The new face of Communism

Robert Miller March 25 1985

The new face of Communism

Robert Miller March 25 1985

The new face of Communism


Robert Miller

He wears impeccably tailored suits, delights inimpromptu ideological debates and indulges in crisp repartee with Western industrialists. She wears chic dresses, works tirelessly to buttress her husband’s career and buys diamond earrings when she shops in London. He is a confident-looking 54, a robust man with remarkably animated features. She is a modish 51, a slender and darkly attractive grandmother. Both are well-educated—he as a lawyer, she as a university teacher of MarxistLeninist theory. Among a Soviet hierarchy grown frail with age, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev are almost shockingly youthful. But they now stand at the summit of Communist power and style. Last week the Gorbachevs became the Soviet Union’s “first family,” stepping with surefooted ease to the centre of the world stage while the Western news media—inevitably and erroneously — sought to portray them as “the commissars’ Kennedys.”

Cunning: Moscow in 1985 bears no resemblance to the Camelot myth of Washington in 1960. And Mikhail Gorbachev has assumed command of a closed realm infinitely more troubled than the thriving democracy over which John F. Kennedy presided during his “brief shining hour” a quarter of a century ago. Noting Gorbachev’s smooth ascension through the often treacherous upper levels of the Kremlin power structure, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger predicted that he will prove to be a tough and cunning adversary for the West. Added Kissinger: “I do not think he got to the top by being a choirboy.” Declared Adam Ulam, a political science professor and director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard: “Gorbachev will be more amiable to innovation, but to build him up as some sort of John Kennedy is preposterous.” Still, Gorbachev’s swift elevation to the all-powerful position of general secretary of the Soviet Communist party signalled a profound change in managerial style within the Kremlin. And it appeared to represent the dawning of an era in which a younger and better-educated Soviet meritocracy would assume responsibility for administering the Communist superpower. Initial Western reaction to Gorbachev’s promotion, with its promise of long-term stability

in the Soviet government, was generally positive. French President François Mitterrand described him as “a calm man who appears to be willing to take on problems firmly.” U.S. Vice-President George Bush said he was impressed by the new leader’s “great competence and assurance.” Added Prime Minister Brian Mulroney: “He is a man who is very much in control and very knowledgeable.” And Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, said she retained

her earlier impression that “we can do business together.”

Formidable: But there was caution, too, as Western politicians and diplomats contemplated the possibility that a better-managed Soviet Union under Gorbachev ultimately would prove to be a formidable foe. Gorbachev, a son of peasant parents and a former Communist party organizer in the Stavropol region of the northern Caucasus, is the youngest of the 10 men who are full

voting members of the ruling Politburo —and he is the first Soviet leader since Josef Stalin whose career was not shaped, in part, by the Second World War. He was evidently handpicked for political stardom—first by the late party theoretician Mikhail Suslov and later by Yuri Andropov, Chernenko’s predecessor, who died in February, 1984. Gorbachev became prominent in 1978 when he took over the agriculture portfolio in the party’s Central Committee secretariat in Moscow. He has retained overall responsibility for agriculture ever since,

and his star has continued to rise despite six consecutive disappointing harvests and subsequent food shortages. Former leader Leonid Brezhnev appointed Gorbachev a nonvoting member of the Politburo in 1979 and promoted him to full membership the following year. After Andropov took power in November, 1982, Gorbachev’s influence grew rapidly. He became a staunch supporter of Andropov’s initial efforts to eliminate bureaucratic corruption and public waste and he was widely regarded as Andropov’s choice as his successor.

But Andropov died before Gorbachev could consolidate his position as heir£apparent. The Politburo, unable to ¿¿choose between Gorbachev, then regarded as a moderate, and Leningrad gparty boss Grigory Romanov, 63, a hardSliner, deferred the inevitable move to-

ward younger leadership by electing Chernenko as an interim czar. During his undistinguished 13-month reign, ending with his death last week, Gorbachev consolidated his claim to the top job. He was sufficiently sure of himself in December that, while cutting short a closely watched visit to Britain, he took the unprecedented step of making public the death of Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov, 76, before it was announced officially in Moscow. And by the final days of Chernenko’s life, Gorbachev was chairing Politburo meetings.

As the leader of a troubled superpower, Gorbachev faces a formidable array of problems—both at home and beyond the Soviet Union’s far-flung borders. In his businesslike acceptance speech, delivered to the Central Committee on March 11 and published the following day, Gorbachev made it clear that he is willing and eager to begin tackling the country’s problems without delay. Among the major items on his agenda:

Inefficient economy:

It is notable for its chronic inability to produce sufficient consumer goods, its poor and occasionally corrupt middle management, its indifferent and often absentthrough-drunkenness work force and its struggle to satisfy both the minimal demands of the people and the openended requirements of the dominant Soviet military. Gorbachev has pledged to

continue reforms initiated by Andropov and aimed at improving productivity through decentralization and by stamping out corruption and alcohol abuse.

Agricultural failure: The existing system routinely misses its assigned targets—particularly in wheat and livestock production—and it imposes severe strain on the country’s foreign exchange reserves because of the need to import foodstuffs from the West. One major factor beyond Gorbachev’s control: the country’s harsh climate and limited growing season. The Soviet government already subsidizes food costs by nearly 50 per cent to hold down prices to comsumers and prevent widespread civilian unrest. Gorbachev helped establish his reputation in Stavropol with innovative grain-production methods, and since his elevation to the Politburo he has been developing a new master plan aimed at increasing production. His knowledge of the field is exhaustive. During his 1983 trip to Canada he asked such detailed questions that department of agriculture experts had to be summoned to provide the answers.

