NYRB Volume 38, Number 21 · December
REVIEWED IN THIS ESSAY
The Untold Story of Stalin's Polish Massacre
by Allen Paul
Scribner's, 390 pp., $24.95
August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons
by Mikhail Gorbachev
HarperCollins, 127 pp., $18.00
by Gerd Ruge, translated
by Peter Tegel
Chatto and Windus, 260 pp., £15.99
The Gorbachev Enigma
by Yegor Ligachev
To be published by Pantheon in
Future Belongs to Freedom
by Eduard Shevardnadze, translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Free Press, 237 pp., $22.95
by Raisa Gorbachev, translated by David Floyd
HarperCollins, 207 pp., $20.00
The 1st First Lady of the Soviet Union
by Urda Jürgens
Summit, 157 pp., $19.95
Second Russian Revolution Discovery Channel by Brian Lapping Associates
a six-part documentary series made for BBC Television and the, produced by
Second Russian Revolution: The Struggle for Power in the Kremlin
by Angus Roxburgh
BBC Books, 218 pp., £15.95
by Anna Larina Bukharina
Progress Publishers, 368 pp., R290
a New Russia
by Anatoly Sobchak
Free Press, 191 pp., $22.95
Ozhidaniya (The Waiting Room)
by Vitaly Korotich
Liberty Publishing House (New
York), 184 pp., $13.00
on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era
by Sergei Khrushchev, edited and translated by William Taubman
Little, Brown, 423 pp., $24.95
Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes
dictated by Nikita Khrushchev, foreword by Strobe Talbott,
translated and edited by Jerrold L. Schecter, by Vyacheslav V. Luchkov
Little, Brown, 219 pp., $19.95
by Benedict Erofeev, translated by J. R. Dorrell
Writers and Readers Publishing
Cooperative, 188 pp., $7.95 (paper)
Lenin died in January 1924, Bolshevik mystery displaced the last traces of
historical truth. The wing of the Communist Party gathering around Stalin
created a cult of Lenin, made sacred his image, and pickled his remains. It
is hard to say now which influences of the past weighed most heavily on the
ideologists and embalmers who formed the Immortalization Committee. The Byzantine
legacy and its yearning for a heaven on earth was, for Stalin, the
ex-seminarian of Tiflis, unavoidable. Lenin is laid out under glass looking
very much like the Orthodox priests entombed in the catacombs of Kiev.
But the idea to preserve Lenin for eternal inspection and worship also goes
back to the Pharaohs. The discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in Luxor in 1922
remained a worldwide sensation for years to come with every new find. Yuri Steklov, who led the embalming effort, compared Lenin's
gargantuan funeral to those of "the founders of great states in ancient
times." When the mausoleum itself opened to the public in August 1924,
one account in the Soviet press compared the achievement to that of the great
architects of Egypt.
The tomb's design comes directly from the modernist spirit. Kazimir Malevich, the master painter and theorist who
would suffer unbearable abuse under Stalin, pushed a Cubist model as the only
suitable form for the tomb: "The point of view that Lenin's death is not
death, that he is alive and eternal, is symbolized in a new object, taking as
its form the cube. The cube is no longer a geometric body. It is a new object
with which we try to portray eternity, to create a new set of circumstances,
with which we can maintain Lenin's eternal life, defeating death."
Malevich, with an anticipatory trace of Marin County crystal-worship, even
suggested that believers keep a small cube at home
"as a reminder of the eternal, constant lesson of Leninism."
In a perversion of the Orthodox faith it overwhelmed, the Lenin cult thrived
on mystery and kitsch. Lenin's brain, reputedly much larger than average, was
sliced up and preserved at Moscow's Institute of the Brain and became a source
of wonder. His winterized Rolls-Royce is a centerpiece display at the Lenin
Museum on Red Square. Images of Lenin, humorless and yellowed, loomed in
every office and schoolroom as the required icon. Mandatory classes in
Marxist-Leninist science are slowly disappearing from the main urban
universities, but to this day most Soviet children learn to read not with the
help of Dick and Jane but rather "Baby Lenin" or "Grandpa Ilich."
There have always been heretics opposed to the sacred Lenin: Nikolai Berdyaev's
The Origin of Russian Communism and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag
Archipelago are cornerstone texts of the apostate library. Street level
irreverence blossomed during Brezhnev's reign of irony and rot. Moscow
intellectuals referred privately to Lenin in his tomb as "kopchushka," the smoked fish. A Moscow
department store advertised a double bed as a bed "for three"
because, after all, "Lenin is always with us."
The spirit of heresy rose from the catacombs to public discourse,
however, only three years after Gorbachev took power. Vasily
Selyunin, a free-market economist, published
"Sources," an astonishing article in which he dared to link Lenin
to the rise of forced labor camps and collectivization. "The
idea," Selyunin told me recently, "was to
write a piece so that people would begin to realize that the system itself
was stillborn, that we could not blame everything on the devil image of
The following spring, the theater director Mark Zakharov
suggested on the popular television program Vzglyad
("View") that Lenin's remains be removed from the mausoleum and
given the burial the family had requested in the first place. But like
dowagers at a peep show, members of the Central Committee cried scandal. A
few weeks later, the literary historian Yuri Karyakin
repeated the proposal on an even grander scale-- from the podium of the first
session of the Congress of People's Deputies.
