The Gorbachev ProspectThe New York Review of Books, June 1, 1989
I became closely involved in the Soviet Union early in 1987 after Gorbachev summoned Sakharov to return to Moscow to “resume his patriotic work.” After extensive negotiations with Soviet officials, I set up a foundation called “Cultural Initiative” for the expressed purpose of helping the Soviet Union to evolve into a more open society. Its Board of Directors reads like the Who’s Who of glasnost. It includes:
The first five were recently elected to the Supreme Soviet.The Cultural Initiative Foundation, the only organization of its kind in the history of the USSR, accepts applications directly from Soviet citizens, and the first forty projects that have been selected for funding give a sense of its approach. They include support for two oral history projects dealing with repression during the Stalinist period; an independent town planning group; a professional association of lawyers; a consumer group; the building of a cooperative for manufacturing wheelchairs; a summer school in England for Soviet sociologists; a training program for Soviet lawyers in the United States; a new Russian encyclopedia that will be compiled independent of government; and a number of research projects on subjects such as disappearing Siberian languages, gypsy folk songs, a study of the ecology of Lake Baikal, and so on.
My experience with the foundation has given me a vantage point from which to observe the evolution of Gorbachev’s new thinking, and the changes being made in Soviet society; and it has helped me to understand what Gorbachev is trying to achieve in international relations, internal politics, and economic reform.
With regard to domestic political issues, Gorbachev’s “new thinking” is more tentative. At the special Party conference last summer he vacillated over the relationship between the popularly elected Soviets and the Party hierarchy, and it became clear that his goal is to reform the Party, not the one-party system. He faces two major obstacles: the unwillingness of the Party apparatus to relinquish power, and the desire of various non-Russian nationalities for increasing their autonomy, not excluding total independence. To the first obstacle a solution has emerged. Gorbachev is trying to sidestep the influence of the Central Committee, where his control is tenuous, by establishing a presidency based on popular elections. At the same time he is trying to maintain a link between the Party apparatus and the popularly elected Soviets by insisting that the chief official at every level must be approved by the Soviets.
As for the nationalities, I suspect that if Gorbachev were to describe his hope for the future he might speak of the gradual transformation of the Soviet Empire into a commonwealth. But the analogy with the British Empire has never been used publicly, and it is taken for granted that the nationalities must remain within the Soviet Union. To discourage secessionist tendencies, the institutions of law and order, including the KGB and the local military police, have been even more centralized.
The result has been to concentrate power in Gorbachev’s hands. It has become fashionable in the West to speculate on how long he can remain in control, but events have been moving in the opposite direction. He has consolidated his position to the point where only the military could remove him from power—and the Soviet military has no tradition of intervening in political affairs. Party officials tried to manipulate the recent elections so as to preserve their own power. For instance, in January the bureaucrats of the Soviet Academy of Sciences deleted the names of all the popular candidates among the Academy members, including Andrei Sakharov and Roald Sagdeev; and in Moscow the entire Party apparatus was mobilized to try to defeat Boris Yeltsin in the March elections. But their efforts backfired. Yeltsin was not only elected in a landslide but when Communist party members were instructed to vote against him, they disobeyed; the vote opposing him was smaller than the membership of the Moscow Party.
It is interesting to note that when the ballots of Soviet officials stationed overseas were counted as part of the Moscow constituency, Yeltsin got 84 percent of the vote from those in France and over 90 percent from those in Bulgaria. In the Academy of Sciences, the official candidates did not get the required number of votes and in April the popular candidates, including Sakharov, were reinstated. The rebuff to the Party hierarchy was widespread. Of the eighty or so first secretaries who stood unopposed, no fewer than thirty-six were rejected. In Leningrad, a candidate member of the Politburo was defeated. The elections gave Gorbachev an enormous boost: they strengthened his hand against the apparat; they had the effect of making him seem a centrist by showing that he has opposition from reformers as well as conservatives; and, most important, they allowed him to increase his hold on the Central Committee by bringing about the retirement of members of the old guard in April.
Gorbachev’s “new thinking” is weakest in economic matters. Throughout the Soviet Union, including the highest levels of leadership, there is virtually no comprehension of even elementary economics. A top official told me: “We are afraid to ask questions because we would betray our ignorance.” In China, by contrast, the Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang is an accomplished economist, with a think tank of brilliant young minds at his disposal. There is nothing comparable in the Soviet Union.
Every Soviet reformer agrees that the role of central planning must be reduced and that workers, consumers, and local managers must have greater freedom of action; but fewer of the reformers understand that, under the present system, greater freedom does not necessarily lead to a more rational allocation of resources. Consumers and workers can be expected to try to protect their own interests; but when it comes to state-owned enterprises, nobody is concerned to protect the interest of capital, and, as a result, capital is wastefully used. To mention only one example, it takes an average of ten years to build a new plant, so the huge resources devoted to construction throughout the USSR remain idle and unproductive for long periods.
