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The Gorbachev Factor
By Archie Brown

Chapter One

The changes in what used to be the Soviet Union have been so I great that it is easy to forget what the unreformed Soviet system was like and how modest were the expectations of significant innovation when Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as top Soviet leader in March 1985. Neither Soviet citizens nor foreign observers imagined that the USSR was about to be transformed out of existence. While no one predicted, nor could they, all that was going to happen, those whose scepticism was greatest about the prospects for change were the first to be overtaken by events. Some, who in more recent years have castigated Gorbachev for his `half-measures', have found it convenient to forget that the actual changes promoted or sanctioned by Gorbachev exceeded their wildest dreams, making a nonsense of predictions that he had neither the will nor the power to alter anything of consequence in the Soviet system.

When it became fashionable to react against the enthusiastic support for Gorbachev which was widespread in the late 1980s, the same observers who misread Gorbachev's intentions at the outset became the first to scorn an excessive concentration on the part played by Gorbachev while simultaneously, and with scant regard for logic, holding him personally responsible for all the major policy failures. And failures in the Gorbachev era there certainly were--especially of economic policy and in the relationships between the Soviet Union's constituent republics and the centre.

If the scale of the change in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years is considered with dispassion, what is most remarkable is the extent to which it occurred peacefully. Given the failure of all who had openly attacked the system from within the country to make any positive impact on policy outcomes prior to the late 1980s, it is doubtful if change of such magnitude could have taken place with so little violence--especially in Russia--in any way other than through the elevation of a serious reformer to the highest political office within the country. The prospect of a reformer becoming General Secretary--the very idea that such a thing was possible in principle--had been ruled out in advance by many Western observers and by such prominent exiles from the Soviet Union as the writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Zinoviev. Yet, it was the great power concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party leadership collectively and the General Secretary individually which made it critically important that someone of reformist disposition should attain the latter office. Without the promotion of a genuine reformer and highly skilled politician to the top Communist Party post in 1985, fundamental change in the Soviet Union would certainly have been delayed and could well have been bloodier as well as slower than the relatively speedy political evolution which occurred while Gorbachev was at the helm.

The General Secretaryship

The pre-reform Soviet system was one in which power flowed from the top down and in which the highest authority at each level was the party First Secretary. That was the case whether the unit of government was a union republic such as Lithuania or Georgia, a province of Russia such as the Sverdlovsk region or the Stavropol territory, a city, or a rural district. At the highest echelon of the system--the `all--union' level--the most powerful person was, without doubt, the General Secretary of the Central Committee. The politician who attained that office was not only the acknowledged leader of the Communist Party but also in practice the chief executive within the country.

Only at the beginning of the Soviet epoch, and more ambiguously at the end of it, was the General Secretary not the most authoritative and powerful figure within the state as well as the Communist Party. In the earliest years of Soviet rule, Vladimir Lenin--who had led the Bolshevik faction of the revolutionary movement since 1903--was the acknowledged leader, even though his formal title was that of Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (a body which in the post-Second World War period became the Council of Ministers). Although Joseph Stalin had become General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, it was only during periods of Lenin's physical incapacity and especially after Lenin's death in early 1924 that Stalin was able to use to the full the powers of the General Secretaryship. The right to appoint officials and the responsibility for execution of policy vested in the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party were turned by Stalin into his personal prerogatives--powers concentrated in the office of the General Secretary, who stood at the top of the hierarchy of party secretaries spread across the country.

There were only six ruling General Secretaries in the entire seventy-four years of Soviet history. The power which Stalin acquired (and the way he used it) was of a different order from that of his successors. His willingness to employ ruthless terror against his potential rivals within the Communist Party as well as against enemies, real or imagined, in the broader society saw the Soviet Union move from an oligarchical rule in the 1920s--when Stalin was, however, already more than a first among equals--to a tyrannical personal dictatorship from the early 1930s until Stalin's death in March 1953. The Communist Party remained an important instrument of rule, but only as one among several such instruments, with the political police and the ministerial network playing no less crucial parts. Indeed, the statutes of the Communist Party--concerning, for example, how often Party Congresses or plenary sessions of the Central Committee should be held--were so blatantly disregarded by Stalin that immediately after his death it was not clear to all of his successors how potentially powerful the party organization still was and how control over it was the most important of all political resources in the Soviet system.(1)