Soon the debunking came in all forms, from ideological dissection to comic
grotesque. Scholar-politicians such as Yuri Afanasyev,
men who had grown up in the Party's ideological citadels and served the cult
with brio for years, began calling Lenin a criminal, a tyrant, a fool. Local
governments toppled statues of the great man everywhere from Tartu to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. A former guard at Lenin's tomb writing
in Nezavisimaya Gazeta
("The Independent Newspaper") revealed that in the mausoleum's
basement there is a control room to monitor Lenin's "body
temperature" and a gym where KGB troops can pump iron before standing
watch in the cold. Argumenti i Fakti ("Arguments and Facts") recounted in
clinical detail how when Lenin's corpse was evacuated from Moscow during the
war it somehow became covered with bacteria. A dim-witted caretaker
"treated" the body by pouring scalding-hot water over it, causing a
massive case of boils. The body, as the paper put it, "never regained
its shape." And so on.
The final grace note to the August coup and its aftermath came when the mayor
of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, told a session
of the Congress that now that the Communist Party and hard-line ideology were
dead perhaps it was time to bury Lenin. Gorbachev, even if he had been
inclined to object as a matter of faith or habit, had no leverage to stand in
the way. The newspaper Izvestia ran a
front-page poll showing that the vast majority of citizens supported Sobchak's proposal.
The mystery had ended, and, with it, the regime.
The return of history began with Khrushchev's "secret
speech" denouncing Stalin in 1956 and ended, at least poetically, with Sobchak's uncontested proposal to bury the tattered
god-on-earth. Without a full assessment of the past, real reform, much less
democratic revolution, was impossible. This return of history to intellectual
and political life was the foundation for all that has happened in the Soviet
Union under Gorbachev. No other modern society had ever done more to
suppress, to manipulate, its own history, and sustained the effort for so
To recall a life lived outside history and under the lie turns out to be as
difficult as it is for a healed man trying to recall his pain. Even for older
people in the Soviet Union it is almost impossible to remember clearly the
absurdity of it all, the unreality, the mystery.
To regain the past, to see plain the nightmares of seventy years, is a nearly
unbearable shock. Television now routinely shows documentary films about the
slaughter of the Romanovs, the forced collectivization of the countryside,
the purge trials. The "thick" journals and newspapers are crammed
with the latest historical damage reports: how many shot and imprisoned; how
many churches, mosques, and synagogues destroyed; how much plunder and waste.
Under this avalanche of remembering, people protest boredom. But, really, it
is the pain of remembering, the shock of recognition, that persecutes them.
"Imagine being an adult and nearly all the truth you know about the
world around you and outside your own country has to be absorbed in a matter
of a year or two or three," the philosopher Grigori
Pomerants told me. "The entire country is
still in a state of mass disorientation."
When Gorbachev first raised the question of revealing the
past in November 1987 in a major address on the seventieth anniversary of the
revolution, he began with small doses of truth, a rhetorical tactic that had
as much to do with the necessities of power as the sensibilities of the
public. While the Politburo was holding long secret debates on how to
approach the Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev had little choice but to play a
game of maneuvering and euphemism. What later became known as the democratic
opposition hardly existed. The broad range of
pro-reform forces, from the former dissidents like Andrei Sakharov to the
"informal" groups like Democratic Perestroika, all put their hopes
in Gorbachev. That was where the power was. Operating in a political world
almost completely dominated by the Communist Party, Gorbachev was faced with
a Politburo in which the committed reformers were a minority of four:
Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Aleksandr
Yakovlev. Boris Yeltsin, in fact, was dismissed as Moscow Party chief just
before the speech when he jettisoned Kremlin protocol and launched a personal
attack on the conservative leader Yegor Ligachev at a session of the Central Committee. Hard
liners like Ligachev and moderate conservatives
like Nikolai Ryzhkov were in the clear majority.
"It would be foolish to think that the conservatives then were any less
conservative than the people who led the August coup," Shevardnadze told
In the first years of perestroika, Communist Party officials across the
country were simply in no mood for full disclosure. A few months before
Gorbachev's speech, the local Communist Party boss in Magadan,
a city that was the gateway to the notorious Kolyma camps in the Far East,
told a group of visiting Western reporters that the issue of the Stalinist
purges "does not exist here for us. There is no such question."
"We lived through that period, and this page in history has been
turned," the official, Aleksandr Bogdanov, said. "It's not necessary to speak
constantly about that."
Gorbachev understood the inherent perils of the system, remarking at one
point, "The most expensive mistakes are political mistakes." To
lose completely the support of such dinosaurs as Bogdanov
could have meant an immediate end to the Gorbachev era. Sobchak,
in his engaging new memoir, writes that "a totalitarian system leaves
behind it a minefield built into both the country's social structure and the
individual psychology of its citizens. And mines explode each time the system
faces the danger of being dismantled and the country sees the prospect of
Despite the clear political perils, Gorbachev did push the Politburo hard on
the question of filling in what he called the "blank spots" of
history-- even if he was prepared to fill in some blanks and not others.
Yakovlev, who was the lead author of the speech, told me that many members of
the Politburo tried to strike out a crucial phrase in which Gorbachev called
Stalin's acts criminal. Ligachev rang Gorbachev on
the phone and said, in a rage, "This would mean canceling our entire
lives. We are opening the way for people to spit on our history." But
the general secretary knew his prerogatives. The phrase remained. He spit on
Stalin-- but carefully.
"To stay faithful to historical truth," Gorbachev said in his
address, "we have to see both Stalin's indisputable contribution to the
struggle for socialism, to the defense of its gains, as well as the gross
political mistakes and the abuses committed by him and his circle, for which
our people paid a heavy price and which had grave consequences for society."
