Who Benefits from Reforms?

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

Susan Weissman

SOVIET LEADER Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign has not only made headlines in the West, but is generating significant changes within the Soviet Union itself, particularly for the opinion shapers: the filmmakers, writers, and journalists.

Films which have been on the shelf for more than fifteen years are being shown; the new head of the Soviet cinematographic union is himself the widower of a once-banned filmmaker. Soviet theatre, static for decades, has come alive and new plays challenge once-sacred cows.

Alexander Tvardovsky’s bitter poem about the nightmare of Stalin’s rule, “By Right of Memory,” written in the 1960s and quickly censored, was recently published in the monthly Znamya.

The publication of Tvardovsky’s poem coincided with the public release of a surrealistic film, “Repentance,” also dealing with the legacy of Stalin’s brutal rule in the Soviet Union. A long review of “Repentance” in Pravda discussed the vividly portrayed symbolism of Stalin’s years of terror. Cinema lines at theatres showing “Repentance” stretch around two blocks. Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” will be serialized in Novy Mir next year, thanks to the efforts of the poet Andre Voznesensky.

The publication of the works of the emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov, poets Nikolai Gumilev1(1) and Anna Akhmatova,(2) and Anatoly Rybakov’s novel, “Children of the Arbat,”(3) a fictional account of the author’s experiences under Stalin’s terror, are all features of the new openings in Soviet culture.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as the list of unpublished and forbidden authors is still very long.(4) Nevertheless, the Soviets are enjoying a rich period of artistic self-examination after decades of an “official” culture which rewarded conformity and censored openly critical work.

Open Criticism

Glasnost is most evident in the press, which now commonly features articles criticizing many aspects of Soviet development since the establishment of the Stalinist system.(5) Once a dull hack journal, Moscow News now sells out the instant it hits the stands. The slick Ogonyok, a literary journal which used to be considered drab and unreadable is now in the forefront of publishing new and once banned texts.

Soviet intellectuals complain of having to spend at least two hours on newspapers they used to scan in five minutes. New journals have appeared, new editors have taken over others, and self-critical articles appear by the dozens. Historians, echoing Gorbachev, have been calling for a probe of the “blank spots” in Soviet history.(6)

As of July 1987, 167 Soviet dissidents have been released and the law that put them behind bars is being re-examined. Jews are once again being allowed to emigrate. Dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, freshly released from internal exile, has called for support of Gorbachev’s policies.

Roy Medvedev, long known as the “socialist” dissident in the Soviet Union allied to the Andropov I Gorbachev wing of the party, now has his party democrats — Aleksandr Yakovlev, Bovin and Burlatsky-ascending to the inner circles of power.

Gorbachev has stolen the thunder of the dissidents of the human rights movement of the ’70s, advocating publicly much of what they have been saying clandestinely for years.

What is happening to our staid and static conception of Soviet society? How does Gorbachev’s liberalization fit into his program of domestic “restructuring”-the “buzz” word in the Soviet Union for Gorbachev’s reforms? Is a real democratization taking place? What changes, if any, have affected the daily lives of the mass of Soviet citizens?

Gorbachev is enlisting the support of the creative and scientific intelligentsia, including the dissidents among them, for his reform program. The Soviet economy is in desperate shape, and glasnost is part of Gorbachev’s strategy for shaking up the old ways of doing things. Long articles have appeared in the press attacking Stalin’s bureaucratic legacy(7)

The significance of allowing criticism of Stalin is that it is a veiled attack on the Brezhnev-Chernenko wing of the party, representatives of the conservative inertia long associated with Soviet society, who are the major obstacles to Gorbachev’s reform proposals.(8)

Debates Re-opened

Yet the question that is automatically raised by allowing so many critical articles to appear in the public arena concerns the unpredictable dynamic of unleashing criticism of past policy: How far and how deep will it go? Will the critique reach past Stalin’s rule to the hotly debated alternatives offered by Trotsky and Bukharin in the ’20s, completely forbidden subjects? So far Trotsky has been mentioned in the press only to be attacked. Bukharin is seen in a slightly more favorable light because of his pro-market policies, not unlike Gorbachev’s.