Upon Stalin's death the Soviet Union reverted for a time to oligarchical rule, as a struggle for power took place among his successors. Latterly Stalin had been Chairman of the Council of Ministers as well as party leader and it was his successor in the former post, Georgy Malenkov, who seemed to the West to be Stalin's heir. But within two years Nikita Khrushchev, as First Secretary of the Central Committee (as the General Secretaryship was known between 1953 and 1966), had established his ascendancy. Although this was challenged in 1957 when some of the old guard--such as Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich--tried to overthrow him, Khrushchev was able to use his support in the ranks of the Central Committee to overcome what he called the 'so-called arithmetical majority, in the Politburo opposed to him. From that point on, but especially in the early 1960s, Khrushchev became a more domineering leader. Having added the post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers in 1958 to his party leadership, he proceeded to push through a number of policies which were not to the liking of most sectors of the political elite. Although Khrushchev did not instigate such radical changes to the Soviet system as Gorbachev was later to do, and though he himself accepted much more unquestioningly the fundamentals of that system, he was unpredictable and posed a threat to the security of tenure of party and state officials. This was in the end sufficient to bring together a coalition of high officials, including virtually the entire Politburo, to remove him from office in October 1964.(2)

Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev's successor, lasted eighteen years as Soviet leader by making sure that his style of leadership was as different as possible from Khrushchev's. Where Khrushchev was impetuous he was cautious; where Khrushchev did not hesitate to berate and demote party and state officials, or divide their powers and functions in half--as he did with all the regional party secretaries in 1962--Brezhnev was solicitous in his concern for the party apparatus; he made a boast and a virtue out of his policy of `stability of cadres'. Whereas Khrushchev had not hesitated to take the lead on policy, Brezhnev was careful never to risk isolation on any issue and was a consensus-seeker within the Soviet top leadership. Yet, over time, Brezhnev was able to promote a greatly exaggerated account of his merits and achievements (to which public obeisance was paid, even if it never remotely reached the fervour or absurd extremes of the Stalin cult) and, having gradually succeeded in bringing into leadership positions more and more people personally indebted to him, he wielded greater power in the 1970s than he had possessed in the 1960s. At no time, however, did Brezhnev challenge the basic norms of the Soviet system; he was attentive to the particular interests of party officials, ministerial bureaucrats, the military, and the KGB, and shared their common interest in defending the system against any spontaneous political activity or independent political thought. While this approach was conducive to Brezhnev's political longevity, and by no means unattractive to the different branches of the Soviet establishment, it did nothing to tackle the underlying problems of the country; moreover, one person's `stability of cadres, was another's promotion blockage. The `era of stagnation' became, during the perestroika years, the most common way of referring to the Soviet Union under Brezhnev.(3)

When Yury Andropov succeeded Brezhnev, he was already 68 years of age and soon to be in failing health. More will be said about Andropov in the next two chapters, for he played an important part in advancing Gorbachev's career. He himself, however, was never likely to be an advocate of far-reaching political change of the kind which occurred in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s. Fifteen years as head of the KGB had made Andropov suspicious of anything smacking of dissidence or political pluralism. He was, though, much less complacent than Brezhnev and prepared to contemplate reform within broader limits than those envisaged by his arch-conservative predecessor, albeit falling far short of what Gorbachev was prepared to implement. Andropov, in fact, altered the political agenda even within his short period of office by placing greater emphasis on discipline and on fighting corruption as well as by giving his blessing to some tentative moves in the direction of economic reform. There was also under Andropov a stepping-up of propaganda against alcoholism, although this was in practice contradicted and superseded by the introduction for the first time in years of a cheaper brand of vodka, which, as a sign of gratitude on the part of its consumers, became popularly known as `Andropovka'. Although General Secretary only from Brezhnev's death in November 1982 until his own death in February 1984, Andropov did enough to demonstrate that the General Secretraryship was still the most important political office in the country, even if there were also quite clearly--in the post-Stalin era and following the forcible removal of Khrushchev--political limits on those powers.

