Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The generation that knew not Lenin


Zhores Medvedev

Russia under Brezhnev

When Khruschev fell in 1964 it was widely believed in the West that the rule of his successors Brezhnev and Kosygin would be a short one—an interlude in the political development of Soviet society. Isaac Deutscher, for example, thought that it was likely to prove little more than a mediocre and dispirited postscript to the Khruschev era itself. In fact, what can to all intents and purposes be termed the Brezhnev epoch has now lasted for 15 years, which is half the entire time that Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, and twice as long as the period of Khruschev’s own ascendancy. In that period major changes have, of course, occurred in the ussr. How would you assess the overall balance sheet of the rule of the cpsu under Brezhnev during these years?

I cannot say that it has exemplified brilliant or spirited leadership. But my general assessment of it is nevertheless moderately positive. The majority of commentators on the current situation in the Soviet Union have a very short historical memory. It is necessary to compare the position today with the legacy left by earlier Soviet leaders. At Lenin’s death the country was in a prostrate condition, marked by economic collapse and widespread famine, after the devastation of the Civil War. When Stalin died in 1953, the Russian economy was technologically still very backward, the Cold War was at its height, the military pressure on the ussr was intense, and there was a political reign of terror within Societ society, in which all groups were frightened to say or do anything. Stalin’s heritage was a disastrous one in the early 50’s. Khruschev left the country in a better situation a decade later. The terror had been dismantled, and many reforms introduced. But by 1964, the administrative structure was failing to operate because of his successive ill-conceived schemes to reorganize it; the agricultural situation was deteriorating, while industrial production had reached a plateau far below his promises to the people; all kinds of censorship were being reintroduced in art and literature and Lysenko was reinstated in science—there was a general retreat from the more liberal trends of the earlier years of his rule; abroad the Cuban crisis had revealed the military vulnerability of the ussr. If we compare the situation today, as Brezhnev moves towards the finish of his epoch, the position of the Soviet Union is in most respects greatly improved. Economic stability is now more or less evident. The quality of industrial production is not as high as people want, and there are persistent troubles in the agricultural sector; but these are not of the unpredictable character that was typical in Khruschev’s time. The general level of consumption is now much higher. Administratively, the turmoil and instability of Khruschev’s rule has been succeeded by a system in which the bureaucracy is much more secure under Brezhnev. So far as human rights are concerned, there have been no dramatic changes like the release of millions of prisoners in the 50’s, but there has been no reversion to terror either. In a number of respects, contrary to the prevailing image abroad, there have been limited advances. It is during Brezhnev’s time that restrictions on the internal movement of the rural population within the ussr were lifted, and that a certain amount of emigration became possible. Under Khruschev it was very difficult to imagine that people could publish their books abroad if officials refused their publication at home. Under Brezhnev this became quite common—many works of socialist literature, and many other books of a quite different inspiration were published abroad, whose authors went on living in the Soviet Union. After the Sinyavsky and Daniel trial, no-one was ever straightforwardly prosecuted for this again. In some cases (Solzhenitsyn, Maximov, Nekrassov, Gorbanevskaya and others) deportation or forced exile—and, of course, expulsion from the Writers’ Union—were used instead of prison sentences. It has certainly not been a bright time for civil rights, but viewed in a historical perspective certain gains have been registered. Externally, meanwhile, the military strength of the ussr is much greater today than it was in the early 60’s, and has made possible a whole series of foreign policy successes in Asia and Africa in recent years. It has also permitted steps towards a detente in the arms race, as strategic equality with the usa has for the first time been more or less achieved.

I. Party

In your book on Khruschev, you single out two main areas in which he left an acute crisis to his successors in 1964—the state of the Party and the condition of agriculture. [1] Taking the first of these for the moment, Khruschev in his final phase had divided the cpsu into agricultural and industrial columns, which—as you show—caused great discontent within the Party bureaucracy, whose leading personnel was also subjected to a high rate of turnover by Khruschev. How would you characterize Brezhnev’s management within the Party itself?

Khruschev’s conduct of party affairs was impulsive and personal. He did not use terror or murder high officials, as Stalin—whose closest associates went in constant fear for their life—had done. But he did brusquely eliminate them from leading positions, if they either opposed him, or failed to implement his directives, or threatened to become too powerful. Their typical fate was to be consigned to obscure and minor posts in the provinces. For example, among those who opposed him in the Praesidium, Malenkov was demoted to director of a powerstation on the Volga, Bulganin to director of a state bank and then retired, while Molotov was sent as Ambassador to Mongolia and then pensioned off. Leaders whose performance disappointed him included Kirichenko, at the time second man in the Party after Khruschev himself, who was held responsible for the failure of the 1959 harvest—which should have been a good one—in the virgin lands: he was peremptorily lowered to the management of a sovkhoz in the Rostov region. Another case was Matskevich, Minister of Agriculture, who was reduced to a post in the Tselinograd ispolkom. Two men he regarded as potentially over-powerful, Zhukov—then Minister of Defence—and Serov, the kgb boss, received similar treatment. Zhukov was forced into retirement, and Serov was dispatched to be second secretary in an obkom [2] in Kazakhstan. At the same time Khruschev often promoted people he liked to very high positions without intermediate steps. In 1957 he took a fancy to a state farm he was visiting in the Poltava region, which struck him as well organized. A week later, the chairman of the farm, one Volovchenko, was made Minister of Agriculture for the whole country. Khruschev was confident that a good farm director would make a good minister. The same approach was responsible for the rise of men like Polyansky or Voronov into the Praesidium—they owed their ascent to some local successes in agriculture in the regions where they had been obkom secretaries. In general, Khruschev would tour one or other oblast and if he found something not to his liking, he could dismiss the obkom secretary on the spot without any serious reasons. The result was that the turnover of leadership was high under Khruschev and the top party and state bureaucracy felt very insecure. This contributed greatly to Khruschev’s ultimate fall. In spite of the fact that most of the members of the Praesidium (with the exception of Suslov and Mikoyan) and of the Central Committee were his appointees by 1964, they voted massively to get him out.

Brezhnev’s style has differed sharply. He is not impulsive and does not try to make immediate personal decisions. The pattern of promotion under Brezhnev has tended to be a regular course through all the stages of the system. Actual performance was less important than loyalty. Although Brezhnev was well aware that some members of the Politbureau would have liked to get rid of him as General Secretary, he did not try to remove them from their positions until they openly expressed opposition towards his policies. At the same time the top officials whom he did eliminate from the decision-making leadership have remained within the higher ranks of the elite, but deprived of any power. For example, in 1967 the Moscow City Secretary Yegorychev criticized Brezhnev strongly for his refusal to send troops to aid the Arab countries in the Six-Day War in the Middle East: he was promptly dismissed, but was later appointed Ambassador to Denmark. Similarly, the Leningrad Party Secretary Tolstikov was evicted on charges of corruption and abuse of power, but ended up Ambassador to China. After Alleluyeva—Stalin’s daughter—escaped to the West, the kgb chief Semichastny made the grave error of exposing important agents in Europe in an attempt to kidnap her; he lost his job, but was still made Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukraine. Ilyichev, the main ideologist under Khruschev, was removed from the Secretariat of the Central Committee after 1964, but appointed Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator with China over the Sino-Soviet border conflict. There are many other examples, and few exceptions. The Georgian Party boss Mzhavanadze was dismissed on a mere pension, but he was involved in criminal corruption and was too compromised: he was also 70 years old. The difference of regime under Brezhnev was felt at less exalted rungs of the apparat as well. In general, senior officials might lose their positions of power or top posts, but they continued to enjoy the same material privileges (dachas, cars with drivers, membership in republican central committees, etc.) and did not suffer much change in their style of life or work. The result was to create a new psychology of stability within the party elite, in which many grave mistakes, instances of corruption and mismanagement were covered up. Brezhnev has tried to avoid any change at the top being publicly related to actual conflicts within the ruling circle—whether power struggles or policy disagreements. His style is very guarded: so-called open meetings of the Central Committee have been abolished, all top-level discussions are kept secret and only final decisions are revealed. Khruschev’s style was more personalist, but also more open; he often appealed for support to the general public. Brezhnev makes his decisions after more consultations with his colleagues, but in a much more closed circle.