The reappearance of Mikhail Shatrov’s 1962 play, The Brest Peace, accurately demonstrates the atmosphere of intense debate in the party over the peace of Brest-Litovsk but depicts Trotsky as impulsive and wrong. Bukharin is shown to be Lenin’s close pupil and friend.

More recently, Trotsky has been attacked in an unusually oblique fashion, in an article sympathetic to the nationalist and anti-Semitic strain which is present in both party and society in the Soviet Union.(9)

Responding to the speeches at the Twenty-seventh Party Congress of Yegor Ligachev, who endorsed “the increased public interest in the history of the fatherland and in the wealth of our centuries-old, multinational culture,” and of Boris Yeltsin, who emphasized that “the loss of Moscow’s architectural distinctiveness … has moved into the category of political questions,” an article in Moskva no. 11, November 1986, condemns the razing of important historical buildings in Moscow in the last two years. It resurrects Lenin’s concept of culture and blames Trotsky and Bukharin for their lack of appreciation for Russian national culture. ‘Trotsky was a total outsider to the Russian people and Russian culture” and like Bukharin, “attacked Russian national culture.”

According to the article, only Lenin understood the importance of Russia’s architectural heritage, although even his statements from 1913-1914 on culture were “dogmatic” and “have been misconstrued.” (Hence the destruction of some buildings.)

In conclusion the author, Vadim Kozhinov, says, “In contrast to the Trotskyists, for whom Russia was a … ‘bundle of kindling’ to be thrown onto the ‘bon­ fire’ of world revolution, Lenin saw the main goal of revolutionary transformations as the flourishing of Russia.” Lenin is seen not as the leader of revolution and enemy of nationalism; but as “a defender of Russian culture and the fatherland.” Trotsky is the “destroyer of the Russian nation.”(10)

The article is important for its attack on Trotsky, who is not only a revolutionary, but a Jew (“outsider”), and as an indication of the thinking of the right-wing nationalist opposition. We can expect more attacks on Trotsky and the Left Opposition as more historical questions are examined.

Roots of Glasnost

Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign has its roots in the massive economic crisis of the Soviet Union. Democratization is an expedient, not an end, and most indications are that Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) is to be accomplished in a tightly controlled, top-down manner.

Thus far, Gorbachev has used glasnost to gain support and attack party conservatives; even his much-touted electoral reform remains within the confines of a one-party state. The one-party system is one sacred cow Gorbachev has no intention of challenging.

The underlying motivation for Gorbachev’s reform program is the discontent generated by the poor performance of the Soviet economy-low productivity, poor quality goods, which nevertheless enter into circulation, endless red tape and bureaucratic meddling, corruption, chronic shortages, and a low standard of living.

Gorbachev’s loosening up of censorship is seen as a necessary component of raising productivity. A free flow of accurate information is necessary for both market and planned economies. Without accurate information passing between planners and producers, ultimate plan outcome does not match plan projections. The Five-Year Plans in the Soviet Union have never been fulfilled.

But allowing genuine democratic participation by the producers in both plan elaboration and completion threatens the bureaucratic layers whose functions would be superseded. This is too dangerous. It could lead ultimately to workers themselves demanding to administer the society.

Gorbachev’s preferred solution is to rid the system of its muddling incompetence by disciplining the workers and enhancing the positions of the managers. This can be accomplished through market reforms.

The market ultimately uses the threat of unemployment as a means of labor discipline. Economists in the Soviet Union now say that up to ten percent of their work force is superfluous, even though there is a chronic labor shortage.(11)

The pain of unemployment can be eased if workers move to new localities where workers are in short supply. But the Soviet worker is skilled and rooted: he/she is reluctant to move or retrain, even with the incentive of higher wages. The new location may be less well supplied (what good would the extra money do in this case?) or may have inadequate housing.

Gorbachev’s policy is to make the workers work harder and better. But is there a trade-off for the workers?

If the workers are to accept tighter control over the way they work, they have to have a stake in the system. Promises of better quality goods to buy are no incentive for higher productivity, unless the worker is assured of the means to buy these “better consumer goods.”

