Boris Kagarlitsky, one of the leaders of the left-wing opposition in the Soviet Union, talks to Robin Blackburn

R.B.: You were imprisoned in the Brezhnev period because of your oppositionist ideas. What was prison like?

B.K.: The really difficult thing was that you were forced to stay with the same person for months on end. A manager who had been arrested for taking bribes taught me a lot about the functioning of the Soviet management structure and the way the economy worked, but even so you cannot spend day after day with the same person: it becomes psychologically destructive. You may not hate each other, but you do get very irritated. There was a good library in the prison but it had no works by Marx. Marx’s writings were reserved for the prison officers! So I wrote to the Governor asking for books by Marx. I did this after I found out that a right-wing dissident of monarchist inclinations had asked for the Bible and had been allowed it.

R.B.: Why were you released?

B.K.: There were a lot of protests from the Western Left but this was not sufficient. There was a change of administration in the Soviet Union: Brezhnev died and Andropov succeeded him. We started to get more information, some detailed allegations, and we thought that a show-trial might be in the making. But Andropov evidently didn’t want to start his rule with a show-trial and the preparations ceased.

R.B.: When did you become a critically-aware Soviet citizen?

B.K.: You see those houses? They are part of the housing co-operative of the Writers’ Union. All those who live here are writers. So at the very beginning of my life, in my childhood, I lived in a world where all the problems of the Khrushchev period and the post-Khrushchev period, and all the discussions of the dissidents, could be followed. These things were discussed daily, and one could get hold of writings that were not yet published or had been suppressed.

R.B.: You were only ten years old at the time of the Prague Spring?

B.K.: It was my first political experience. The people around me, including my parents, were very excited about what was happening in Czechoslovakia: ‘socialism with a human face’ corresponded to their hopes for the Soviet Union. Much later, I discovered that people were also discussing the trial of Daniel and Sinyavsky. In fact, I can remember the events of August 1968 almost day by day. It was an awful shock for me: I kept seeing older people who were quite destroyed by what had happened.

R.B.: What course of studies did you take?

B.K.: I wanted to do a general course in the humanities. Everybody at school did some social studies: a bit of Marxism and a bit of Soviet history, all in the official version – but something comes through nevertheless. I was very impressed by Lenin just as I was finishing school. First, because he was very logical, everything was spelt out very clearly. And secondly because much that he said was evidently at odds with what we saw around us – for example, that officials should live no better than ordinary workers or that they should be recallable by vote. You began reading and you could see the discrepancies appearing on page after page. This made me wish to pursue political and social studies, but my father advised me to study drama and criticism at the Theatre Institute. He said I’d get a good course in the humanities at the Institute, including history and world culture, and I could study politics and society on my own account. So I followed his advice and eventually became a specialist in the sociology of the theatre.

R.B.: What does that involve?

B.K.: Studying the response of the audience to different acting and directing strategies and to different types of drama. We have many sociologists in the Soviet Union, perhaps thirty thousand, who are assigned to gather information on every aspect of life and to see how our institutions are working. Many of the ideas of glasnost and perestroika have come from these people. I myself became very conscious of the need for economic and political change as a student but I was not attracted to the dissidents. I respect Sakharov, for example, very much, but he made declarations in the Seventies that seemed to justify the United States policy in Vietnam and this made me very angry. Solzhenitsyn began to express his reactionary views and this also disgusted the younger generation; there was a contempt for democracy and enlightenment in his ideas that was reminiscent of the Party ideologists.

R.B.: How did you know of his writings?

B.K.: From the radio. His letter to the Party leaders was broadcast by the BBC – generally, intellectuals listened to the BBC while the workers listened to the Voice of America.

R.B.: They liked the American music better?

