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.

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.


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.

After Selyunin came the historian Mikhail Gefter, who went a step further to suggest that War Communism was the original sin of Bolshevism. He was referring to the emergency measures taken to defend the regime’s existence against the Whites and the Allied intervention during the Russian Civil War. War Communism could also describe the policy of collectivizing agriculture and initiating the five-year plans, or even, for that matter, the Great Patriotic War against Fascism. In this reading, War Communism condemned the Soviet regime to a kind of Prussianism and the loss of the chance for a multiform (mnogoukladnoy) society such as was striven for by NEP. The Bukharin alternative, in the hands of imaginative glasnost ideologists, could be turned against the entire Russian revolution.