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.

Yevtushenko has continually been reminded that there are clearer and more uncomfortable ways of being a dissident than those he has practised. Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, he writes, gratefully acknowledged the assistance he tried to render them, and in that, he says, ‘lies the moral distinction’ between them and ‘some of the others who left for the West, whom I had also defended more than once at difficult moments in their lives, but who then repaid me following the old and sad saw – no good deed goes unpunished. God is their judge.’ It is not hard to see why many have denounced Yevtushenko: this collection is rich in hostages to that kind of fortune. A ferociously efficient name-dropper, he describes in one essay a visit he paid in 1966 to Jacqueline Kennedy in her New York apartment: ‘This woman, who achieved worldwide fame during her husband’s Presidency, did not astound me with her beauty or intelligence, but she did touch me with her simplicity and naturalness, which miraculously survived in the paparazzi whirl of her life. In her bathroom, as if they belonged to a modest secretary, panty hose lay drying on a radiator. “I would never have imagined you washing your own stockings,” I said.’

In 1966, the year in which Yevtushenko visited Jaqueline Kennedy, Sakharov, for example, was beginning his descent into the hell of the fallen-from-grace after turning up for a scattered, uncelebrated protest in Pushkin Square; Sinyavsky and Daniel were standing trial; and Vladimir Bukovsky, having served over a year in a psychiatric hospital for possessing a copy of Milovan Djilas’s The New Class, was about to go to the camps for protesting against the arrest of Alexander Ginsburg. Yevtushenko is much concerned with his reputation, but that he should be so admiring of a wealthy woman for submitting herself to the horrors of washing her own stockings doesn’t do much for it.

It is Yevtushenko’s misfortune, though it cannot have seemed misfortune at the time, that he matured as a poet at the same time as a few (a very few) were taking their dissidence to an extreme he never wished to. Yet he was and remains greatly popular, and few now doubt his credentials as a radical People’s Deputy. The question remains, however: is Yevtushenko a man who used his great popularity to extend the official boundaries as far as he could and to plead on behalf of those whom a fearful and vengeful bureaucracy wished to punish – work which would have been compromised and ruined had he made the transition to full dissidence? Or is he a talented but time-serving writer who made a bargain to protect his art and to ensure it got him fame – a bargain which, in spite of a few guilty gestures, he faithfully kept until it became easy to proclaim radicalism?

The second would, I think, have been my conclusion had I been at the rough end of Soviet power while Yevtushenko was visiting Mrs Kennedy. But it is a little too easy now to say that most of those who were and all of those who still are Communists were in every way contemptible, and that their protestations that they joined and remained active in the Party for civic reasons are never true. Though actually existing Communism was at least as murderous a force as Nazism, and though I take the side of those who see the roots of its tyranny not just in Lenin but in Marx, it is not to be summed up simply as rationalisation of tyranny or the politicisation of hatred. Djilas, who experienced the rough side of actually existing Communism about the same time as Mrs Kennedy’s stockings were drying, observed in a 1988 Encounter interview with George Urban that to equate Nazism and Communism was the reflex of the country club bar. Marxism, in its various transformations and dilutions, provides no excuse for the falsifications, compromises and self-deceit which Communists had to practise, but it does give such evasions a framework which is not wholly evil.

Yevtushenko is not evil, though he did well in an evil system: he took care of number one, but he also had some care for others. Few, in the moral vacuum which Communism encouraged, could say as much – a tragedy which the people of the Soviet Union are now having to live through. He can be pompous and defensive about himself, but he also recognises real worth when he meets it – as here:

Sakharov lived according to the ancient British principle – only a true gentleman takes up hopeless causes. Yet ... the causes he took up turned out not to be hopeless ... The official statement by our government that human values take primacy over class interests – isn’t that Sakharov’s thesis, which just recently was still called ‘anti-patriotic’? ... Didn’t Sakharov help bring down the Berlin Wall by calling for the destruction of all barriers? It turned out that political amateurism with a pure conscience is much more effective than professional politicking with a dirty conscience. When, just yesterday, the live Sakharov, Deputy badge on his lapel, walked along the Kremlin cobblestones slick with spilled blood, his figure seemed tiny and defenceless before the gigantic shadows of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. But after Sakharov’s death, his shadow, imprinted on the Kremlin Wall for ever, will keep growing bigger as the shadows of the tyrants diminish.

