issue 190 - December 1988
Glasnost is trying to lift the
dead weight of the past
from the Soviet present.
Richard Swift reports.
There is a story about wily old Prince Sihanouk of Kampuchea. The Prince was once asked why he had sent his children to school at the University of Moscow rather than to Paris where most children of the traditional Cambodian elite end up. Sihanouk replied that if he had sent his children to the Sorbonne they would have returned dedicated Marxists and radicals. By sending them to Moscow he was guaranteeing that they returned to him as dedicated anti-Communists.
This reflects the main experience of the USSR for most of us who organize for change in the West - it is a kind of anti-model. I remember picketing in front of a supermarket in Montreal in support of a strike of poorly-paid bakery workers. On that June Saturday morning I recall one particularly outraged customer pushing past me and muttering under his breath 'If you don't like it here why don't you go to Russia?' This had little to do with the rate of pay for bakery workers but it is typical of the kind of closure of political debate that the USSR seems to inspire. It doesn't matter if you are arguing against apartheid or for renewable energy - one reference to the drab Soviet monolith is enough to turn the tide against you.
Soviet realities are of course much more complex (though not always better) than these stereotypes imply. Now with Mikhail Gorbachev's program of glasnost they are also a lot more visible. Long-hidden disagreements about policy are now there for everyone to read in the columns of Pravda. The line-ups in front of the shops are still there but there is a liveliness to Soviet politics that was missing in the Brezhnev 'period of stagnation'. It is ironic that a society where you see the icons of revolutionary birth everywhere (crowd scenes of 1917, workers on the barricades, Lenin addressing the people) should have become so profoundly apolitical for most of its citizens. But the fear of politics engendered by years of bureaucratic rule is beginning to ebb away. And democratic movements that we first experienced 25 years ago - environmental, cultural, new left, minority and human rights (the exception is feminism) - are becoming part of the Soviet scene.
There has always been more variety in the USSR than the West's image allowed. How could it be otherwise? A rug weaver in Islamic Tashkent views the world quite differently from an Estonian engineering student living on the Gulf of Finland. Profound differences separate the sophistication of Leningrad's fashionable intellectual life from parochial Russian villages where millions still live. Even in the midst of the Brezhnev era there were numerous subcultures - Christian, pacifist, spiritualist, nationalist - that survived and even grew. The USSR has its own youth scene, its punks, its rock culture, its drugs, its criminal underworld, even its millionaires.
In fact Soviet reality is a little like one of the brightly-painted Marushka Dolls that you can buy (if you have hard currency) in the tourist shops. Once you have unscrewed the head of the top doll you find another one inside and so on - layers of reality. On the surface the Soviet Union seems like a relatively equal but quite spartan Third World country. No-one starves but no-one seems very contented with their lot. The people are gruff but friendly as they surge through Moscow or Leningrad's impressive subways, hurrying along with the inevitable small bouquet of flowers for family and friends. It is commonplace - through probably still necessary - to say that they are people just like us who fear hard times and love their children. They are neither slaves ready for revolt or mindless robots who act and think only on command.
But when you get to the next layer of reality you begin to see some differences. Take money. It has a lot less meaning in the Soviet Union than it does in the West. Sonya, a friend in Moscow, complains that Westerners always count their change down to the last kopek whereas Soviet people don't bother. Blat (influence) or actual goods to barter can often get you a lot further than a pocketful of roubles with nothing to spend them on. The Soviets have one of the highest rates of saving in the world. There is wealth and privilege but it is not obvious. It depends more on access to well-supplied special shops or dachas (much-loved Soviet country cottages) that in turn depend on the office you hold.
The scale of things is another difference. Buildings, streets, public offices, endless suburban apartment blocks, even monuments are both impressive and intimidating in their size. You see this of course in Toronto and Melbourne but in the USSR it is unrelieved by anything that is cosy and charming. Hotels have beds for thousands. Restaurants seat 250. The individual seems lost in circumstances that are mainly designed for survival as part of a group. The whole thing is like a vast celebration of the economies of scale' ethos of an earlier industrial civilization.
Size and scale are also what is wrong with the way decisions are taken in the USSR. There are lots of names for this: 'central planning'; 'the dictatorship over needs'; 'state capitalism'; or the current favourite 'the command-administrative system'. But everyone has come to agree that it is failing to deliver the goods. It is easy for a bureaucrat at the centre to control and plan for the production of five kinds of shoes (the less sizes the better). But it is almost impossible for them to find out the desires and needs of hundreds of thousands of potential consumers. Success is measured by the number of shoes produced even if they remain unsold or fall apart after a month. In this computer era Soviet economists such as Abel Aganbegyan, are challenging Gosplan's tight central planning as in fact a wasteful diseconomy of scale. Economic perestroika is designed to break up the stranglehold the central economic ministries in Moscow have on the economy and bring in greater decentralization and local responsibility to respond to the needs of the consumer. The right to set up private co-ops (particularly in the badly underdeveloped service sector) and greater power and responsibility devolving to individual enterprises are on the agenda.