The limits were more evident than the power during the thirteen-month incumbency of Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko. As will be noted in greater detail in Chapter 3, Gorbachev was already at that time a possible alternative candidate to Chernenko and, indeed, Andropov's own choice for the succession. The caution of a majority in the Politburo who formed the main selectorate for the General Secretaryship, even though their choice had to be endorsed by the entire Central Committee, made them opt instead for the 72-year-old Chernenko, who clearly was not going to rock the boat to the extent that even Andropov had done (with his anti-corruption campaign and quite extensive personnel changes). A combination, however, of the failing health of Chernenko and the substantial foothold which Gorbachev already had in the Central Committee Secretariat meant that there was a stalemate in the leadership during the thirteen months between Chernenko's accession and his death in March 1985. Lip-service was paid to Chernenko as the supreme leader, but there was widespread awareness that this was no more than an interregnum and that if the real issues were to be tackled, it could only be when the physically declining Chernenko had departed from the scene.

Changing evaluations of Gorbachev

A remarkable amount has already been written about Mikhail Gorbachev and the fashionable view of him had already gone through three phases before his leadership and the Soviet Union itself came to an end. During the first two years or so--from 1985 until at least the end of 1986--the conventional wisdom in the West was that Gorbachev had introduced a change of style and that, in so far as he was a reformer, he was one of a technocratic type. No far-reaching changes in the Soviet political and economic system or in Soviet foreign policy could be expected.(4) That view was also quite widespread in Soviet liberal intellectual circles, although with the mass of the people Gorbachev's popularity was especially high during his first two years. (Indeed, contrary to what has been suggested both by many Western commentators and by Gorbachev's political enemies in Russia, Gorbachev was still the most popular and respected person in the Soviet Union five years after he had become General Secretary--a point which will be elaborated below.) His comparative youth and vigour made a striking contrast with the infirmity of his three predecessors and his televised meetings with ordinary citizens on the streets and in the countryside enhanced his popularity during the early stages of his General Secretaryship.

By 1987 most Western observers with reasonably open minds (although those with closed minds constituted an aggressively vocal minority(5)) could discern important developments taking place inside the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. For some of them the turning-point was the January plenary session of the Central Committee which put political reform clearly on the agenda, for others it was the Central Committee meeting in June of the same year which endorsed the need for significant economic reform.(6) Within the Soviet Union itself, especially in intellectual circles, Gorbachev was from 1987 until early 1989 more widely than hitherto regarded as a great reformer. He was held in increasingly high esteem by Soviet democrats--who had previously been (and were subsequently to become again) very wary of him--and held in still higher regard by much of the outside world.

As one Eastern European country after another regained its autonomy and ended Communist rule, Gorbachev's popularity in the West actually grew throughout 1989. Acceptance of such a contraction of `the Soviet bloc' was the most eloquent testimony to the seriousness of the `New Thinking' on foreign policy which some Western sceptics had earlier dismissed as mere propaganda. The popularity of Gorbachev within the Soviet Union, however, reached its high point earlier with the advent of competitive elections to a new Soviet representative assembly and the convening of that body--the First Congress of People's Deputies--in the spring of 1989. Gorbachev's chairmanship of the sessions did not satisfy the conservative majority of the delegates, who were irritated by the fact that he gave the floor to representatives of the radical minority--and in particular Andrey Sakharov--more often than their numerical representation warranted. The liberals, for their part, did not like the extent to which Gorbachev dominated the proceedings, a domination which partly reflected the contradictory roles he was playing simultaneously--those of Communist Party leader, chief executive within the state, and, in effect, speaker of the fledgeling parliament.(7)

Moreover, concern about domestic economic and inter-ethnic problems, which were getting more rather than less severe, bulked larger in the minds of many Soviet citizens than the events in Eastern Europe. The latter had, however, two undesirable side-effects for Gorbachev. First, they greatly increased dissatisfaction with his policies in the army, not only on account of the loss--as some of his military critics saw it--of the fruits of victory in the Second World War but also because large numbers of officers and men had to return at short notice to woefully inadequate accommodation in the Soviet Union. Second, fired by the East European example, far more Soviet citizens than hitherto began to associate their misfortunes with the rule of the Communist Party. As leader of that party, Gorbachev could hardly escape some of the odium.

