Russians and the Russian Past

John Barber

  • The Long Road to Freedom: Russia and Glasnost by Walter Laqueur
    Unwin Hyman, 325 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 04 440343 7
  • Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia by Alec Nove
    Unwin Hyman, 251 pp, £15.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 04 445340 X
  • Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution by R.W. Davies
    Macmillan, 232 pp, £29.50, July 1989, ISBN 0 333 49741 4
  • Beyond Perestroika: The Future of Gorbachev’s USSR by Ernest Mandel, translated by Gus Fagan
    Verso, 214 pp, £34.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 86091 223 X
  • Perestroika in Perspective: The Design and Dilemmas of Soviet Reform by Padma Desai
    Tauris, 138 pp, £14.95, July 1989, ISBN 1 85043 141 8

Observers of Soviet politics in recent months might be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The summer began with the first sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, whose open controversy and criticism of all aspects of Soviet life continued where the 19th Party Conference of June 1988 had left off. Then followed an uneasy month while Mikhail Gorbachev took his annual vacation. As last year, some members of the leadership took advantage of his absence to make thinly-veiled attacks on current policies, claiming that socialism was being undermined. Pessimistic rumours about his and perestroika’s prospects began to circulate. Then, within a few days of returning to Moscow, he took action. Politburo critics were sacked or demoted, and Gorbachev moved to strengthen his position. Last year he secured his election as President; this year he persuaded the Central Committee to bring forward the next Party Congress, and thus the time when he can change its membership.

On the surface, then, the situation seems relatively unaltered. In fact, over the past year a change of great importance has taken place in Soviet political life. Something not seen, except in rare and short-lived outbursts, for at least six decades has reappeared: mass political activity, open, independent and tolerated. Some of its manifestations have been astonishing. Elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies which most people expected to be firmly controlled saw party officials humiliatingly rejected and their radical critics endorsed by voters in dozens of constituences. Boris Yeltsin, expelled from the Politburo sixteen months earlier, won the all-Moscow seat with 89 per cent of the vote; while Yuri Soloviev, a Politburo member, lost in Leningrad. Popular Fronts and ‘informal associations’, embryo parties in all but name, were formed all over the country. Demonstrations of hundreds and thousands, or tens and hundreds of thousands, became a normal means of expressing political demands. Violence between ethnic groups erupted in several areas. Strikes, formerly rare and small-scale occurrences, swept traditional proletarian regions this summer, and won major concessions from the authorities.

In short, public opinion, until now merely a potential ally for the reform movement, has become a force in its own right. And for the first time since his election as General Secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev has begun to look like a man on the defensive. The Party’s role is now openly challenged. The action programme of the ‘Inter-Regional Group’ of 388 People’s Deputies, who in July formed the first independent organisation to exist in a Soviet political institution since 1921, and whose co-presidents include Yeltsin and Sakharov, has among its objectives the removal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, recognising the Party as the ‘directing and guiding force in Soviet society’. Demands for national independence, either within a genuinely federal Soviet Union or completely separate from it, flood into the Kremlin – from the Baltic republics, whose own Communist Parties now call for autonomy, from the unruly Caucasian republics, from the largest non-Russian republic, the Ukraine, and even from tiny Moldavia. The slumbering giant of Russian nationalism stirs, as neo-populist writers lament Mother Russia’s lost heritage, and the extremists belonging to Pamyat denounce her exploitation by the smaller nationalities, particularly the Jews.

So far removed is all this from the conventional image of Soviet politics that to some it seems to verge on anarchy, with Gorbachev’s reforms in real danger of being overtaken by events. He may control the state, but does the state control society? From the outset people have asked whether Gorbachev and perestroika can succeed. Now the question is whether the USSR itself will survive, and pessimistic, even apocalyptic answers are suddenly in vogue.

Before catastrophe theory takes too strong a hold, however, it is worth getting current events into perspective. Modern Russian history certainly provides precedents for the paralysis and collapse of the state. But the last and greatest collapse occurred, like most revolutions, when the state was fatally weakened not only by internal strains, but also by the enormous pressures of the First World War. The situation today is not remotely comparable to what it was in 1917. However heavy the cost for its sluggish economy of financing its side of the arms race or propping up impoverished allies, the Soviet Union is suffering neither intolerable burdens nor crushing defeats. On the contrary, the current reforms are being carried out at a time of relative international stability by a government whose foreign policy has been among its few tangible successes. While many groups in Soviet society are deeply resentful of past and present injustices, few people are alienated to the point of rejecting the legitimacy of the state. And the leadership, though committed to changing the way society is governed, gives no sign of believing that the path to national recovery lies through weakening the power and authority of the state. The problems of implementing perestroika should not be mistaken for signs of the USSR’s imminent demise.

