Gregory Freidin


The New Republic (30 July & 6 August, 1990)




Ask a Moscow cab driver what he expects from the Twenty Eighth Party Congress of the CPSU, and you will hear: "Nothing, who gives a damn!" Ask a Moscow intellectual, and the answer will be: "The self-dissolution of the Party." Ask a progressive party member from Moscow, Leningrad, Yaroslavl or Sverdlovsk, he will tell you about his own and his colleagues' resolve to quit the party and, who knows, perhaps, to join another party instead. Ask a man from the provinces whether he is planning on quitting if the conservatives win, and he will say "no," because in the absence of powerful courts and independent unions, the party remains -- in the words of a party secretary from a factory in the Leningrad region -- "the only counterforce to the arbitrary rule of the factory boss."

The Congress, then, is not as irrelevant as it may appear after a few days' torment of listening (as I have) to the troglodyte oratory of the conservative apparat, or as it may rightly appear in the long run. But in the middle range, so to speak, a couple of years down the road, a lot rides on its outcome. Even the possibility of the Congress disintegrating into a melee a la Dostoevsky need not be ruled out, for a delegation of striking miners, who are staging a political twenty-four-hour strike on July 11, is expected to arrive in Moscow and demand to be admitted into the Palace of Congresses. Supported by the Council of representatitives of the USSR Confederation of Labor (an umbrella organization for alternative labor unions, strike committees, etc., established in May, 1990), these strikers are bringing with them a bouquet of demands: the resignation of the Union government, the formation of the "cabinet of popular confidence," election of new representatives into the Supreme Soviet, the nationalization of all property belonging to the Communist Party and the government-controlled trade unions, depoliticization of the Army, the KGB, and the police as well as public education. For Gorbachev, who declared his solidarity with the miners' sentiments on the first day of the Congress, this wild card may yet turn out to be a real trump.

With his popular mandate shrinking by the minute, the consummate master of the possible, Mikhail Gorbachev, must accomplish the impossible: transform the seventeen-million members of the Communist party into his loyal or, at the very least, harmless troopers all the while pushing the party away from the office of the presidency and other key institutions of the Soviet state. "Look how they are tormenting the old man Honecker," a secretary of the Lithuanian "trunk" party cried out in the foyer of the Congress, apparently in anticipation of sharing the old man's fate. Even for the ultra-conservatives like this lieutenant colonel from Lithuania, Gorbachev seems to be the only insurance policy, however unreliable, that can protect them from the growing ire of the formerly obedient subject of the party-state. For the majority of the delegates at the congress (58%, according to the poll conducted by the staff of the Congress Secretariat), the party's main task at the moment is to stabilize the state and society by means of the party's own democratization (68-73% of the delegates). If the congress concludes with the triumph of the conservative forces, which is not entirely unlikely, a mass exodus from the party becomes inevitable (upward of 20% in many key areas will retunr their membership cards). In that case, all the bets are off.

A key item on Gorbachev's immediate agenda, therefore, is to prevent the left, so-called democratic wing of the party from abandoning ship even if the conservatives gain the upper hand in the new Central Committee (the Politburo has been rendered harmless by having the republics' party chairmen receive automatic membership). Apparently, it is with this purpose in mind that Alexander N. Iakovlev, Gorbachev's right-hand man and, allegedly, the father of perestroika, held a meeting on July 4 with the newly formed block "Democratic Unity" (so called by contrast with the old-fashioned "democratic centralism"), a group of the most democratically-minded Congress delegates, uniting the Democratic Platform, the Marxist Platform, the caucus of young Communists and the caucus of the first secretaries of grass-roots party organizations. Judging by the poll, 20-30% of the delegates are in essential solidarity with "Democratic Unity," with a far greater number of party members supporting them outside what Iakovlev called the "double set of the Kremlin walls."

Run as a question and answer session, this meeting offers a unique view not only of the political strategy and tactics of the Gorbachev team, but also, and most intriguing, the mentality and the outlook of the perestroika "father" and its most ardent, active supporters. Although foreign newsmen were ostensibly barred from the meeting, this writer was able to obtain a tape recording of most of the proceedings. What follows are a few of the key excerpts from this tape.

Under what circumstances should one quit the party? This question came up again and again. To sum up his position, Iakovlev considers the conservative wing "historically doomed," their struggle for survival, "a revanchist wave" which resembles not a particular political line, but some sort of terminal "convulsions." To leave the party at this point, therefore, would only strengthen the hand of the conservatives, abandoning to their leadership a large number of potentially reformable party members for whom "party loyalty and nostalgia, which are noble feelings," overshadow the issue of the political line. The key problem is to find a way -- "acting from the inside, through struggle, God damn it -- to transform and renew our party so that it becomes a completely different party, psychologically, morally, and politically." The "democrats" need not fear the party Rules, even if the conservative version prevails, for there will be no one to interfere with their "factional" politics. "No court," Iakovlev joked, "would be able to discriminate between the 'minority platforms,' which are allowed under the new Rules, and 'factions with their internal discipline,' which are not. In short, the future is with the "democrats," who would have a much better chance to transform the party from within rather than oppose the century-old colossus from the outside.