Foreign relations: For decades international affairs have been the special province of 75-year-old Andrei Gromyko, who placed Gorbachev’s name in nomination for the first secretary’s position. Now, foreign policy may be modestly revised along pragmatic lines. Gorbachev swiftly signalled his intentions to seek warmer relations with China. And he assured the United States, with which Moscow last week resumed arms control talks, that the Soviet Union sought neither war nor superiority. At the same time, the Soviet approach to Western Europe was expected to continue unchanged.

Internal reforms: Gorbachev’s domestic reforms will likely be more cosmetic than profound. Most observers predicted that he will move fairly quickly to promote trusted supporters, including KGB boss Viktor Cherberikov, to full Politburo membership while rewarding such stalwart backers as First Deputy Prime Minister Geidar Aliev, 61, and Vitaly Vorotnikov, 58, the premier of the Russian Republic, with greater authority and further honors.

Some issues will demand Gorbachev’s immediate attention. Among them: the five-year military stalemate in Afghanistan, where guerrilla forces have continued to defy roughly 100,000 crack Soviet troops assigned to support and defend a Communist regime in Kabul. There are also two potentially explosive religious issues: internal dissent among Jewish residents, and a population explosion among the 50 million Moslem citizens in Soviet central Asia.

Gorbachev has also indicated that he will begin to lift the veil of secrecy from the Soviet system and relax censor-

ship. Traditionally, the news media are strictly controlled by the state and used as domestic propaganda vehicles—often to the chagrin of worldly wise Soviet citizens. The two most important newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia, take their names respectively from the Russian words for “truth” and “news” and consequently have given rise to a favorite comment among cynical Muscovites: “The Truth is not the news and the News is not the truth.”

Still, Gorbachev seemed unlikely to disregard the propaganda potential of state-run newspapers. Indeed, one of the initial acts of the Gorbachev era was an exercise in news management—and, possibly, a sign of vanity on the part of the new leader. In a break from tradition, Chernenko’s black-edged obituary in Izvestia was relegated to the second page, while the announcement of Gorbachev’s appointment appeared on the front page. Similarly, Soviet publications routinely retouch Gorbachev’s photographs to eliminate the large purple birthmark that disfigures his forehead, high above the right eyebrow.

Adept: Television and radio are tightly controlled, too, and Gorbachev has already shown himself adept at using the electronic media. On Feb. 24, two weeks before Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev appeared at a Moscow polling station to cast his vote in regional elections. He was accompanied by his seven-yearold granddaughter, Oksana, and a throng of Soviet television cameras and photographers as well as foreign correspondents, all of whom had been alerted to a “photo opportunity”—normally a trapping of leadership. As the little girl helped her grandfather place his ballot, which was unmarked to show his support for the only approved candidate on the slate, the still photographers shouted in Russian for “One more, one more.” A smiling Gorbachev held up an index finger and replied: “In the Soviet Union a citizen only votes once.” The television cameras recorded it all, and the scene played around the world.

Gorbachev apparently has chosen to follow standard practice among senior Soviet officials and keep much of his personal life out of the public realm. So far, the Soviet Union’s new “first family” has only four known members: Gorbachev; his

wife, Raisa Maximovna, who made a stunning initial appearance just three

months ago during her husband’s official visit to Britain; their daughter, Irina, a 27-year-old medical doctor; and granddaughter, Oksana. Still unknown are whether the Gorbachevs have other children and the identity of Oksana’s father.

Despite his relative youth, Gorbachev is a well-travelled Russian who made his international debut during an eight-

day official visit to Canada in 1983. At that time, he met then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, confidently gave impromptu interviews and was guided through Ontario by Eugene Whelan, who was the federal agriculture minister at the time. At the same time, he visited Banff, Alta., and impressed most of the Canadian politicians and officials with whom he had contact. Said Geoffrey Pearson, former Canadian ambassador to Moscow: “Each time I met him, he struck me as a person whom one could talk to across a table without any protocol or formality.” Indeed, Whelan‘s wife, Elizabeth, recalled entertaining Gorbachev at her Amherstburg, Ont., home and_ deciding over dinner that heo “was a very warm, kindheartedS

person. He talked about his family, about his daughter, his granddaughter.” Uncompromising: On their visit to Britain, the Gorbachevs received filmstar treatment by the media. They met Thatcher, toured museums and visited Parliament, where Gorbachev entered into an aggressive debate with British MPs who had criticized the Soviet Union for restricting religious freedom and not

tolerating dissidents. Gorbachev’s confident, uncompromising, off-the-cuff response unsettled members of his official party but subdued his British inquisitors. Said Gorbachev: “Each of us has internal problems. You have a very big problem. You have Protestants and Catholics shooting each other on the streets of Northern Ireland.”

As he wrestles with the problems ahead, those combative qualities may serve Mikhail Gorbachev well. The Soviet hierarchy is historically unsympathetic toward failure, and, as Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, declared last week, “Gorbachev is the first Soviet leader since Nikita Khrushchev who is young enough to be worth conspiring against.”

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