REFORM OR ELSE: COMMUNISTS 'FOR A WHILE'
The New Republic #3943 (AUGUST 14, 1990)
"We must speak about the future of Soviet antiquity," began a 1937 poem by Osip Mandelstam. There has not been a better time than today or a better place than the Twenty Eighth Congress of the CPSU for following Mandelstam's injunction. Notwithstanding the two remarkable "firsts" the stoic absence of caviar in the Congress cafeteria and the presence of a gaggle of foreign reporters reminders of transitoriness set the tone for the Congress, suggesting the death of the old rather than the birth of the new. "This is my last Congress," announced from the podium the softspoken Gorbachev's righthand man, Alexander Yakovlev. "From now on," he continued after a pause, just long enough for the delegates to gasp, "I would like to concentrate full time on my duties as a member of the Presidential Council." Was this a matter of health? One Congress delegate, a colonel in the Army, with whom I shared my puzzlement rejected this explanation outright. Yakovlev seemed perfectly in control. Indeed, he looked far more robust than Marshal Yazov, the Defense Minister, who, medals and all, had to be helped down the stage by two solicitous delegates, or his other colleague on the Politburo, the former head of the Moscow Communists, Zaikov, who had trouble speaking reading from his text, mangling "anachronism" between anarchism and onanism, which accounted for the first uproarious laugh at the Congress. Another Politburo member, Sliunkov, to use Gorbachev's own locution, "was no longer functioning." Undaunted by these fresh reminders of Brezhnevite gerontocracy, neither Yazov nor Zaikov, nor, for that matter, the head of the mighty KGB, Kriuchkov, were taking themselves out of the running for the future Politburo. Yakovlev did, and a day later, he was followed by Gorbachev's other closest ally, Foreign Minister Shervadnadze.
On the third day of the Congress, tape recorder in hand, I spotted Yakovlev ambling through the cloakroom and asked him to elaborate on his stunning declaration. The answer was abrupt: "I am not planning to be present at the next Congress, that's it." "What if you are elected a delegate?" I pressed on. "I think this won't happen," his voice was trailing off now. "Even if you are elected delegate?" He paused and looked me straight in the eye. "We should live that long," he smiled a broad relaxed smile, and walked away. A real transfer of real power, away from the party, was taking place, and it was happening "right now, this very moment, today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow," to use Yakovlev's own passionate words addressed to the leftwing caucus on the third day of the Congress.
For no matter how conservative the delegates may have seemed and God knows, at times they did seem positively Paleolithic in a few days' time, the example set by Yakovlev and Shervadnadze had proved universally irresistible. No state official of top rank had a seat on the new Politburo. The Politburo itself became transformed into something that resembled more a clearing house for regional party interests than the central policy making body it had been for sixty odd years. Fifteen out of the twenty four seats are permanently reserved for the party chairmen of the national republics, with, at least, three more going to the Gorbachev's supporters, including Moscow's Party chief, Yurii Prokofiev. For the first time in Soviet history, the whole of the Party's top apparat became less, not more, than the sum of its parts, which are now jealously guarding their own prerogatives and powers. An arrangement like this can no longer serve as a brake on President Gorbachev's plans for radical reform, neither can it provide him with an excuse for delaying action. In effect, Gorbachev has shaken off the grip of the apparat while overtly remaining its top man. The swiftness of the German accords he concluded in the wake of the Congress shows how quickly and decisively he can move when unencumbered by the party apparat.
Of the three who made this latest revolution, only Gorbachev remains linked to the Party leadership in any formal way, and he, too, has distanced himself from his alma mater considerably. Reelected the General Secretary by an overwhelming margin, he ostensibly bowed to the will of the Congress, condescending to its plea to find a bit of time in his President's busy schedule for doing an occasional duty as the Party's "First Person" (the term "leader" has been discredited and is now taboo). But in the eyes of the people and for all practical, daytoday purposes, it is Vladimir Ivashko, the "Second Person" in the Party, who will be holding the Politburo bag. Handpicked by Gorbachev, Ivashko a man of sixty two and aging fast, if one compares his recent official photographs with his appearance at the Congress has the reputation of one of the party's most loyal troopers, which is very loyal indeed. Only recently, no doubt answering to the party's bugle, he resigned his post as Chairman of the Ukrainian CP in order to run for the Chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet. Having won that race, he had to forfeit the prize at the end of the Party Congress, when some very clever maneuvering by his political opponents confronted him with the choice of either chairing the session of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet or staying in Moscow and resigning as the Ukrainian head of state.
