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

SOMETHING SIMILAR happened in nationality policy. Glasnost looked back to the 1922 controversy between Lenin and Stalin about the nationalities, with Stalin arguing for bringing Ukraine, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia into the Russian federation, while Lenin supported the idea of a Soviet Union with formal equality for all the republics. The historian Albert Nenorokov judged that Lenin’s line had been distorted and the nationalities had been oppressed by the great Russian national chauvinist Stalin. Asserting national interests against the Soviet Union became “Leninist.” Not all the citizens in the constituent republics were alert to the change of line. Demonstrations on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided an occasion for nationalist assertion in the Baltic republics. In 1988 there were only small ones.

These were troubling, but there was no prevision of the minefield that lay ahead. Boris Kurashvili of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of State and Law actively promoted mass organizations of nonparty people in the republics, which were quickly dubbed “National Fronts for Perestroika.” They were intended to be a mighty force to do battle with Gorbachev’s critics. In fact the national fronts helped to raise and solidify movements against the apparatus. There had been only demonstrations by small groups in 1987; by fall 1988, they were in the thousands and, by 1989, the hundreds of thousands. Putin himself has argued that the formal autonomy of the republics, Lenin’s solution of 1922 in favor of a Soviet Union as opposed to Stalin’s proposal for integrating them into the Russian Republic, turned out to be disastrous. Lenin had left future Soviet generations with a “time bomb.”

Ligachev and the other critics of Gorbachev, both those who did not want to change anything and those who just wanted to slow things down a bit, were equally horrified. Their responses were ineffectual and more poorly thought out than the glasnost attacks. Nina Andreyeva’s letter, an anti-glasnost manifesto that was published in June 1988, centered its attack on the glasnost literature’s alleged enthusiasm for Trotsky, of whom it had in fact not said much and only implicitly rehabilitated. Nevertheless, Andreyeva worried about pulling down the heroism of the Stalin period in order to put in its place a new “Jewish internationalism.” This was heading in a bad direction. Worse than that, Gorbachev’s hardline critics increasingly resisted the rise of nationalism in the republics by appealing to the Russian national spirit. This sounded a note that would grow stronger in their camp in the coming years: let the nationalities see how well they can do without us Russians, our oil, and all our other generous assistance! No one seemed to realize that the growth of the Russian national idea was poison to the Soviet idea.

But Gorbachev would not slow down. He rightly perceived that he had to tilt against the enthusiasts of Andreyeva’s letter. To lose ground to them by reigning in glasnost would have made him their hostage. By the fall of 1988, he finally managed to retire Gromyko and remove Ligachev from his post as second secretary. At the same time, his foreign policy bounced from victory to victory. He was on the cover of all the Western magazines. Ronald Reagan, as noted above, professed against his own advisers that Gorbachev was repudiating the Stalinist tradition and going back to Lenin. At a joint summit in May–June 1988, Reagan took back what he had previously said about the Soviet Union’s status as an “evil empire.” He and Gorbachev had the year before agreed to scale down the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe. They had, for the first time, gone beyond arms control to actual disarmament. Gorbachev could now boast that his foreign policy had far eclipsed the modest hopes of Gromyko to restore the Nixon-Kissinger détente and was actually ending the Cold War. This was, he claimed, the result of his democratic revolution in the name of perestroika.

Gorbachev had not completely banished his critics. But they were losing ground rapidly, having lost the advantage of the Suslov system of collective leadership which he was seeking to destroy. In the fall of 1988, when Gorbachev deprived Ligachev of his position, Ligachev’s replacement, Vadim Medvedev, announced that he was merely an adviser on ideology and that there was no longer any such post as the ideological secretary. That ended the pretense of collective leadership.

So Gorbachev was freed of Suslovism. At the same time, however, the fall of Suslov’s system marked the fall of Lenin. Glasnost writers now went the next step and began to attack the founder of Bolshevism. Vasily Selyunin wrote in a long piece in Novy mir that the Bukharin alternative was really an attack on the military solution Stalin imposed when he opened the collectivization of agriculture. Lenin, he said had done something similar in 1918–19 when he initiated compulsory grain requisitions from the peasantry. Trotsky, said Selyunin, was temperamentally attracted to War Communism, that is, to “barracks Communism,” and here Lenin went with Trotsky, in effect repeating the mistake of czarism’s suppression of free markets. It was the first of the glasnost attacks against Lenin and, by implication, against the 1917 revolution.