Especially if read now, this "balanced," Aesopian language is
repulsive. At the time, many historians in the West, including Richard Pipes
and Adam Ulam, called the speech a huge
disappointment, if not a sell-out. But even Yakovlev, a man justly regarded
as the leadership's singular figure of intellect and integrity, also carried
off the same cynical, if politically necessary, act. The day after the
speech, Yakovlev appeared at a press conference prepared to lie and feign
outrage. Asked by a reporter whether Gorbachev was not holding back when he
said that "thousands" rather than millions had been killed in
Stalin's purges, Yakovlev said that such figures coming out in the West over
the years “should be on the conscience of those who think them up.” And asked
why Khrushchev's "secret speech" had not yet been published in the
Soviet Union, Yakovlev snapped, "What difference does it make to you? It
has been published in the West!"
But for all the glaring insufficiencies
of the speech-- its unwillingness to criticize Lenin, its praise of a
collectivization campaign that left the villages of the Ukraine and southern
Russia strewn with millions of corpses-- Gorbachev opened the gate to the
return of history. Intellectually, politically, and morally, the speech
played a critical role in undermining the Stalinist system of coercion and
empire. The Kremlin's reluctant "discovery" in 1989 of the secret
protocols to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which signed over control of
the Baltic states from Nazi Germany to Moscow, accelerated the independence
of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. A round-table discussion published in Pravda
simply arguing the merits of the 1968 invasion of Prague came just before
hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks demonstrated in Wenceslas Square. The Pravda
article confirmed the Kremlin's shifting attitude toward its own past and
helped rob the Czech Communist Party of its last shred of
Perhaps no example of the return of history and its impact was more dramatic
than that of Gorbachev's announcement on April 13, 1990, that the Soviet
Union, and not Nazi Germany, was responsible for the methodical slaughter of
15,000 Polish officers forty-seven years earlier. As Allen Paul makes plain
in his often moving history of the Katyn massacres,
Stalin's execution order was a deliberate attempt to eliminate the Polish
educated classes and clear the ground for eventual Soviet dominance of the
country. The day Gorbachev made his announcement marked the end of an era of
Faul's book is filled with horrifying detail,
especially from Polish witnesses, but the return of historical truth has been
so swift that just as the book has appeared in the stores, there has been a
rush of new information, new voices. Now the executioners themselves, all of
them in their seventies and eighties, are talking. The Soviet military
prosecutor's office, which has for the past year been investigating the Katyn massacres under an order from Gorbachev, leaked to
the British newspaper The Observer the videotaped testimony of
secret-police officers who organized and carried out the nighttime executions
of Polish officers at Katyn, Kalinin, and Starobelsk.
Vladimir Tokaryev, eighty-nine and blind, described
for the prosecutors how in April 1940 his unit of the secret police in
Kalinin shot one Polish officer after another, 250 a night, for a month. The
executioners brought with them a whole suitcase full of German revolvers, the
Walther 2 type. Our Soviet TT weapons were thought not to be reliable enough.
They were liable to overheat with heavy use…. I was there the first night
they did the shooting. Blokhin was the main killer,
with about thirty others, mainly NKVD drivers and guards. My driver, Sukharev, for instance, was one of them. I remember Blokhin saying: "Come on, let's go." And then
he put on his special uniform for the job: brown leather hat, brown leather
apron, long brown leather gloves reaching above the elbows. They were his
terrible trade mark.
They took the Poles along the corridor one by one,
turned left and took them into the Red Corner, the rest room for the prison
staff. Each man was asked his surname, first name and place of birth-- just
enough to identify him. Then he was taken to the room next door, which was
sound-proofed, and shot in the back of the head…. Blokhin
made sure that everyone in the execution team got a supply of vodka after
each night's work. Every evening he brought it into the prison in boxes. They
drank nothing before the shooting or during the shooting, but afterwards they
all had a few glasses before going home to bed…. When [the graves were dug]
the three men from Moscow organized a big banquet to celebrate. They kept
pestering me, insisting that I should attend. But I refused.
And on the blind man drones, pointing his finger at "the others,"
denying the importance of his own role, no less a cruel, bland beast than
Eichmann in Jerusalem.
And so the Kremlin's book of laughter and forgetting has ended. On a trip to Magadan last spring, I discovered that the amnesiac Party
boss Bogdanov had been forced out of office and
that the local chapter of the Memorial society had set up, nearly forty years
after the fact, a museum exhibit on prison camp life in Kolyma. The local
newspaper was running long lists of the names of rehabilitated victims. Local
officials were helping the émigré sculptor Ernst Neizvestny
build a huge monument to the three million killed in Kolyma during the Stalin
Perhaps the best proof of the fundamental importance of the return of history
is the unconcealed agony of the hard liners, their desperate attempts to
balance somehow a portrait of slaughter and rot with glorious achievements. Ligachev told me that when history was taken out of the
hands of the Communist Party, "it created a gloomy atmosphere in the
country. It affects the emotions of the people, their mood, their
work-efficiency, when from morning to night everything negative from the past
is being dumped on them. Patriotic topics have been squeezed out, shunted
aside. People are longing for something positive, something shining, and yet
our own cultural figures have published more lies and anti-Soviet things than
our Western enemies ever did in the last seventy years combined."
The men that organized the military Putsch against Gorbachev were so deluded
about their own country that they even believed they could put a halt to the
return of history, that they could shut it down with
a decree in Pravda. On the first day of the coup, officers from the
Kalinin KGB showed up at a site where representatives from the Soviet
military prosecutor's office were busy exhuming the graves of the Polish
officers. "They told us that our work was unnecessary and that they
would not guarantee our safety," said Major General Vladimir Kupiets, who was leading the investigation. Like the
protesters on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kupiets
refused to return to the past, except to study its bones and bitter lessons.
