Perestroika and its Discontents

John Lloyd

  • Moscow and Beyond: 1986-1989 by Andrei Sakharov
    Hutchinson, 168 pp, £14.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 09 174972 7
  • Fatal Half-Measures: The Allure of Democracy in the Soviet Union by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, edited and translated by Antonia Bovis
    Little, Brown, 357 pp, £12.95, May 1991, ISBN 0 316 96883 8

The Soviet Union might be represented in caricature as the Michelangelo Laocoön, hands clutching desperately at a future freedom while the serpents of the present twine around its trunk, and its feet remain embedded in the marble of the past. Such a state, where the imperatives of past, present and future are all equally powerful, is very hard to inhabit: which is why we should not dismiss the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Chernobyl when it says that stress caused by perestroika was responsible for more illness than the side-effects of the meltdown. Fear of living without an all-enveloping authority; fear that the Party, or forces acting in its name, will reassert just such an authority; fear on the part of the Party and the security forces that they will be the victims of a Jacquerie which will see Communists swinging from the lampposts – ‘We know perestroika was designed by a Communist,’ a Communist acquaintance said to me recently, ‘because it has ensured that there is a shortage of rope’ – these are all consequences of perestroika. The guarantee of work and subsistence has been broken: unemployment grows, as does relative poverty. Shortages, which were already acute, have become even more so. Where Western observers see the beginnings of free-market behaviour, ordinary people see only speculators and profiteers.

This state of affairs is also very difficult to describe. For since the aspirations of the future, the bonds of the present and the imprisonments of the past all, at different times or even simultaneously, produce powerful effects on government policy and popular mood alike, it is very hard to produce analyses of either policy or mood which will stand up for more than a very short while. One never knows which imperative is the most important at any given time, and which will exert most influence. President Gorbachev, in fact, attempts to broker all of them at once, employing ‘progressive’ (i.e. pro-market) rhetoric when he gives his vision for the future, supporting administrative-command solutions to alleviate present miseries and struggling to prevent any radical critique of the party he still leads and the security agencies which still serve it. The difficulty is deepened by the vagueness of legislation, by the insouciance with which government ministers contradict each other, and by the serious lack of available documentary accounts of the main events of the Soviet period, including the most recent. Even the biography of Stalin by the military historian Dmitri Volkogonov is as much a reflection of the priorities of the age of Gorbachev – that is, to effect a complete break between Lenin and Stalin, keeping the halo more or less burnished above the head of the first while hauling the second deeper into the inferno – as it is a fair account of its subject. In the Soviet Union, history is still too important to leave to the historians.

In the ‘middle period’ of glasnost, from 1987 to 1989, Stalinism, and the uncovering of its salient crimes, were the main preoccupation of the liberal intelligentsia – both those who had remained within the official fold, like Yevtushenko, and those who had not, like Sakharov. When the anti-Stalinist organisation Memorial was founded in 1988 both men joined its leadership. For Sakharov, Memorial was less important than the battles he fought with other dissident colleagues for the rights of various ethnic groups and for the right to emigrate – struggles which consumed the last three years of his life. For Yevtushenko, however, it was a vindication not only of perestroika (‘our hope and our last chance’, he called it in his speech at Memorial’s founding congress) and glasnost (‘proof of the viability of our society’), but, we can infer, of his own cautious nonconformism. Where Sakharov was moving towards a complete rejection of Communism, Yevtushenko sought to co-opt the movements which flourished under glasnost within the ambit of Communism’s attempted renewal. Yevtushenko, it seems, remains a Communist, seeing glasnost as a spiritual revolution equal in significance to the October Revolution of 1917.

As Sakharov says of Memorial, outside of its commitment to anti-Stalinism, mutual tolerance simply had to be the rule since little else could unite fiercely anti-Communist militants and gingerly reforming Communists. (Solzhenitsyn refused to participate because Lenin’s crimes didn’t come within its purview.) However, mutual tolerance is not usually practised for long in Soviet debate; and Yevtushenko, who since his precocious beginnings as a poet has remained sufficiently within the establishment to enjoy the very considerable fruits of cultural ambassadorship, has attracted his share of denunciation from those whom fate or chance or personal choice put outside the gates.

He enrolled in the Moscow Literary Institute in 1952, a year before the death of Stalin. That death, as he records it, immediately unclenched the fist of authority: by 1954 he and his colleagues felt free to question, even mildly to confront, the powers that be. He became very popular in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and Khrushchev himself insisted that one of his poems, ‘Heirs of Stalin’, be published in Pravda. His talent and his willingness to bend the rules kept him in the priviligentsia. He is frank about this: ‘Heirs of Stalin’ was, for example, changed to include a ritual genuflection to the heroic constructions of Turksib and Magnita as well as an admiring reference to the Party; and in a 1990 essay on censorship, he admits that he agreed to 593 changes in the four thousand lines of his poem ‘Bratsk Hydroelectric Station’ – otherwise, he says, the poem wouldn’t have been published for twenty-five years.

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