There have, however, been a number of prominent falls within the Party leadership in Brezhnev’s time. During the 70’s, the careers of at least four or five major Politbureau members have come to an abrupt end—Polyansky, Shelepin, Shelest, Voronov, and Podgorny. What were the political reasons for their successive evictions?

The most serious of these were the cases of Shelest, Shelepin and Podgorny, each of whom fell for different reasons. Shelest was a strong personality and a hard-liner. His differences with Brezhnev started in 1968 when Brezhnev was still hesitating to use troops to put down the Dubček regime in Czechoslovakia: Shelest was strongly in favour of a ‘military solution’ and organized the army leadership against the doves in the Politbureau. Later Shelest was against the nomination of Ustinov as Minister of Defence, backing the candidature of Marshal Grechko. The combination Grechko–Shelest gave Shelest too much influence and in 1972 he openly challenged detente policy and made it clear that if Nixon were invited to the ussr he would receive no welcome in Kiev. This was a direct split and Shelest was dismissed on the spot at the Politbureau meeting—a decision rapidly confirmed by the Central Committee, most of whose members were afraid of too obvious hard-liners. Shelepin, on the other hand, was the main figure involved in the plot against Khruschev in 1964 and sought the Party leadership for himself. His close connections with the kgb, intransigent policies and personal energy made him very influential in 1965–6. Brezhnev regarded him as a dangerous rival, with justice. So he was made head of the Trade Unions—a modest position for a prominent member of the Politbureau. The circumstances of his later removal were fortuitous. After the fiasco of his trip to Britain some years ago, he demanded a strong diplomatic note from the Soviet government protesting against the ill-treatment of a major Soviet leader in the UK. He threatened to resign if such a note was not approved. However, it happened that nobody liked him in the Politbureau and his resignation was immediately accepted. Something similar occurred in the case of Podgorny. By 1978 it was clear that Brezhnev was de facto Head of State as well as of the Party. Yet as General Secretary he lacked the diplomatic or titular status to sign major international treaties, travel abroad or negotiate with other heads of state. For these purposes, Khruschev had assumed for himself the position of Prime Minister. Brezhnev could not do this for several reasons. Firstly, it was decided in 1964 that the highest posts in Party and Government should be divided, to prevent too much power being concentrated in the hands of one person. Secondly, the Premiership involves a very demanding work-load and Brezhnev was already in poor health. It therefore seemed a reasonable solution to give him the position of President—which was never of much importance in power terms, but was in terms of diplomatic protocol. Podgorny was offered the position of First Deputy President with all his other duties preserved. Unexpectedly, however, he felt insulted and strongly objected to the technical demotion. A dispute developed during a meeting of the cc, which ended with Podgorny’s summary retirement.

The other two men you mentioned represent quite different cases. Polyansky and Voronov were never strong or competent leaders. Khruschev appointed them to the Politbureau in the early 60’s, as I’ve said, because the regions where they were obkom secretaries at the time had overfulfilled grain and other targets. They owed their rise to these achievements—later found accidental. These were typical impulsive promotions in the Khruschev manner. Once in the Politbureau, Polyansky and Voronov failed to prove their agricultural expertise and were dropped when the opportunity arose—with setbacks in the countryside. The two men were incompetents, whose ascent to high positions was not justified by their previous records.

Another change in the composition of the Brezhnev Politbureau has been the emergence of what seems to be an ex officio element within it, with the inclusion of the Ministerial trio responsible for Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs—Ustinov, Andropov and Gromyko. Is this likely to outlast the present incumbents? What is the significance of it?

The increase in the influence of Ustinov, Andropov and Gromyko represents the major political change in the last few years. This trio might well serve as a triumvirate in the event of an incapacitating illness or death of Brezhnev. Domestic economic policy has been largely left to the Government (Kosygin), while the main areas of Soviet activity across the world have been directly integrated into the systems led by Ustinov, Gromyko and Andropov. In the 70’s, the Soviet Union has become much more obviously a global power: internal developments within the ussr (including its industry and trade) are closely linked—through detente—with international cooperation and external influence. Khruschev had sought to make the ussr the most influential power in the world by means of economic development; he thought this aim could be achieved when living standards in the Soviet Union were higher than in the United States. This impelled him to undertake crash economic reforms and agricultural schemes, which mostly failed. In 1961 Khruschev expected the ussr to catch up with the usa in ten years and to overtake it in twenty years (by 1981!). The lack of realism in this perspective was evident: the task was far too complex and difficult. Brezhnev realized that the domestic economy was less important for world influence than military power, diplomatic expertise and reliable intelligence. The result was a clear change of priorities and the emergence of Defence, kgb and Foreign Affairs as the pivots of Brezhnev’s strategy. Ustinov, Andropov and Gromyko now possess real power, and exercise it more and more confidently and effectively. Many issues which ten or fifteen years ago would have had to pass the relatively slow processes of a plenum of the Central Committee or a meeting of the Politbureau are now decided as ‘working problems’ at the Ministerial level. This is an indication of a political shift from the Party apparatus to technocratic leaders who have established their own power base and use it without hesitation. Of course, the fact that Brezhnev has for some time now been seriously ill and unable to monitor current problems has temporarily weakened party and ideological controls over the decision-making process.

If Brezhnev’s policy has been not to humiliate or degrade opponents, but to give a greater security to the apparatus as a whole, has this assured him a relative popularity within the ranks of the Party officialdom?

Yes. This is a popularity within the higher echelons of the Party bureaucracy, where he is considered a good leader because he respects this whole group and enjoys easy relations with them—they no longer fear the sudden fate that could befall them under Stalin or Khruschev. But this standing is internal to the Central Committee, and leading government organs. The Russian people as a whole are unaware of it, so it is not reflected in the attitude of the general population or the intellectuals towards Brezhnev. His reputation within the Party is one thing and his reputation in the country is quite another.

His style of management may have ensured Brezhnev a stable basis of support within the Central Committee, but is there any sign that he has been capable of improving the actual quality of the higher Party cadre itself by promoting new and more capable personnel? The majority of regional Party secretaries, for example, will have started their careers in the later years of the Stalin period itself, and presumably include a large proportion of incompetent and deadbeat officials, even by the standards of the present-day bureaucracy?

There has been a major change here. In the early years of the cpsu, of course, Lenin was a great thinker and author of many books. Trotsky was also a very prolific writer and highly knowledgeable person. The Old Bolsheviks generally were a very well educated group. During Stalin’s time the situation changed dramatically for the worse. Stalin had no higher education himself, and was culturally much more primitive. When he became dictator, he tolerated no-one who had university education or advanced knowledge in fields with which he was determined to deal: he removed them all. His ministers would pride themselves on their lack of qualification. The police chief Abakumov, who was Minister of State Security, only had four years of ordinary school education. During Khruschev’s time it became impossible for this kind of person to get a high position in the government, but within the Party it was still possible. Khruschev himself was from a worker’s and peasant’s background, and was never even able to write without making many errors. He preferred to dictate everything, and ordered that documents be read to him instead of reading them himself—he had to be briefed instead of being able to study documents to formulate his decisions. So he was not anxious to select well educated people for responsible positions. Brezhnev, by contrast, has a relatively high level of formal education, although it is not immediately obvious. He is not a great orator, and cannot give speeches which haven’t been written by his assistants beforehand—you can tell this from the differences in style in them depending on the different assistants who prepared them. But Brezhnev nevertheless already possesses a better knowledge of technical and other subjects, as of course does Kosygin. So in the past decade it has ceased to be dangerous, it has even become fashionable to possess a university education and to acquire scientific degrees and diplomas. In Stalin’s time it was inconceivable that to be an academician or professor was any political pedigree within the Party system; now it’s not an obstacle, it’s an advantage. You find men like the Minister of Higher Education Yeliutin or Party officials like Trapeznikov trying to be elected as a corresponding member of the Academy. It has become in effect compulsory for the ranks of the bureaucracy to get professional education. In 1970–71 Ishkov, the Minister of Fisheries, was confronted with the choice of either resigning or getting some kind of diploma from a fishery college: not an easy task for a no longer young man, but he was eventually graduated from an evening correspondence course—I don’t know who took the examinations on his behalf, but he eventually got a diploma. In general, titles and research degrees have become assets. Many professors and doctoral specialists are now employed in the Central Committee apparatus and functionaries working there are encouraged to acquire higher academic qualifications.

