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.’

Colonel Alksnis’s pessimism is drawn from his native Latvian experience – where, in a population of 2.5 million, a little over 50 per cent are Latvians facing large minorities of Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians and others. As Graham Smith notes in an essay on Latvia in the volume he edits, ‘the more ethnic politics becomes an issue, the greater the difficulty the Popular Front has in appealing to an audience beyond its titular nationality.’ Alksnis was himself, he says, a supporter of the Front in its earlier days, but became convinced that its intransigent anti-Sovietism, and at the very least implicit anti-Russianism, would lead to disaster. His pessimism is no doubt coloured by his own past: a tragic, if quite common one. His grandfather was head of the Soviet Air Force in the Thirties, purged and shot in 1938. His grandmother was sent to Siberia (though she survived), his father was sent to an orphanage, then worked as a Siberian coalminer. Such histories, incidentally, have by no means bred a generation of anti-Soviets: the newly-appointed head of KGB Counter-Intelligence, for example, Lieutenant-General Gennady Titov, had his father shot by operatives of his present employers, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s paternal grandfather, a ‘middle Kulak’, survived nine years in the camps.

Events are not proving Colonel Alksnis wrong, but neither are they proving him right. Participation in the poll conducted in Lithuania on 9 February on whether it should be an independent state was so large and the majority for independence so great that many of the Russians and Poles who form the bulk of the 20 per cent non-Lithuanian minority must have voted for it. The Latvian and Estonian Popular Fronts, who have proceeded rather more cautiously than the Lithuanians, have already sought to curb the undoubted anti-Russian prejudice of many of their supporters, and are unlikely candidates for the launching of pogroms against their minorities. Though you would not think so to hear many Russians speak, the Baltic states’ new nationalist governments have not replaced one form of dictatorship with another, even if they have indulged far too heavily in the pleasures of rhetoric, especially when faced with a gallery of overheated Western sympathisers. Vytaudas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian President, is a terrible politician: but he stood clearly for the principle of national freedom – something which the much more skilled former prime minister, Kazimiera Prunskienc, with her background in the Communist Party, could not do. It is at least as likely that, instead of civil war in the Baltics, there will be accommodation, compromise and agreement – even after the brutalities visited on Vilnius last month by the paramilitary police, or Black Berets.

That accommodation is still a possibility owes much to the bloody (in both senses) but still unbowed figure of Mikhail Gorbachev. It is a thin time to be praising the Soviet President: he has recently presided over 16 killings in Lithuania and three more in Latvia, and as on previous such occasions, in Georgia and Azerbaijan, has sought afterwards to deny responsibility (‘I was not informed ...’). He has got rid of, or lost, most of his liberally-minded colleagues and advisers. He has dropped any plans to institute a market system from below, and appears (by default) to be plumping for a corporatist system imposed from above, with the apparat very much in charge (and in line for the gravy, when it comes). He has given the KGB new powers to harass Russian and foreign companies, and has put the Army on the streets alongside the Police. He has forced his people to spend hours in freezing queues to change 50 and 100 rouble notes, so that the huge stock of excess cash which he has allowed to be pumped into the system can be slightly diminished. Glasnost in the media is not over, but it is being cramped and trimmed: a conservative editor-in-chief has succeeded the cautiously adventurous Ivan Laptev at Isvestia, and the new boss of state radio and TV, Leonid Kravchenko, has banned some radicals from the air and has put it about that he wants more entertainment, less politics, on the box.

The figure we in the West grew to admire – boisterous, frank, adventurous, his elegant wife by his side, pressing the flesh from the Pacific to the Urals – has retreated behind the walls of the Kremlin, signing largely ceremonial or mildly repressive decrees, reading out grim statements to the nation on television, speaking to audiences of Party officials. Everyone, in all streams of opinion, now regards their President with a kind of dismissive contempt, at best tinged with a recognition that he was useful in the past. He is history, in both the complimentary and the pejorative senses.

Gail Sheehy’s portrait, an enlarged version of essays written for Vanity Fair, reminds us of the earlier period. Completed as his descent began, it was written to serve a public clamouring for ever more information about ‘Gorby’. A diligent reporter, she hammered away to get permission to visit the closed recesses of his past, and in part succeeded. She went down to Privolnoe, his birthplace in the Southern Russian region of Stavropol; she interviewed neighbours, friends, classmates. She traced his contemporaries from the law faculty of Moscow University and colleagues from his Party days in Stavropol, which he ended by ruling as First Secretary. The portrait she provides is fuller than the meagre picture which official sources and interviews made possible even in the days of glasnost – Soviet leaders sanitise and guard their pasts. But it is still thin. I cannot believe that anyone would tell a foreign journalist (perhaps even less a Soviet one) anything really damaging from the General Secretary’s past. The testimony is of a shrewd, ambitious, energetic man with relatively open manners (he would walk to work in Stavropol, even as First Secretary) and a genuine desire to learn and to enquire (he attended his wife’s lectures in Marxist philosophy).

