The second revolution

CATHERINE REDDEN November 9 1987

The second revolution

CATHERINE REDDEN November 9 1987

The second revolution


To many Western visitors, Moscow is grey, dull and austere. And Western residents usually know by heart the departure times of all flights out of the Soviet capital. But it is a reflection of the desperate conditions elsewhere in the enormous country of 278 million people that other Soviets long for the opportunity to live in Moscow. In small towns, typically, there is little or no meat, butter or eggs on sale. Through long, bitter winters, the inhabitants live on vegetable preserves and pickled cu-

cumbers and cabbage. They wash their clothes through holes in the ice, and even in the summer they have to draw their water in buckets from wells. Still, as the Soviet Union celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution this week, the Communist nation will proudly parade the trappings of a military superpower and a world leader in space technology.

But there are also reminders that its domestic economy resembles that of a Third World country. Even in the capital—dressed up for this week’s celebrations—signs of economic stagnation are widespread. So severe were Moscow’s power shortages last winter that the neon lights on top of a power plant across the Moscow Riv-

er from the Kremlin, proclaiming the revered words of Lenin—“Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”—had to be switched off. And this year the sign itself was removed.

With the energy and inspiration of the revolution that overthrew Czar Nicholas lí in 1917 long since gone, many Soviets are looking to Mikhail Gorbachev to rejuvenate national life. Gorbachev, who became Communist party general secretary in 1985, has characterized his mission as a

second revolution —“a revolution without the shots, but a deep and serious one.” But although he has moved faster than almost anyone expected, many observers still doubt that he can overcome broadly entrenched opposition to change.

Since achieving power, Gorbachev has embraced the themes of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in a bold attempt to remove some of the shackles from his nation’s political, economic and intellectual life, and provide the Soviet people with at least some of the material goods that ordinary people in the West take for granted. But although he has created a new psychological climate, living conditions for the mass of the population—the chronic

shortages of everything from potatoes to children’s clothes—have not improved. Change has taken root mainly in those areas that are most visible to the West. Once-banned books—such as Dr. Zhivago—are be-

ing published. Formerly dull statecontrolled publications are now enlivened by sensational revelations of bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption, and spirited debate about the reality of Soviet life. And the restrictions on emigration and travel abroad have eased.

Some dissidents, such as Josef Begun, the Jewish activist who was released last February from the prison camp where he served five years for teaching Hebrew without permission, claim to be unimpressed. In an interview with Maclean's in his Moscow apartment last week, Begun labelled the sudden rise in Jewish emigration-more than five times the 1986 total so far this year—a cynical manoeuvre to improve the Soviet image. But others say that the changes go deeper than that. Even as Begun was speaking, fellow Jewish activists announced plans for an unofficial monthly journal.

But perhaps even more revealing of the changing climate is Begun’s failure so far to emigrate. After campaigning for 15 years for a visa, he has twice let government deadlines to obtain one expire, apparently confi-

dent that he can leave at a later date. Said the Jewish activist: “I hope that now, in the time of glasnost and a more democratic situation in the country, we have no need to be frightened.” And a 39-year-old Mos-

cow housewife named Anya pointed to movies, newspapers, radio, television and books as areas where Gorbachev has brought about more sweeping liberalization than any previous Soviet leader. “Many things are better,” she said. “People are not afraid to express their opinion on the street.”

But despite such new openness,

Anya asked that her full name not be printed. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow,’’ she said.

Such doubts about the future are pervasive— and well-founded, say Kremlin-watchers.

Only last Friday two editors of the independent magazine Glasnost, founded to test the limits of Gorbachev’s openness, were arrested and held on charges that were not immediately specified.

Indeed, both before and since the revolution, the Soviet people

have seen periods of liberalization followed by harsh repression. Leader Nikita Khrushchev’s liberalization program of the early 1960s, for one, was immediately followed by Leonid Brezhnev’s crackdown. As a result,

overcoming the Soviet people’s natural skepticism is one of Gorbachev’s most basic obstacles in enlisting public support.