But glasnost and perestroika have so far had little impact on people's daily lives. It has proven much easier to start to change politics than economics. Intellectuals and activists have benefitted from unprecedented new freedoms but most working people continue to be skeptical. One Leningrad student summed up the views of many when he told me it was all 'Words, words, words.' Many feel the economic situation is worse than it was under Brezhnev. In public transit and education the record isn't bad. But there are still shortages (now referred to as 'deficits') in everything from housing to audiotapes. A North American journalist sympathetic to the government who lives in Moscow and shops for his family told me that it takes him between 15 and 20 hours a week to search out edible groceries. This is like having two jobs. But he believes there would be great potential for economic reform 'if Gorbachev could tap the tremendous energy of the Soviet people. Now half that energy is spent trying to control people and the other half goes into inventing ingenious ways to avoid those controls'.
Despite the slow pace of economic reform Gorbachev is for the moment quite popular. But should reform be put down to the work of one man as the Western press tends to claim? One cannot of course underrate Gorbachev's consummate skills as a politician - these were seen at the end of September when he neatly downgraded or retired his main conservative rivals in the Politburo. But glasnost and perestroika are the products of a whole reform tendency in the Communist Party including some, such as former Moscow party boss Boris Yeltsin who would move faster than Gorbachev. Besides Gorbachev's reforms are in some way reflecting changes that were happening anyway. The USSR is not the same society that it was in the 1950s or even when Brezhnev came to power. It has become both urbanized and highly literate. The peasant village is for many not even a distant memory. As standards of living and education have grown so have people's economic and political expectations. If viewed in this way Gorbachev and his reforms are long overdue.
The other increasingly important source of change is the movement of independent and democratic groups that are pushing for reform from below. This may be the decisive factor - believing that thorough-going reform can come from the ossified ranks of the Communist Party is a pretty long shot. The strength of the new democratic groups varies greatly. In the small Baltic provinces of Estonia and Latvia they have come together in a Popular Front that has outstripped the Communist Party in terms of size and influence. Similar groups are active in Leningrad, Moscow and other major cities but conditions there are much more restrictive and there hasn't been anything like the same blossoming of popular support.
These new democratic activists adopt a different tack from the traditional Soviet opposition. The courageous 1970s dissidents were isolated with the Western media as its primary audience. In contrast the Popular Front and the new independent socialist clubs try to build links with other sectors of society and maintain a dialogue with the more radical reform wing of the Party. Yet it is only on the fringes of the Soviet Union - the Baltic provinces in the west and Armenia in the south - where national feeling has helped build an extra-party movement to anything like the strength needed to shape events.
The democratic openings that have allowed these movements to emerge seem still narrow and very tentative. By Western standards even the more daring Soviet papers are cautious - although refreshingly free of hype. More serious is the new law 'On the Procedure and Organization and Conduct of Rallies, Meetings, Street Processions, and Demonstrations in the USSR'. This draconian rule demands that organizers supply the names and addresses of all those going to attend a demonstration as well as any slogans to be chanted. This in effect bans demonstrations unless the authorities approve.
Still, by the standards of Soviet history glasnost is a political revolution. Both press criticism and the right to organize a group independent of Party control (although not another political party) are significant gains. Who would have thought a decade ago that opposition figures like the physicist Andrei Sakharov and the historian Roy Medvedev would enter public debate? Soviet life - and Tsarist life before it - has always been smothered by an absolutist state using broad censorship powers and a political police force. Writers like Boris Kagarlitsky - an astute theorist of the Soviet New Left - have traced the historical contours of an Asiatic Despotism that has prevented the development of a mature and self-governing society in the Soviet Union. From his point of view Russia changed Marxism as much as Marxism changed Russia. An optimistic reading of Russian history would allow at least partial democracy between the time of the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s to the time Stalin brought the Bolsheviks' New Economic Policy to an end in 1929. A pessimistic one would limit it to a few months during the revolution until Bolshevik rule hardened into dictatorship. Not a great foundation for a democratic political culture.
The most recent party congress decided on the erection of a monument to the victims of Joseph Stalin's terror. This was a clear victory for the coalition of democratic organizations demanding official recognition of the wrongs of the past. Yet the atmosphere of fear that Stalin created is not entirely dead. In his anti-Stalinist novel Children of the Arbat, Anatoli Rybakov lays bare the logic of Stalin's power over a subordinate: 'Yagoda would be loyal out of fear, which was better than being loyal out of conviction. Convictions change but fear lasts forever.' The break from Stalinist ways must be judged by the degree to which Soviet people support their government out of conviction rather than out of fear.
