The Secret History of Perestroika

The Secret History of Perestroika

Mini Teaser: Gorbachev has shown that, intentionally or unintentionally, he can destroy the Soviet system comprehensively.  It remains doubtful whether he can replace what he has destroyed.

by Author(s): Frederick Kagan

Arbatov also describes the importance of this writers' collective:

...I worked as leader of a group of advisers in the section [of the CPSU Central Committee] Yurii Vladimirovich Andropov (by the way, I was introduced to him by Kuusinen, who knew him through his work in Karelia).  I am much indebted to these people as teachers.(5)

Burlatsky was also an important part of the new writers' collective.  He describes why Kuusinen rejected the group he was originally offered and chose his own:

These were people not capable of approaching the problems deeply disturbing the development of the contemporary world in any sort of new, fresh, and out-of-the-ordinary way.(6)

And so the intra-party reform movement began, as Burlatsky and Arbatov joined the writers' collective for the textbook on Marxism-Leninism under the direction of Kuusinen.

The textbook they produced in 1960 is relatively dry and, to a reader some thirty years later, not obviously reformist.  Yet Burlatsky and Arbatov both believe that the intra-party reform movement finds its earliest roots in this work.  Burlatsky's vivid description of his first meeting with Kuusinen helps explain why and deserves to be quoted at length.

[The first speaker is "Matkovskii," one of Kuusinen's aides, who brought Burlatsky to speak with the "old gentleman."]

"...Otto Vilgelmovich will tell you [Burlatsky] about his thoughts on the writing of a chapter about the state for our textbook.  It must be an entirely unusual chapter, perhaps the central chapter in the book.  Well, I have fulfilled my mission and I will shut up."

"Yes, yes, precisely, precisely," squeaked out the old gentleman, "I invited you to attempt...To attempt to approach this question anew.  You have correctly stated it in the article: we must develop soviet democracy.7  But what does this mean?  What do you think?"

I began to reiterate the bases of the position of my article.  But Kuusinen stopped me with his glance.

"Yes, yes, precisely...But what do you think, is it necessary for us to retain the dictatorship of the proletariat when we have already constructed socialist society?  Or is the transition to some sort of new stage in the development of the state necessary?"

This question, I must say, embarrassed me.  Not because I had not thought about it, but because the answer to such a question, as they said in our editorial board, is fraught with unforeseen consequences....But is it possible to speak about this to a person who represented the highest leadership of the country?  It is true, by the very fact that he posed the question he gave a hint of the possibility of some sort of new judgement....However I had not even thought out to its conclusion this thought under the attentive, searching look which he was calling for from me demanding not my formal, but my most sincere opinion.

"If I were to speak openly, Otto Vilgelmovich, then it seems to me that the dictatorship of the proletariat has already played out its role in our country.  It must be transformed.  This process, strictly speaking, is already underway, and the task lies in consciously accelerating it."

"Precisely," the shawl was moved, which, as I later understood, signified the utmost degree of excitement, "But this is the question: into what is it, this dictatorship, being transformed?..."

"I think into a state of the whole people, into socialist democracy."

"Yes, yes, precisely, but perhaps an all-national [obshchenarodnoye] state?  Marx at some point criticized the slogan `national state.'  But this was a long time ago and, besides, applied to a different state entirely.  Lassalle thought to replace the junkers' bourgeois power with a national state.  This was an illusion.  This was a deception.  But we have an entirely different situation now, when the dictatorship of the proletariat has already played out its historical role."

Here he made a pause, which lasted so long because I did not know if I was supposed to add something to his remarks.  But he, evidently, was continuing to consider what he said, as if a word, having separated from him, took on some sort of independent meaning and sound, so that it was necessary to evaluate it anew.

"So in this spirit am I supposed to write this chapter for the textbook?" I could not hold back.

"Precisely, precisely in this spirit.  It is necessary to ground it theoretically.  It is necessary to quote from Lenin--for what and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary--and to prove that now it has played out its role."

"Are we speaking only about theory, or also about practice?" I asked.  "Do we have in mind introducing some sort of large-scale changes into the political system?"