Even being allowed to elect the enterprise manager is no assurance for the worker, who will lose some of the control over his/her own work process that has evolved over years as an adaptation in the workplace to the Stalinist “planning” system.(12)

Gorbachev has raised the salaries of scientific professionals and pacified the cultural elite with more freedom of expression. Accordingly, the Soviet intelligentsia is euphoric in its support of Gorbachev and his policies. But it is the working class, specifically industrial workers, that he risks alienating and unleashing as a force.

Glasnost could turn out to be a high-risk gamble: the Soviet people as a whole are being offered the possibility of freer expression (though they do not have the right to organize independently to express non-conformist views) and better quality goods and services-but at a high social cost.

It is the working class, in whose name Gorbachev governs, that is going to have to foot the bill, either through austerity or unemployment.

Potential of Struggle

The new quality control system, introduced on the first of January of this year, has already threatened workers’ bonuses, which can make up to fifty per­ cent of their income.

Bonuses are based on quantity, and quality control reduces quantity in favor of quality. Government inspectors enter the factory and reject defective products; in some cases, reports indicate, this has already caused a twenty-five percent drop in workers’ wages.

There is fear that subsidies on basic necessities (rent, heat, food) will be reduced and that the new price reform will bring higher prices. If enterprises are allowed to fire workers (the job security is the most sacred of cows) and the workers are not offered new jobs in the same localities, we can expect work actions and strikes.

Increased reporting of work actions, such as the stormy protest in December at the KamAZ autoworks,(13) will test the limits of glasnost.

There are already indications of a new type of dissident emerging-forces to the left of Gorbachev, with a radical agenda. In a recently-conducted interview with the Soviet left-wing activist, Aleksandr Severukhin (a pseudonym),(14) we see these dissidents are impatient with Gorbachev, but are willing to support his progressive reforms.

They are opposed to the one-party state, and want to mobilize the “social masses” on the basis of their own interests, not the interests of the official reformism proposed by Gorbachev. Organizing on a nonsectarian left basis, they hope to establish links with East European dissidents. They are studying Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, their own history and Western Marxists in an attempt to understand the nature of Soviet society and change.

They define themselves as “people of the left” working toward a synthesis of left-wing traditions. They believe that the next revolutionary process will not take place in the crisis-ridden capitalist West, nor in the underdeveloped Third World, but in the Soviet bloc countries, where there exists an “important revolutionary potential”-especially in the Soviet Union itself.

The new political activists see the Soviet working class, the real organic working class, as but a section of the working mass of “marginal, classless people, who were moved from the countryside and villages and thrown into factories … ” possessing neither “class consciousness nor a class structure,” with “corruptive ties” to management and the bureaucratic system.

Official reformism does not address the workers’ interests, so as Severukhin says, a revolutionary psychology and a revolutionary left opposition must be developed.

Although still fledgling and small in number, the new dissidents can strike a responsive chord in Soviet society. Those close to Gorbachev have argued that unless reform occurs soon, he can expect further radicalization.

Glasnost has already permitted us to see the growth of nationalist sentiment in the Soviet Union. Beyond the KamAZ work action, there has been no mention of working-class activity. As long as Gorbachev’s reforms do not address the need of the largest sector of Soviet society-the working class-they could be fertile ground for an opposition movement which will make the Polish Solidarnosc seem small in comparison.