Thus, from the summer and autumn of 1989 in the Soviet Union and from early 1990 in the West the mood changed and a third stage of evaluation of Gorbachev was reached. Although Gorbachev's standing declined less in the West than in the Soviet Union, in the West, too, he was given reduced credit for managing a Soviet transition which had already gone further than anyone had envisaged in 1985. In the course of 1990 he was increasingly seen as part of the problem--an obstacle to the successful transformation of the Soviet system.(8) Yet, despite Gorbachev's greater popularity abroad than at home by the time he reached his last two years in office, and despite the growing opposition to him from both the radical democratic and the conservative Communist ends of the domestic political spectrum, in April 1990 he was still by a large margin the most respected political figure within the Soviet Union. It was not until May-June 1990 that Yeltsin's popularity moved ahead of Gorbachev's.(9) Over the previous year Gorbachev's support had declined, but not by so much within the country as a whole as in the groups with whom Western journalists most mingled. During the last two years and especially the last eighteen months in which Gorbachev held office, the drop in his popularity became steeper,(10) but most Western politicians--none of whom had turned their country upside down to the extent Gorbachev did--would have settled for being far more highly regarded than their nearest political rival five years after gaining office. One of the leading researchers (in post-Soviet Russia, the Director) of the most professional of the public opinion research centres in the Soviet Union,(11) Yury Levada, noted in April 1990 that whereas `a year ago' 55 per cent of the population had named Gorbachev as `man of the year', in the spring of 1990 that had dropped to 46 per cent. Levada added, however, that, given the degree of exasperation and alienation in the society, that was a lot, `the more so in that, so far as public opinion is concerned, he does not have any real rivals'. He noted, for instance, that only 16 per cent had named Boris Yeltsin--less than a third of those who had opted for Gorbachev.(12) By the summer of 1990 that had changed, but the change occurred much later in Gorbachev's leadership than is generally appreciated.(13) For much the greater part of his period of office as de facto chief executive, Gorbachev was the most highly esteemed politician in the Soviet Union.

The art of the impossible

It is as well, therefore, to bear in mind that fashionable opinion about Gorbachev--whether in Russia or in the West-has, for better or worse, not always been representative of Russian or Soviet society. While the fashionable opinions in each of the three phases of evaluation noted above were far from universal among those who offered public comment on the Soviet scene--whether in the West or the Soviet Union itself--at each stage of the Gorbachev era they were very widespread. Professional vantage-point, however, produced some variations. Thus, it was not accidental that Gorbachev's stock remained higher with Western politicians than with, in particular, the majority of economists specializing in Soviet affairs. No one, though, really needed to be an economist to see that the Soviet economy was going from bad to worse. The man and woman on the street anywhere between Minsk and Khabarovsk could have said the same. And since this was neither Stalin's nor Brezhnev's time but an era of Soviet history of unprecedented freedom, they frequently did.

Western politicians, however, did not base their judgements entirely on the state of the Soviet economy, but accorded a great deal of weight to changes in the language of politics, to new departures in Soviet foreign policy, and to political institutional change. With their understanding of politics as the art of the possible, they were constantly amazed to see Gorbachev pull off what seemed to them virtually impossible feats. In some ways they were more aware than many of the academic observers--and better aware, too, than a number of the new, radical, and (of necessity) relatively inexperienced politicians who emerged in the Soviet Union--of the framework of constraints within which Gorbachev was operating and of the balancing act which was at times demanded of him prior to the attempted coup.

Gorbachev behaved within the Soviet Union, as well as in his dealings with American and European leaders, more like a Western politician than any of his predecessors ever did. An appreciation of this, and a willingness to give Gorbachev a substantial share of the credit for the dramatic political changes, cut across party boundaries in the West. Such experienced politicians as Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and Margaret Thatcher and Denis Healey sooner or later recognized that Gorbachev could transcend his political origins in the apparatus of the Soviet Communist Party. (Thatcher and Healey were among the first to see this and Kohl was a late but subsequently enthusiastic learner.(14))

The dissident movement and perestroika

The view that Gorbachev was capable of throwing off the shackles of Communist Party doctrine and organization had become more controversial by 1991. On the one hand, expectations had been raised by the ending of Communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and, on the other hand, Gorbachev was judged more critically in the light of deepening Soviet economic, centre-periphery, and inter-ethnic problems. Some rewriting of Soviet history in the light of the latest perceptions got under way. Even before the failed coup, it was pointed out that many of the ideas being advanced in the Soviet Union were no different from those proclaimed by persecuted dissidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, both opponents and some of the more radical supporters of the reforms of the Gorbachev era drew attention, from their different standpoints, to the similarities. A Soviet journal of documents from the party archives actually printed in 1990 the text of a long letter previously known only in dissident literature--a plea for change written jointly by Andrey Sakharov, Valentin Turchin, and Roy Medvedev in 1970 and addressed to Brezhnev as party General Secretary, Aleksey Kosygin as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Nikolay Podgorny as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.(15) At the time there was a total lack of response on the part of the Soviet leadership to the demands of Sakharov, Turchin, and Medvedev, but in the period between 1985 and 1990 almost every issue raised by them so many years earlier was put on the political agenda and acted upon.