"Yes, yes, precisely," answered Kuusinen.  "In the beginning theory and then," here he made a motion with his hand toward somewhere in the distance, "and then even practice...." 8

As this account reveals, Otto Kuusinen was clearly a man who believed that major systemic reforms were necessary in the Soviet state.  Their necessity emerged not from practical but from ideological considerations.  Thus, contrary to the dominant opinion today--that perestroika was begun in response to the dreadful performance of the Soviet economy--the movement in fact has its roots in a belief that the Soviet system itself must be changed.

New Recruits

Burlatsky does not tell us what this obshchenarodnoye state of Kuusinen's was to be like.  Would it have been democratic?  Would it have had a free economy?  There is no way of telling and the textbook itself does not help.  Burlatsky's chapter quotes from Lenin to show the necessity of the dictatorship and describes how the conditions which formed this necessity no longer exist.  It then calls for the establishment of an obshchenarodnoye state.  But it goes no further, and therefore sheds no more light on the meaning of "reform."  We are left with the impression of an imperfectly thought-out plan to move on to the next step in Marxism-Leninism--a step whose character no one, not even Marx or Lenin, had ever worked out.

Nor did Kuusinen himself, as far as we know, produce a detailed account of exactly what was wrong with the old system.  He, too, proceeded from abstract principles to advocate another abstract principle--the obshchenarodnoye state.  Khrushchev adopted this idea enthusiastically, and proclaimed in 1961 that it was time to end the dictatorship of the proletariat and bring about the obshchenarodnoye state.  The concept Khrushchev described under this heading, however, is a meaningless philosophical abstraction of infinite plasticity and accompanied by careful qualifiers.  Khrushchev was not a part of the intra-party reform movement; Kuusinen and Andropov, in fact, seem to have worked against him immediately prior to his downfall.  His adoption of Kuusinen's term the year after the textbook came out indicates, however, the basic point of agreement of all reformers in the Soviet Union at the time: anti-Stalinism.  Khrushchev snatched, as Kuusinen had, at the idea of "transcending" the developmental stage in which Stalin's Soviet Union had found itself--so as to do away with Stalin's Soviet Union.  Even Brezhnev shared the fear of certain aspects of the Stalinist system, and acted on it by introducing the notion of "stability of Party cadres."  This anti-Stalinism, however, did not and could not serve by itself as the basis for a coherent reform platform.  Besides, in the 1950s and 1960s the issue of anti-Stalinism was still very controversial, and neither Khrushchev nor the intra-party reform movement ventured to analyze past sins thoroughly or to determine what precisely they would replace the old system with.

The writers' collective broke up when the book was finished in 1960, but the intra-party reform movement continued.  Kuusinen and Andropov remained in their places, and Andropov recruited Arbatov and Burlatsky to serve him in the Central Committee apparatus.  He instructed Burlatsky to create a group of advisers for him in the International Department.  Burlatsky recalls:

In 1960 [Andropov] asked me to come to work in his department as a consultant.  To tell you the truth, I had real misgivings.  I've never liked a regular office job, and I felt no urge to work in the party apparatus.  But when Andropov assured me that my job would be to write theoretical articles, I accepted the position.  Then he asked me to create a group of consultants under him, so I brought in a number of people who are now very prominent--Georgii Shakhnazarov, who's a personal aide to Gorbachev; Gennadii Gerasimov, who's the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry; Oleg Bogomolov, who is director of the Institute on the Economics of the World Socialist System; Georgii Arbatov and Alexandr Bovin...and others.  It was a very unusual group of young party intellectuals, perhaps the first ever in the Central Committee.(9)

And so 1960 became the next pivotal year in the history of perestroika.  By then most of the people who were to become key advisers to Gorbachev had been co-opted into the intra-party reform movement.

Just as the movement was a faction within the Communist Party--the dominant faction under Khrushchev and the minority faction under Brezhnev--so that movement itself rapidly developed two divergent views of reform.  One was epitomized by Burlatsky, the other by Andropov himself.  Burlatsky is a maverick.  As he himself points out, he was not well suited to serve in the Soviet government, always much more radical than most of his colleagues, asserting that changes should be more rapid and more far-reaching.  Andropov was quite different.  He seems to have been something of a Burkeian reformer, believing that changes are necessary but that they must be introduced slowly and carefully so as to avoid disruption and the chaos that is worse than any tyranny.  "Do your measurements seven times," Andropov cautioned in 1983, "for you can only make one cut."(10)

Essay Types: Essay