Some of the most startling revelations had to do with the proposed transition to a market economy. One party secretary complained that there was "not a single book" where he could look up the meaning of such terms as a "publicly-owned company" or "equity capital." Iakovlev went even further: "We have not been training specialists. For example, we have no specialists in the sphere of credit -- none. Nobody in our country knows -- except for the academic specialists, who know a little better -- what equity capital is. There are very few people, if any at all, who know how financial institutions abroad work." Conceding that the outcome of the transition to a market economy is still in question, Iakovlev offered his own, preliminary program, a "soft pillow," as he called it: "It is the creation of a priori conditions which must be present whether there is a market or not." He listed the following items: equity capital, privitization of small enterprises, expansion of private farming, a system of credit, flexible interest rate, etc. "Market will emerge as their logical, normal consequence. Otherwise, lightening strikes, thunder rolls, oh horror! and we are all running back into the house with our ears plugged. Whose idea was it to increase the prices two- or three-fold. I still cannot figure out who was it that came up with this. A two- or three-fold price rise has nothing to do with market economy."

When pressed hard about the snail-pace investigations into corruption by high party and government officials, Iakovlev pleaded with the audience to have some empathy for the officials accused of corruption in the "stagnation period," to view them in a historical perspective, not only as perpetrators of crimes but victims as well. "Oh what unfortunate people! I do not mean to say that Rashidov [a corrupt former First Secretary of Uzbekistan] does not deserve some sort of political judgment. But he lived under different circumstances. I do not wish to justify him. But if anything, they were victims."

Attempting to smooth the rough edges in the outlook of some of the more impatient "democrats," Iakovlev reminded them that they were part of a deeply conservative society. "Although I knew that ours is a conservative country, I simply did not expect it to be so deeply conservative, I was not prepared for the extent, I simply had no idea. We have beaten down our country, we have completely knocked her out with this Stalinism." Another reminder of the rather peculiar character of Soviet society was elicited by the question regarding the repressions under Stalin. "There are no angels, no devils. Now we are rehabilitating this person -- and we are right -- but then you look further and see that previously he himself had people jailed. So let us look at this repentance from the point of view of the kind of society we have. 80% of those who perished [in the Gulag] perished by denunciation, denounced by people, by their neighbors, friends, colleagues from work. There are such things, I have heard such things! I know a few cases. Take one -- just a page long. A short denunciation, a report of the arrest, the hearing of the Troika, the sentence, the investigator's testimony that the accused has admitted his guilt -- all in this thin file -- and then a note: the sentence has been carried out. Just one day, just one page, an anonymous denunciation. Dear comrades, we have grave yards, burial grounds, where we do not even know who lies there, we don't even have the lists [...] So I always ask: who are we? We are victims, we, those who have survived, are victims, too."

A representative from the Jewish Autonomous Region was on hand to ask Iakovlev about the Politburo and the Presidential Council's treatment of the "ancient Jewish question," and in particular emigration to Israel. Startlingly, Iakovlev declared himself in sympathy with some Zionists: "There are people who -- having not the slightest interest in politics -- consider themselves to be believers, who call themselves Zionists, because they are believers. There is nothing more to it. If there are people who merely use Zionism as a ruse, that is another question. But then anything can be used as a ruse." Why isn't the government prosecuting the outbreaks of public antisemitism? "I, too, have asked this question, and more than once, including putting it to the Prosecutor General. The Prosecutor General is afraid to apply the law. There is massive pressure coming from somewhere that does not allow even our legal officers to apply the law. We have such people in all the echelons [of government]. Of course, they say: we are internationalists and in addition we've got to beat the hell out of the Jews. That is their internationalism."

The minimal accomplishment the Gorbachev team expects from the Congress is the separation of the Politburo from the Presidential Council. With the exception of the President, who will also be the General Secretary, no member of the Council will be allowed to serve of the Politburo and vice versa. "Neither the Minister of Defense nor the Chairman of the KGB," Iakovlev insisted, "should be members of the Politburo." On July 6, at a press-conference in Moscow, this writer had the opportunity to put an analogous question to the head of the Communist Party of Russia, the conservative Ivan Kuzmich Polozkov. With regard to the issue of combining the posts, Polozkov's answer was identical with Iakovlev's position. Could this be the beginning of a "new deal"?

P.S. According to the New York Times (7/10), the conservatives distributed a falsified transcript of Iakovlev's speech containing, contrary to our tape, statements calling for splitting the party. Iakovlev faught back by releasing a fifteen-page transcript of his own (an incomplete one, we assume, since ours is over thirteen thousand words). None of this would have happened if Iakovlev had not insisted on barring foreign newsmen from the meeting. Apparently it is easier to take the man out of the Politburo than to take the Politburo out of the man.


Copyright (c) (1990) by Gregory Freidin