It is sometimes hard to see Andrei Sakharov as other than an innocent, an amateur, even a kind of holy fool who stumbles with divine guidance upon a path which complex and politicking men have failed to find. Moscow and Beyond is a brief concluding appendix to the much more substantial first volume of his Memoirs, published last year: it covers the three years from the end of his exile to his death. As a chronicle of the early and middle years of perestroika and glasnost, it is only fitfully illuminating; as an analysis of the processes underway in the Soviet Union, it is similarly very patchy. Despite his naive manner, however, he had an acutely discriminating mind which could see in the Western ecology movement, for example, the same dogmatism in embryo as that in power in the Soviet Union. He ruthlessly used his access to the Gorbachev circle to plead the causes he had espoused. He kept a wide circle of sympathetic foreign correspondents interested in him and thus ensured his remaining in the world’s eye. All of this, of course, took a toll upon a frail man: he died of a heart attack in his study on 14 December 1989, while preparing a speech for the next day’s meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies. He was a man who, it seems genuinely, never thought he had done enough, always felt he should be in at least three places at once, usually believed his beloved wife had been the real force for change.

Sakharov’s death marked, or coincided with, the end of any kind of simplicity in describing the Soviet Union – or rather, since it never had been simple, the absence of any kind of pretext for seeing it as simple. The pre-Gorbachev pretext was that nothing was happening; and although it was during the apparently immobile Brezhnev period that the vast and turbulent project of the urbanisation of Soviet society was completed, and that Yevtushenko’s generation were (they now eagerly proclaim) nursing projects for reform, foreign observers were encouraged to think that nothing was moving. They would of course have been hard pressed to discover if anything had been, since Soviet citizens were generally too afraid to speak to them and Soviet officials generally told them lies or recited propaganda. In the first period of Gorbachev’s rule, it was easy for Westerners to be ‘on his side’, since he was quite obviously permitting a vast political liberalisation from below in Eastern and Central Europe, and supervising a liberalisation from above in his own country. Besides, if Sakharov was on his side (however conditionally), why wouldn’t we be?

The signposts erected before the fall of Communism are of little use now. What makes the situation difficult to describe is that in the Soviet Union, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe (with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania), Reform Communism remains a political force, even if it seems to have proved itself useless as an economic tool. Reform Communism, as many Reform Communists have now admitted, is not a state but a passage, the rites of which have been observed or are still being observed in all Eastern and Central European states, as they no doubt will be in the Soviet Union. But for the present, Reform Communism in the shape of Gorbachev, the governments he appoints and the Communist Party he still controls, is, by common consent of the forces to his left and his right, necessary. ‘By common consent’, for although both the hardline Communists and the pro-market radicals have spent much of the past nine months anathematising him, neither side has either the will or the force to dislodge him. The Central Committee of the Communist Party, whose plenum met early in May amid widespread speculation in the Soviet and foreign press that it would vote him out of office, managed 13 votes against him out of a total of more than five hundred. More important, Boris Yeltsin, who has just won in the first round the first ever popular vote for the presidency of Russia, made an agreement with Gorbachev and eight other republican presidents to sign an anti-crisis plan which would devolve a great deal of power to the republican governments and commit the union government to more thoroughgoing market reform than it has so far dared to undertake; it also substantially bolstered Gorbachev’s position.

It is now clear that Gorbachev is reaching beyond that: that he has become persuaded that reform needs substantial Western aid, and that it should come in many billions of dollars, not in the dribs and drabs which have so far – rightly – marked the West’s recognition of perestroika: ‘rightly’, because large-scale aid would have been sucked into the maw of the bureaucratic/military/industrial monster, where – it now seems certain – at least some and perhaps much of the money raised on behalf of the victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake ended up. The Soviet President wants to address the leaders of the Group of Seven (principal industrial countries) in London in order to put the case that Western aid for the Soviet Union is in everyone’s interest. Already, Grigory Yavlinsky, who was responsible, with Stanislav Shatalin, for last autumn’s aborted pro-market ‘500-Day’ plan, has devised, with the assistance of some well-connected Harvard professors, a new economic framework for Soviet policy which is in part aimed at attracting the support of the West. The essence of support for this, or any other plan, is likely to be conditionality: i.e. that credits, investment and so forth would be forthcoming from the rich countries on condition that the Soviet Government enacted real reforms, both political and economic. Aid, in short, would be a lever for Westernisation.