The trouble with the book is that the material is not rich enough to sustain its length: in the latter half, especially, it relies on a narrative culled from newspapers and magazines which, though readable, consists of little more than a recital of the main facts of the Gorbachev leadership. And while Sheehy is a good profile writer, she is no Soviet expert, nor has she had time to become what passes for one among journalists. The book, where it most needs it, lacks comparisons and background. Gorbachev becomes, not just extraordinary, but inexplicable. To be sure, Sheehy raises the awkward questions: how could he have risen so far, so fast, in such a corrupt time as Brezhnev’s? How could he have pleased such apparently antagonistic patrons as Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov? Why did the KGB back him so strongly? These are questions which reportage probably can’t answer, but with more knowledge they could have been discussed in an enlightening way.

Dusko Doder and Louise Branson are more sceptical than Sheehy, more willing to qualify admiration with doubt, clearer about the shadows drawing about Gorbachev in 1990, more aware of the limits which the system imposed upon him. They take February 1990 as marking the beginning of the ‘disintegration of his rule’ and interpret the events of the past year – which include the formal ending of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and the apparent willingness to adopt a market-orientated plan – as a darkening of the skies.

It was increasingly clear that Gorbachev and his men were groping ... The sudden emergence of parliamentary politics – and political pluralism – had caught [them] off-guard. They had thought all along that they would have more time to deal with the changes – and the costs – involved. But almost overnight they found themselves overwhelmed by events.

In this connection, they tell one of the best anti-Gorbachev jokes I have heard. A chicken farmer went to the village priest after ten of his chickens had died in one day. ‘Give them all aspirins,’ said the priest. The farmer complied only to find twenty more dead the next morning. ‘Father, I have more trouble,’ he said to the priest. ‘Don’t worry, my son, give them all castor oil.’ But the farmer found thirty chickens dead the next morning. ‘Give them all penicillin,’ the priest advised again. The farmer went to the priest the next day, completely dejected. ‘Father, they are all dead!’ ‘What a shame,’ said the priest. ‘I had so many more fine remedies to try.’

Doder and Branson rehearse the parallel between Gorbachev and Alexander II drawn by the émigré historian, Vladimir Shlapentokh. Alexander II was the ‘Tsar Liberator’ who freed the serfs, confronted his own bureaucracy and nomenklatura (the nobility), and sought to promote justice and a certain controlled public involvement in state affairs. But the fate of his reforms is instructive. After a revolt in Poland (then an imperial province) and an assassination attempt, many of the liberal reforms were revoked, leaving only the economic ones – which, in the event, were not very radical, and met a sluggish response from a very reluctantly capitalist country. ‘Glasnost’ – the word was used in and of the times – ‘could not survive, because there were no democratic institutions independent of the Tsar’s power to protect them.’

Though Doder and Branson are alert to Gorbachev’s limitations, they seem less sceptical of those of his opponent, Boris Yeltsin, even at one stage calling him abstemious and praising him for his conspicuous demonstrations of modesty (now, as President of the Russian Republic, he modestly ordered a fleet of Mercedes). Yeltsin is a powerful, brave, crude politician who is directly challenging Gorbachev for power: it is this, and his present popularity, which as much as anything else is keeping some kind of democracy going, as groups and publications cluster round the two poles of power. But few, even among his supporters, believe that Yeltsin would run the country more liberally than the Soviet President: indeed, most appear to believe he would be harder, and many support him because of that.

To return to what we owe to Gorbachev. Many in the West (and nearly everyone in the Soviet Union) now find the fact of his receiving the Nobel Prize last year a bad joke. But so far as the Nobel Prize has any meaning, it was justly given. Gorbachev is a talented, if probably not an extraordinary, man. He got to the top, necessarily, by fitting in. Like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, ‘neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth he was by nature drawn to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life.’ Yet once he had gained his entry ticket, once he was in charge of the show, the conviction that these were critical times and that he could reform Communism gave him the drive to emulate his predecessor, Alexander II. He could not, of course, reform a system only workable under continuous compulsion – though he may still be trying; and if he isn’t, he has probably resigned himself to a period of more or less apolitical tightening-up in the hope that something will develop.