The most dramatic result of perestroika to date, as well as a prime factor in the revival of mass politics, has been glasnost, the subject of three new books by experienced analysts of Soviet history and society. The most wide-ranging is Walter Laqueur’s. Against a background of Russian and Soviet history, and drawing on an impressive quantity of Soviet and Western sources, he assesses glasnost’s impact on culture, politics, historical debate, the economy, social problems and foreign policy. His book is a useful introduction for anyone wanting to understand the intellectual ferment in the Soviet Union during the past three years. At the same time, it hardly justifies the publisher’s claim that it ‘sets the standard by which future studies of contemporary Russia will be measured’. It suffers from an excessive fondness for lengthy speculation about the significance of current trends. Though completed only last December, the book is full of assertions and predictions which already look very dubious. An unfavourable comparison between the Soviet Union’s progress towards a new political system and China’s – on the grounds that there is supposedly ‘a pragmatic streak in Chinese political life which is less developed in the Soviet Union’ – is not easy to sustain after Tiananmen Square. At the end of last year Laqueur was firmly of the view ‘that the glasnost era has now reached its climax and that no great further advances should be expected for years to come.’ Only a few months later, glasnost indeed reached a new stage with the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. The latter also call into question his claim that ‘no one believes that parliamentary democracy could work in Russia in the foreseeable future.’ Precisely such an idea now has many supporters, including the Inter-Regional Group, whose action programme declares that ‘there can be no other source of political power in the Soviet Union than the soviets,’ and whose leaders now talk openly about the desirability of a multi-party system.

Alec Nove’s book, though covering similar topics, is much more of a report from the front line of glasnost. Instead of simply referring to the most notable manifestations of intellectual openness, he summarises their arguments, quotes liberally from them, explains their context, and shows their significance. In a less well-written book, the summaries and quotations could become tedious; here they whet the appetite for more. Nove writes about each controversy and debate with the expertise of one of our leading specialists on Soviet affairs. It is less his erudition, however, than the way in which he conveys the novelty and excitement, and often the passion and daring, of the Soviet Union’s cultural renaissance which will make this a fascinating book for the specialist and general reader alike. When it comes to drawing conclusions and predicting the future, Nove is commendably cautious. That glasnost has gone far beyond merely improving communications between government and the people, and that real politics have revived, is clear. But beyond that, ‘the result is unforecastable.’

‘Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the world ... tens of millions of Soviet citizens became passionately involved in studying their country’s past’: so R.W. Davies begins his book on the re-examination of Soviet history. He does not exaggerate. Of the subjects illuminated by glasnost, history has been the most hotly and widely debated of all. Nor is this surprising: besides the intellectual and moral need to come to terms with the past, interpretation of Soviet history has major political implications for the present. With so many policies and institutions under heavy criticism for their negative influence on today’s Soviet society, attention naturally turns to their historical origins – and not only on the part of historians. As Davies shows, writers and journalists were far ahead of historians in the search for historical truth; and his two chapters on ‘the Politburo and Soviet History’ amply demonstrate history’s political importance.

How and why particular topics have been and are so controversial – Lenin and Stalin, the 1917 Revolution and Civil War, the New Economic Policy, alternatives to Stalinism, collectivisation, the great purges, the Second World War – is examined with exemplary clarity. Over the past three years, the increase in the available information about Soviet history has been enormous. In February 1986, for example, Gorbachev denied that there had been any such thing as Stalinism, and the general line was that the 20th Party Congress of 1956 had said all that was needed about the Stalin era. Since then there have been innumerable and detailed revelations about the way Stalin’s regime operated, about its impact on the population and about the nature and scale of the purges. Gorbachev himself heads a committee charged with publishing documents from the Party archives. Not that openness is necessarily synonymous with objectivity. Davies is sharply critical of the inaccuracies and distortions to be found in the treatment of historical topics seen as highly relevant to contemporary policies. Lenin’s New Economic Policy, for instance, is portrayed by some reformists as a blueprint for market socialism, a far cry from Lenin’s view of it as a strategy for the transition to socialism. This book really deserves to find a Soviet publisher: it would make a valuable contribution to the very subject it studies.