He ordered his men to continue digging.
One of the incidental benefits of the opening of history has been the death
of Kremlinology, a pseudoscience not a great deal more helpful in
understanding the Soviet Union than phrenology or the I Ching. I once asked Boris Yeltsin about that great
staple of cold war power analysis, who stands where on the Lenin Mausoleum
during the May Day parade: "Who gives the signal?" Yeltsin smiled.
"They tape a little list to the wall," he said. "Simple, isn't
it?" It was Yeltsin, the bull in the ideological china shop, whose
memoir smashed the pretense of Kremlin reticence once and for all. Crammed
with inside dope on the marble baths and tennis courts at the Kremlin dachas
and the foibles of the Politburo members, Against the Grain
sold wildly last year in metro stations and at corner bookstands across the
Despite opening the way to a more thorough evaluation of the country's past,
Gorbachev has shied away from talking or writing too deeply about his own
life. He waited, for instance, until 1990 before he told an audience that
while he was growing up in rural southern Russia both his grandfathers were
arrested on trumped-up charges.
The August Coup is not much of a memoir; it is, instead, a thin,
passionless exercise in spin control, combining a news-less
narrative of the coup and an argument for maintaining a Moscow-centered union
that few seem to want anymore. The story behind the book says more about the
author's current diminished status than the text itself. Gorbachev's
advisers, in a feverish attempt to restore the stature of their man, won
agreement from Harper Collins to publish the manuscript within a few weeks.
But the product was a flop. Even Time magazine, which has been one of
Gorbachev's most vigorous boosters in the American press, did not publish an
excerpt. Yeltsin, for his part, is reportedly asking for a $1 million advance
for his version of events, and he has informed publishers that he will not do
any publicity tours. He is busy.
So far, there are no decent, much less definitive, biographies of Gorbachev.
Not even his fascinating career before 1985 has been treated with any depth. Gerd Ruge, an intelligent West
German TV journalist and writer, has produced Gorbachev, but like a
number of other books of its kind, it provides little more than some
interesting interviews with old acquaintances and friends and a sketch of
events readily available in any newspaper morgue. Despite the twilight aura
gathering around him now, Gorbachev will surely be counted as the dominant
politician of the second half of the twentieth century. (Sakharov somehow
transcends the category of politician. He was a modern prophet.)
Unfortunately, the reader will probably have to wait some time for a deeper
record of Gorbachev's history and accomplishments.
There is some help on the way, at least. Now that the taboo against
historical truth has collapsed, the literary market in the Soviet Union and
abroad is inundated with memoirs. Even Ligachev has
written his own history, a self-justifying, if entertaining, memoir excerpted
in the mass circulation weekly Argumenti
i Fakti and the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya.
In the excerpts and in his recent US tour of colleges and institutes, Ligachev does his Barry Goldwater routine—a hard liner
trying to portray himself as a sensible, cuddly conservative amid the radical
rabble. The excerpts reveal a yearning for a leader, tough and disciplined, someone like Yuri Andropov or, say, Yegor Ligachev. The implication
throughout is clear: after a few years of gradualist reform, Gorbachev sold
out the Party and socialism itself and joined forces with reckless
"Do you know a good agent in the States?" Ligachev
once asked me in Moscow. "I think Americans will be interested in my
version of history." Pantheon will publish the book, tentatively titled The
Gorbachev Enigma, early next year.
In every case, these Moscow memoirs are hasty productions, and only Sobchak has a sense of narrative and an impulse to go
deeper than self-aggrandizement. Raisa's
question-and-answer session is padded with homilies of the Erma Bombeck variety. Shevardnadze teases the reader with the
hint of revelation and then goes strangely, and self-righteously, mute.
"I should warn that readers will be disappointed if they expect this
book to be the sensational story of the 'human factor' as exemplified by
certain specific personages," he writes. Translated from the Newspeak:
if you want to know how the Politburo decided to react to the revolutions in
Eastern Europe or withdraw troops from Afghanistan or join the alliance with
Washington against Iraq, look elsewhere. "The time has not yet come for
that," Shevardnadze advises us, and now that he has returned as foreign
minister, we know one likely reason for his reticence.
Still, these books do contain intriguing nuggets that begin to fill out the
existing portraits of Gorbachev. They reveal a politician tailor-made for a
critical moment in history, one capable of both dogged sycophancy and
intellectual idealism, a reformer with ice water in his veins.
After finishing a degree at Moscow State University's law
faculty, Gorbachev returned to the peasant towns of southern Russia and
worked for a while in the prosecutor's office near Stavropol. His letter
dated June 20, 1953, to Raisa (as she recounts it
in her book) reveals a young man immensely ambitious and faced with the sort
of timeless petty bureaucrats found in the pages of Dead Souls:
I am so depressed by the situation here. And I feel it especially keenly
every time I receive a letter from you. It brings with it so much that is
good, dear, close and understandable. And one feels all the more keenly how
disgusting my surroundings are here. Especially the manner of life of the
local bosses. The acceptance of convention, subordination, with everything predetermined, the open impudence of officials and the
arrogance. When you look at one of the local bosses you see nothing
outstanding apart from his belly. But what aplomb, what self-assurance and
the condescending, patronizing tone!
Shevardnadze knew Gorbachev in the 1950s when both men were working as
officials in the Young Communist League, the Komsomol.