Is it now all over? Does he owe his people the decency of a dignified exit? The answer to both of these questions is no. He still remains, at the All-Union level, the best guarantee against reaction – a point recognised by the reactionaries, who do not trust him an inch. He has not been very well served by his supporters on the radical wing. With a few exceptions, they have been ready to descend into the wars of laws and decrees, using statements and proclamations over matters on which they could have no effect. They have mostly lived the hectic, sleepless lives of people to whom huge exposure has come in a rush and who wish to seize everything at once, or who lack any experience of, or mechanism for, controlling their time. Half in, half out of the system all their lives, more than half destroyed by it, they could not make the transition to steady, incrementally reforming work. All grasped after transformations, revolutions, sudden deliverance. Their interviews and articles are such dazzling, emotionally-charged pieces of work that you sometimes wonder if they went into politics in order to receive the psychic fuel that the brilliance of their disillusioned prose required. When Stanislav Shatalin, the author of the ‘500 days’ shock-therapy plan for the Soviet economy, resigned after his plan, like many others, bit the dust last autumn, he wrote two pieces for Komsomolskaya Pravda of such power that they read like – and perhaps were designed to read like – a last confession. Where Gorbachev’s apparat was full of rubber-stampers (with a few competent officials at the highest levels), his allies among the radicals were men and women of high passion and intelligence, but low boredom thresholds. He has largely abandoned them – although, as this is being written, he is seeking to reconstruct a national security council, a substitute for the disbanded Presidential Council, which would contain some liberals – and it may be that he is now being led inexorably towards reaction. But the radicals could not offer him what he needed: a popular base.

He has scaled down the Soviet Union to a power which, though still formally treated as a superpower, has much less reach than the US and is increasingly turning for support to the economically dominant states of Japan and Germany. Market relations have replaced the aid and subsidised raw materials which were pumped into allied countries – with terrible consequences still in prospect for economies as diverse as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam. The boys are home from Afghanistan and are coming home (often to live in tents) from Eastern Europe. The fact that this sudden admission of Soviet weakness was followed so rapidly by a vast display of American strength should not lead us into easy cynicism. International relationships which both respect national autonomy and at the same time institutionalise peaceful competition and co-operative systems are still a real possibility. It was Gorbachev’s country, more than any other, which stood in the way of this happening before now, and it is thanks to him that this has changed: he has put other countries to the test of making something of the ideals to which they lay claim. That was worth a prize.

The external empire went, rapidly and peacefully – to discover, as it is now doing, that adjustment to life outside the sluggish down-at-heel security of Soviet hegemony is very hard indeed. The internal empire is a different matter, however. Gorbachev has made it his ‘sacred duty’ to retain it: a duty already sanctified by deaths. But what a task! Graham Smith’s volume of essays on the USSR’s nations makes clear that the man who would be ruler of the Soviet Union, and who seeks to rule without fear, faces nations whose new political classes have, for the most part, got the nationalist bit between their teeth. All of these republics have been fed pseudo-histories and outright lies, aimed at establishing that life began when they joined the Soviet family of nations. In some cases – especially in Moldavia, where the main group, ethnic Romanians, have simply had their past excised – this has meant that the first dissidents were historians.

Reform was slow to touch the nationalities question: perhaps, as Gorbachev’s biographers have speculated, because he did not himself regard it as important, perhaps on the contrary because it was seen as too explosive to touch. Increasingly forced to confront it by the rapid growth of popular fronts, especially in the Baltic states, he made a speech in 1989 in which he talked of restoring the ‘original Leninist principles of ... a union of republics possessing real sovereignty’. However, while Lenin was markedly more conciliatory over nationalist matters than Stalin (though he got the latter to concoct the Bolshevik policy on nationalities), he set the line followed by all Soviet Communists of the time – that since the triumph of the working class was being consolidated, the reactionary demands of nationalism would soon be a thing of the past. It was thus not very important in the long run who lived where, or which lines on a map defined what areas.

This was barren ground on which to base a policy affecting a large variety of nations, from the Balts to the Kirghiz – especially since its implicit base was the continuing supremacy of the imperial Russians, whose Tsars had put together the empire which the Communists enlarged. In a sharp essay on the Union’s dominant nation, Simon Dixon observes that the Russians tend both to see themselves as superior to the other Soviet nations and to believe that they have given these nations everything at the cost of having their own wealth drained. Russian nationalism, he believes, even in its milder versions, ‘attempts to salvage what it sees as a threatened, damaged and decaying Russia from the ravages of the modern world’. This mood is hardly likely to live easily with other nationalisms seeking to secure their own salvation out of the ravages of the Russian Communist world. The value of this collection is the sober expertise assembled on every nation under review. What emerges principally is their diversity: some, like the Baltic and Caucasian Republics, far down the road to political separation (though tied in economically to the decaying system), others, like the Central Asian states, struggling with a pre-Soviet history which was also prenational.

Can anything be retrieved from this chaos of pushing and pulling, of old power structures collapsing into new mafias and of new élites seeking simultaneously to enforce their own rule and weaken Moscow’s? There is, to be sure, no central ideological dynamism left, and certainly no economic one on the horizon. The links between the nationalists and the Russian radicals who support their cause are weakening, as both are drawn into their own agendas. This month, the peoples of the Union will vote in a referendum as to whether they wish to remain members of the Union. The best hope of a desperate central power is that they will realise that there is no one in the world who wants them to be members of anything else. It is a thin line of defence in the war of all against all.