There are many reasons why this may not work, or at least not in the full-throated way its most enthusiastic supporters want. Many of those in powerful positions in the Soviet Union object to conditionality, seeing it as a superpower being told what to do. Led by the Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, they began to rubbish the Yavlinsky plan as soon as the author brought it back from the States. On the other side of the political jungle, some radicals object to any support being given to a Communist government, while the Baltic republics object to aid being given to structures they regard as imperialist. Gorbachev has given the plan an initial welcome, but domestic pressures may mean that he cannot offer the kind of conditionality the West could sell to its own people. There are sceptics abroad, especially in Britain, Japan and the US, who think that the pace of change in the Soviet Union must not be dictated by outsiders – even if that means it will be slow and uneven – and who also do not want to put up taxpayers’ money for a government which still gives no unambiguous sign that it will initiate real change; it is they who seize most readily on the objections of the Soviet radicals.

This latest demand from the Soviet leader means that we – the citizens and taxpayers of the rich countries of the world – are being invited to become participants, even if passive ones, in the great helter-skelter of Soviet reform. It thus lands us all with the responsibility of thinking seriously about the Soviet reform process: how far do we believe in an encouraging but laissez faire approach, how far are we willing to adopt the idealistic-interventionist model in order to try to ensure that the beginnings of democracy and civil society have an institutional and legal base, and to bolster the as yet small advances towards a market economy with tangible rewards for further movement in that direction. Under the Marshall Plan the US undertook to pump money into Western Europe to assist reconstruction after the Second World War: the present project would be similar but would require greater funds – and the nature of the bargain would be more explicit. The Marshall Plan was, not very covertly, about stopping a swing to the Communist Left – a real possibility in the later Forties and early Fifties. Fortunately it succeeded. The contemporary equivalent would explicitly be about the end of Communism, for the G7 would be unlikely to pay for the Soviet Union to join the world market on any other terms. In addition, we would be asking that the Soviet people submit to a regime which, in the short term at least, would increase the level of perestroika fallout of the kind noted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and making ourselves scapegoats for every demagogue, populist and neo-Communist in the USSR – as well as any politician who was simply doing the job of expressing his constituents’ fears.

My own preference is for the ‘Grand Bargain’, as Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a collaborator of Yavlinsky’s, has called it. I appreciate the objections to it: most of all, the one which says that giving money to a government headed by an unelected Communist is a mug’s game – worse, a betrayal of the brave men and women who refused to be crushed or compromised by previous Communist governments. But I am also struck by the hopelessness and inertia which afflicts so many of the people who long for change in the Soviet Union, and can see no source of aid other than an external one. The immensity of the economic devastation – which is growing steadily worse – is too great to be addressed from internal resources, whether material or intellectual (the intellectual ones, in any case, are steadily being leeched away by emigration). Secondly, and in part conversely, the Soviet power structure is now dissolving into a dash for personal gain through ‘beesness’, a dash in which the apparatchiki tend to take the lead since they have the skills and their hands on the levers. Even if they wished to, the Soviet – and Russian – leadership could not stop this helter-skelter without repression. The ‘world market’ awaits the Soviet Union – if it cleans its face and promises to behave very well. There is no alternative, no third way. The choice is between, on the one hand, stagnation and decline and probable civil strife and, on the other, a leap into a profound darkness, which will certainly impoverish initially, may also bring civil strife and has no guarantee of success.

‘We are in the throes of a spreading economic catastrophe and a tragic worsening of inter-ethnic relations,’ Sakharov said in one of his last speeches as a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet: ‘one element of the powerful and dangerous processes at work has been a general crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership. If we simply float with the current, hoping that things will gradually get better in the distant future, then the accumulating tensions could explode with dire consequences for our society.’ He might have added ‘for other societies as well’. That is truer now than it was when he said it in June 1989. The potentially tragic circle must be broken; and it won’t be without our assistance. The main actors, however, will always have to be the diverse peoples of the Soviet Union themselves.