B.K.: Yes. Some of the skilled workers performed technical miracles constructing receivers that could pick up the signal whatever the jamming. We could learn about the world from the different radio stations, which is not to say that we believed everything we heard, but you can put together a picture for yourself. I also did a lot of reading. I was quite sure that there needed to be a big change. Finally I managed to make contact with a group who put out a samizdat journal called Varianti. This group, centred on people at the Institute of World Economy, was opposed both to the existing system and to the dissidents. Strongly anti-Stalinist, they were also critical of the half-hearted reforms of the Khrushchev period. Around this time I began to read Gramsci. I managed to pay a visit to East Berlin to study in the libraries there. Their rules were somewhat more liberal than those in Moscow, but I still came across a section of political and historical books to which the ordinary citizen was denied access.[*] I showed the people there my Soviet passport and asked to see books from the reserved section. They immediately gave me access to them. Curious! I read the first two volumes of Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky, but my visa expired after one month and I was not able to read the third. I also read some Eurocommunist writings, books by Roger Garaudy, Cohen’s biography of Bukharin and some copies of New Left Review.

R.B.: Why do these questions of Soviet history loom so large in contemporary life?

B.K.: In the West things happen very quickly. Before Thatcher or Reagan seems a long time ago. Brezhnev still seems like yesterday and we are still concerned about what happened in the Twenties and Thirties. In Russia, if you want to understand anything, you have to start with 1917 and even that is not really good enough; you have to go right back to Ivan the Terrible and Vladimir, the first Christian king of Russia. I don’t think British or American intellectuals discuss 1688 or 1776 in the kitchen. In the Seventies we would have heated discussions about Bukharin and Trotsky over dinner – we still do! My wife said the other day that we talk about them as if they’d just left the room. One of the books I read in East Germany – I think it was Cohen’s biography of Bukharin – had a picture of the Politburo just after Lenin’s death. There were seven members and I was astonished to see who they were: according to our official history, every one of them, Stalin included, was a traitor or political criminal. And they were in charge of the country! Of course I didn’t myself believe that Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and the others were traitors. At first, I was sympathetic to Bukharin, as portrayed by Cohen, but I did not like his dogmatism or his collaboration with Stalin. It seems that he accepted the bureaucratic rules of the game, which helped him to beat the Trotskyist Left but without realising that the same would happen to him. I was impressed by Trotsky but I could not understand why he came to see Bukharin as more of an enemy than Stalin in the late Twenties.

R.B.: The first part of your book The Thinking Reed was written in 1981-2. The fact that you were sent to prison shortly afterwards was not connected?

B.K.: I was arrested just a few days after completing it, but there was no connection. They did seize the manuscript and later, during the time I was in prison, they told me that they considered parts of the book anti-Soviet. In fact, I was obliged to discuss it with the prosecutor, but this was not the reason for my original arrest. At the time I was arrested I had been helping to produce a samizdat journal called Left Turn. The journal had an audience and the audience was growing. This created a problem for the authorities, who had almost destroyed the traditional dissident movement only to have a ‘New Left’ emerge. In addition, everyone thought Brezhnev was dying; and the view in official circles was that political stability had to be safeguarded by arresting trouble-makers.

R.B.: Presumably the book reflects the political discussions you were having at the time in the Left Turn group?

B.K.: Naturally. It was a very interesting period at the end of the Seventies. It was clear that the traditional dissident movement had run out of steam. Many had gone abroad and even those who hadn’t seemed to write mainly ‘for export’. They seemed to think their only possible course of action was to hold press conferences with Western journalists: that was self-destructive and I think it was linked to the fact that they had right-wing and pro-capitalist positions. Young people simply stopped joining the dissidents and began to look for different solutions. We had discussion groups and studied left-wing Western journals. In those days we used to read each issue of New Left Review from cover to cover: today we don’t always have time for that. At that time young Soviet left-wing intellectuals knew more about the Western Left than they did about the way things worked in their own country. To read Alec Nove’s criticism of the centrally-planned socialist economy was very interesting for us.

R.B.: From reading your book I gather that the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin had an influence on you?

B.K.: Yes, he did. He died in the Seventies and no sooner was he dead than everybody began to study his writings and to appreciate his theses on the necessity for a dialogic structure in true art – that is to say, for a pluralism of voice, of point of view, within the work of art itself. This is sometimes called heteroglossia. Bakhtin was very old by this time, and it’s a pity he had to die for people to take account of his views. Just after his death he became very fashionable – this often happens in Russia. For a time, if you hadn’t read Bakhtin in Moscow you wouldn’t be treated as a human being. I see his argument on dialogic structure, which I use in my book, as very useful for Marxist critical theory and for enriching our conception of culture. But Bakhtin himself was not a Marxist. That should be stated quite clearly. He was a very open person, who had participated in the classic debates with the Formalists in the Twenties and who lived long enough to pass on the spirit of these debates to a younger generation.