Does the same change of attitude obtain at the oblast level?

Yes. Today, you won’t find an obkom secretary without higher education. I remember that in the Kaluga region, where I lived for several years, the obkom secretary had university education but still desperately wanted to get a Ph.D. with some kind of scientific work on an agricultural station—of course enlisting people to help him to write his dissertation. He was anxious to get this degree, because it improved his standing within the Party system. Even at a regional level, it is no longer enough just to pose as a leader—you have to possess these kinds of credentials as well to be considered competent.

When you speak of the educational level of present-day Party functionaries, you are referring to scientific or technical qualifications. What about their formal training in Marxism–Leninism as the official ideology of the Party? Has this conversely tended to decrease?

No. There is a separate Party educational system with courses in economics, philosophy, Marxism–Leninism and many other subjects related to political and administrative work. This scarcely existed in Stalin’s time, when the Institute of Red Professors was a marginal establishment. The modern Party-training system was really created in Khruschev’s time. Today there is a Party school at every level of the apparatus, at the apex of which is the Highest Party School in Moscow—attendance at which is compulsory for an oblast secretary at one time or another of his tenure. They receive something like a sabbatical in British terms for one year, to take the courses at the School. To be graduated from it gives a Party cadre the great advantage of being considered a political expert and professional party worker, in addition to his vocational education.

Traditionally, under Stalin and Khruschev, ideological affairs formed a specialized career in the cpsu, with its own training and promotion system separate from that of the ordinary administrative career inside the Party. A figure like Suslov, who has never occupied a major administrative post, but has played an important political role in the Soviet Union over the past twenty years, is a symbolic product of this system. Does it still operate today?

The system exists, but it has lost much of its significance as professional and practical efficiency have become more important than ideological vigilance. Suslov himself lost his influence in the Party apparatus some six or seven years ago: he now holds the largely decorative position of Chairman of the Foreign Commission, which considers applications for travel, nominations for positions abroad. In general, the successful Party functionary today must possess a certain background knowledge of Marxism–Leninism, but not the ability to develop new ideas with it—a generalized loyalty rather than the capacity to criticize or challenge received notions. Marxism–Leninism is in a dogmatic slumber. No-one wants to develop new ideas in this field, although they do want to produce some kind of reliable knowledge. So when you read Party literature, you find people trying to circulate new economic or international information within the same set of ideas, or to assess unfamiliar situations by familiar criteria. This was one of the reasons why it was so difficult for the Russian Party bureaucracy to understand developments in Czechoslovakia or changes in China: they were not able to accept the need for a pluralistic approach to the different socialist countries.

The Soviet model was best, and everything else had to conform to it. They are now starting to grasp that such differences are inevitable, but it is going to be quite a slow process. However, a research establishment has developed within the last ten years that now tries to develop different approaches and different explanations for the diversity of societies and politics in the world today—whether in Iraq, Ethiopia or Cambodia, or Western Europe or the United States. It includes the Institute for the Study of the International Workers Movement, the Institute of Sociology, the Institute for the Study of the United States and so on. Some of these have dual affiliations—they are attached simultaneously to the Academy of Sciences and the Central Committee, while others are creations of the Central Committee alone. They collect all the relevant literature, which is declassified for them, and try to analyse the developments in various countries or movements and to give expert advice as to how to deal with one or another situation. The Soviet leadership now realizes that every approach towards India or Indo-China, China or America, needs prior research and study of different systems. This is quite new—even six or seven years ago the Politbureau didn’t understand that if it signed an agreement with Nixon about trade, the agreement wouldn’t necessarily be ratified by the Senate or Congress.

In the past decade, the strategic role and weight of the Soviet Union in world affairs has risen sharply. The areas of continuing repression and failure in its foreign policy are obvious, and major: above all in the zones of tension along its borders, in Eastern Europe and China. At the same time, however, the ussr has also intervened successfully in recent years to sustain popular upheavals across a wide range of more distant international theatres. In Latin America, the Cuban Revolution owes its flourishing economic survival in large part to Soviet aid. In Africa, timely Russian air-lifts have saved the Angolan and Ethiopian Revolutions from foreign invasions. In Asia, Soviet equipment clinched the final victory of the Vietnamese Revolution. What is your assessment of the pattern of Russian involvements abroad in recent years?

Tsarist Russia was traditionally fixated on the affairs and borders of neighbouring countries or territories. This was the way the Russian state grew for centuries; it later made possible the transformation of an empire into a single multi-national country. Stalin continued the pre-revolutionary tradition, but from a strategically defensive posture. Hence the invasion of Finland in 1939, the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940, the annexations of parts of Poland and of Bessarabia and de facto control of Mongolia. After 1945, Russian domination was consolidated throughout Eastern Europe as the Cold War set in. The Soviet repression in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 show the continuity of this dimension of Soviet foreign policy down to the present. It was Khruschev who was responsible for initiating a wider global policy with his generous (very unpopular among Russians) economic aid to Egypt over the Aswan Dam, Iraq, Indonesia, Ceylon, India, Ghana and his support for Lumumba in the Congo—later symbolized by the creation of the Lumumba University in Moscow. This international policy was strongly criticized in the Central Committee in October 1964 when Khruschev was ousted, for imposing economic burdens on the ussr without corresponding strategic or political advantages. At the same time, the ussr has remained permanently concerned in the post-war period with the vast network of us (and British) military bases in Morocco, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Japan and elsewhere—as an obvious manifestation of imperialist intentions. It was thus natural that Russia would take any opportunity that arose of ‘turning’ this encirclement. These opportunities, however, have not been created by the deliberate design of Russian foreign policy. They have arisen out of internal social processes in a number of underdeveloped countries, developing quite independently of the ussr. The Cuban Revolution was no more a Soviet plot than the Ethiopian Revolution. Under Brezhnev the global involvement of the Soviet Union has increased greatly, but mainly in the form of military aid to revolutionary or national liberation movements in countries like these. Where economic aid was needed, the ussr under Brezhnev has been reluctant to show much generosity. The example of Allende’s government in Chile is typical of its record in this respect, although if the Soviet leadership had anticipated the military coup there, it would probably have given more assistance than it did. In general the ussr, which now commands much greater resources than in Khruschev’s time, is much less generous in sharing its economic wealth, but much readier to provide military aid. In most cases, this has not taken the form of a permanent presence, but of temporary complex strategic operations on a large scale. The massive support for the Afghan Revolution, which is situated on the borders of Soviet Central Asia—so combining the two aspects—is likely to be sustained, however.

In Russo-American relations, the Salt-II Treaty that has just been signed represents the culmination of the detente policies of the Brezhnev epoch. What are likely to be its effects on the internal situation in the ussr—and what would be the probable consequences if the us Senate fails to ratify it?

If it is implemented, Salt-II will certainly alleviate the acute economic strains involved in the intensive military development of the Soviet Union during the past decade. The costs of the arms race in strategic weaponry today are very high even for the so-called superpowers. However, whereas the state economy of the ussr manifestly stands to gain from the Treaty, the economic advantages for the usa are not so obvious, since military industry there is controlled by private corporations that produce on contract for the government: these corporations will suffer from limitations on the arms race, and will oppose them. If their and other pressures prevail, and the treaty is blocked in the Senate, I think two main reactions are probable. Firstly, the ussr will move seriously to improve its relations with China, and to increase Sino–Soviet trade and technical cooperation. Both countries are now ready for a relaxation in their relations and need some excuse to start this process. Soviet industrial technology is not competitive in Western markets, but it is quite advanced enough for the Chinese industry based on Soviet-designed projects of the 1950–1960 period. In most cases it would be cheaper for China to update its Russian-built plants than to import completely new us or Japanese technology. At the same time, the ussr potentially represents a good market for Chinese light industry, textiles and even food products—especially vegetables and fruit for the Siberian, Far Eastern and Polar regions. Any improvement in Sino–Soviet relations would, of course, immediately change the world strategic balance. A second consequence of failure to ratify Salt-II would be further intensive military development by the ussr. If at some future date the usa then decided to start negotiations again, it is most unlikely that any future Soviet leadership would agree to scrap the rockets and other weaponry accumulated in the interim—except for compensatory payment in cash or goods. If the usa has a chance of merely signing a Salt treaty today, in future it might have to purchase one.