Much even of the political language of the 1970 document was to be echoed fifteen years later, whether the three authors, call for economic reform, democratization, and glasnost or their characterization of the period they were living through as one of 'stagnation, (zastoy). Even a number of the most specific suggestions were translated into political reality in the mid-1980s--for example, the call by Sakharov, Turchin, and Medvedev for the establishment of an institute for the study of public opinion.(16) Some of the proposals made were more modest than the actual political developments of the second half of the 1980s (by which time, of course, the agenda of Sakharov, in particular, had also become more radical). Thus, the twelfth of the fourteen points on which Sakharov, Turchin, and Medvedev called for action from the Soviet leadership in 1970 was for the `gradual introduction . . . of several candidates for each place in elections for party and soviet organs at all levels, including indirect elections' (emphasis added).(17) There is no suggestion that there should be more than one party in the political arena.

There is not the slightest doubt that many of the ideas which were openly discussed in the Soviet mass media in the second half of the 1980s, and in a number of cases translated into public policy, had first been aired in dissident circles. That, however, does not mean that this was a simple case of continuity, that the changes of the Gorbachev era were no more than a continuation of a process the dissidents had begun. It is not only that there was a total lack of positive response to the demands of Soviet dissidents between 1968 and 1985, but that the views of a good many reformers who had decided that discretion was the better part of velour, and who did not offer an open challenge to the authorities until such time as Gorbachev had made the Soviet Union safe for dissent, were little different from those of the dissidents. Such people were often referred to as `within-system reformers', but since in the long run they were actually undermining the Soviet political and social order, the phenomenon they represented might equally or more appropriately--as Alexander Shtromas plausibly argued more than a decade ago--be called `intrastructural dissent', as distinct from the `extrastructural dissent, of the overt oppositionists.(18) So far as the latter were concerned, it is important to note that the dissident movement had been manifestly weakened by persecution over the decade and a half before Gorbachev became Soviet leader. The measures used against those who made their political dissent unambiguous and public ranged from compulsory exile to incarceration in labour camp or mental asylum. The post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument which sees the overt dissidents of the pre-Gorbachev era as the prime instigators of the changes of the second half of the 1980s ignores the fact that in the later Brezhnev years and under Andropov and Chernenko the Soviet dissident movement was at its lowest level of activity in two decades and had, to a large extent, been crushed.(19)

The leading Western specialist on Soviet dissidents, Peter Reddaway, writing in 1983 about the `post-1979 purge of dissent', noted that `the dissenting groups and movements . . . have made little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people in the Russian heartland'.(20) For that reason the Soviet leadership felt free to conduct `the post-1979 purge of dissent, with the knowledge that it would `not produce a large-scale internal backlash'.(21) `Why', Reddaway asks, `have ordinary Russian people been so inert?' He answers:

First, the general demoralization and loss of autonomous values described so vividly by Andrey Amalrik and Alexander Zinoviev evidently still obtain.(22) Second, police controls remain overwhelmingly strong. And third, the regime's constant propaganda, relating all dissent to the malign influence of foreigners (or to mental illness), doubtless has a certain effect, if only over time.(23)

On the eve of perestroika, the leading dissidents were in prison and exile or, at best, under constant surveillance. None of their works could be published in the Soviet Union and by the first half of the 1980s the flow of protest letters and of samizdat (do-it-yourself) publications had been reduced to a trickle, as had emigration from the USSR. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been sent into foreign exile as early as 1974 and Andrey Sakharov was banished to the city of Gorky (which has now been given back its old name of Nizhny Novgorod) in 1980. In the years immediately before Gorbachev became General Secretary even Roy Medvedev had KGB policemen sitting outside his apartment to prevent him meeting foreigners. That was notwithstanding the fact that, although he was a leading dissenter, his views represented a far less root-and-branch rejection of the Soviet system than did those of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov (each from his very different perspective). By the autumn of 1991, the political turnaround had been such that Medvedev, who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1969 and only readmitted to it in 1989, was protesting against the post-coup banning of the party by the Russian President (and former candidate member of the Politburo), Boris Yeltsin. In 1990 Medvedev had become a member of the CPSU Central Committee.

