At 54 years of age, Vladimir Chichirov has been a loyal member of the Communist party since he was a teenager in Leningrad. A holder of the title of Hero of Socialist Labor and a twice-elected deputy to the Supreme Soviet, he is clearly one of the party’s more devoted adherents. But when Chichirov discusses life in the Soviet Union before the 1980s, he now describes it as “the difficult period of stagnation.” And when he attends the special conference of the Communist party in Moscow as a delegate this week, he will be urging new limits on the party’s pervasive powers.
Declared Chichirov: “Under the new conditions of openness and democratization, we accept criticism for mistakes and call for radical restructuring of our life.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev must hope that an overwhelming majority of the 5,000 delegates to the conference-representing the country’s 20 million party members—agree with comrade Chichirov on the need for such radical changes. Gorbachev, who is seeking strong endorsement for his policies of glasnost (openness), perestroika (economic reform) and demokratizatsiya (democratization), said recently that Soviet society is at a “watershed, a crucial phase in its history.” At the conference, the first of its kind since 1941, delegates will discuss proposals that range from imposing time limits on holding public office to a widespread expansion of the decision-making powers of smaller, regional councils known as soviets.
Other areas of discussion will include greater economic reforms to allow limited ownership of some businesses and increased emphasis on
making business enterprises self-sufficient. Said Georgi Smirnov, a senior party official and director of the Central Committee’s Marxist-Leninist Institute: “The conference is empowered to ask any questions and to suggest reforms in all areas of life.”
The conference will also provide a rare chance for the Soviet public—and an interested outside world—to gauge the strength of Gorbachev’s hold over the party. In the weeks leading up to the conference, he has acknowledged several times that he faces strong internal opposition to his policies. “Our antagonists are making their own plans and calculations,” he declared in a speech last month.
There already have been several controversial instances in which Gorbachev supporters charged that opponents were illegally rigging the election of delegates. Earlier this Q month, 4,850 residents ^ of Yaroslavl, a city 225 g km northeast of Mos§ cow, signed a petition in I which they unsuccesses fully protested the election of the former local first party secretary on the grounds that his election had been carried out disregarding the spirit of glasnost. Gorbachev supporters concede that they often do not know how to identify their opponents. “If there was one organization opposing perestroika, things would be easier because we would know whom to fight,” said Valentin Kudryavis, director of the State Law Institute. “Instead, we cannot be certain who our opponents are.” Gorbachev’s conservative opponents gained ammunition when ethnic disturbances broke out in the southern republics of Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan last February. In recent months, Armenians have staged mass
demonstrations demanding the annexation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is part of Azerbaijan but is populated largely by ethnic Armenians. And critics have charged that Gorbachev’s lenient attitude toward dissent has encouraged Armenian nationalism.
But the biggest obstacle to reform may be the attitude of the average Soviet citizen. Many Soviets, weary of unfulfilled promises made by previous leaders, say that they are skeptical about the scope and intent of Gorbachev’s reforms. A poll conducted recently by the Soviet Academy of Sciences showed that among more than 11,000 people surveyed, 73 per cent—up from 68 per cent a year ago—agreed with the assertion that “instead of real perestroika, we are just having a lot of talk.” Said Kudryavis: “The real enemy of perestroika is in ourselves.”
Although the range of topics to be discussed at the conference is wide, it is not clear in the days before the sessions opened what specific proposals delegates would vote on. One reason was the volume of proposals. A conference organizer said last week that the figure had reached “the hundreds of thousands.” Among the reforms that have been suggested: stronger powers for the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme Soviet; contested elections for local government posts; judicial reforms including trial by jury; and guarantees of the freedom to demonstrate. Delegates will also dis-
cuss 10 so-called theses proposed by the Communist party’s Central Committee that deal with such topics as economic reform and redistribution of government power.
Some of the more radical proposals have been toned down. Although the Central Committee, with Gorbachev’s backing, had originally proposed limiting the terms of office of many officials to two five-year terms, the final proposal being presented to the conference allows for a third term under certain circumstances. Western diplomats speculate that Gorbachev may have
decided to postpone some reform projects until he is more certain of his support.
Once the conference was under way, debate was scheduled to take place under an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny. The opening and closing days of the conference were both to be broadcast live on Soviet television. On the other days, Soviet television was to broadcast nightly summaries and interviews with key figures. Most of the country’s major daily newspapers said that they would carry transcripts of speeches by delegates, regardless of
the views they expressed. Said Ivan Laptev, editor of the government daily Izvestia: “If a delegate gains the right to be heard on the floor of the conference, he also gains the right to be read publicly in our newspaper.”
In the weeks leading up to the conference, the Soviet media have been carrying out a startling re-examination of the country’s history. Much of the criticism has centred on dictator Josef Stalin, who is portrayed as the leader typifying the bad old ways that Gorbachev now wishes to change. In an article this month in the magazine Kommunist, Stalin is described as an inept ! and sometimes “hysterig cal” leader whose lapses g almost resulted in the I country’s defeat by Nazi i Germany during the Second World War. Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the g Soviet Union from 1964 to I 1982, has also come under attack.
Still, many party members say that the wish for increased democratization need not lead to such Western political traditions as a multiparty system. “Why should we change the thing that works best?” said Yuri Sklyarov, director of propaganda for the Central Committee. “Our system satisfies our needs, and we see no reason to become like the West.” Gorbachev’s task now is to convince delegates that by reshaping the country’s plans for the future, they are strengthening their most cherished links with the past.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.