II. Agriculture

The second major area of crisis left by Khruschev was agriculture. In your book you paint a very sombre portrait of the state of the Russian countryside in the last years of Khruschev’s rule. In the first five years after Stalin’s death, the grain harvest had risen sharply from some 80 million to 135 million tons, due to a relaxation of the tax pressure on the household plots of the peasantry and to much improved prices for the kolkhoz deliveries to the state—measures which produced a big increase not only in the acreage but the yields of Soviet agriculture. Then in the last five or six years of Khruschev’s rule, a whole series of disastrous policies were inflicted on the countryside: infatuation with maize although it was a very unsuitable crop for the Soviet Union, careless management of the virgin lands in Central Asia, failure to increase fertilizer output, increasing harassment of peasant production on private plots—all leading in 1963 to what you describe as an event hitherto unprecedented in the history of Russia, namely massive cereal imports from abroad. What has been the performance of the Brezhnev regime in the fifteen years that have followed? What have been the major changes in Soviet agriculture since then?

Total grain production has risen to an average of 200 million tons a year, which is much higher than during Khruschev’s time. Yields have increased slowly, to a point where they are now about 50% higher than in Stalin’s time—mainly due to greater use of fertilizer, particularly in European Russia, where the rainfall is adequate but the soil is poor. The virgin lands of Kazakhstan and South Siberia remain an important reserve: with a good harvest, as in 1978, they can account for 30–40% of the whole grain production of the country. But only two years out of five have satisfactory rainfall in these regions, so their contribution is always unpredictable. A bad overall harvest can still lead to an acute crisis. For all the gradual improvements, agriculture remains the weakest sector of the Russian economic system.

If average output has gone up from about 135 million to 200 million tons over the past decade, when Soviet population has increased only marginally, it is difficult to see why there should be such a need for heavy imports of grain in years of bad harvest—for example in 1977. Why is emergency buying abroad necessary?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, whereas in the past the village population baked its own bread, now the peasantry like every other social group expects to be supplied by the state—per capita consumption has increased. Secondly, while twenty years ago people were content with enough bread to eat now they want more meat, more chicken, more high quality products. This has made it necessary to increase animal fodder much more rapidly than in the past. When Khruschev fell, the average consumption of meat was about 35 kilograms per year in Russia—whereas he had promised in the Party programme that it would soon be at the same level as in America, 100 kilograms. It is impossible to increase meat production three times without a proportionate increase of grain and other foodstocks for animals. In fact, consumption of meat is now about 55 kilograms a year. Thus much of the increase in grain output has been absorbed by animal husbandry. A lot of the cereals bought by Russia from America are not destined for bread but for livestock use.

What has been the evolution of the private plots in the past decade or so?

Productivity, of course, remains far higher on the individual plots than on the collective farms. They account for 50% of the country’s potatoes, 40% of its chickens and a high proportion of its fruit and vegetables. The collective farms, by contrast, are on the whole specialized in cereal cultivation which doesn’t need much individual work, but can benefit from increasing mechanization and fertilization. Realizing this, the Politbureau doubled the permitted size of private plots from a quarter to half a hectare in the early 70’s. For the first time, too, industrial workers and white-collar employees in the cities were allowed allotments—usually of one-tenth hectare or less—where they could create their own gardens and produce their own vegetables. Many urban inhabitants took this opportunity. Today you find a great number of such allotments, which Russians call collective gardens, where people produce their own fruit and vegetables, which are not registered by the state’s statistics but which reduce the consumer demand on the state system for supplies of tomatoes or potatoes or fruits, because if they are well kept these gardens can more or less feed a family. In general, while the state shops are sometimes very poor in their selection of agricultural produce, markets where individuals or collective farms can sell their produce are flourishing. You can buy everything in the Moscow Central Markets, and many people prefer these markets although their prices are high. Here in London you go to Soho market to buy cheaper tomatoes or lettuce than in shops. In Russia it’s the other way around: the markets sell at higher prices but have greater variety. So the role of markets in the distribution of food has increased: in some areas, for example in certain Northern towns, markets are the only source of fresh vegetables and fruit and Cossack villages or Georgian collective farms will charter flights to sell their products in them at very high prices—a sign also that these towns have a lot of money in hand.

Is there a major contrast here between the rich lands of the Ukraine and Northern Caucasus and the harsher environment of Central Russia and South Siberia?

Certainly. First of all the density of population is higher in the south; there are more towns and cities within the reach of people who live in the villages—so they can travel more easily and be entertained by all the urban attractions. The soil is more fertile, the harvests are more reliable and the villages are better built. Moreover, these are areas where people from Siberia or from Northern and Central Russia spend their vacations in the summer, so the local population can rent its houses to holiday-makers and receive further income by selling their produce during summertime. This is particularly true in the Crimea and Northern Caucasus, which attract millions of tourists every year, much like Spain, with a lot of material benefits for the local people. Historically, too, areas like the Northern Caucasus were Cossack zones with a free population, as in much of Siberia and the Ukraine. By contrast Central Russia not only always had worse soil, but inherited all the misery of serfdom from Czarist times, when it was the classical region of landlord exploitation. These areas were poor for centuries and this is not easy to change. The people are different, the traditions are different, the villages are different. Central Russia also suffered more during the war. The climate and land of the Kaluga region, for example, are quite good, but the front line ran through it for three years during the last war: the devastation was enormous and it has still not recovered from it. You could find many villages which were deserted during the War and have never been re-populated since.

One of the greatest blunders of Khruschev’s administration, according to your own account, was the dissolution of the machine-tractor stations in the early 60’s. You describe the chaos and disrepair into which basic agricultural machinery equipment fell following that decision. To what extent has a higher and smoother overall level of mechanization been achieved since then, particularly in the cereal sector which is the decisive one for the future of Soviet agriculture?

Khruschev’s measure would have been less damaging if he had merely dissolved the mts, but had not tried to force the collective farms to buy their own equipment—for which they did not possess the funds to pay. He also ignored the fact that the workers at the machine-tractor stations possessed passbooks and all the rights which urban-dwellers generally enjoyed, whereas they lost these once they were integrated into the kolkhozes. The inequality between workers and peasants backfired and a large qualified work-force was lost as many mts employees abandoned their jobs altogether rather than become kolkhozniks. The situation has now improved in many respects. First of all the legal differences between peasants and townspeople have been abolished: collective farmers now have the same rights to move and have a proper pension system. So the main obstacle for qualified personnel to move into the villages and work there, if the salary is as good or better than in the towns, has been removed. The mts have been replaced by state repair stations which service the equipment possessed by the kolkhozes. The collective farms themselves are now much larger, and so dispose of more ample funds to purchase modern agricultural machinery from the State, which sells it to them at subsidized prices as an inducement to invest in improved technology.

You have sketched a whole series of material improvements in the condition of the Russian peasantry. Private plots have been doubled in size, restrictions on rights of movement have been lifted, state pensions have been introduced, tax pressures have been relaxed. To what extent could one say that the Russian peasantry feels subjectively that it has benefited from the changes of the last fifteen years? Historically one of the greatest catastrophes of the Stalinist epoch was the smashing of any kind of confidence at all between the rural population and urban society. Does a potentially healthier relationship exist between town and country today?

