Artyom Borovik is a reporter and deputy foreign editor of Ogonyok, the weekly generalinterest magazine that is one of the most celebrated examples of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness). Borovik, 27, has gained widespread acclaim as one of the first journalists to test the limits ofthat policy through his frequent and firsthand accounts of the problems faced by Soviet combat troops in Afghanistan. He wrote the following assessment of the Gorbachev years exclusively for Maclean’s.
If he had come along 40 years ago, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev would have been taken to one of Josef Stalin’s numerous prison camps. Under Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, Gorbachev would have been sent to the crazy house or to the city of Gorky like a dissident, far away from the Western press. Even five years ago, not a single person in the Soviet Union could even think that their new general secretary would have the ideas and convictions of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Change: Glasnost, human rights, democratization, dignity, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press and religion—all these had never been discussed or mentioned by general secretaries of my country. They never even considered them. People used to discuss these issues, whispering in each other’s ears, somewhere in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the ventilator. “God knows,” they thought. “Perhaps there is a microphone there.”
Within 3V2 years, our country has achieved changes in public life and attitudes that it had not previously managed over entire centuries. Until very recently, people wondered in private when and how democratization would begin. But not even those with the richest imaginations thought
that the initiative for change would come from their party leader. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Gorbachev, who was known only as the Politburo member who had dealt with agricultural issues, tried to get things moving.
What has he achieved?
First, it has become possible to feel oneself to be a real person. One no longer feels like a screw waiting to be turned, as was the case under Stalin. Stalinists and neo-Stalinists,
whose way of thinking had been implanted in the country for almost 70 years, now appear to be in a minority.
Courageous: Second, the war in Afghanistan, which has taken more than 13,000 young lives, is now coming to an end. Troops are
being withdrawn. I am convinced that if Brezhnev or Konstantin Chernenko were in power, the bloodshed would be continuing.
Although our people’s interest in foreign policy has decreased in recent years, Gorbachev’s success on that front—including the improvement of relations with the United States—has made him even more popular.
People also approve of the energetic and courageous steps Gorbachev has taken at home. Only he finally made it possible to abolish the special food rations previously issued to high party officials, and to reduce the number of personal cars that the government supplied to so-called bosses. Another fearless step that Gorbachev took, if one considers the popularity of vodka in Russia, was to begin an anti-alcohol drive in 1985.
Glasnost: Other things are also new. They include the decision to allow an unlimited number of candidates to run for the same position during elections; the election of directors at business enterprises; and the chance to say, without fear, that “I believe in God”—and not be dismissed from one’s job.
The new openness has been especially important. Of course, we still have censorship, but the main censor is now in the head of the journalist, who thinks: what will happen if I describe this or that? We have not reached the full value of glasnost, but even today’s level astonishes us. ^ We still cannot believe our § eyes: is it really going on here ~ in the Soviet Union? y Who would have imagined 2 five years ago that Soviet § openness could annoy party " bureaucrats in Eastern European countries, to the point that they would withhold
some liberal Soviet publications? Who would have thought that the general secretary would discuss giving even more freedom to the press, which sometimes carries out the functions, by default, of an opposition party? Naturally, glasnost has not affected all newspapers and magazines. Some editors and journalists work as if they live in 1950.1 long ago stopped being angry. Now, I feel sorry for them. There is no sadder loss than the sacrifice of your intellect.
DEFICITS AND ETHNIC STRIFE THREATEN GORBACHEV'S REFORMS
Still, a shared characteristic of Gorbachev’s changes is that none of them can be touched, bought, eaten or worn. People usually judge by deeds, not words. In that sense, we have had no change—and in some cases, the situation has become worse. For example, in May of this year, sugar suddenly disappeared from most stores. It was a casualty of the anti-alcohol campaign, as black marketeers began buying it all up in order to make bootleg liquor.
Difficulties: In short, Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms are taking place under difficult conditions. The present situation is not ideal by any means. Budget deficits now exist not only in such nations as Canada and the United States, but in our country, as well. Our agricultural production for the year has ended in a bad way. Relations between our various ethnic groups have become more strained: a conflict between two republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, has turned into mass slaughter. The leadership of Estonia’s Popular Front disagreed with Gorbachev’s plans to change the constitution, and on Nov. 16, a majority of the republic’s Supreme Soviet expressed that point of view. Their decision to declare the Estonian republic “sovereign” came into conflict with the constitution. Gorbachev -
remained cool and faithful to his democratic convictions and ideals. This is another of his achievements.
But really, some ask, what is going on? In fact, it is nothing unusual. It is just that, under Gorbachev, our people are now better informed. These problems touch on crucial matters: for the first .time, the success of perestroika (economic reform) is now threatened.
Democracy: It is easy to imagine how Stalin would have behaved if he were in Gorbachev’s shoes. Estonia and its people would have become victims of bloody repression. People with different ideas from his own would have been destroyed with the help of the governmental
machine at his disposal, including the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which has become the KGB. Brezhnev would likely have sent tanks into Estonia, and all leaders of the Popular Front would have been taken to mental hospitals. But not a single line about any of that would have appeared in the newspapers. The tragedy of Russia lies in the fact that traditions of democracy have not received their
required development over the years. Instead, there have been centuries of czarism, the Mongolian yoke, Stalin’s bloody regime, the clampdown on freedom under Brezhnev. We have had considerable democracy for only a few periods: the three to four years immediately following the Great October Revolution of 1917; about five years after the 20th party congress of 1956 under Khrushchev; and the three years of Gorbachev’s perestroika. The majority of people do not know what democracy means. Many are afraid of it because they see it as a source of disturbances and anarchy. People had become used to a monarchy in our country: if Stalin had decided
to put on a crown, it would not have been seen as anything criminal. That is why two of the most pessimistic questions are these: Is Russia ready for perestroika,? Is Russia ready for Gorbachev? People have been persuaded for decades that 100-per-cent unity of views and opinions is the greatest achievement of socialism. No one seemed to understand that this was a deficient state of mind. Centuries of slavery trained people to a patience which knows no limits. And suddenly, Gorbachev began to speak about “pluralism of opinions.” Problems: Stalin turned socialism into religion. People believed in him. Now, since Gorbachev’s glasnost has lifted the veil, people of
an older generation have found themselves at a loss. There is no more belief for them. Problems have been arising for the past three years. It is likely we will have more of them in the near future. We should not be afraid. When a young democracy faces problems, it should be given more democracy. As for me, I think that perestroika is an affirmation of universally democratic principles. Some people mutter into their beards that perestroika and glasnost are just words. But if we recall the Bible—“In the beginning was the word”—we should not forget that a word can also be a deed. Especially when the words are glasnost and perestroika.
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