even the meaning of the original text is sometimes obscured by woodenly literal translation, the urgency of his call for radical change and his emphasis on glasnost as an essential means to this end are striking. ‘Openness, criticism and democracy are the driving forces of renovation,’ he told the 20th Komsomol Congress, ‘and their absence will again bring us back to stagnation.’

The Soviet media have thus been flooded with news and discussion of subjects previously only raised, if at all, in samizdat. Alcoholism, drug addiction, Aids, rising infant mortality, declining adult life expectancy, have been openly acknowledged. So have youth problems, with reports of teenage gangs, street battles, vigilantes attacking ‘alien elements’, even self-styled Nazi groups. The administration of justice has come under fire, with Literaturnaya Gazeta reporting ‘a torrent of complaints’ against the actions of the militia, the procuracy and the courts. In January, Pravda announced the dismissal of a KGB official for the unlawful arrest of a journalist who had uncovered corruption. Sentencing policy for criminal offences has been debated, with opponents of capital punishment citing cases of the death penalty being passed on innocent people. In discussions of economic reform, market forces have their advocates, as have co-operative (rather than collective) ownership, partial decollectivisation of agriculture, letting unprofitable firms go bankrupt, making the ruble convertible, establishing a stock market, and even allowing some unemployment.

In culture, glasnost has seen the appearance of works banned for years or decades. They include Anna Akhmatova’s Rekviem (written during and about the Purges), Alexander Tvardovsky’s long-suppressed By Right of Memory, dealing with collectivisation, Anatoly Zhigulin’s cycle of poems about his time in Stalinist prisons and camps, poems by long ignored émigrés or opponents such as Nikolai Gumilyev, Georgy Ivanov, Vladislav Khodosevich, and prose works by Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman, Anatoly Platonov and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, for publishing which abroad he was expelled from the Writers’ Union in 1958, is due to appear next year; and publication of some of Nabokov’s novels has been promised. Of ‘new’ works, none has had such an impact as Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat, shelved for the past twenty years. Like Tengiz Abuladze’s astonishing film Repentance, it focuses on Stalin’s repressions.

History is also feeling the effects of glasnost. Over the past nine months, a campaign to de-Stalinise Soviet history has been gaining momentum, and it appears to have won Gorbachev’s support. There should, he recently said, be no ‘blank pages’ in Soviet history: ‘we can never and should never forgive or justify what happened in 1937-8.’ Yegor Yakovlev, editor of Moscow News, and Yuri Afanasyev, rector of the State Institute of Historical Archivists, have put the Stalin question at the top of the historians’ agenda. Yakovlev devoted an article to Lenin’s ‘political testament’, arguing that he had been ‘tragically right’ about Stalin. Afanasyev sharply attacked Stalin’s continuing influence on contemporary historical writing, and called for new study of the Stalin period. In response, academics, journalists and writers have questioned whether the abandonment of the mixed economy of the Twenties was inevitable; have begun to speak in neutral, sometimes even positive terms of disgraced former leaders such as Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky; have talked openly of the catastrophes of collectivisation, the Purges, and the surprise German attack in summer 1941; have cited statistics of Stalin’s victims. The playwright Mikhail Shatrov recently declared publicly that ‘Stalin did more towards the defeat of the revolutionary cause than all the class enemies put together.’ For the first time ever in the Soviet press, the question has been raised whether the Party’s 1956 Resolution on ‘overcoming the consequences of the cult of the personality’ had fully revealed the essence of the Stalin phenomenon, as has been officially maintained. All this strongly suggests that 1987 may see the beginning of a full-scale re-examination of Soviet history.