Solzhenitsyn--although he resisted calls for him to return to his homeland even after the failure of the August 1991 coup and the decision to quash the long-standing treason charge against him (and returned to Russia only in May 1994)--was able to publish in September 1990 in two mass-circulation Soviet newspapers his political programme, `How to rebuild Russia'. His major books, including such a fundamental indictment of the Soviet system as The Gulag Archipelago, also appeared in Moscow editions while Gorbachev was still leader of the USSR.(24) Once a new openness and tolerance had begun to be practiced, former dissidents played a significant part in carrying the process of change further. But that came after Gorbachev's breakthroughs of 1987 and 1988. The dissident movement retrospectively commanded much respect, but to see it as the prime agent of the changes in Russia and the Soviet Union as a whole which began in the mid-1980s is highly misleading and a product largely of wishful thinking.(25) (However, the fact that the dissidents were not decisive political actors at the time Gorbachev came to power does not mean that they were, in general, of no political consequence. They played a role in changing the political consciousness of a part of the intelligentsia.)

There was a tendency during the last two years of the Soviet Union's existence for citizens of the USSR to project backwards their criticism of Gorbachev as well as their support for more radically libertarian and democratic reformers--in particular, Sakharov. By the time of his death in December 1989, Sakharov was not only a prominent member of the Congress of People's Deputies but also the most respected upholder of democratic and liberal values in the country.(26) Yet less than a year before that a poll (in early 1989) of readers of Literaturnaya gazeta--a weekly newspaper read mainly by intellectuals--while it put Sakharov in second place as `hero of the year' with 17 per cent support, placed him far behind Gorbachev, who was chosen by 68 per cent of respondents. When the same set of questions was put at that time in a national random sample (and thus, unlike the Literaturnaya gazeta survey, not biased towards the intelligentsia), only 1.5 per cent accorded heroic status to Sakharov.(27)

Popular reverence for Sakharov has become much greater after his death than it was in his lifetime,(28) although it was growing in the last year of his life. A large-scale public opinion survey conducted in December 1989, the month in which Sakharov died, asked Soviet respondents to name the man of the year.(29) (As distinct from the survey cited by Yury Levada--and noted above--this one invited answers not only about Soviet public figures, but about men from any country.) Some of the respondents were questioned shortly before Sakharov's death and others after it. Although foreign politicians figured in the list, pride of place was given to Russians. Sakharov was mentioned by 10.7 per cent of respondents and placed second only to Gorbachev (35.3 per cent) but ahead of Yeltsin--in third place at that time with 5.5 per cent. (A greater `internationalism' was shown in answers to the question about the `woman of the year', in which Margaret Thatcher, mentioned by almost 17 per cent of respondents, had a clear lead over her nearest rival.(30))

The impact made by Sakharov in the last year of his life, when he became for the first time a familiar figure for a mass Soviet public, does not mean that the earlier dissident movement had comparably influenced Soviet citizens. As late as March 1991 more than half of them were still either unfamiliar with the term `dissident', or unable to say what the dissidents had struggled for. This is, of course, an indication of the relative efficiency of the KGB in the pre-perestroika years when they were successfully combating dissent. They had been able, to an extent, to seal off the mass of the people from the influence of dissenting views and to portray the dissidents as unpatriotic strangers within their own country. In the survey of March 1991, 71 per cent of citizens could not recall the name of a single dissident. (Among those who could, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were by far the best known.(31)) By the time that survey was conducted, Sakharov--fifteen months after his death--was placed above Gorbachev in respect of `moral authority', as was now Boris Yeltsin. Asked to name people who `in our time' have by their example and moral authority appreciably changed public opinion, Sakharov (named by 13 per cent) came in second place to Yeltsin (14 per cent), whereas Gorbachev came third (mentioned in this context by only 7 per cent of respondents).(32)