The relationship between the farm population and the State is now unquestionably better than at any previous period in Soviet history. The freedom of movement, the juridical right to change place of work, is a great gain for the peasantry, which is even granted formal political equality in the new Constitution, which no longer speaks of the dictatorship of the proletariat alone, but of collective farmers and intelligentsia as well. If you go into villages in Russia today, you will find many that are more or less prosperous: their housing is far better, they possess shops and services which didn’t exist twenty years ago. But a major problem remains. The cumulative disasters that overtook Russian agriculture during Lenin’s time, during Stalin’s time, during Khruschev’s time, inflicted such great damage on the whole texture of rural life that even with all these improvements there are very few young, able people now left to enjoy the better situation in the villages. Many of them are gradually becoming deserted as their older inhabitants die off. The history of the past fifty-five years has changed the whole manpower basis of Russian agriculture and it will take many years, if not decades, to mend it. In the Northern Caucasus and in the Ukraine, the situation is improving much faster than in other regions: some villages there may have more workers than is even necessary for the local collective farms. But in Central Russia where the soil is poor, the villages are much worse off: it is still necessary every year to mobilize technical and university students from the towns to harvest the potatoes, vegetables or other crops because of the lack of rural labour. Production in the former virgin lands also depends on the temporary labour of students and workers from local or even distant towns and cities.

Won’t the universalization of the internal passport lead to quicker migration from the villages? At a certain stage of economic development a good proportion of the sons and daughters of peasant families in any country tend to want employment in the towns.

Yes, but when the universal passport didn’t exist, young people moved immediately they were 18 years old, which they had the right to do because their position was not determined by where they were born—it was voluntary to enter a collective farm. A young girl about to graduate from middle school could apply to go to a college or university, while a young lad drafted into the army would apply for a passport to leave the village as soon as possible, because if they started work as collective farmers they lost all their privileges. Now they are not under such pressure to do this, because the collective farms can ask people to work for one or two or three years. A young person can start work provisionally at first, then marry, get a house and finally find that the kolkhoz yields as much income as urban employment—sometimes even more, if the collective farm is a well-organized and prosperous one.

You speak of the problem of rural depopulation. But about 40% of Russians still live in the countryside.

Yes, but they don’t all work on the collective farms. First of all the proportion of old people is much higher in the villages than the towns. In some areas you might find that half of this 40% are older than 60. At the same time, half of the other half could be working in the nearest towns. I lived in a small town about 100 kilometres from Moscow in the Kaluga region: the morning trains were full of commuters from villages who travel to Moscow—for work in different plants, or to local towns to work there in factories or building projects. They live in the villages, so during the census they register as people living in the country, but they don’t work in the country. According to official statistics, 25% of the population only depend upon income from the agricultural sector.

Would they live in the town if they could get permission?

Some would. But if the village is not far from town many people prefer to stay there, because they have a garden and a house, not a small apartment in a confined space. With the improvement of life in the villages, there is no such tremendous pressure as there was ten or fifteen years ago to move into the cities.

III. Industry

What is your assessment of the performance of Soviet industry during the Brezhnev epoch? For many years the Western press has been full of stories of the falling rate of growth in the ussr—somewhat more muted with the recession in the West, but still presenting a general picture of creeping industrial crisis in the Soviet Union. It does appear to be the case that there have been fairly consistent shortfalls in planning targets during the 70’s. But what isn’t so clear is the overall balance sheet of the past fifteen years in Soviet industry.

Industrial output has more than doubled under Brezhnev. The rate of growth in oil, steel, coal and motor vehicles has been very rapid. The consumer goods industry has also registered major increases—television sets, bicycles and so on. On the other hand, this quantitative growth has not solved the problem of the quality of Russian goods. Virtually all Soviet products, whether industrial or technical equipment or consumer wares, are still of a very low standard in this respect. The main reason for this phenomenon is the absence of competition on the internal market: there is insufficient pressure to improve quality. The one field whose quality is generally high is military industry. That is because its products do have to ‘compete’ directly with those of US, West German or French hardware.

Given that the ussr now possesses a very advanced military technology which can match the us in many fields, it is puzzling that there should be so little spin-off from it into civilian industry. The typical pattern in the post-war capitalist economies of the West has been for research advances made in aeronautic or electronic laboratories working under State contracts in the defence sector to spread quite quickly into various applied civilian uses. Why hasn’t this happened in Russia? For example, Soviet missile systems depend on very sophisticated computer controls. Yet one of the most laggard sectors in civilian industry in the Soviet Union appears to be computers. What is the explanation for this?

In the case of computer development, the historical reason is that cybernetics and electronics were not considered sciences during Stalin’s time. Cybernetics was condemned as a bourgeois pseudo-science during the isolationist period after the War. It did not really start to be studied until 1956, by which time Russia was ten years behind Western Europe or America. So the first generation of Soviet computers resembled us prototypes of the previous decade. This huge lag could not be so easily caught up as in, say, the coal or steel industries where the equipment is less sophisticated. Moreover, if research started with a gap of some ten years, then education began with a gap of fifteen years because it was only after the Institute of Applied Mathematics and other establishments had initiated a research programme that experts could be formed capable of teaching others. By the end of Khruschev’s time, there were competent specialists in Moscow University and a few other institutes, but they were all absorbed by the military complex. Fifteen years later, the situation is now starting to change. Many colleges of computer engineering are now in full operation, and this profession is becoming very popular with young people. The College of Electronics in Moscow is highly fashionable. This will work itself through into the computer industry itself. The Soviet lag behind the us is now about two or three years, I would reckon—still very significant in a field advancing as rapidly as electronic communications, but much less than in Khruschev’s time.

More generally, military technology has influenced industry in the ussr as elsewhere—e.g. passenger aircraft were developed from bombers, and power stations from military reactors. But recent military technology has become too sophisticated for such cooperation to be possible.

What about persistent target short-falls in the various five-year plans under Brezhnev? You’ve spoken of the overall industrial growth achieved in this period, which is impressive. But compared with the 1950s or early 1960s the rate of growth has surely slowed down considerably?

That’s right. One of the reasons is that the Soviet Union is not a major exporting country like Japan: its whole economy is oriented towards the development of internal consumption—but internal demand is now very sensitive to the quality of the goods available. In too many fields nobody wants to buy things. Russia suffers from an excess of unsold products. This is a problem not merely with garments or furniture, it is the same with technical equipment. For example, when I was the head of a medical laboratory, I tried never to buy Russian-built high-speed centrifuges because I knew they would work badly. I concentrated my energies on acquiring foreign currency to purchase a Beckmann from Germany or America. This pattern would be true in many sectors. Naturally, the effect of it is to hamper rapid economic growth.

What explains the sudden enthusiasm for the imports of foreign technology and capital in the Soviet Union? It must be in response to strong pressures within the economy?

There has been a fundamental change of attitude in Brezhnev’s period. Khruschev’s policy was an attempt to copy all foreign technological advances. He thought it was sufficient just to reproduce the same models available in the West, in the ussr. But this took time, and it was not always easy to achieve the same standard of quality. In 1966, the ussr became a member of the International Patent Agreements, and was no longer free to imitate Western equipment unit-by-unit anyway. The Soviet leadership now came to see that it was often more rational to buy a license or even to purchase a whole complex from West Germany or elsewhere, than to try laboriously to build its own facsimile. Of course, it has been careful to do this only in fields which are non-strategic for the Russian economy, such as cars where Italian capital built the motor complex on the Volga, or television, where it bought the French colour system—sectors which are not vital for the existence of the country as a whole.

A significant part of the economic future of the ussr is bound up with Siberia, which has absorbed huge investments in recent years. What have been the results so far?

In his final years, Khruschev abruptly abolished the double or triple salaries that workers in the so-called Arctic areas received. He thought: we’ve built good towns there, so life is not so difficult any longer and there is no need to pay the extra rates. The result was calamitous: between 1959 and 1970 the population of Siberia fell by one million, as workers moved out. This mass discontent was not expressed in political protests but in a demographic exodus with disastrous effects on the economic development of Siberia. Under Brezhnev, the special bonuses and differentials for Arctic work have been reintroduced—even young people can get these extras for working there during their summer vacation, so there is no longer any labour shortage for the difficult projects in Siberia. The region contains vast oil, coal and gas reserves which are going to be essential to the ussr in the next 20 years. Quite rapid progress has been achieved there already. Like the passport and pension reforms for the peasantry, the changes in Siberian pay-scales for the working-class are an example of the way in which the Brezhnev regime has responded with economic concessions to defuse acute tensions among the two largest classes of the population, which were direct obstacles to national growth.