Glasnost has made the task of analysing Soviet society both more rewarding and more difficult. Not only is there a vastly wider range of information for the journalist or academic specialist to digest: the situation is changing so quickly that judgments are liable to be soon undermined or made obsolete, as the books under review in varying degrees demonstrate. Zhores Medvedev provides the sharpest political analysis of Gorbachev’s rise to power. His book is indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the background from which has emerged the most original figure in Soviet politics since the death of Stalin. It is particularly good on the Khrushchev and early Brezhnev periods, which Medvedev, then a Soviet scientist and political dissident, is extremely well-equipped to describe. He is unwilling to see Gorbachev, however, as anything more than an intelligent product of the system. Noting that there were ‘very few social and political changes in his first year in office’, he concludes that this ‘reflects the instincts of a professional party official who understands that liberalisation or democratisation may turn against him’. But what about the second year? Though he has revised the book for its second edition, Medvedev concludes that ‘Gorbachev is neither a liberal nor a bold reformer.’ He may not be a liberal: but if the revelations of glasnost, the release of political prisoners, attacks on the bureaucracy and calls for democratisation don’t amount to boldness, it is hard to know what would.

Mark Frankland and Dusko Doder are journalists, British and American respectively, both of whom were in Moscow between Brezhnev’s death and Gorbachev’s accession to power. Otherwise their books have little in common. Frankland’s is well-informed in the true sense of the word. The work of someone with a real knowledge of Soviet history and culture, it is full of insights into the problems and dilemmas of Soviet society in the Eighties. Since the author had to make an untimely departure from Moscow in September 1985, a casualty of the pointless Gorbachev-Thatcher trial of strength over the expulsion of ‘spies’, it is understandable that the treatment of Gorbachev is less incisive than that devoted to his predecessors. All the same, his conclusion is tentative in the extreme: ‘the leadership understood the need for change’ but ‘the boundaries could not yet be mapped.’ He believes that a serious obstacle to reform may prove to be the conservative attitudes of most ordinary Russians.

Doder very much tells the story of the post-Brezhnev years as it happened. Unfortunately this far too often means how it happened to him. The book is less a study of the period than a collection of reminiscences. Lively and readable though it is, the continual name-dropping, references to highly-placed sources and examples of the author’s scoops jar. He predictably concludes that Gorbachev’s ‘fundamental flaw’ is likely to prove his ‘unwillingness to accept political pluralism’; though recent developments suggest that his colleagues’ fear of the opposite is more likely to cause his downfall. At least this is less bizarre than the bracketing of Gorbachev with Peter the Great and Alexander II as ‘Russian rulers who seized their country by the scruff of the neck and hurled it onto a new level of change and growth’. Quite apart from the highly inappropriate characterisation of Alexander II, the analogy sheds little light on Gorbachev. His emphasis has mainly been on winning popular support and convincing people of the need for change, while his concrete measures, especially in the economy, have been distinctly cautious – far more so than Khrushchev’s.

Angus Roxburgh’s study of Pravda is a good example of an academic study of equal interest to the specialist and the general reader. Once past the historical introduction, with its laboured combination of indignation and irony about the Party’s use of the press for political ends, it provides an excellent analysis of the newspaper’s organisation, procedures and role. Yet its analysis of the functions of the press already has a dated air. According to Roxburgh, the press continues to serve ‘one underlying aim – to demonstrate the advantages of the Soviet system over the capitalist one’. No doubt this is an aim – but the main aim? Like the claim that ‘the entire system of public communications ... attempts the total indoctrination of society’, this statement owes more to Western textbooks on the Soviet political system than to observation of contemporary Soviet life. Roxburgh would be on firmer ground if he said that the media aim to propagate views and increase support for the Party’s policies. But these policies vary over time. Currently the leadership is promoting glasnost, which involves the press, to varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in investigating formerly taboo subjects and airing formerly unacceptable opinions. This extremely important development is obscured by singling out party control as the central, all-determining feature of the Soviet media. Roxburgh has a page or two on glasnost, but attaches little significance to it. ‘What does his campaign for openness really amount to? ... it is simply that the new leadership has redefined the boundaries to be divulged to the public. The right to set those limits is still very much the prerogative of the leadership.’ But this ‘simply’ may amount to a great deal, because it may lead to fundamental changes in the system.