R.B.: Were the people in the club movement the same as those who participated with you in these discussions of the late Seventies and early Eighties?

B.K.: Many of them were, but there was also a younger generation. We again had a magazine called Left Turn as a mark of continuity, but there were many younger people who helped to form clubs in the period after 1985. So there were two age-groups in the movement. One was from teenagers up to the age of about twenty-five and this comprised the majority of activists. The second was from thirty-five to fifty or even sixty, and most of these people had some involvement in independent activity in the Seventies and before. Such people tended to be less active but they did take part in our discussions. Then there were a few like myself between these groups, who were involved in Left Turn and other samizdat journals. We are the link between the new ‘Gorbachev levy’ and those who remember the Khrushchev thaw.

R.B.: Did the emergence of independent clubs, debating and campaigning on public issues, mark a new stage?

B.K.: The clubs represented the first, tentative signs of a re-birth of civil society in a country where bureaucratic stagnation was threatening to smother all life. We had already thought about the need for a radical initiative ‘from below’ in our country, but we didn’t expect it to take the form of the club movement. The first informal clubs began to form in 1985. In Moscow we persuaded the authorities to accept the existence of a club that met to discuss the country’s future but was not controlled by the Party, though some Party members might be involved. Gorbachev’s talk of the need for restructuring and openness seemed to invite independent initiatives; the Chernobyl disaster underlined the message. Boris Yeltsin allowed the clubs to make use of official premises in Moscow, and we held a national meeting in June 1987. By this time there were scores of clubs with a combined membership of several thousand. Some were principally student groups, others mainly economists and technicians, others were organised around ecological and conservationist issues. Workers were in a minority, though they were to be found in some clubs. Where industrial sociologists were involved in the club movement they had sometimes been able to draw workers in; and sometimes when workers had had problems with management, the clubs were able to play a role in putting their case. We didn’t all have the same understanding of perestroika. Some of the students were attracted by anarchist ideas. Not all the groups had a clearly socialist objective, though we did manage to found a federation of all those which had an explicitly socialist orientation. The dismissal of Yeltsin in November last year made our work more difficult, but it also provided a rallying-point for protests here in Moscow. We were very alarmed by the way he was sacked and denounced; his re-emergence as a public figure is a good sign.

R.B.: What proportion of those who participated in the clubs were women?

B.K.: It varied, but about 15 per cent. An Italian comrade said to me: ‘You have all the trends that we had in the West from the late Sixties, but no women’s movement.’ I think that’s right.

R.B.: In your book you say that one of the achievements of the Seventies and early Eighties was the development of the theory of the ‘planned market’, which could help to galvanise the Soviet economy. Do you continue this work in the clubs?

B.K.: Some people in our government advocate the market in an almost Friedmanite sense; others see the market as a supplement to bureaucratic centralised planning. The problem for us is, not to find ways to combine the plan with the market, but rather to democratise the planning system. We must make democracy the first priority and then we’ll see. This also means self-management within the factories. In some cases, members of our clubs, again usually industrial sociologists, have been invited to help set up councils of labour collectives to represent people as producers. We also need to find ways to represent them and organise them as consumers, in order to make the whole system more responsive to consumer needs. But we have to be careful that we don’t just cater to the interests of a privileged minority.

R.B.: In The Thinking Reed you trace the history of Soviet intellectuals from 1917 to the present. Why did you use the problems of intellectuals as the vantage-point from which to examine Soviet society?

B.K.: The book is part of a project to discuss what’s left of the Revolution and its traditions for us. The Russian Revolution was made by the people, but the thinking of the Bolshevik intelligentsia played a large part in determining its outcome. When the Revolution reached its peak it was a popular revolution, but at its low points, after the Civil War, the influence of intellectuals, Bolshevik or not, increased. I have tried to establish the links between the traditional Russian intelligentsia and its Soviet successor, and to show the fate of the intelligentsia in Stalin’s and Brezhnev’s time. As I show, our rulers have always had to contend with the independent traditions of the intelligentsia, which have time and again stubbornly asserted themselves, as, in a way, they are doing now. Stalin sought to control all intellectual life but he never completely succeeded. Intellectuals were accomplices as well as victims, but at a deep level their traditions retained a critical potential.