If their public interaction during the first few hours of the Congress is any indication, Gorbachev did not possess a whole lot of respect for his party deputy to be, whose turn it then happened to be to chair the preliminary proceedings. As Ivashko stumbled again and again in deciding between voice vote and roll call, exasperated Gorbachev turned on his microphone and announced to the throng that Comrade Ivashko, then still the Chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, did not know how to run parliamentary proceedings. In a vintage Gorbachev gesture, that is, not standing on ceremony, he then dismissed Ivashko and, mindful of losing the rhythm, went on with the Congress business. Why, then, Ivashko? The weight of the Party history calls for caution in selecting the man to run Stalin's old job the Party's daily business. The fact that Gorbachev settled on Ivashko and not, say, on the Minister of the Interior, V. Bakatin, a visible and capable man for whom Yakovlev had lobbied in private, indicates that Gorbachev was not just being mindful of raiding the government for scarce talent but was looking for specific, highquality apparat skills and, above all, unstinting deference and loyalty to authority. Men with a leadership potential in parliamentary politics, like Bakatin or Uzbekistan's Party chief, Nazarbaev, had no chance, but it would take a great mental effort to imagine the Second Person develop into a minor Stalin.
The overwhelming vote for Ivashko (out of forty five hundred delegates only seven hundred and seventy six voted for Ligachev) demonstrated that the delegates to the Congress decided to throw their lot with Gorbachev, the program and the man whom many of them believe to be at the root of their recent difficulties. Few would dispute that without him the party will instantly fall apart. Even the most diedinthewool party apparatchiks I interviewed during the Congress insisted on Gorbachev as their first and only choice. A Central Committee secretary of the Lithuanian CP (the loyalist splinter group), who would have liked to see Ligachev as the number two man, insisted that his support for Gorbachev was unconditional. When I asked him whether he could name another promising candidates, he protested that there was no alternative to Gorbachev, "at least for awhile," though he could imagine someone like Uzbekistan's Nazarbaev, a powerful and selfconfident speaker, mature for the job in a couple or years (the term that Gorbachev himself had set for the initial success of his program).
"For awhile" was, in fact, the most favorite expression of the delegates across the entire spectrum, including the much discussed military. Generals Yesin and Sharikov, who together tried to convince me in the Congress lobby that the American decision to reduce military spending was just a smokescreen for developing deadliest weapons, had to concede, after much prompting, that the party's control over the army would be replaced by that of the state. "I understand why the party might need the Army," I asked them, "but why does the Army need the party?" Taken aback by the formulation, they insisted that the party could play a constructive, educational role in the army, adding with a chuckle, "for awhile." "For awhile?" "Yes, for awhile, until we have a multiparty system." Their sentiments were echoed by another General, Victor Yermakov: "Having ruled the country for seventy two years, the party should continue its control over the army for awhile as long as we do not have an alternative constructive force." "Would you be leaving the party after the Congress?" I asked a navy Commander, Andrey Godunov, one of the leaders of the Democratic Platform in Leningrad and politically the diametrical opposite of the three generals. "Not for awhile," he responded, "not as long as the party organizations can effectively defend the rights of servicemen or workers before the new institutions had the time to emerge." It would seem that "for awhile" a code word for the uncertainty about the future, the risks of radical restructuring, and a yearning for a better life formed the most solid basis for building a coalition out of the disparate groups in the party.
"Can Gorbachev bring unity to this gathering of cats and dogs who appear to have nothing in common?" I asked Gorbachev's science advisor, Academician Velikhov. "I thought that things would come to a head more quickly," he conceded, "but now it seems that Gorbachev will hold the party together for a couple of years." "Is that what he really wants?" "I think that he, probably, still wants that." Velikhov paused and then added, "for awhile." The survival of the party, he went on, depends on
the extent to which it will be capable of assimilating into itself all
those contradictions that exist in society, and in this way manages to
bring society together. This is what Gorbachev is trying to accomplish. It
is a terribly difficult task, and a lot hangs on it. For now, there is not even
an alternative to the party in society. If the party succeeds in organizing a
constructive dialogue, assimilate the [contradictions], as Prokofiev, the
Secretary of the Moscow Party organization, had suggested in his speech,
then it has a chance.
