What happened to Gorbachev

John Lloyd

  • Gorbachev: The Making of the Man who Shook the World by Gail Sheehy
    Heinemann, 468 pp, £16.99, December 1990, ISBN 0 434 69518 1
  • Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson
    Macdonald, 430 pp, £14.95, December 1990, ISBN 0 356 19760 3
  • The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union edited by Graham Smith
    Longman, 389 pp, £22.50, January 1991, ISBN 0 582 03953 3

This is written in Moscow as the Soviet Union trembles on the brink of its next period of trembling on the brink. Brink-trembling has been the Soviet leadership’s main stance over the issues on which its subjects judge it – supply, production, civil peace. It is commonly assumed that it cannot go on for ever, that the brink will finally collapse from the effect of all that trembling. But there is no good reason why it should not go on for some time yet.

It occurred to me several times, as I spent a weekend receiving feasts at the homes of complete strangers who were friends of friends and whose tables were covered with delicious food, that today’s slogan of the people (from whom the burden of official slogans has been lifted) could be that of the television advertisement for the Automobile Association: ‘No, but I know a man who does.’ Knowing a man who does, as a fellow guest said to me in the tones of one imparting a piece of contemporary wisdom, ‘is better than an acquaintance with a Politburo member’. The man who does is the person, man or woman, who knows someone who knows someone with access to supplies and who will sell them, or exchange them for something else.

An example: Muscovites are now issued with coupons for some items in short supply – of which carpets are one. The coupons are not ration cards, but simply permissions to buy certain goods. The way the coupons for carpets have been distributed is quite good fun. Everyone in a block of flats gets a ticket which, like raffle tickets, are torn from a book in which a twin ticket is retained. The number of actual carpet coupons for the block is four: a block may contain sixty flats. Once all the tickets are distributed, there is a draw and the lucky ones get the coupons. Then the market takes over. Those who get the coupons and do not want a carpet get on the phone to make deals with those who do – or who know a man who does. The carpet coupon, which opens the world of state-produced carpets, can be traded for another key – to the world of Western cigarettes, or home-slaughtered meat, or fresh mushrooms. Naturally, this takes time, but it is, after all, the real business of life – providing for oneself and one’s family. It means that the production of goods and the delivery of official services tends to be rather neglected. Still, for now, knowing a man who does gets many people by – not comfortably, by our standards, but our standards of comfort are quite different, in a way that isn’t always to our advantage.

Vitaly Naishul, an economist at one of the many, largely useless, economic institutes, has recently written in the Nezavisimaya (Independent) Gazeta that the reason why people are doing better than the plunging statistics and warnings of horror would indicate is that ‘the economy of the Brezhnev era has given way to a new, quasi-stable arrangement – a barter market, which prevents total chaos for the time being.’ Naishul, following his unfashionably optimistic logic, notes that the sectors in real crisis are those which should be in real crisis – heavy industry, defence and the Moscow-based administrative and command functions. Those areas and plants producing food, fuel, paper, tyres and goods for export are, or could be, doing well.

So is everything all right? No: a country which has been pummelled and hacked into becoming an industrial power cannot simply evacuate the commanding heights of its industry and slip contentedly into urban-peasant bartering. However, it is necessary to put the case against the impression that the country is on the verge of famine. In the first place, there is no famine. The poor, it’s true, are doing badly. And the rich are getting conspicuously richer. But the forecasts of civil war tend to unreality in two ways: first, those who make these forecasts are usually not those who are about to make civil war themselves (though they claim to know a man who will); and second, they often inflate what is going on in the Republics, including the dominant Russian one, to hypercritical proportions on grounds of political or ethnic prejudice.

The best-known of those who are at present predicting civil war is Colónel Viktor Alksnis. Alksnis is a Latvian, a deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet and leader of the Soyuz, or Union, group dedicated to keeping the 15 Republics as one national entity. Alksnis is widely believed to have been the man who pushed Mikhail Gorbachev into his current hardline position when, last year, he gave the Soviet President 30 days to get to grips with the dissolution of the Union. Those whom Alksnis most criticised – Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Foreign Minister; Yegor Yakovlev, formerly Gorbachev’s closest aide in the Politburo; Vadim Bakatin, the relatively liberal former Interior Minister – have all been replaced. It is no longer the case, however, that such people are simply unpersoned, consigned for ever to pensioner status: Eduard Shevardnadze, in particular, who has just founded his own foreign affairs think-tank, is regarded both by his supporters and by his opponents as a man with still active ambitions, who will seek to establish a political base in opposition to the Communist Party.

Colonel Alksnis told the liberal Moscow News, in his most recent interview, that ‘there is no avoiding a civil war. We have gone too far. There is no peaceful way out.’ He is not, however, banking on a revival of Communist Party power to restore order: instead, he talks of an all-powerful National Salvation Committee (the title is the same as that used by the present rulers of Romania). This would, he says, ‘save the union as a state ... it would be a coalition committee founded by a congress of peoples’ deputies of the USSR. But neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin would be on it.’

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