Shevardnadze, who has attacked Gorbachev ferociously in the past year,
nevertheless remembers the future general secretary as "always devoid of
that artificial Komsomol modesty I had always found
so annoying; more important I could see that his thinking went beyond the
boundaries of prescribed norms." Later Shevardnadze recounts how the two
men, vacationing in the early 1980s on the Black Sea, confided in each other
their disgust for the state of the Kremlin leadership and the country as a
"Everything's rotten," Shevardnadze said to Gorbachev as they
walked along the beach at Pitsunda. "It has to
"We cannot live this way any longer," Gorbachev replied.
Although Yakovlev, Ligachev, and other Politburo
officials have told me that it is preposterous to think that Gorbachev and
his allies came into power with much more than a general determination to
provide more individual freedoms and improve a collapsing economy, it is also
evident that Gorbachev had a clearer sense than anyone else in the
leadership-in-waiting that change was not only possible, but inevitable.
"I was depressed," Ryzhkov says of the Chernenko interregnum, in the superb BBC TV series The
Second Russian Revolution, "and felt I wasn't needed. I said to
Gorbachev, 'Our work is superfluous.'…Gorbachev said, 'One day, life itself
will force radical changes in our country.'” What he did not anticipate was
that the Party and the system itself were doomed.
Try as they might, the Communist Party reformers cannot hope to create a
pristine history of their own pasts. Even the best among them must stand
before the memory of the dissidents with a sense of shame and repentance. As
both the police chief and later the Party leader of the republic of Georgia,
Shevardnadze was capable of brutal attacks on local dissidents, a fact he
glosses over with convenient ease in his memoir. Yakovlev, for his part, was
prepared to work in the Party ideology department of the Central Committee
for the beastly "gray cardinal" Mikhail Suslov.
Yeltsin's best-known act as the Party boss of Sverdlovsk in the Urals was to
bulldoze the last residence of Nicholas II to prevent its becoming a royalist
shrine. All of them were prepared to compromise to make their way up the
And yet when it came to the cynical sport of Kremlin politics, none was a
match for Gorbachev. Aleksandr Tsipko,
a prominent radical in Moscow who once worked on the Central Committee staff,
says that while Yeltsin's performance in the past two years has been
extraordinary, the Russian president would have "broken his neck"
trying to navigate the political riptides necessary to gain power in 1985 and
make the first historic initiatives of glasnost and foreign policy. Yeltsin's
stubbornness and defiance, qualities he would later use for heroic ends while
standing on a tank at the start of the August coup, had no place in the
Communist Party political culture. He was never capable of the sort of
stroking or subtlety needed to become a general secretary.
From the start, Gorbachev was a master prodigy of Party politics, winning for
himself a series of powerful patrons that included
Fyodor Kulakov, Yuri Andropov, and Andrei Gromyko.
The BBC series is filled with extraordinary moments, but none better than
when Gorbachev receives a medal from Brezhnev, now deep in the mists of his
dotage. Poor Brezhnev's eyes are so glazed, his movements so stiff, he seems
the work of a Kremlin taxidermist. He cannot quite remember why he is pinning
the medal on Gorbachev.
"The dam?" Gorbachev says, prompting the old man without
"Yes, yes, the dam," Brezhnev says.
Sobchak, a politician who worked as a university
law professor and never in the hermetic world of the Party apparatus, is
properly mystified by the phenomenon of Gorbachev's personality, his
manipulation of others, and his powerful ego:
Gorbachev remains a mystery to me…. During the decades of his ascent in the
communist hierarchy Gorbachev learned the apparat's
structure. This immense impersonal construct awaits its Dante. Gorbachev
could tell us much we do not know about how a man feels, doomed to daily
renunciation of his own will in favor of that of his superiors, compelled to
daily self-abasement for the sake of his career…. To me, the greatest mystery
is how Gorbachev managed to retain his individuality, the ability to shape
his own opinion and set it against the opinion of others. Evidently, it was
to preserve his own self that he developed his almost impenetrable mask. He
learned to conceal his disdain for those whom he must have despised, to speak
with them in their own language.
Gorbachev appears to have few illusions about his double face. Years after
coming to power, he told Vitaly Korotich,
until recently the editor of the crusading Ogonyok
magazine, "In those days, we all licked Brezhnev's ass—all of us!—but
now it is necessary to unite all those who are for reform."
As the BBC film series and its companion book show so well, the struggle for
power while Konstantin Chernenko was wasting away
was also a contest of cynical will. Gorbachev was quick to humiliate the man
considered his strongest rival for power, the Moscow party chief, Viktor Grishin. In August 1984 journalists at the government
paper Izvestia presented the editor, Ivan
Laptev, with a startling exposé of corruption at Moscow's favorite food store
for the Party elite. The article, which clearly implicated Grishin, was too forbidding for the censors. So Laptev
turned to Gorbachev, clearly the leader by now of the small liberal wing in
"Print it," Gorbachev told Laptev, "but it is on your
The day the story appeared, Laptev was bombarded
with calls from Grishin's furious allies. Their man
had been disgraced. But there was little they could do. Laptev kept his word
and Gorbachev scored the sort of Willie Horton-esque
maneuver that leads to the top job.
Even in power, Gorbachev often treated politics as a performing act, a game
of feints and sudden attacks. This tactical game was an absolute necessity,
for as he admits in The August Coup, Gorbachev knew that his position
was never wholly secure. Somehow he had to convince men born and bred in the
Stalinist tradition that the reform of the system was in their interests.