How would you characterize the basic relationship between the Soviet working-class, which has further grown in numbers and skills during the Brezhnev epoch, and the Soviet State? What are the typical attitudes of the Russian worker to the regime?

The economic situation in the country remains below expectations, but is improving slowly all the time. There is no unemployment, but on the contrary a shortage of labour—which creates greater variety of job-choice for workers. The average working family can easily satisfy its immediate material needs: apartment, stable employment, education for children, health care, and so on. The prices of essential goods—bread, milk, meat, fish, rent—have not changed since 1964. The cost of television or radio sets and other durable items has actually been reduced (from unduly high previous levels). In fact, there is now an excess of cash in people’s hands, and consumer demand for items which a few years ago were not deemed vital remains unsatisfied. So inflation does exist, but for inessentials. The result is that there are few real signs of economic discontent in the working-class, where differentials for skilled labour were anyway always high. The appearance of small groups of dissidents demanding political rights among workers is a new development, but these are still very weak and unrepresentative—which is inevitable so long as there is no freedom of the press, exchange of information is restricted and the formation of associations or unions is proscribed. It should also be remembered that the ussr is a very large country, so that although the working-class is great in numbers, it is also dispersed over huge distances. This naturally makes the position of the Party leadership more secure. The attitude of the working-class to the situation in the country and towards the regime represented by these leaders is, of course, not the same. So far as individuals are concerned, there is virtually total indifference. The current ruling group has closed itself off in such isolation from the working-class and from ordinary people in general that there are no emotions about particular officials. The removal of Shelepin from leadership of the Trade Unions would have evoked not the slightest comment among rank-and-file workers—no expressions either of pleasure or regret. The same was certainly the case with Podgorny, the official Head of State. The ordinary man believes that the system is more important than one or other leader at the top.

IV. Oppositions

That brings us to the reaction of the regime to political dissidence, which has so far been concentrated mainly in the ranks of the intelligentsia. The repression of dissidents is the main single prism through which the ussr is viewed today in the Western media—it probably takes up more space than all other topics combined. Could we start by asking for your estimate of the probable number of political prisoners in the Soviet Union today?

It’s very difficult to tell, because there are no reliable statistics. You can take the unsensational figures of Amnesty International, which has located not more than a thousand people whom they consider political prisoners and have adopted. But they are not able to study the Russian situation as a whole: they register only those who have attracted some kind of publicity, or a report by a Chronicle group. That means that they generally cover only the big centres, like Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev, where cases are more visible. There are many more about which they have no information. Most estimates fluctuate from about 2,000–10,000, if political prisoners are defined as people tried and sentenced according to Articles 70 and 190–1 of the Criminal Code—that is, for anti-Soviet agitation or propaganda, possession of anti-Soviet literature, actions to change or overthrow the character of the Soviet government. The figure is higher if you include religious sects and people engaged in illegal border crossing, who are covered by different articles. These categories are more difficult to assess, because they can involve a mixture of motivations. Someone arrested trying to cross the frontier may have a political reason for wanting to escape the country; but they may also just be engaged in smuggling or be young people without political ideas who want to travel in foreign countries. For example, Marchenko was a young worker who was initially sentenced for hooliganism when he got involved in a brawl. He escaped from prison and was caught trying to cross the border into Iran—for which he got six years in a camp, after which he wrote a book about his experiences, having by now become a political dissident. In the case of religion, someone may refuse to serve in the army on religious grounds, which are not accepted in the ussr; they are drafted anyway, and then desert. If they are caught, they are sentenced as deserters not as believers. Other may belong to sects which refuse to send their children to the official schools: if they hide them away and try to give them their own education, that too is illegal in the Soviet Union.

Taking the upper range of the estimates you’ve cited, how do these figures compare with the situation in 1964 when Khruschev fell? In most areas you’ve argued that the Brezhnev years have witnessed real progress over Khruschev’s legacy. Would not the reverse be true here?

It’s hard to be sure, but my guess would be that there were more political prisoners in Khruschev’s time than there are today. The destalinization of the later 50’s did not change everything at once. There were still many people who were more or less political prisoners in Stalin’s time who were not rehabilitated under Khruschev. The categories can be debated, of course. Solzhenitsyn considers members of the Vlassov Army as political prisoners. There were still dozens of thousands of these in prisons during Khruschev’s time, most of them serving twenty-five year sentences. They are now either released or have died. This group is no longer a major category in the camp system: during Khruschev’s time it was. At the same time, current repression was more arbitrary in those days; people could be arrested for less than they find themselves in prison for now. I remember that in 1958, for example, merely oral anti-Soviet remarks could lead to imprisonment, whereas today the KGB has to produce some kind of written evidence. The major difference here is that no dissident groups existed as such in Khruschev’s time. So it was much more difficult to get publicity for prisoners abroad, because regular connections between Russian oppositionists and the foreign press didn’t exist. So the level of repression wasn’t monitored so closely.

What is the difference between being sentenced to prison and to a camp in the Soviet Union? Few people in the West are clear about this. Which categories are condemned to which form of detention?

All able-bodied persons convicted in the courts, whether for ordinary crimes or political opposition, are normally sent to camps. If you are over 60, you go to prison. In the main, however, prisons are used during the stage of investigation, or for transit after a sentence. Cells are not individual, but group units. Prisoners in them don’t work. They can read prison literature, but many non-intellectuals don’t enjoy reading. So most inmates today prefer the camp to the prison—which was definitely not the case in Stalin’s time. Inmates who violate the rules of a camp can be sent for one or two years to prison as a punishment: it is a higher restriction for them.

What is the function of the camps today? How far have they changed since Stalin’s time?

The locations and conditions of the camps have altered greatly in the past twenty-five years. Stalin built many camps in areas which were not centres of major industrial or technical development in the Soviet Union—in Northern Siberia or elsewhere. The labour regime in these camps was such that prisoners were not able to survive if they received a long sentence and were put on so-called general works; not more than 5% of those who were sent there in the 30’s outlived their sentences. Today, many of these camps in the Far North have disappeared: the Siberian camps are generally reserved for repeated professional criminals who are regarded as very dangerous—organizers of armed robberies, for example. For ordinary crimes or political offences, people are sent to camps in their local regions. Each region will have one general and—with the exception of Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev where the existence of very large camps would cause bad publicity, and so-called ‘100 km criminal-free zones’ have been created—one special regime camp. They are organized around one or other industrial complex, and perform economic functions. There are many unpopular industrial fields like chemicals or fertilizers for which it is difficult to move a population to a new site: so the state builds a plant and then constructs camp facilities nearby. The prisoners work there as labourers. Technically, they receive a wage, from which is deducted the cost of the upkeep of their guards, so that the system is economically self-sufficient. In 1969, general regulations were issued stipulating the quantity of food to be provided and the amount of work to be performed in the different sorts of camps. There is no longer widespread hunger in them; but food rations are not generous and can be reduced in the isolators within the camps for violation of discipline. In practice, circumstances vary from camp to camp. The work and food in the special-regime camps is actually about the same, but the communication with the outside world is much less and with it the ability of relatives to send food parcels and other forms of help.

What is the total population of the camps today?

From one and a half to two million. Nearly half that population are mostly youngsters sentenced for hooliganism or other petty crimes. Where a shop-lifter receives a fine in England, in Russia he gets at least a minimal sentence. Fine, parole, bail don’t exist in the Soviet Union.

It is still a very high number—more than one out of a hundred people in the whole population.

Yes, but you must remember the civil context. For example, my brother-in-law was a computer technician returning home on his motorcycle after a late night shift: he hit a drunk man walking in the middle of the highway, who died. He was found guilty of negligence and received two years labour in a camp. The same kind of case would be treated differently here or in France. Roy once studied the crime pattern in the Tula region, when he worked in a pedagogical academy. He found that about 60% of those sentenced were very young people with short terms—mostly for small thefts of food, because this was during Khruschev’s time when people in this area didn’t have much to eat, so they tried to steal small items from shops. The law is much harsher generally there.

When did the use of the psychiatric hospital as a form of imprisonment for political dissidents, accompanied by the administration of powerful drugs which seem designed to break the personality, start?