Beyond any doubt, glasnost has produced a revival of historical enquiry in the USSR. Whether it has also resulted, as Davies argues, in a ‘rebirth of Soviet Marxism’ is more doubtful. It is not at all clear that ‘Marxist analysis is a focal point of the debate.’ On the contrary, critical examination of Marx’s or Lenin’s ideas has barely begun, while study of the role of classes, social relations or mode of production in Soviet history is virtually nonexistent. It is true that the nature of socialism and the character of the bureaucracy have been much discussed. But the participants in the Soviet historical discussions of today have a long way to go before they make the kind of contribution to Marxist thought which their pre-Stalinist predecessors of the Twenties did.

Not that a Marxist approach is any guarantee of success in understanding Soviet society, as Ernest Mandel’s book shows. Like so many on both the left and the right who have spent their lives criticising the Soviet regime, this veteran theorist of the Fourth International is pulled in two directions by perestroika. On the one hand, he has to acknowledge that important changes are occurring. On the other hand, to accept that Gorbachev and his supporters are really set on transforming the system would mean denying his whole framework of analysis developed over many years.

Mandel’s solution to this dilemma is to present perestroika as primarily an attempt to preserve the bureaucracy’s control over society. But in his highly optimistic view the means employed – economic reforms which will lower the living standards of many workers and political reforms which already give them much greater opportunity for self-organisation – will mobilise the workers to overthrow the bureaucracy. At long last the age of true socialism will dawn. The large element of wishful thinking here should not, however, obscure the one positive feature of Mandel’s analysis. His Trotskyist premises led him to predict more clearly than any other commentator the unprecedented outburst of workers’ resistance to authority this summer. But one wave of strikes does not make a Solidarity movement, let alone a workers’ revolution.

What the Soviet workers’ protest did have in common with that of their Polish counterparts in 1980 was disillusionment with a supposedly reforming government’s failure to fulfil its promise of improved living conditions. The simple fact is that for many Soviet citizens life today is harder than it was in the much reviled Brezhnev years, the ‘period of stagnation’: shortages are greater, queues longer, inflation higher. There has been no economic miracle to accompany the transformation of cultural life or the remarkable initiatives in foreign policy. Why this should be and what the prospects are for reform of the Soviet economy is the subject of Padma Desai’s book. As an introduction to the subject, it is a model of lucidity. It has the merit of not prescribing ideal remedies for problems which are easy to solve from an armchair thousands of miles away, but instead tries to understand the logic behind the measures so far adopted. In Desai’s view, gradualism in economic policy is a deliberate and justifiable strategy, dictated by both economic and political reality. The danger of alienating influential interest groups and ordinary citizens by radical changes which in any case would not produce immediate benefits is, she argues, substantial. Better therefore to promote glasnost, which at least wins support among the intelligentsia, and so improve relations with the West, which could yield economic benefits in the form of capital and technology transfers; and meanwhile to sanction limited changes to the economic system, such as co-operatives in the service industry or retail trade, and the leasing of agricultural land to families. In any case, she argues, however enthusiastic some Soviet economists may be for full-blooded market reforms (though recent events in China may have diluted their enthusiasm), Gorbachev gives every sign of believing that socialism can work, and that it can promote both economic efficiency and democracy.

This book is a healthy antidote to the tendency to discuss economic reform in the USSR out of its social and political context. Nonetheless, Desai’s own analysis does not entirely avoid this fault. The political realism of the gradualism she describes depends on a limited understanding of a political context which includes the widespread frustration already mentioned – which is growing and seems bound to continue to grow. A nationwide opinion poll conducted earlier this year showed that most Soviet people expect living conditions to get worse. Such economic reforms as have been introduced, moreover, have had a very mixed reception. Though co-operatives have made some goods and services more available, they are far from popular, both because they are expensive and because their members are seen as profiting from shortages.

In the countryside, relatively few people have leased land; apprehension that the Party might take away what it has given, as it did sixty years ago, is considerable. It might not matter that Gorbachev’s modest reputation at home contrasts sharply with his popularity abroad or that pessimism and apathy are wide-spread, were it not for the fact that, as this year’s events have shown, popular opinion can very quickly and directly be translated into political action. What this means is that there is strong and mounting pressure on Gorbachev to produce results. He may not have much time left in which to do so.