R.B.: You argue in the book that Stalin, representing a new social force – the ‘statocracy’ – cut short the debate between different Bolshevik currents and imposed a solution that was neither of the right nor of the left.

K.B.: Stalin’s project was to exploit the post-war exhaustion of social energy in order to adapt society to the bureaucracy, making everything governable. That involved the elimination of most elements of civil society which existed after the Revolution. It meant attacking the NEP, the farmers, the intellectuals and, eventually, the party cadres themselves. Stalin eliminated the NEP, not because he favoured the workers, but because doing so made the country easier to administer. In same way, he asserted state control of the rural co-operatives, and created one big union of writers, one big union of film-makers, and so on. In the Twenties there was a variety of institutes and publishing houses, of tendencies and factions in our cultural life: Stalin found it easier to control a big all-embracing organisation. Stalin needed terror to re-shape society after the Revolution, because during the Revolution people had learnt to defend themselves, had learnt that the common people had rights and a role in society. All this had to be eradicated. I would not like to talk about exactly how much terror was ‘needed’, but the extent of the terror does give us some idea of the strength of the revolutionary forces that had to be overcome.

R.B.: In your book you argue that the official doctrine of Socialist Realism helped to steam-roller the cultural pluralism of the Twenties.

B.K.: The Stalinist tutelage of art was not established until the early Thirties. The Commissar for Education and Culture, Lunacharsky, supported Stalin in politics, but kept his own Commissariat as a personal fief in which he tolerated considerable experiment and diversity. But in the early Thirties there was a striking change. After I had finished my book a friend showed me runs of the covers of early Soviet artistic and literary magazines: before 1932, the covers were colourful, different and exciting; after 1932 all the covers are the same – the same lettering, the same grey colour, the same designs.

R.B.: In your book you concentrate on literature. In the cinema, however. Eisenstein and Pudovkin, for example, had their problems with Stalin, but nonetheless produced some remarkable work.

B.K.: When we discuss the problems of our culture, we tend to take the main evidence from literature. The written word is considered the most important thing. Cinema demands more resources and thus the freedom of the producer raises more questions. In the Soviet cinema there was also a great falling-off in the early Thirties, but the change is complicated by technical factors – films began to speak, a transformation that reinforced the official demand for propaganda.

R.B.: Didn’t Soviet art have a need to keep the attention of the audience? Would not this allow the artist some leeway?

B.K.: In cinema this was not a problem. There was a film called The Kuban Cossacks. For a long time after Stalin’s death it was considered a symbol of official lies and prettification. When the country was almost starving after the war, it showed happy people, eating a lot – always eating, singing and being so happy! Recently a critic has argued in Soviet Culture that this film should be seen as an ‘idealisation’ rather than a ‘falsification’ of reality. It was a great success with audiences because people wanted life to be like that. Certainly a lot of people went to see the film, sometimes more than once. But we should remember that only a few films were made in Stalin’s time – perhaps eight a year – and almost no foreign films were seen, so there wasn’t much choice. In literature we had a long cultural and critical tradition; the classics are always in print.

R.B.: I have the impression that the horrors of the Nazi invasion made the bureaucracy more acceptable to the mass of Soviet people.

B.K.: The war once again did the work of destroying links and making the people dependent on the political and military bureaucracy. On the other hand, the conditions and needs of the military struggle gave scope for a lot of grass-roots initiatives among the people, and in that sense, the war produced dangers for the Stalinist model of government. You can see it in Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, where he writes of two possibilities: either the people will win the war or the system will win the war. Because if the people win the war, the system will lose, and vice versa. Grossman’s book has now been published in Oktyabr magazine, and this view of his is echoed by commentators in the media. During the war, the Soviet people learnt a lot about personal initiative and dignity. They thought that after the war there would be more freedom, but just the opposite happened. The beginning of the war had been a disaster for the bureaucracy, but by the end it had regained control and credibility. People still say: ‘Maybe Stalin was not so good, but at least he helped us win the war.’