Approximately 1961–1962, I think. It was then that Tarsis, a writer with a history of mental illness, published an anti-Soviet novel abroad—of very bad quality, but the government was very sensitive to such publicity at the time. So he was put in a mental hospital initially, then released to go abroad. Grigorenko was also put in a hospital for the first time in 1963, for making speeches against Khruschev when he was still a full general. So there were cases of the practice already before Brezhnev. But it started to be used much more deliberately for political ends from about 1966, I would say. The drugs themselves have a temporary effect—they can’t be actually used to try to break the person completely. But the psychiatric ward is, of course, regarded as much worse than a camp by the prisoner, because you can be there for life. The authorities resorted to this treatment of dissidents more and more frequently in cases where they had little evidence against someone, or feared that a strong personality might challenge them at a trial with embarrassing publicity. The mental hospitals are non-judicial institutions, and someone can be confined in them by what is in effect an administrative order. But the limelight of publicity has now focused so sharply on this system that they have to use it much more carefully today—it is not so easy for them to put someone in a psychiatric ward as it was seven or ten years ago.

So far as legal principles and rights are concerned, does the recent Brezhnev Constitution, proclaimed with much fanfare, involve any real change over the Stalin–Bukharin Constitution of 1936?

Not a great deal. The new Constitution renders the one-party system official, which is a disimprovement. It does also specify some greater rights of privacy and for the first time sets out a law on citizenship, which never existed before. But the Constitution is more of a political declaration than a basic legal charter in the Soviet Union. The penal code exists independently of it, and has not been changed since Khruschev’s time, when a new code was issued in 1961.

Your brother Roy recently tried to stand as an independent candidate in the elections to the Supreme Soviet. Was that under a provision of the new Constitution?

Candidates for election in the ussr must be nominated by an organization or association. Roy was nominated by a group of workers, ‘Election 79’. Though the constitution does not sanction this, there was a law of 1932 governing registration of associations, which theoretically permits it. That was not to be found in any of the Moscow legal offices, but in an old newspaper. It had never been repealed. The authorities naturally refused to accept the candidature. Roy wanted to use it to test the law publicly.

What led to the emergence of the dissident movement in the mid-60’s—the first form of organized opposition in Russia since the 20’s, in effect? How do you account for the increasingly rightward evolution of its members in the 70’s?

After Khruschev’s fall, there was a widespread feeling among intellectuals that a full-scale rehabilitation of Stalin was possible—a fear that the Stalinist system would once again be reimposed on the country. There were, indeed, signs that factions inside the Party were seeking a return to the old methods. This danger united a wide variety of people to write protests to the Central Committee, including many established figures. Then there occurred the Sinyavsky–Daniel trial, which was clearly illegal, and aroused a very broad opposition. It was soon followed by Solzhenitsyn’s campaign in the Writers’ Union against censorship in 1967—an issue which won the support of thousands of people, in a climate in which it was possible to speak openly of the threat of re-stalinization without fear of reprisals. The country was still in a state of ferment after the disturbances of Khruschev’s final years, and there was widespread discussion of the need for economic, scientific, institutional and other reforms. For some five years or so, it was possible to maintain an oppositional movement on the basis of common criticisms of the status quo in the ussr. But in time it became necessary to suggest positive alternatives for the development of Soviet society. By then, there was some falling away under the impact of the government’s combination of concessions and repression. Some were satisfied with the economic reforms and political stabilization of the regime, especially as it moved towards detente with the West. Others were frightened by the fate of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. But for those who remained in opposition, discussion of definite programmes for the future could no longer be avoided. At that point splits became inevitable. Roy sought a socialist alternative to the existing system. He was soon in a minority, because it was much easier to advocate a right-wing nationalist development for Russia of a neo-religious sort—Solzhenitsyn’s solution, harking back to an authoritarian past—or an imitation of many features of the capitalist West, which eventually became Sakharov’s programme. It was much more difficult to develop genuinely new social ideas than to fall back on religion or nationalism or to become a so-called ‘westerner’. The great majority of the dissidents, unfortunately, had virtually no education in political science—their knowledge of world history, contemporary states or comparative social systems was very superficial. The debates within Russia were also much affected by the issue of emigration, which Sakharov and others started to elevate even over freedom of the press. From 1970–71 onwards, the government started to permit Jewish emigration to Israel. Then it saw the advantages of letting dissidents leave the country too. This changed the course of the movement quite a lot. About half of those who were well-known oppositionists in the mid-60’s are now in emigration: some 400–500 politically active people have left Russia. Today more or less any dissident can emigrate if they want, provided they don’t work in a classified job. That has obviously weakened the movement inside Russia greatly. At the same time, when many of these intellectuals arrive in the West, they are supplied with financial support mostly from the Right. The environment of capitalist emigration has inevitably changed many of the dissidents.

The most prominent instance of a reactionary today is, of course, Solzhenitsyn. Yet his works of the 60’s show little evidence of his later views. Would it be correct to think that his crusading convictions are a new-found enthusiasm of recent years?

Yes. Solzhenitsyn’s political evolution is very clear. His early works, like Matryona and For the Good of the Cause are written in the classical style of socialist realism—the latter even has a good Party official pitted against a bad one in a contradiction at the regional level. The First Circle was quite different—a very remarkable novel that is powerfully anti-Stalinist, but in no way anti-Soviet or anti-socialist as such. Cancer Ward contains a kind of ethical socialist outlook. It was nearly published in the Soviet Union, and was the subject of an official discussion within the Writers’ Union. Today, however, Solzhenitsyn feels that these works are not as they should be, and has set about rewriting them, claiming that he was labouring under an ‘inner censorship’ at the time of their composition. He has already produced a fresh version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to make it more anti-Soviet. He now plans a new version of The First Circle, with thirteen new chapters, some of which he has published in the emigré journals. From a literary point of view, they are very inferior. More seriously, they change the whole sense of the novel. The meaning of the novel is transformed in a way that makes it clear that Solzhenitsyn is no longer writing so much for a Russian audience as for his own messianic vision of future generations. It is inconceivable that Solzhenitsyn had the views he now expresses in the late 50’s, when he was an absolutely different person. He is rewriting his own history.

Sakharov represents a somewhat distinct position today—liberalism rather than religious conservatism. But he too has gravitated quite rapidly to the right?

Sakharov came from a very privileged group of scientists, which regularly dealt with high officials. He was accustomed for many years to them taking his advice seriously. So when he became critical of the status quo, he thought that he could use his high position within the Russian scientific establishment to change society. But he found that he could exert no influence at all on political developments within the Soviet Union. He thereupon decided that it must be an absolutely insensitive system, which could only be changed by outside pressure—inside the ussr there was no possibility of improvements. Once he concluded that pressure from outside was the only possible choice, he supported the Jackson Amendment and took up the emigration issue. But nothing positive resulted, which made him very anxious and disappointed. If you look at his book My Country and My World, for example where he compares the living standards of Russian and British workers, you can see how naive and unscientific is his approach to social questions. In his latest essay Alarm and Hope (1978) Sakharov declares that the problem of a just distribution of wealth is already solved in Western Europe and the usa and that living standards there are rising at an unprecedented rate. We know, however, that this is not the case.

You’ve said that most of the Russian dissidents lack any real political culture or knowledge of the social sciences. In part this is obviously connected with the fact that so many of them have a purely literary, or narrowly natural-scientific, background. Roy and yourself are exceptions in this respect—not only within the Soviet, but the East European oppositions as well, where a figure like Bahro is equally unusual. Yet there are large numbers of intellectuals working in history, economics, or sociology in the ussr, acquiring the training that is most relevant to the formulation of new political ideas or programmes. Much less is heard of them than of the traditional literary intelligentsia. What are the prospects of people like your brother or yourself emerging in the generation that would now be in its thirties?

