Conversations in Moscow

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Tom Twiss

I WAS IN Moscow for about three days last winter. It was all l had expected, except it is very different reading about a country and understanding it intellectually and actually seeing it. The disorder and inefficiency were maddening; the, black marketeers were everywhere and they were a nuisance; the city itself looked run down and seedy in a lot of areas; there were long lines for food; and the people were mostly very warm and generous and patient.

The most touching moment of the trip: I was looking for a metro station near the airport and l approached a young Soviet soldier. He spoke very little English so I asked him in Russian if he knew where the station was. He hesitated a second and then asked me to come with him. We got on a bus; he paid for the tickets, refusing to let me pay him back. We rode for maybe twenty minutes.

I was looking for a way to repay him for his effort so I gave him some antiwar buttons and told him l was part of the American peace movement. We got off the bus at the end of the line and he led me onto the metro, which was heading downtown. He kept taking the buttons out and looking at them on the metro. Downtown we got off and he led me to another metro line.

By now I knew exactly where l was and thanked him for his help. Still he got on the metro with me. Finally, two stops before mine he got off. Perhaps my stop was on his way after all? Again I thanked him profusely. Just before he got off he said in halting English, “l am part of the peace movement too.” The doors opened and he disappeared into the crowd.

l attended a meeting of the People’s Front (PF), and l also talked with Boris Kagarlitsky [Kagarlitsky is the author of The Thinking Reed and a left-wing activist]. l met Kagarlitsky at a metro station, immediately recognizing him from his picture. We sat and talked over the noise of the metro for nearly an hour while he directed people to the meeting of the People’s Front that was shortly to convene a few blocks away.

Kagarlitsky was pleased to receive the copy of ATC that l delivered to him. He had heard of it, but had never seen it before. He glanced over the list of editors and commented that they were mostly Trotskyists. l told him a little about ATC’s connection to the U.S. socialist group Solidarity and how we had formed.

He said we could try to send him a subscription. He usually gets mail sent to him, although after long delays. He said that letters he sends out, however, are sometimes confiscated, adding “You see? They respect the rights of foreigners more than the rights of their own people.”

Kagarlitsky talked a little about the general economic perspectives of the PF. He insisted that they are not against market reforms per se, but against allowing the market to decide the most important economic questions without regard to other social criteria such as the standard of living of workers and ecological issues. Kagarlitsky explained that the types of questions that would be resolved through the market would be secondary questions of distribution. In this respect he thought he differed from Ernest Mandel (see debates in New Left Review].

We walked the few blocks to the meeting. It was being held in a hall of the administrative building fora community of pensioners. At the hall we had to wait. It seems a group of pensioners’ representatives was meeting to elect a committee to decide which candidates from the community had a right to be on the ballot. Kagarlitsky later explained that there are no formal criteria for exclusion – it just depends on whom the chairman doesn’t like.

As the pensioners filed out they snorted in disgust at the People’s Front buttons we were all wearing and the PF literature we were carrying. Afterwards Kagarlitsky told me that the pensioners were mostly Stalinist and conservative. “Maybe it will be different in twenty or thirty years,” he laughed.

The PF meeting had something of the flavor of a scene out of Ten Days That Shook the World combined with an American leftist meeting. The PF members filed into the room bundled in heavy coats and fur hats. Immediately petitions began circulating against the Central Committee’s nomination of Yegor K. Ligachev to the Congress of People’s Deputies and against the arrest of PF members. The meeting itself was of representatives of the constituent groups of the PF. (Since my spoken Russian is pretty rusty, l was only able to follow bits of the discussion. Kagarlitsky later explained what had happened.) They were voting into membership about four or five new groups.

Kagarlitsky told me they had only excluded maybe two groups in the past, on the basis of their small size, and, more importantly, because they were considered ideologically hostile to the aims of the People’s Front. One group had been excluded because it was considered right nationalist.

.At the meeting l attended all of the groups were voted in. Each received one representative on the executive committee of the Moscow People’s Front. At this point there is no Republic-wide organizational structure. Eventually the PF hopes to develop one out of the groups in the various cities.

Organizing Protests

The other purpose of the meeting was to discuss two upcoming demonstrations. The first was to be held the following Saturday. It was a completely “legal” environmental demonstration against the construction of a canal for large ships. The canal, Kagarlitsky said, was completely unnecessary and useless. It was an example of a project undertaken simply to benefit a ministry.

“In the West,” Kagarlitsky laughed, “it is commonly believed we have no competition. Actually we have a great deal of competition — between the ministries.” (We learned a few days later that public opinion had forced the cessation of the construction of the canal.)

The second demonstration, planned for Sunday, was “illegal.” There is no actual law prohibiting it, but it had been banned by the local authorities. It was to protest violations of the election laws. “The laws themselves are terrible, but they can’t even act according to these,” Kagarlitsky said.

The meeting only lasted a little over an hour for at 9P.M. we had to vacate the hall. L asked Kagarlitsky how large the PF was. He told me they don’t know for sure themselves. After their upcoming Moscow conference they will have a better idea. He thinks that in Moscow they have about 2,000 members.

In some other cities it has taken on the character of a mass movement. In Kuibyshev, for example, a mass demonstration was led by PF people. They succeeded in getting the local party chairman sacked.

L asked him about their attitude toward the elections. I asked if they supported other candidates — like Boris N. Yeltsin. He said, “Yeltsin? — of course,” explaining that although there is no Yeltsin organization, his campaign has assumed the form of a sort of a movement. We agreed to meet again the next day.

I met Kagarlitsky in a metro station as he was going to a union headquarters to pick up money for a book he had written for them. I asked him if he taught. “No,” he replied, ifs hard for a person like him to get a teaching position. He works in a cooperative organized by the PF.

After he picked up his money, we sat in a comer of the union building and talked. Regarding his own political biography, he told me he had been politically active about ten years ago. Then he had helped to organize a small group called “Variances,” which published the paper, Left Turn. They had been able to win a certain following in the late ’70s with the capitulation of the liberal wing of the dissident movement. In the early ’80s they were arrested. Then, with the liberalization under Andropov, they had been freed.

He explained that the current situation in the Soviet Union is one of conflict between different tendencies and it remains to be seen who will win. I asked him if Pamyat [a right-wing nationalist group] was strong and well organized. “Strong — yes,” he said, “organized, no.” It recently fragmented into three groups. The fascists in Pamyat have been holding joint meetings with Stalinist groups. I asked if there had been any confrontations between the PF and Pamyat. He said there hadn’t been yet, although Pamyat had threatened them.

The PF organizes soldiers who fought in Afghanistan to defend their meetings and demonstrations. Regarding Afghanistan, he said that the PF opposed Soviet military intervention. But at the same time they participate in the campaign for the return of the Soviet prisoners of war.

Certain liberal publications, like Ogonyok and Moscow News, were for stopping the democratization where it now stands. The PF is trying to push it further.

I asked Kagarlitsky about whether the PF supports the Central American and Palestinian revolutions? Yes, he replied. Also, it has had some activities in support of the Kurdish struggle and has protested political repression in Turkey.

The PF has been concerned about the growing role of multinational corporations in the Soviet Union. If the trend continues, he warned, the Soviet Union will be transformed into just another backward country on the periphery of the capitalist world. When I asked if there is any organized presence of the women’s movement in the PF he replied that there is no women’s movement.

He was interested in finding out more about the American left and commented that for the most part it seemed to him to be almost exclusively preoccupied with international questions. However, he had seen the union reform-oriented newsletter Labor Notes.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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