Somehow he had to clear out the "dead souls" in the Central
Committee before they could crush him.
Gorbachev implies, and I think rightly so, that it was largely due to his
political skill that a conservative counter-rebellion, swift and effective,
did not come years before the August coup. His ability to manipulate the
Communist Party hierarchy made Sam Rayburn's legendary control of Congress
seem like child's play. In one theatrical instance, Gorbachev pleased the apparat by shouting at the liberal editor of Argumenti i Fakti,
Vladislav Starkov, and
then used that capital just a few days later to fire Viktor Afanasyev, the Brezhnev loyalist who had been running the
Party paper, Pravda. It was only when political power transcended the
Communist Party, when the public invested trust in a new generation of
non-Party officials through democratic elections, that this sort of
gamesmanship lost importance. But for at least three years, Gorbachev was its
Korotich recounts in his often amusing memoir, The
Waiting Room, being summoned to a meeting with Gorbachev in February 1988
and listening in awe as the general secretary reamed him out, "cursing
like a docker." Gorbachev patted a stuffed
portfolio and said, "What did you say about the Minister of Defense in
Leningrad? Here in this portfolio I have the information they've prepared for
Two days previously, Korotich had indeed been at a
public forum where he told the audience that he hoped the Soviet Union would
"get rid of its biggest missiles and its biggest idiots." He also
denounced other conservatives in the leadership, Ligachev
and the then KGB chief, Viktor Chebrikov.
"Are you against Ligachev and Chebrikov?" Gorbachev said angrily. "I work
with them and know better than you who they are as men. Do you intend to
teach me who is my friend and who is my enemy?"
After a while, Gorbachev calmed down and said that Yakovlev would show Korotich to the door. In a vestibule outside, Yakovlev,
with an impish smile, explained that in fact Gorbachev had been defending
Korotich, that the tantrum was really all a
performance for the tape recorders rolling a quarter mile up the hill at Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB.
For a year or so after his Revolution Day speech,
Gorbachev was the country's principal historian. Looking at the period after
Lenin's death, Gorbachev saw an opportunity lost, a dream betrayed. His
rejection of Stalinism and embrace of a socialist "alternative" was
the basis of his vision and the long-held hope of an entire generation of
Party officials and intellectuals who became idealists during the Khrushchev
These shestdyesatniki—"men of the
Sixties"—were half-brave, half-cynical careerists, living a
life-in-waiting for the great reformer to come along and bring Prague Spring
to Moscow. While they took few of the risks of the dissidents, the best of
them refused to live the lie, finding subtle ways of declaring at least a
measure of independence from the regime. Some hurt their careers by refusing
to join the Party. Others joined research institutes or publications in the
provinces or Eastern Europe where they could express themselves a bit more
freely. They kept something alive within themselves. When Gorbachev took
power, he put members of this thaw generation in positions of influence. They
edited key newspapers and magazines, led academic institutes, and even made
policy recommendations to the leadership.
Gorbachev permitted a few artists to help undermine Stalin's own textbook of
Soviet history, the infamous "Short Course." Mikhail Shatrov, a mediocre playwright with undeniable
ideological importance, staged works like Onward…Onward…Onward that
dared to criticize Stalin and praise his enemies. Anatoly Rybakov
published Children of the Arbat, a wooden
novel that also assaulted the Stalinist past in a way that reached a mass
audience. The Georgian film director Tengiz Abuladze, with the help of Shevardnadze especially, was
finally able to screen Repentence, a
remarkable drama about the persistence of evil in a society that refuses to
acknowledge its own history.
Gorbachev's court historian, in a sense, was Roy Medvedev, a committed
Marxist whose unusual access to archives and interviews with Old Bolsheviks
in the Sixties made him a pariah to the Brezhnev regime and an invaluable
source of information for Western scholars. Under Gorbachev, Medvedev was
finally able to publish at home his major work on Stalinism, Let History
Judge, and was commissioned to write a debunking portrait of Brezhnev.
With time, scholars and writers who had done far less for reform in the days
when it was dangerous condemned Medvedev as hopelessly out of touch and
branded him a conservative. Maybe they were right. Medvedev, like Gorbachev,
regarded himself as a convinced Marxist and saw nothing unseemly about
accepting an invitation to become a member of the Party's Central Committee.
By last spring, Medvedev was criticizing even Gorbachev for going too fast
with reform and took positions closer to those of Anatoly Lukyanov,
the former Supreme Soviet chairman who is now in jail, charged with
complicity in the coup. It seems Medvedev's moment in the vanguard has
passed. He is now leading the campaign to build a new Communist Party, a
party of "leftist orientation."
Clearly, Gorbachev wanted to control the outpouring of history, keep it
within bounds. Yuri Afanasyev, an editor at Kommunist who became rector of the Historical
Archives Institute, soon discovered that while archives on the Stalin era
were forthcoming, papers critical of Lenin and other first-generation leaders
were not. A popular documentary released in early 1988, More Light,
made a demon of Stalin but stepped lightly around Lenin and the Red Terror.
Gorbachev's Party ideologist, an incredibly dense character named Vadim Medvedev, told reporters there was no way the
Politburo could allow publication of Solzhenitsyn, especially considering the
anti-cult heresies in Lenin in Zurich.
In its way, Gorbachev's schematic view of the Soviet past was as
ideologically driven—though not as pernicious—as the old Party version. To
legitimize his plans for a liberalized socialism, Gorbachev and his
generation in the Party intelligentsia created a PC for perestroika, even a new
set of icons. They emphasized the "late Lenin" of the relatively
liberal New Economic Policy; the NEP ideologist Nikolai Bukharin who was
executed by Stalin in the purges; and, more subtly, Khrushchev, the initiator of the anti-Stalinist thaw.
