How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

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


THE STRUGGLE against Stalinism only began with the central committee plenum of January 1987, shortly after Gorbachev’s return from his meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik. The two leaders had left their advisers aside and parlayed together with only their translators for three days, tossing about ideas on various ways for them to end their dependence on nuclear weapons—that is, if Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative were not deployed (Gorbachev’s view), or if SDI were more or less excluded from discussion (Reagan’s view). Their advisers were profoundly unnerved by the idea of the two men making this decision on their own.

When Gorbachev returned, he found a solid phalanx of Politiburo opposition; the Andropov appointees, led by Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev, confronted him for the first time. Ligachev was now in the Suslov role of guarantor of the collective leadership against a possible usurpation by the new gensek. The second secretary was not at all against reform and was to protest his support for perestroika during the next two years, as he insisted in his curiously feeble memoir. Still he had to do his job. Gorbachev might have wanted to smooth the whole thing over with reassurances that he knew his limits. But limiting the gensek under the unwritten Suslov rules might be a preliminary to removing him, as Suslov had organized the campaign to remove Khrushchev in 1964.

Gorbachev decided not to bend to criticism, but to double down with what the French call a fuite en avant, an “escape forward.” Instead of defending himself he went on the attack against his critics, accusing them of wanting to do things “in the old way.” He did not say that they were Stalinists at this time, although he would say it many times over the next three years, but he did stop proclaiming the intention to perfect Brezhnevism and started calling it stagnation (zastoy).

It was the glasnost press that first took the matter up and named the names. Moscow News and Ogonyok were the twin flagships of glasnost, while academic journals and other periodicals would also participate. Yuri Afanasyev, newly appointed rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historians and Archivists, railed at the state of affairs in Soviet historical writing, where stagnation had prevailed since the Khrushchev critique of the Stalin era had been hushed up in the sixties. Two periods, he complained, were burdened by “white spots” (beliye pyatna) in the literature, the period of Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin after 1956 and the period of the rise of Stalin in the twenties, “under Lenin and after Lenin.” The glasnost intellectuals quickly sensed that they could lay down the new ideology of the Gorbachev leadership. There emerged in their minds the idea of a new brand of Communism—that of Lenin and not of Stalin—cleansed and reshaped, palatable to Western social democrats and progressive people all over the world.

The challenge of a Leninist case against Stalinism demanded the rehabilitation of Stalin’s political opponents of the twenties, who became his victims in the purges of 1936–39. Leon Trotsky, Grigoriy Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and their cothinkers had been tried and shot as presumed spies (or in Trotsky’s case, assassinated in Mexico) who had plotted the partition of the country with the fascist powers, as wreckers and fiends who had put ground glass in the peasants’ butter, attempted to enhance cattle mortality in western Siberia, tried to assassinate Stalin and other members of the Politburo. Against this, articles in the glasnost press said frankly that all the charges of the purge era had been false.

So Stalin’s opponents were not criminals and did not deserve to be shot. But what of their policies? Did any or all of them represent a realistic alternative to Stalin? Zinoviev and Trotsky had accused Stalin of bungling opportunities to create new Communist states in Europe. Trotsky charged that Stalin had prevented the German Communists from making common cause with German Social Democrats against Hitler and of thus facilitating the rise of German Nazism. He had called the Soviet bureaucracy Thermidorean and degenerate, and urged a “political revolution” to overthrow Stalinism. Bukharin had resisted Stalin’s campaign to collectivize agriculture in 1928. Were any of these views correct as against those of Stalin? Here the hand of the glasnost intellectual trembled.

What or who was the Leninist alternative to Stalin? The only really attractive candidate, it was decided, was Bukharin. He had resisted agricultural collectivization, defending the peasant and the minor concessions to the market that went along with the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1921. Bukharin was the real Leninist. The fatal turn between Leninism and Stalinism, it was said, was Stalin’s decision of 1928 for collectivization of agriculture and the first Five-Year plan. Departure from the NEP was ultimately a decision to construct the Stalinist police state. Thus glasnost arrived at the “Bukharin alternative.”

Readers accustomed to assuming that everything in the press represented official policy assumed that glasnost ideas were more or less the same as those of Gorbachev. But this assumption was wrong. Gorbachev was trying to use the arguments in the press against his opponents while preserving his own freedom of action. Gorbachev was himself preparing a major speech to be given in October 1987, on the seventieth anniversary of the revolution, in which it was assumed that he would pronounce on the historical questions. He had brought Boris Yeltsin to Moscow in order to carry on the struggle against the “braking mechanism,” the resistance to perestroika, just as Stalin had brought in Khrushchev in 1949 to make Moscow “the bastion of the Central Committee.” Yeltsin was moving administratively against the Politburo and Ligachev, just as they were all trying to decide if the collectivization of agriculture in 1928 had been a good idea. Moscow News would run a critical piece about it and then a Pravda editorial would usually provide the backup. For his views on the Bukharin alternative Gorbachev claimed to have read Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin. When he met Cohen at a reception, he complimented the author effusively.

Yet, in the seventieth-anniversary speech, Gorbachev asserted that Stalin’s policies had been right against all his opponents, although perhaps Stalin had been wrong to shoot them. This was unforgivable. Nevertheless Stalin had “safeguarded Leninism in an ideological struggle.” Western observers were disappointed in the speech. In the end, Gorbachev was not espousing glasnost ideas, but only using them against his opponents. He saw his own role as that of a centrist, balancing between Ligachev and glasnost. Yeltsin understandably felt betrayed and abandoned. Not that he ever gave the slightest indication of grappling with any of the historical and ideological issues, or even having any particular interest in them. But he was carrying on the fight against Ligachev. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was coalescing with Ligachev against Yeltsin’s excess of zeal. Yeltsin was defeated and humiliated, but he was not driven out of Moscow and would soon enjoy the advantage of having the apparatus united against him. Curiously, Gorbachev the centrist would continue to try to use him as a counterweight.


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.