Yet, a mere fourteen months earlier--at a time when his popularity was already past its peak--Gorbachev was the only living person in the Soviet Union to be mentioned by a substantial number of Soviet citizens when they were asked (in a survey conducted by the same All-Union Centre for the Study of Public Opinion) to `name the ten most outstanding people of all times and peoples'. Gorbachev was cited by 22.6 per cent of the population and occupied fourth place after Lenin (68 per cent), Marx (36.2 per cent), and Peter the Great (31.9 per cent).(33) To find Lenin and Marx enjoying the highest esteem of all would have been unthinkable in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia. It serves as a reminder of the important differences in political culture among the various Communist and post-Communist countries. In the Soviet context, however, it was also of interest that one-third of Soviet citizens did not in December 1989, when the survey was conducted, include Lenin in their list of the ten most outstanding people. Two or three years earlier support for Lenin would almost certainly have been still greater. Two or three years later, in contrast, Lenin's standing--while not as negligible as in the former Communist countries of Central Europe--had declined further.(34) An increasingly large number of Soviet citizens, in the wake of the August 1991 coup and its aftermath, had come to the conclusion that it was Lenin who must bear major responsibility for dispatching them on `a road to nowhere' which they had traversed for over seventy years. But in the mid-1980s that was still the view of only a small minority of the population.

The social and political scene in Russia and most of the republics of the former Soviet Union changed with quite exceptional speed over the last six to seven years of existence of the Soviet state. There is ample evidence, too, of change in political attitudes and consciousness over the same period. It is important, therefore, to understand events in the early years of perestrolka and Gorbachev's initiatives and political vocabulary at that time in their context, and not to view them exclusively through today's lenses. Much that was to become widely accepted in Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was resisted in the mid-1980s--by public opinion as well as by the powerful bureaucratic institutions which were threatened by any move towards radical political and economic reform.

There were many stimuli to the changes which followed the succession of Gorbachev to the Soviet leadership in March 1985, including (some two or more years into perestroika) the moral and intellectual legacy of the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s. But, as should emerge more fully in subsequent chapters, the choice of Gorbachev, rather than of any of the other people in the Communist Party leadership who could aspire to the party's (and at that time the country's) most powerful post, was of critical importance. Although this book does not concentrate exclusively on Gorbachev but attempts to put him in context, the main emphasis is, as the title indicates, on the Gorbachev factor. Such a focus is justified by the centrality of Gorbachev to the process of change.

A study in the politics of leadership cannot simultaneously be a study of everything else, although authors writing about Gorbachev tend to be accused (sometimes justly, sometimes not) of ignoring or playing down the importance of such major phenomena as the nationalities question or socio-economic developments. In focusing on Gorbachev's distinctive and fundamentally important contribution to political change in his country and in the wider world, I am far from unaware of this broader context. Indeed, writing some twenty years ago, I singled out as the `major sources of tension and potential sources of tension . . . capable, in due course, of producing fundamental political change' in the Soviet Union, first, the nationalities problem (especially the growth of Russian nationalism and nationalism in the three Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Western Ukraine); second, the potential threat of either workers or intelligentsia acquiring a stronger sense of group or class consciousness and acting as a social class `in the sense of interacting politically and articulating collective demands,; and, third, demographic change whereby Russians stood to lose their overall majority within the Soviet Union and generational change which would bring into the party leadership people who had reached the age of political consciousness after the mass terror had ended and who might be `more prepared to accept the risks entailed in political reform'.(35)

I am, accordingly, far from wishing to suggest that there are no other major themes to be explored or quite different books to be written about the demise of Communism in the Soviet Union in addition to work which examines the role of Mikhail Gorbachev. On the contrary, there is vastly more which needs to be elucidated about the social and political pre-conditions for the changes in the USSR and Russia after 1985.(36) The issue of the relations between the different nationalities within the Soviet Union, to which some attention is paid in later chapters of this book (especially Chapter 8), was such a prime factor in the breakdown of the classical Soviet system and the dissolution of the Soviet state that it will certainly attract further intensive work, in addition to the specialized recent studies which have already appeared.(37) The long-term decline in the rate of Soviet economic growth and the stagnation in the economy at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s is also a factor of prime importance in understanding the political change of the later 1980s, and it is one to which I return in Chapters 3 and 5. There is also, especially from 1987 onwards, a vital `Yeltsin factor' in Soviet politics--quite apart from Yeltsin's overwhelming importance in early post-Soviet Russia. Although the Gorbachev-Yeltsin relationship is another recurring theme in the later chapters of this book (especially Chapters 6 and 8), Yeltsin's own role deserves study in greater depth and detail than is possible here.(38)

© 1996 Archie Brown

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