How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

A man from West Berlin uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Glasnost, meant to save the USSR, wound up being its death blow.

May-June 2017

CONFUSION ABOUT the confluence of the historical debate and the Yeltsin affair had a demoralizing effect on those who had hoped for more. A much-discussed film that appeared in 1987, Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, contributed to the demoralization. It offered a depressing narrative of the career of a local party boss in the thirties, with striking scenes of suffering caused by the purges and prison camps. It did not add anything to the ongoing ideological discussion but it did for many sum up the mood of the intelligentsia on contemplation of the regime of Soviet Communism with its Stalinist crimes. One might be moved to think that these crimes were so vast that they could never be properly understood or absorbed emotionally. The only response was repentance. Russia must repent before the civilized countries. This mood drove the eventual choice of the Soviet intelligentsia to turn its fate over to the advice of the more civilized people who had been its enemies up to this point. What had started as an ideological and spiritual revival was on the way to becoming a kind of moral collapse.

Gorbachev did not seem to sense this. He sailed ahead confidently, more and more as a frank and avowed centrist, not siding with glasnost views, but attacking Ligachev and the others who criticized them. The next chapter in the saga would be the defeat and demotion of Ligachev and Gromyko in 1988–89. This came as Gorbachev appeared to win his struggle to end the Cold War. According to his book on the New Thinking, this was to be the payoff for the fundamental transformation of the Soviet Union through perestroika. Ronald Reagan himself was a convert to the New Thinking. The president’s closest advisers were warning that the Gorbachev reforms were, in effect, a vast Soviet deception. Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was turning from Stalinism back to Leninism.

Two other Gorbachev victories during that period nevertheless fatally crippled Soviet Communism. Gorbachev’s economic record was fine in 1988. Uskoreniye had been a relative success. Then, after he began to denounce the Brezhnev-era “stagnation” at the January plenum in 1987, he looked around for more dramatic ways to speed things up. An enterprise law made it possible to form cooperatives and in certain cases to elect managers. The idea of introducing more market elements continued to stir discussion. Andropov had already entertained similar ideas, as it was impossible to ignore the sweeping changes that market reforms were making in China. Every time something new was suggested, however, it had to be justified in socialist verbiage. Ligachev and Gorbachev sang a persistent chorus of “more socialism” even when they were talking about introducing more capitalism. Deng Xiaoping, Andropov, Ligachev and Gorbachev all cited with reverence the precedent of the NEP, a Leninist device of proven worth and an essential feature of the Bukharin alternative being promoted by glasnost. Soviet economists tried to finesse the matter under the gaze of their party associates who instinctively feared what was being contemplated.

At a conference I attended in California at this time, the prominent Soviet economist Nikolai Shmelev presented a nuanced case for the superiority of market conceptions of accounting. Then, later in the day, perhaps after discussion with his aides, he abandoned the previous line and asserted, out of the blue, his everlasting fidelity to socialism. At a different conference, another similarly prominent economist, Abel Aganbegyan, put the matter in a much more lubricated way. Under the “administrative-command system” (the Stalinist command economy), he said, the workers often let things go badly because they did not care enough about their work. The problem was that the workers must be inculcated with the feeling of being owners of socialist enterprise. This had been one aim of the enterprise law. But now the only way forward must lie in reducing command and enhancing self-management in keeping with the idea of democratizing society by liberating the workplace. Anyone familiar with socialist discourse in the West would be familiar with this line of thinking, referencing Yugoslav ideas about management, Cuban slogans about a new socialist man and related conceptions.

Aganbegyan was making the latest and most determined effort to unleash Homo sovieticus as a substitute for the old economic man. As a result of his urging, the Nineteenth Party Conference, in June 1988, decided to take the party out of the management of the economy. This effectively put an end to the “command-administrative system,” that is, to the command economy. But the expected explosion of spontaneity of Soviet man in pursuit of an increase in production produced something unexpected. In the next two years, a regime of local embargoes swept through the economy. The command economy no longer commanded from the center, so each area made a point of trying to get the best price for whatever commodity it produced and yielding the least for anything “imported.” The division of labor collapsed and, with it, exchange in general. It was sometimes said later that the onset of privatization in the post-Soviet 1990s was the cause of the collapse of the economy, with industrial production cut in half. But the decline began under Gorbachev at the Nineteenth Party Conference.