What Prokofiev had in mind was for the CPSU to follow the example of the Italian Christian Democratic Party and the Japanese Liberal Democrats which, by "reproducing and resolving within themselves the society's contradictions," were able to effect the transition of their countries from "totalitarianism" to stable democracies. This approach to party reform clearly echoed Yakovlev's plea to the members of the Democratic Unity coalition to display greater flexibility and tolerance for the views of their conservative opponents in the party ranks. Gorbachev's Presidential Council, which brings together such opposites as the parochial nationalist Rasputin and the cosmopolitan Yakovlev, follows a similar model. This sort of reshaping is bound to render the Communist Party unrecognizable, making it unlikely that, one way or another, its next congress will be a congress of the CPSU.
If Gorbachev displayed little patience in his dealings with his future deputy, he treated the body of the Congress delegates with a barely concealed contempt. The Congress newspaper, THE THIRTEENTH MICROPHONE (produced by the top conservative bashers in the Party), featured on its first page a telling photograph of Gorbachev: a three quarter portrait emphasizing the powerful, determined jaw of the First Person, flanked by two rows of empty seats in the Congress presidium and the banner of state behind his back. The message: there can be no challenge to Gorbachev's leadership of the Party nor any force that could stop his juggernaut. Asked by the same newspaper to comment on his view of the audience from his seat in the presidium during the first two days of the session, Gorbachev judged the body of the Congress "inadequate" in comparison with his other constituency, Soviet society at large. "The country," he went on, "possesses a greater desire to move forward, not to dillydally, but to change, to change, to change." These words anticipated the tongue lashing the Congress received from Gorbachev on July 11 after he had surmounted all the major hurdles, including Yegor Ligachev's challenge to Ivashko.
Point by point, he displayed to public view every failing of the Congress: the delegates's parochial mentality did not allow them to appreciate the historic scale of perestroika; they had trouble understanding that their future was bound with the transfer of the "plenitude of power to the Soviets at all levels;" "three quarters of them" committed a "disturbing" error by excluding the word "market" from the title of the committee for economic affairs; many failed to grasp the imperative of transferring power in the party from that apparat to the grass roots organizations; some, acting out of "stupidity or sinister motives," attempted to reject the benefits of privatization in agriculture; some were muddle headed enough to imagine that the "ideology of socialism was a textbook" and could be produced on an empty stomach by people "unversed in common human values;" still others dared to question his foreign policy in Eastern Europe and could not wait "to teach other peoples how to live once again resorting to tanks." "I simply do not know who we are dealing with here," he exclaimed in desperation when the turn came for the detractors of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. "He that hath ears to hear, should hear," the General Secretary of the CPSU, in a stunningly unMarxist idiom, called to account those officials who actively disagreed with the government policy. They should either keep their opinion to themselves, he warned them, "or, if they are decent people, resign."
This lengthy bill of particulars and the concluding warning were the final terms of the bargain that the Congress of the party apparatchiks struck when the majority of them affirmed their unconditional loyalty to Gorbachev, in effect, agreeing to the separation of the Party from State and its concomitant transformation from the Party into a party. In his Congress address, chilling in its brevity, Yeltsin spelled out a harsh dilemma for the delegates. They would either transform the party into a loose coalition of socialdemocratic forces or face the growing ire of the people, with a distinct prospect of having the party leadership face an latterday version of the Nurenberg trials. Yeltsin could not resist proposing the first defendant the man in charge the hated and now failed antialcoholism campaign, a transparent reference to Ligachev, who had just owned up to his leading role in the campaign at the Congress. Yeltsin's was no idle talk. The windows of THE MOSCOW PRAVDA editorial offices on Gorky Street display a poster depicting a man behind bars wearing a Tshirt with the initials CPSU emblazoned on it; and Stanislav Govorukhin's documentary, "THIS IS NO WAY TO LIVE," with its blatant invitation to set up a Nurenberg for the Communist Party, is playing to packed houses. Gorbachev seems to be offering the third way, perhaps even more radical if less abrupt transforming the party on the postfascist ChristianDemocratic model. If his plan works, he can take the credit for it. If it does not, he will have little trouble cutting himself off from a hopelessly antiquated party. Yeltsin's dilemma is the Domocles sword that Gorbachev is holding over the head of every apparatchik.
Copyright (c) (1990) by Gregory Freidin