It would clearly take more than a few months of glasnost to persuade Michel Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich that real reform is taking place in the USSR. They are as convinced of the impossibility of genuine change as the most conservative defenders of the status quo. ‘Homo sovieticus began from zero. On 25 October 1917 a new era began. The history of Russia ended.’ The system’s stability, they argue, depends on a ‘population that has lost hope for a better future and lives in fear of tomorrow’ – a remarkably arrogant dismissal of millions of their former compatriots. Utopia in Power has as much relevance to understanding the evolution of Soviet society as the Stalinist interpretation which glasnost is beginning to dismantle.

This is not to say that glasnost is sweeping all before it. Taboo subjects may be fewer, but they exist and involve major features of Soviet life. The press has yet to discuss the role of the KGB in Soviet society, or the promotion and sacking of Politburo members, or the condition of the hundreds of political prisoners. It has hardly begun to reveal the substantial inequalities of power and privilege in Soviet society. Cultural glasnost has yet to allow the public to read the work of living émigré writers such as Joseph Brodsky or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Moreover, widening the boundaries of discussion in order to overcome resistance to change is a high-risk strategy. It is bound to increase fears that glasnost may go too far and threaten the system’s stability, while giving greater opportunity for anxieties to be voiced. Glasnost has many faint-hearted or false friends, keen to echo the leader’s line while he seems unchallengeable, but with little commitment to it. Critics have begun to speak out. Yegor Ligachev, the Party’s ‘second secretary’, has denounced the ‘filth and froth’ thrown up by glasnost: ‘people in the West and even some in our own country are seeking to discredit the entire building of socialism in our country.’ De-Stalinising historians have been accused of Trotskyism. And ordinary Soviet citizens are expressing not only dissatisfaction with negative sides of Soviet life, but also indignation at the questioning of sacred principle. Significantly, Gorbachev, while insisting that ‘the Politburo is convinced that glasnost is the normal state of society’ and defending even its ‘excesses’ as healthy, has warned against playing into the hands of opponents.

So what are the prospects for glasnost? It is far from irreversible. As recent events in China show, intellectual liberalisation can vanish as quickly as it appears. Faced with mounting opposition, Gorbachev might have to silence the most outspoken voices. Or he might be replaced. Though his popularity among the intelligentsia and the reform-minded section of the apparatus is considerable, his basis of support is otherwise small; most people have a wait-and-see attitude. Much depends on the economic reforms; and there is no guarantee that these will succeed. Even if they do, in the short run the costs may be felt more than the benefits: higher prices for the consumer as huge state subsidies are phased out, lower wages for many workers as the new mechanism of quality control takes effect, redundancy for inefficient managers or superfluous bureaucrats. This is bound to strain people’s loyalty to the system as well as the leadership’s unity. There are tough battles ahead, and some may come in the run-up to the Party Conference due next summer. The fact that Gorbachev is convening such a meeting, the first since the crisis year of 1941, reflects his need to take crucial decisions about policy and personnel without waiting for the next Party Congress in 1991.

Glasnost may not be irreversible – but its effects are. Books read cannot be unread, films or plays seen unseen, facts revealed banished from the mind. The post-Stalin Thaw was suppressed, but its influence survived in the dissident movement and samizdat, eventually to re-emerge in glasnost, virtually all of whose leading advocates are products of the Khrushchev period. Glasnost’s strongest weapon is precisely its public nature, the fact that its revelations have been seen by millions of people. ‘Ideas become material forces when they take hold of the masses.’ Gorbachev must be hoping that Marx was right, but the boundaries of debate will not widen indefinitely. The influence of centuries of Russian history will not evaporate so quickly. At some point, demarcation lines between the permissible and impermissible will be clearly drawn again. The question is how much room for different views there will be within the areas of debate. Gorbachev recently put his finger on the central issue: ‘We do not have a cultural tradition of discussions or polemics, where one respects the view of an opponent.’ Will glasnost help change this? Here lies its greatest test.