R.B.: It seems to me that Life and Fate excellently illustrates Bakhtin’s theses about the dialogic structure and heteroglossia. It has an enormous cast of characters and a genuine diversity of voices which shows up the limitations of much Western literature today.

B.K.: It’s interesting that Soviet writers of the modern period can still make use of 19th-century models. This is what I like in the novel; probably Westerners find it rather strange to come across a culture where 19th-century forms still have validity. We live in this culture and feel comfortable in it. Though, of course, there is modernisation as well. Rock music flourishes and helps independent and radical ideas to find a wider audience just as it did in the West in the Sixties. And with glasnost, television has become far more interesting and independent. People can come and discuss their problems in a quite uninhibited way. Literature, however, remains relatively free from Modernist concerns. I would say that the Russians are still keeping up the old-fashioned traditions. Maybe someone has to.

R.B.: In the West Bakhtin’s exploration of carnival is seen as valorising popular revolt, the turning of the world upside down.

B.K.: For us, the significance of the idea of carnival was not the act of revolt but rather the essential value of a dualistic culture. The unofficial popular culture comes to the surface during carnival, but it is always there even when its presence is concealed by high culture. The Western idea of Bakhtin as a theorist of cultural transgression only seizes on one aspect of his thought. I should add that the informal movements here are nourished by the most various radical currents: so that for members of, for example, the student group Obschina Bakunin would be more significant than Bakhtin.

R.B.: In Soviet literature the writer is often concerned about the fate of society as a whole. While there is plurality, there isn’t fragmentation.

B.K.: I have just now been writing about these matters. If experience is fragmented and an attempt is made to generalise this, as in some avant-garde work, the results can be dangerous. Bakhtin’s critical aesthetics helps to bridge the gap between the fragmented analysis and a fragmented reality. It supplies a generalising moment which is all the more necessary when reality itself is fragmented.

R.B.: At some points in your book you talk of the heavy weight of what you term ‘Asiatic’ backwardness and despotism in your country. This theory of ‘Asiatic despotism’ has been quite widely criticised by historians and is in any case problematic because it’s –

B.K.: A bit racist?

R.B.: Well, at least ethnocentric.

B.K.: I should make it clear that I didn’t mean to impose a stereotype on the East. In fact, my interest in this problem has brought it home to me that some Asiatic societies have developed quite resilient forms of democracy. Tariq Ali and Achin Vanaik have been right to focus on the problem of why bourgeois democracy survives in India; and because India is a large multi-national state like the Soviet Union, this is a very interesting case for us.

R.B.: You mentioned just now the new openness of the Soviet media. Does this mean that members of the unofficial clubs could present their views on television?

B.K.: There is a programme called Vzgliad, or Look, which has done this. It is supposed to be a youth programme but it doesn’t only discuss the problems of the young. It showed one of our activists talking of the need for international solidarity and criticising reactionary dissident ideas. I think reform-minded officials were glad to be able to show their conservative opponents inside the Party that these people are not pro-capitalist, or pro-dissident, as Stalinists would like them to be. Stalinists were very unhappy that the opposition represented by the clubs expressed real socialist ideals. They would have been far more comfortable with a right-wing liberal or pro-Western opposition.

R.B.: Could you tell me about the libel action you won earlier this year?