The problem of obtaining adequate return on invested capital is not unique to the Soviet Union; it has played havoc with economic reform in China and Hungary. But in these countries at least the problem is beginning to be understood. In the Soviet Union, economic reform is mired in confusion. Profit is associated with capitalism, and Gorbachev is far from abandoning the basic tenets of socialism. All incentives associated with profits continue to be distrusted.
The idea of equality is deeply ingrained in the Soviet tradition—indeed, as exemplified in the village communes called obshchina, it predates the Soviet system. But the reality is very far from dogma; Soviet rulers enjoy proportionately greater privileges than rulers anywhere else in the world. The reformers want to abolish these privileges, and they also want to maintain an egalitarian approach to wages and prices, which is incompatible with economic reform. They embrace the concept of self-management—long after it has proved unworkable in Yugoslavia—but they are unwilling to reward entrepreneurial ability and risk-taking.
Soviet economic reformers made a serious mistake during the last two years when they prematurely dismantled the vertical lines of responsibility by which production quotas, prices, and social policies of all sorts were largely determined by officials at the top of the hierarchy of planners and administrators. While Gorbachev’s reformers broke the chain of command they failed to create new economic units capable of working in a system of horizontal relationships, i.e., in a market environment. A subtle system of economic command evolved in the Soviet Union by which everyone concerned watched what went on at the top and leaned in whatever direction the wind was blowing. This habit was formed under Stalin, when failure to take one’s cue could be dangerous to one’s health, and it was preserved by inertia during the “stagnation period” of Brezhnev. Gorbachev went out of his way to break this habit and he succeeded altogether too well. Now officials ignore signals from the top and pursue their own interests. As a result, the economy has become less responsible to signals than it used to be, and it lacks a system that can coordinate supply and demand.
Yet the changes that have taken place in Soviet society under Gorbachev are nothing short of miraculous. When I went to Moscow in March 1987 to discuss arrangements for my foundation I could not find what Eastern Europeans would call “civil society,” i.e., people who think and act independently of the state. This was not simply because of my own inexperience: Soviet intellectuals themselves did not know what other people were thinking outside their own intimate circles. Independent thought was carried on underground. Now all this has changed. For the first time different political conceptions and practices are the subject of open public debate.
Intellectual life in the Soviet Union has the quality of a dream because of the wide divergence between thinking and reality. Such a gap has always existed, but it was of a different kind. Until recently, there was a formal system, expressed in Marxist-Leninist language, in which thoughts were governed by dogma; and then there was the real world, which was vastly different. People were obliged to pretend that there was no difference between the two, and they were expected to use the dogmatic Marxist language as if it described their lives. This is the gap the Soviet citizens have learned to live with, either by recognizing it, or by denying it, or by finding some accommodation with it.
The discrepancy between thought and reality is so great that something will have to give: either reality will have to change, or thought will have to be brought back to the realm of reality. So far, movement has been largely confined to ideas. Relatively few people are actively involved in organizing new ventures either in the cultural or economic sphere, and much of their activity takes place in the press or on television. They are so busy and so important that many seem to be risking heart attacks, especially since they have unhealthy diets and lead sedentary lives. They take long vacations and make occasional visits to sanatoriums, but this makes the rest of their schedule even more hectic. No wonder that so little is actually accomplished. To get anything done usually requires a push from the highest places, because lower-level bureaucrats are either afraid to act or are actively opposed to change; and few people dare to take matters into their own hands. Those who do emerge as leaders and soon find their way into the press.
The level of frustration is rising. People are demanding more as they see that less is happening. Boris Yeltsin, when he was Moscow Party leader, was perhaps the first to go over the brink and suddenly say the unspeakable, but such bold words are now common. A tendency toward increasingly radical thinking bears disquieting similarities to the Prague Spring and the Solidarity period in Poland. But, in contrast to those episodes, there is no general agreement on the direction that society should take.
The intelligentsia is deeply divided, to the point that one can now speak of a left and right wing. The first looks to the outside world, the other to the Russian past; or, put another way, one embraces modern ideas, the other yearns for traditional values which are themselves a strange mixture of paternalism and communalism. But most of the views one hears combine elements of the two tendencies in different and not necessarily consistent ways. The result is increasing fragmentation, which has reached a point where many prominent leaders are scarcely on speaking terms with each other. The Cultural Initiative is perhaps the only forum where both tendencies are represented.
