Gaidar Aliyev, one of the 11 members of the ruling Politburo, a group that matches the Nobel Prize committee for secretiveness, conceded at a press conference today that he has a good life.
Exactly how good, Aliyev would not say, although he did note that he earns no more than the director of a large factory. "We get enough money to live," he said jokingly, and left it at that.
Even if the details were missing, the response was noteworthy. It is highly unusual for Politburo members to hold press conferences, and almost unheard of for them to accept personal questions.
Today's briefing before a room packed with foreign and Soviet correspondents, held during the Soviet Communist Party congress, came as part of the Kremlin's new style of openness, candor, even humor.
Aliyev -- tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered and well-dressed -- was a good candidate to put before the journalistic pack. The 62-year-old former boss of the trans-Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan deftly dodged tricky questions, made a few jokes -- one about the small portions of bread offered in western restaurants -- and generally handled himself with an ease rarely seen at Soviet press briefings.
He talked about a variety of topics, ranging from Afghanistan to the black market, from special privileges for the Soviet elite to the reasons why Russians drink.
He elaborated on plans for a campaign against corruption, saying that new laws against squandering state resources, bribery and living on "unearned income" were being readied after the congress.
He squelched rumors of a pending currency reform that have been sweeping Moscow, and said that there are no plans to raise prices of bread, unchanged since 1955.
He lamented that a two-year-old law on the collective system of work had not produced results. Its failure, he said, could probably be blamed on "inertia, slackness of understanding."
"As you know," he said, "new developments do not always develop right away."
But Aliyev seemed defensive in his replies to some questions on official privileges -- questions that probably would not have been asked but for the current climate of self-analysis encouraged by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
For instance, Aliyev both denied and justified the Soviet system of special shops and special hospitals for ranking party members, a subject of criticism in recently published letters to newspapers. The letter writers have argued that officials should be compensated for their responsibilities but that they should not be exempted from lines, shortages, poor service and other conditions of Soviet life.
Aliyev noted that some party officials are busier than the average worker who puts in a seven-hour day and can shop on the way home. "It depends on how much people work," he said, although he did conclude that the question of special shops is now "under discussion."
As for special hospitals, he noted that every Soviet organization has its own system of health care -- clinics, sanitariums and the like. "We do not have such a system that says only party workers have certain rights and privileges," he said. "What I want to say is that there is no foundation for the speculation -- privileges for party workers do not exist."
He also argued that "negative tendencies" -- from corruption to inertia -- that had cropped up in the Communist Party and the government were the "residues" of capitalism. "Socialist society is not isolated. All these things are characteristic of other countries, and the bourgeois ideology influences our people," he said.
Such explanations were in stark contrast to the stern, self-critical speech delivered yesterday by Boris Yeltsin, the new Moscow city boss, which was published in full in today's newspapers.
In his speech to the congress, Yeltsin took a tough line on privileges, saying that unless they can be justified, they should be eliminated.