  1. A Russian poet who was executed by the Cheka during the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 for writing counterrevolutionary documents.
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  2. Akhmatova’s anti-Stalinist poem “Requiem” was published last March (1987) in the journal Oktyabr after forty-seven years of censorship.
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  3. Excerpted in the journal Ogonyok, and serialized in the journal Druzhba Narodov, beginning with the April 1987 issue.
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  4. Living authors such as Vladimir Voinovich, Vasily Aksyonov, Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are still excluded from publication, and revolutionary novelists such as Victor Serge, a member of the Left Opposition, have yet to be mentioned, much less published.
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  5. For example, there have been articles attacking the terror and the atmosphere of fear that paralyzed social, economic and political development; articles attacking Stalin’s military blunders, which cost the Soviet Union dearly in World War 11; articles on the state of sociology (or lack of social analysis) in academic institutions; on the state of Soviet psychiatry; on the alienation of youth; on drugs, alcohol, prostitution and AIDS; on right-wing vigilante youth gangs (“Lyubery”), etc. For readers who are interested in reviewing the Soviet press, the weekly Current Digest of the Soviet Press contains articles from over eighty Soviet publications. Address: 1480 West Lane Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43221.
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  6. This remains at the level of rhetoric thus far, and is a way of countering popular myths about counterrevolutionary White generals in the Civil War period. There has been no public examination of the roles, ideas and writings of Lenin’s Central Committee, wiped out by Stalin. Stalin’s industrialization and collectivization also remain unexplored. See, for example the interview with Professor Yu. Afanasyev in Sovetskaya kultura, March 21, 1987, and the interview with Soviet historian A. Samsonov in Argumenty i fakty, March 14-20, 1987.
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  7. For example, the article “In the Light of Openness,” Moskovskaya Pravda, May 7, 1987, attacks Stalinism and the Stalinist bureaucratic legacy as the foes of perestroika, or restructuring. According to Dr. Anatoly Butenko of the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the Economics of the World Socialist System, the main problem lies in Stalin’s “administrative-voluntaristic” methods of management which denied a role to the workers, who then became “alienated from real power, although the regime acted in their name.” In another article appearing in Selskaya zhizn, March 24, 1987, the economist Ubaidullayeva admits to one million unemployed in Central Asia. Sotsialisticheskaya industria of March 26, 1987, contains an article about the extensive shantytowns lining the city of Baku, admitting that more than 200,000 people live in these “distrssing conditions.” While the existence of shantytowns and unemployment is not new, reporting of them would have been unthinkable even two years ago. More examples of glasnost: the reporting of a demonstration in Leningrad in Literaturnaya gazeta (March 25), Izvestia and Leningradskaya Pravda. Attacks on the Soviet judicial system have appeared, criticizing the use of torture to obtain guilty pleas, and in the May 22 issue of Izvestia, the use of unwarranted preventive detention, torture, and the use of investigators (sometimes unqualified) “overstating the facts” against accused, and violating citizens’ rights is decried. In another case, statistics showing the generally accepted growth figures for the Soviet Union as ninetyfold since 1928, have now been revised downward to sevenfold for the same period. Novy mir, November 1986.
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  8. Brezhnev’s holdovers have enjoyed power in the various autonomous republics. These include Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the party boss in Kazakhstan whom Gorbachev successfully unseated, causing national riots last Christmas, and Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the Ukrainian party chief Gorbachev has been trying to get rid of since before January. Gorbachev’s newer opponent is Yegor Ligachev, who while supporting perestroika, is much less keen on too much glasnost. The KGB supports Gorbachev and is in fact in the forefront of economic reform, simply because it is in a position to have intimate knowledge of the crisis situation of the economy and its potentially dangerous repercussions.
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  9. The group Pamyat or “Memory” recently demonstrated in Moscow and demanded a meeting with the Mayor Boris Yeltsin. Pamyat is composed of cultural nationalists who call for the preservation of national and historic relics, and are at the same time virulently anti­Semitic, blaming Jews for destroying Russia’s “ages-old culture” and for creating food shortages that make Russia dependent on America, the “satanic” power “in the hands of the Jews.”
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  10. Alexander Amerisov analyzes the Pamyat group and the National Bolshevik movement, exposing their links in the party and leadership in Soviet-American Review, Vol. 2, Nos. 5&6, May-June 1987. (Address: 1300 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657.)
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  11. A peculiar feature of Soviet industry, which has its roots in the way the Soviet Union industrialized in the 1930s, is that there is both featherbedding and a labor shortage at the same time.
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  12. For an excellent discussion of the Soviet worker and the labor process, see Hillel Ticktin, ‘The Contradictions of Soviet Society and Professor Bettelheim,” Critique 6, Spring 1976.
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  13. Izvestia carried reports of the workers’ protest against inspections. The factory inspections are not aimed at managers, but are typically punitive to the workers.
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  14. Conducted recently by a North American socialist student in one of the Soviet republics. Published in New Politics, (new series), No. 3, Summer 1987.
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September-October 1987, ATC 10

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