Gorbachev, as general secretary of the Party, had no choice but to find a
Lenin of his own. But if Gorbachev intended to appear the humanist Party man,
a Soviet Dubcek, he could not well look to the fury of Lenin's State and
Revolution or his bloody-minded letters and cables ("We need more
terror!") after the Bolshevik coup. To highlight a slightly more
forgiving and flexible spirit in the Leninist canon, Gorbachev's circle
leaned heavily on a few late essays such as "On Cooperation" and
"Better Fewer, But Better."
Bukharin was another matter. The Party intellectual whom Lenin had called the
"favorite" of the Bolsheviks had forcefully rejected Stalin's
"Ghengis Khan" schemes and endorsed a far
less Draconian collectivization, a more mixed economy and a limited pluralism.
He was no democrat, but he was hardly a butcher. His ascent (unlikely as it
was) would not likely have led to a civilized state, but it might have saved
countless lives. Although he spoke of mass-producing "standardized"
socialist intellectuals "as if in a factory," Bukharin is also
remembered as the one Party leader willing to protect Osip
Mandelstam. Bukharin's performance at his own trial is different from Rubashov's in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.
Stephen F. Cohen, in his important biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik
Revolution, argues convincingly that Bukharin did not confess at all to
his "crimes," as Rubashov does. Instead,
Bukharin's mock confessions were carefully followed by subtle but
unmistakable denials—an artful strategy that did not save him from the firing
squad, but did help his historical reputation and may have saved his family
In the Revolution Day speech, Gorbachev praised Bukharin, and in February
1988 Bukharin was rehabilitated. Soon a kind of mini-cult arose: the Museum
of the Revolution on Gorky Street displayed Bukharin's papers and
memorabilia. At a reception at the Soviet embassy in Washington, Gorbachev
made it a point to greet Cohen warmly and told him how much he had enjoyed
his biography of Bukharin-- a book that was still banned from official sale
in the Soviet Union at the time. Soon, Bukharin's essays and Cohen's
biography were published officially. And Bukharin's widow, Anna Larina, emerged from obscurity. She gave a series of
fascinating interviews to the press, appeared at Bukharin
"evenings" to reminisce, and published her remarkable memoir, Unforgettable.
Larina, who waited a half-century for her husband's
name to be cleared, writes passionately of her life as the widow of an
"enemy of the people," her years in the camps, her separation from
her son. She describes how, in the days before his execution, Bukharin made
her memorize a last testament, a call to the "future generation of party
leaders." Imagine Gorbachev's sense of connection when he read
Bukharin's call to his inheritors "to exonerate me….Know, comrades, that
on the banner you will carry in your victorious march to Communism there is a
drop of my blood."
Just as Larina became a kind of celebrity of
history in Moscow political and intellectual circles in 1988 and 1989, so too
did Sergei Khrushchev, an intelligent and kindly spokesman for his father. I
remember one Khrushchev "evening" at the Cinematographers Union at
which the family sat beaming in the front rows as one speaker after another
took the podium to describe the thrill of the cultural thaw and to express
the hope that Gorbachev would deepen that process. Fyodor Burlatsky,
a leading journalist of the Sixties generation, wrote the first major
revisionist profile of Khrushchev, describing the "courageous" act
to destroy the Stalin cult and denounce the slaughter of the Stalin era.
According to well-informed sources, Gorbachev was consumed with the
Khrushchev precedent and privately told members of his circle that his goal
was to resume the spirit of the "thaw" but at the same time avoid
the political mistakes that led to Khrushchev's overthrow in 1964.
Sergei's book, Khrushchev on Khrushchev, is an extremely rosy picture
of his father—a man, after all, who was at Stalin's side for years and
survived largely because he seemed far less of a threat than Trotsky or
Bukharin had in earlier years. Still, as Solzhenitsyn has written,
Khrushchev's emergence was a miracle. In fact, the miracles of Khrushchev and
of Gorbachev were much the same: in a political culture so aggressively
hostile to change and inconvenient truth, they took power and used it largely
to good purpose. Neither man recognized quickly enough the need to transform
the economic system, neither could give up the notion that, in the dialectic
of history, the Soviet Union had chosen an ideology that would prove more
prosperous and humane than any other. And yet both had an instinct rare in
Communist Party politics that led them to attack the most coercive and brutal
aspects of the Stalinist legacy.
According to his son, Khrushchev spent much of his retirement regretting his
inability and unwillingness to push reform farther. He describes his father
as a man of emotion and political instinct, one who did not quite understand
the totalitarian machine he was steering. Khrushchev's attempts to be at once
fair-minded and a man of the Party are comic and grotesque. In one scene,
Khrushchev is sitting alone in his screening room at his country house
watching Fellini's 8 1/2, which had just won the Second Moscow
International Film Festival-- a decision that caused a scandal in the
Communist Party's Ideological Department.
I walked into the room, sat down on the couch next to Father, waited several
minutes, and then started to whisper: "Fellini is a genius. This film
created a furor all over the world. It symbolizes…."
Here I stumbled, and Father flew into a rage: "Get out of here and don't
bother me. I'm not sitting here for the fun of it."
Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes is a short book of outtakes
considered too sensitive to publish in the original two volumes of memoirs.
It offers a few historical curiosities. For one, Khrushchev says, Stalin
himself confirmed that the Rosenbergs made
"very significant" contributions to Moscow's atomic bomb project.