There are a large number of, say, younger historians who are more or less sympathetic to Roy’s point of view. But they cannot publish what they want. For them to become a dissident is to lose their employment, and very few people can survive economically in the Soviet Union as free-lance or self-employed. So they continue to work in the system, publishing essays or articles where they can’t get their books published—not happy with their situation, but without much choice. History is under much tighter political control than the natural sciences or literature. The two-volume History of Collectivization prepared by the Institute of History in 1966–67, for example, was destroyed after it was actually set in print. All the work of the social scientists involved was wasted: many were deeply disillusioned. Among the younger generation, I would say, an alternative compromise attitude is quite widespread. Their books, which you can buy in translations over here, are already rather different from those of ten years ago. They are no longer based only on Soviet sources, but aim for a more world-wide analysis of major political developments, using a much broader range of information. But they are not yet ready to make any direct criticisms of the domestic situation—knowing that if they did, they would not be published.

In your view, what have been the main trends in the cultural life of the ussr during the past 15 years?

The main trend in Russian cultural life during the last 15 years could be described as a flexible conservatism. It has not been repressive and reactionary in the way that the Zhdanov period was after 1946. Nor has it been erratic and unpredictable as it was under Khruschev, with alternating relaxations and retreats. Of course a complete stop has been put to fiction about prisons and camps, and censorship has tightened under Brezhnev. But within the permitted areas of the culture, the re-emergence of more classical traditions and the variation of aesthetic forms and methods have been supported. ‘Socialist realism’ has lost its appeal. Neither the film industry, nor the theatre, nor literature can attract the attention of the public today without recourse to simple, classical realism or to experimentation with new forms. The calibre of films and plays has clearly improved, with more psychological depth and higher professional standards. There is now also a limited acceptance of modern art and music. Authors and artists are allowed to try to do their best, on condition that they keep clear of ‘hot’ political topics, and concentrate on keeping people entertained, interested and even proud of Soviet cultural achievements. Their skill is greater, and the quality of their work is better, but nothing sensational or revolutionary has been produced—no new horizons have been opened. The same is true in science. The general level is relatively high now and close to international standards. But important discoveries and breakthroughs are very rare.

How serious do you think the nationalities problem now is in the ussr? The majority of the population will soon be non-Russian. A growth of centrifugal nationalism in the Baltic lands, the Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia is often predicted in the West, by analogy with the tensions within many capitalist countries. Do you think the comparison is valid?

No. The national question is very acute in Spain, Belgium or Canada where there are just two or three conflicting nationalities. In the ussr there are up to a hundred, which makes the overall situation easier for the central government to manipulate. Within the very large number of ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, the degree of national feeling varies enormously. Those people who had no written language or urban culture prior to the Revolution, for example the Bashkirs, typically have least. They have frequently been assimilated into Russian culture, and their children will speak only Russian. The smallest ones have often disappeared altogether. In 1926, 200 separate ethnic groups were registered in the ussr: today the number is between 80 and 90. So while the proportion of pure Russians in the population is declining, the proportion of Russian-speakers is rising. Among the major republics, the situation is also quite diverse. The peoples of the Central Asian republics never enjoyed much freedom in their history—they were mostly under foreign rule, from the time of Genghis Khan onwards, and their culture was less developed than that of Russia. There are, as you know, Azerbajdzani and Turkmen minorities in Iran and Uzbek, Kazakh and Tadjik minorities in China, just across the border: and their conditions of life are much harder than those of the ‘Soviet’ groups in the ussr. National sentiment in Tashkent is inevitably very different from that in Riga. The Baltic states have a more complex history, and are neighbours of lands which did actually acquire independence from Russia—Poland or Finland. That naturally influences the popular outlook. Even within the Baltic States, however, there are significant shadings: nationalism is much stronger in Catholic Lithuania, which was once a vast mediaeval Empire, than in Protestant Estonia which for virtually all of its history was ruled by Swedes, Danes, Germans or Russians. With the Ukraine, again, there is a major difference between the Eastern and Western regions. Current Ukrainian nationalism is concentrated largely in the Western part, which built up a tradition of cultural resistance to foreign domination during the many centuries in which it was exchanged back and forth as a border region between Poland and Russia, an experience unlike that of the Eastern part. Clearly the central government is very concerned about the growth of nationalism in areas like this, and is trying to stamp it out. But in the long-run, changes at the centre itself are inevitable. The highest levels of the Party and State are still overwhelmingly dominated by Russians or Russified Ukrainians, and this cannot be sustained indefinitely.

V. The Future

Who are the most plausible successors to Brezhnev in the current leadership? Do you think his departure will be the signal for major shifts in Soviet politics in the 80’s?

The chances of the different contenders for Brezhnev’s succession cannot be predicted without some assessment of the likely further duration of Brezhnev’s own tenure. As a gerontologist I would say that the main health problems for Brezhnev are coronary and cerebral arteriosclerosis—the same ailments which caused Lenin’s death at the age of 53 and Stalin’s at the age of 73. Physical deterioration in such cases is usually irreversible but gradual, although with high probabilities of a fatal stroke (for Lenin the fatal stroke was the third, as it was for Stalin too—the first occurring in 1938, the second in 1949). If the issue of succession were posed now, a ‘collective leadership’ would probably be the initial solution, as it was after Lenin, after Stalin and after Khruschev. In that case the most influential group would be Ustinov, Andropov and Gromyko. But of course the choice of General Secretary remains decisive. Since the first signs of Brezhnev’s poor health, Western experts have changed their candidates for the succession several times. Kirilenko, till recently regarded as the front-runner, is now taken less seriously, while the stocks of Chernenko, the newest member of the Politbureau, have gone up—mostly because he is a long-time aide and confidant of Brezhnev. If Brezhnev himself decided to retire and pick his successor, then Chernenko might be installed as the new leader. But while he is close to Brezhnev as a colleague, Chernenko is absolutely unknown to the country and in the party as a whole: he is a typical apparatchik without credentials, practical authority or a power base (he is part of Brezhnev’s power base). Hence I do not expect much support for him. To pinpoint the most likely choice for General Secretary is very difficult now, but I suspect that Andropov, who was responsible for foreign affairs in the Secretariat before he was put in charge of security, has more chance of getting the post: he has accumulated real power in the last few years. In general, the party bureaucracy dislikes upheavals and will prefer a durable leader who can remain in charge of the country for 10–12 years. However, it should also be remembered that it is not only Brezhnev but six or seven other leaders in the Politbureau who are now over 70, and will have to be replaced fairly soon. Once the responsible positions now occupied by Kosygin, Suslov and Kirilenko are filled with new men, changes of policy are inevitable. These will evidently include normalization of Sino-Soviet relations and much closer economic links with West Germany and Japan. Changes in domestic policy are less easy to predict, but attempts at a more popular and open style of government seem more probable than a continuation of the closed, secretive methods of the Brezhnev regime.

What do you see as the most important sources of probable change within Soviet society today, as an epoch nears its close? Do you think Roy’s judgment of five years ago—‘It is not the outlook of those “below” that is of decisive importance, but the moods and views of those “above” ’ [3]—remains valid today? If so, at what future point could the dialectic of mass pressures from below start to unlock the institutional impasse above? What are the prospects for socialist democratization in the next decade?

A situation where the moods and views of those above are more important for the general direction of society is typical of a stable system. Such was Brezhnev’s regime five years ago. Since then, however, the efficacy of an ageing leadership has been steadily diminishing, many pressing domestic and foreign problems have accumulated, economic growth has been slowing down because of a conservative fear of experimentation. Today there are two key problems which any future leadership will have to confront: the need for a sharp increase in the productivity of labour in Soviet manufactures and (above all) agriculture, and the imperative necessity to improve—even revolutionize—the quality and performance of the service industries in the ussr. Neither of these tasks can be resolved without the active participation of the rank-and-file masses of workers and peasants. Therefore the pattern of communication between ‘above’ and ‘below’ will have to be changed. Such a change can only be realized through the emergence of more democratic institutions, not by the imposition of bureaucratic pressure or coercion. Roy’s view, which is also my own, is that the first steps towards such a democratization will depend on actions originating ‘above’: but if they are to bear fruit, it can only be through a real increase in the influence won from ‘below’ by the working-class, peasantry and intelligentsia over all areas of the country’s life and activity.

[2] Obkom: oblast committee of the Party. The oblast, equivalent to a province, is the main administrative division of the USSR.

No comments:

Post a Comment