But if Stalin's cult of personality is slipping into the past that of Vladimir Lenin is still alive and healthy. Busts and statues of the great revolutionary tactician peer down from factory walls and oversee children playing in the park. He is quoted by conservatives and reformers alike to justify their views. A rethinking of Lenin's inheritance must be on the agenda for Soviet reformers. It is quite strange to believe that all fundamental questions of policy can be resolved by reference to a man who lived 50 years ago. Also the revolution of 1917 was a time of drastic measures that short-circuited the hopes of many for a democratic socialism and made it easier for Stalin to establish himself. Even in the early days of the Revolution the German socialist Rosa Luxembourg saw the danger. She wrote: 'Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.' The sad fact is that the Bolshevik tradition lacks a theory of socialist democracy to build on.
But it is too easy to blame leaders for everything. Just as capitalism at least to a degree rests on our individual desire 'to get ahead of the Joneses' so Soviet state socialism partially rests on authoritarian habits among the people. One need only experience the little tsars on the doors of Soviet hotels and public buildings to realize that autocracy is not only a vice of government. Soviet society is riddled with people in positions of real or imagined power who say nyet simply because they have the authority to do so.
Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he has brought a refreshing change of political style to the USSR, a style at once humanistic, modest and fairly free of rhetoric. Many of his more militant supporters have been puzzled that he has not as in the manner of the past swept aside and vilified his opponents. Yegor Yakivlev, editor of the anti-Stalinist Moscow News, provides a revealing glimpse of such expectations from a press conference where one of the journalists in attendance remarked 'We must pursue the truth with an iron hand. Gorbachev disagreed - not with an iron hand but with an intelligent one.
The most impressive thing about Gorbachev is indeed his intelligence. He and his circle realize that they cannot do everything themselves. The Soviet bureaucracy has reached a crisis where it lacks the energy and initiative to get things moving. The reformers need to find a way to ignite the energy of the still skeptical Soviet people. The central question is how much political and economic control the Party is prepared to surrender in order to achieve this end. The fate of reform hinges on this.
The reform program is couched in the language of modernism: it talks of throwing off the age-old fetters that have blocked the development of both democracy and economy. But modernism can create as many problems as it solves. Inequality and environmental decay have proven persistent byproducts of the single-minded Western obsession with economic growth. Technocrats have their own ways of hijacking democracy. It remains to be seen if the USSR can strike a better balance between efficiency and the quality of life. Those currently in charge seem committed technological optimists, their appetite for nuclear power barely diminished by the tragedy at Chernobyl. Still one Leningrad green activist I talked to was hopeful that a better-supplied consumer market would be compatible with ecological sanity.
There are many reasons why we should be cautiously optimistic about glasnost and perestroika. It has already gone some way towards unfreezing the grim deadlock of the superpower arms race. It will become harder and harder for the Cold War inflaters of 'the Soviet threat' to justify cost overruns on the latest weapons systems. For the people of the Third World it means more space to figure out their own development path rather than simply choosing between empires. For Western radicals it should mean the end to illusions about a certain type of alternative to capitalism. The state cannot and should not plan everything. Marxism is no exact 'science' the 'correct' application of which by an all-knowing party can solve all problems. And change in the USSR should lead to a much more open-minded search for solutions to a crisis that is undermining all industrial civilization.
Perhaps most importantly it can lead to the end of the Soviet Union as an anti-model to be thrown in the face of those of us who do not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. If the Soviets can change so can we. The inequality and spiritual poverty of life under capitalism will have to be justified for what it is rather than what it is not. 'If you don't like it here why don't you go to Russia?' is beginning to wear a bit thin.
Worth reading on... THE SOVIET UNION
The Thinking Reed; Intellectuals and the Soviet State, Bruno Kagarlitaky, Verso 1988. Kagarlitaky, one of the main theorists of the Soviet New Left, has produced a tour de force on the relationship between the state and the people in the USSR.
Soviet Freedom by Anthony Bamett, Picador 1988. A very thoughtful treatment of glasnost, where it is going and what it means to us. A good starting point.
There are several useful sources of material on the Soviet Union. Helsinki Watch, 36 West 44th St. New York, NY 10030 keeps track of the human rights situation and has several useful publications including the forthcoming Civil Society in the USSR. Another good publication for staying in touch with the democratic movement is Across Frontiers P0 Box 2382, Berkeley, Ca 94702, USA. A good behind-the-scenes look at Soviet events can be had from Alex Amerisov's Soviet-American Review, 1300 W Belmont Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60657. In the UK an excellent source is Labour Focus on Eastern Europe P0 Box 128, Southsea, Hants P04 OTT.
This special report appeared in the moscow circus - gorbachev's command performance issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.