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.

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