B.K.: At first the growth of the informal left-wing groups aroused most apprehension in the Komsomol leadership, because the bulk of the activists were young people. Moreover, in the autumn of 1987, some official youth papers began to publish reports on the activity of the ‘New Left’. Naturally, the Komsomol bureaucracy felt obliged to defend itself, and found no other way of doing this than to publish a whole series of articles aimed at discrediting the socialist movement. The biggest article – you might say, the ‘programmatic’ one – appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda of 31 January 1988. I figured as the principal villain. They depicted me as a scoundrel who dreamt of undermining the Soviet economy and had gathered round him a set of ‘trouble-makers, layabouts and spoilers’; they said that I had assumed without authority the title of ‘sociologist’, and so on. This article was subsequently quoted and re-quoted in a number of provincial youth papers, undoubtedly on the instructions of the Komsomol Central Committee. Mironenko, the Committee’s First Secretary, himself admitted, in an interview with the New York Times, that the article expressed the view of the Komsomol’s leadership. The effect was exactly the opposite of what had been expected. Out of the blue we had been given publicity. Many readers of the papers concerned learnt for the first time about the activities of the socialist groups through what they published about us. All the same, I had to react. The article contained an outright libel on the movement and on me personally. I brought an action against the authors. They refused to appear in court. The representatives of Komsomolskaya Pravda said that the article had been handed to them ‘from on high’ and they could not be held responsible for it. Sometimes all this bore a marked resemblance to a comedy. Eventually the case ended in victory for me, and Komsomolskaya Pravda published a retraction. For the first time, a Soviet citizen had shown that the official press cannot with impunity stick labels on persons who think differently about politics and slander those whom it finds objectionable. Nevertheless, the importance of my success must not be exaggerated. The press continues to be used to vilify individuals and groups that the authorities dislike, and this kind of material often gets published in papers which enjoy a reputation for being ‘liberal’. The latest example is the tendentious article by Gleb Pavlovsky in Moscow News, in which the Left is accused, without any proof, of having ‘totalitarian ways’. It is interesting that Pavlovsky has learnt from the example of his predecessors on Komsomolskaya Pravda and doesn’t give any names or concrete facts in his article, so that he cannot be sued.

R.B.: In July the Popular Front for Perestroika was formed. Could you tell me what forces are involved in this new grouping?

B.K.: The ‘club phase’ of the socialist movement ended in summer 1988. The clubs were in crisis. Inter-club associations like the Federation of Socialist Clubs had broken up. Paradoxical as it may seem, this crisis was due to our successes. The spring saw the rise of a mass movement in our country which could not be, and did not wish to be, confined within the narrow limits of political youth clubs. The rise of this movement was connected with general discontent at the undemocratic way in which the election of delegates to the Party Conference was conducted. In reality, not only the non-Party masses but even the rank-and-file Communists were kept out of the taking of decisions. As a result, a wave of demonstrations swept the country – in some cases, there were even strikes. A people’s front was now being called for, a new form of democratic self-organisation on the part of the masses. In certain towns powerful organising committees arose, which can still bring thousands of people out on demonstrations. In Moscow, where sectarian traditions had already established themselves in every group, it proved difficult to unite the forces of the Left. Nevertheless, even there the majority of the Left did unite under the banner of the People’s Front. The number of workers in the movement has increased, though not very steeply, and persons neither young nor old (around thirty years of age) have joined – which we hardly ever saw in the first phase. It has to be said that the rise of the People’s Front has clearly evoked displeasure, not only among the conservatives in the Party apparatus, but also in liberal circles. The example of Gleb Pavlovsky is significant. He came forward at the beginning of perestroika as one of the ideologists of the Left, attacking the liberal conception of history (selective rehabilitations) and pointing to the need for ‘free civic initiatives’. No sooner, however, had an actual mass movement begun than he not only stood aside from it but even started, in concert with the apparatchiki, to denounce ‘the socialist danger’. In some cases Stalinists and liberals actually form a united front against the Left.

R.B.: What is your assessment of the overall situation in the wake of the Party Conference last June and the more recent reshuffle of the Politburo?

B.K.: The preparations for the Party Conference gave rise to stormy debates all over the country and, as I have mentioned, to the rise of a mass movement, but the Conference itself produced no great result. It failed to make a decisive move in the direction of reform, even though the reformers themselves did not suffer defeat. Many people were simply disappointed. The prestige of Boris Yeltsin, who had boldly criticised the Party leadership, increased sharply, while that of Gorbachev declined somewhat. One the whole, however, everything remained as it was. Even the changes in the Politburo didn’t alter the situation to any great extent. People were already tired of following the endless permutations among the cadres. It will be much more important to see how free the elections are in March and October 1989. The Supreme Soviet is this time to be constituted through indirect rather than direct elections, which is obviously due to fear of the electors on the part of the Apparatus. Nevertheless, the People’s Front means to participate actively in these elections. A great deal will depend on whether or not the forces of the Left manage to achieve real success in this struggle.

[*] It was announced in August that the closed sections of Soviet libraries would be opened to the general public.