In fact, many Soviets say that the Gorbachev revolution has so far achieved few concrete results. Said Russian historian Roy Medvedev in Moscow recently: “In almost all fundamental respects, Soviet life continues to flow in the same direction as before.” Certainly, the Soviet economy has yet to show signs of Gorbachev’s promised revitalization. This year industrial production — especially in the highpriority area of machine tools, which is to underpin the entire industrial rebuilding program—has slumped badly after last year’s successes. The drop in production may reflect

the demand for higher quality. But to many Western analysts, the Soviet leader’s goal of doubling the output of the Soviet economy by the end of the century looks increasingly unrealistic.

Most Western economists say that the root of the country’s economic problem lies in the Communist system itself. For while Gorbachev has transferred more decision-making power to regional managers, the

central bureaucracy in Moscow will still set the price guidelines for the entire country. That means that the heavy hand of bureaucracy will continue to hamper industrial growth, according to most Western economists.

Meanwhile, Gorbachev will have to move quickly to improve the standard of living of average Soviet citizens, or he may fail to acquire the broad popular

support he needs. The

Soviet leader clearly has enemies within the

Soviet power structure. He publicly humiliated the armed forces by firing Defence Minister Sergei Sokolov and Air Defence Chief Gen. Alexander Koldunov after West German teenager Mathias Rust flew unchallenged through Soviet air defences last May 28 and landed his light aircraft in Red Square.

As well, bureaucrats across the country have been forced from the sinecures they enjoyed under previous leaders. And while the Politburo appears united behind Gorbachev’s economic plans, there have been public differences within the ruling body over his willingness to alter or even jettison some of the ideological baggage that he inherited.

Much of the controversy has centred on Gorbachev’s attempts to confront the truth about the nationwide terror that occurred under the rule of Josef Stalin, between 1922 and 1953. “There should be no blank pages in history and literature,” Gorbachev said in a speech last February, “otherwise it is not history or literature, but artificial constructions.” Still, Yegor Ligachev, the conservative who ranks second in the Politburo after Gorbachev, has pointedly warned Soviet journalists not to forget “the positive accomplishments” of the past.

But some Western experts are predicting that—perhaps during the 70th anniversary celebrations —Gorbachev will announce the rehabilitation of victims of the Stalin purges such as Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed after he denounced Stalin’s ruthless collectivization of the country’s peasant agriculture in the 1930s at a cost of an estimated five million lives. That would be a victory for Gorbachev and could result in a new look at the stultifyingly inefficient agricultural industry. But Gorbachev is clearly aware of the danger

of tackling such a controversial area. In extracts from a forthcoming book to be published in the West this month and reproduced last week in

the English language edition of the weekly Moscow News, Gorbachev wrote: “Collectivization was a most important historical act, a most vital social turning point after 1917. Yes, it

went ahead painfully, not without serious extremes and mistakes in methods and tempos—but without it the subsequent progress of our country would have been impossible.”

As he presses ahead with his re-

forms, Gorbachev has sought to fill positions of power with people who share his views. In June he added Aleksandr Yakovlev to the 13-mem-

ber Politburo. Banished to Ottawa by Brezhnev 14 years ago as ambassador to Canada because of an obscure ideological dispute, Yakovlev was brought back to Moscow by Gorbachev in 1983 and is now his closest adviser and the guiding hand behind his slick public relations. Of Gorbachev’s need for powerful allies to carry out his program, Roy Medvedev says, “At the end of the day, the basis of Gorbachev’s revolution—if we use that word—is not even the principle of reform, but new people, people who can work in a new way, people who can create in a new way.” But whether Gorbachev’s second Soviet revolution succeeds or fails —and the odds against transforming an entire economic system are formidable—he has set in motion forces that will influence the country

into the next century. As one prominent Soviet intellectual put it recently: “It’s like planting a tree and having it spread out. After it grows for a while, you can’t get rid of it.”

For all the progress he has made so far, some Kremlin watchers say that some future crisis could unite the so far divided opposition and bring him down. Indeed, some Washington analysts are predicting that he will only last another two or three years. Gorbachev’s fall would almost certainly put an end to reforms and once again unleash the secret police to stifle dissent. But the trou-

bles of the economy would remain, and any new leader—however heavyhanded—would still have to solve them.