What will all this lead to? The dream could easily turn into a nightmare. Glasnost could provoke a sinister backlash if it is not matched by material improvements. Ordinary people feel cheated but they don’t know by whom. Their inchoate dissatisfaction is easily exploited by those whose existence is threatened by Gorbachev’s reforms. It is not far-fetched to speculate that the first pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan were instigated by the notorious local mafia, which is controlled by KGB official G.A. Alieev, in order to create a situation in which Gorbachev would lose, no matter what he did. He could not side with the Armenians, because by doing so he would alienate the Muslims, but by taking a neutral position he drove the Armenians, who would have been his natural supporters, into active opposition.
The most dangerous of all the nationalist movements is Russian nationalism itself. The Soviet regime has tried to cater to the other nationalities in order to make Russian domination more palatable; as a result, Russians feel neglected as a nationality. The movement called Pamyat, half-public and half-conspiratorial, seeks to turn this resentment against Gorbachev’s emphasis on European values. It is anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual; it appeals to the most degraded and most primitive as well as the most exalted and mystical instincts of the Russian character; and it already acts as a noticeable constraint on Gorbachev’s policies of allowing more autonomy to the non-Russian nationalities. (It is encouraging, however, that all sixteen candidates backed by Pamyat were defeated in the recent elections.)
It is easy to be pessimistic because the basic process is one of dissolution, and there is no coherent new design that might replace the old order that is being dissolved. The problems are seemingly insoluble; and the experience of Russian history teaches us that brief periods of reform are followed by long periods of repression. The line of least resistance leads from dissatisfaction to disorder until disorder reaches the point where order has to be restored by force. That is what happened in Poland when Jaruzelski took over. In the Soviet Union the man who calls upon the security forces could be Gorbachev himself or his successor. The arrest of the members of the Nagorno-Karabakh Committee and the recent use of troops controlled by the Ministry of the Interior to quell demonstrations in Georgia suggest a kind of intervention that may take place on a larger scale.
But this dark forecast disregards the creative energies that have been released by the dissolution of a repressive regime, and it fails to take into account the leadership abilities that Gorbachev has already demonstrated. Even if he does not have a comprehensive design, he has a vision and he may be able to control the forces he has unleashed. One thing is certain: present conditions cannot last. The tension between ideas and material conditions must be resolved one way or another. The collapse of the system created by Stalin is irreversible. The real question is, what will follow? One possibility is the movement toward an open society—more democratic internally and more integrated into the world community. Another is increasing internal conflict, eventually leading to a new dictatorship, repressive at home and isolationist toward the outside world. Which tendency prevails is of the utmost importance for all of humankind.
How should the world respond to the changes in the Soviet Union? It may be argued that the future of the Soviet Union is for the Soviet people to decide; but the argument has a hollow ring. How can Gorbachev find a place for the Soviet Union in the community of nations without the cooperation of other nations, particularly the United States? Gorbachev’s initiative demands a response; not to respond would amount to rejecting his initiative.
Gorbachev needs a positive response on three different levels. The most obvious is the resolution of international conflicts and disarmament. The second is assistance in the internal economic transformation of the Soviet Union. Easy credits for ill-conceived projects are not the answer because the money is likely to be wasted as it has been in the past; what is needed is assistance in reorganizing Soviet enterprises so they will have more efficient management. Managers in the Soviet Union lack some of the most elementary skills necessary to function in a market environment. To give only one example: the concept of depreciation is simply not part of the Soviet accounting system. How can enterprises become self-financing without depreciating their investments in order to establish a true picture of their profits and losses? The management skills that are now lacking, such as a new system of accounting, can be obtained, in the short run, only by importing them from abroad.
The third level concerns moral support. Glasnost is based on the belief that society can function better and fulfill the aspirations of its members if it is open. An open society must be open to the outside—hence the close connection between glasnost and Soviet foreign policy. A positive response from abroad could go a long way toward justifying Gorbachev’s policy to the Soviet population. World opinion carries great weight in the Soviet Union precisely because people there have been cut off from it for so long.
The fate of Gorbachev’s reforms depends on the reaction of the West to a greater extent than is generally realized. The Western powers, particularly the United States, are now facing the first promising opportunity in forty years to reconsider their strategic objectives and the division of postwar Europe itself. So far, they have been unable to arrive at a unified policy. On the contrary, there is a real danger that Europe and the United States will pull further apart. If that were to happen, the scope for a positive response from the West would be greatly reduced. Gorbachev, in radically changing Soviet policy, has dared to undertake the unthinkable. If the Western countries have the courage and imagination to engage in a similarly deep rethinking of their own strategic goals, the prospect could open up of a world order based not on superpower rivalry but on international cooperation.