He also claims that during the Cuban missile crisis, Castro had urged Moscow
to fire nuclear weapons at the United States.
But the supreme moment comes when Khrushchev apologizes for suppressing Doctor
Zhivago. "My only excuse," he writes
like a guilty undergraduate, "is that I didn't read the book."
It is not hard to understand why so many in the intelligentsia readily
celebrated these new icons of socialism with such enthusiasm. Merely to have
the chance to search the past for the alternatives to Stalinism seemed, for a
time, like liberation itself. Hard to believe now, but it was only a few
years ago in the Soviet Union that public mention of Khrushchev or Bukharin,
except to vilify them, was, at best, forbidden, and, at worst, worth a stay
in a labor camp. Although the economy was degenerating quickly and millions
of ordinary people were beginning to yearn for the relatively prosperous era
of the Seventies, the policy of glasnost was, for these scholars, writers,
artists, and journalists, a new life. They were winning positions of power,
traveling abroad, publishing their books.
"It was a heady time for us, and it deceived
us into thinking that the dream of 'reforming socialism' was possible," Vyacheslav Shostakovsky, the
former head of the Higher Party School, told me.
"But after a while," he added, "the evidence pointed
elsewhere. It was clear that there was really, broadly defined, one main
direction of healthy development in the world: democratic, a market economy.
That encompasses everything from Scandinavia to Japan to the US, but it has
little to do with Marx or Lenin."
Released from one set of chains, history could not stay prisoner to ideology
and the Communist Party for long. At the first session of the Congress in May
1989 Sakharov and other radical deputies echoed the growing sense throughout
the country that "renewed" socialism was not an adequate
prescription for an empire in its death throes. Many young intellectuals saw
the socialist legacy only as a burden to be scorned and shed, a litany of
disasters and executions all in the name of utopia and the False Vladimir.
Instead, they immersed themselves in an eclectic reading list of Russian and
Western liberals that included Berdyaev, Solovyov, Mill,
and The Federalist Papers. For some of them, Ronald Reagan became a
hero. "He called us the 'Evil Empire.' So why did you in the West laugh
at him? It's true!" Arkady Murashev, a leader
of Democratic Russia close to Yeltsin, once told me. Murashev
is now the chief of the Moscow police department. The forces of reform that
had once seen Gorbachev as their hope were now forming a left-wing opposition
and growing increasingly frustrated with the Soviet leader's vacillations and
hesitation. Democratic Russia, Democratic Platform, the Popular Front groups
in the Baltic states, Birlik in Central Asia, and a
bouquet of nascent political parties won widespread support—all to
As the spectrum of political opinion widened, the twin icons of Bukharin and
Khrushchev soon faded in importance. Even the reformers in the Kremlin
leadership knew they could not rely on them any longer. If they were to speak
of a multiparty system, they could hardly romanticize Bukharin, who once
remarked of a two-party system, "one must be the ruling party and the
other must be in jail." As for Khrushchev, he "committed a heroic
deed at that 20th Party Congress," Aleksandr
Yakovlev told me. "But the tragedy was that he never could take the next
step toward democratization…. Instinctively, he understood it was necessary
to move forward, but he was thigh-high in the muck of the past and he
couldn't break free. When he grew older, in his memoirs he regretted that he
had not gone forward. But memoirs do not make up for a man's life."
Gradually, Yakovlev said, he came to think of Bolshevism as a code of
violence and of socialism, at its best, as a set of goals resembling a
liberal welfare state.
There is little mystery why the majority of the Soviet public could not bear
to make heroes of committed Communists, present or past. Anything to do with
the Party or Bolshevism in any form was politically and emotionally
intolerable. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the Soviet Union with his
eyes open knows why. Life remains a degrading hustle of lines, petty
humiliations, and meaningless work. Now that the relative wealth and
efficiency abroad is on constant display in the press and television, the
humiliation is all the more profound. If Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the
Life of Ivan Denisovich was the breakthrough
text of Khrushchev's thaw, Benedikt Erofeev's stunning novel, Moskva-Petushki
(Moscow Circles), is the representative text of the period of Soviet
decline and collapse. A Dead Souls for its time, Moscow Circles
was written more than twenty years ago, but it still captures the
hopelessness and vodka-soaked benders of an age of continuing disintegration,
no belief, no work, no hope:
This is what we would do. One day we would play poker, the next day we would
drink vermouth, on the third day we'd play poker and on the fourth day it was
back to vermouth…. For a while everything was perfect. We'd send off our
socialist pledges once a month and we'd get our pay twice a month. We'd
write, for example: "on the occasion of the coming centenary we pledge
ourselves to end production traumatization." Or: "in honor of the
glorious anniversary we will struggle to ensure that every sixth worker takes
a correspondence course in a higher educational institution." Traumatization!
Institutions!… Oh, what freedom and equality! What
fraternity and freeloading! Oh, the joy of non-accountability! Oh, blessed
hours in the life of my people—the hours which stretch from opening to
closing time! Free of shame and idle care we lived a life that was purely
This is not a description of the "culture of envy" or a "lazy
people" that finds its way into some of the current journalism and pop
sociology about the "Russian character." It is instead the
description of a political system that is such a total failure, such a
pompous wreck, that its citizens can endure on a daily basis only through the
mastery of irony.
Two years ago or so, the political consciousness of millions of Russians, Balts, and other nationalities took a huge turn. Support for
a policy of a new and improved socialist system, complete with inane
billboards (More Socialism! More Democracy!), dwindled. From Yeltsin to the
grass-roots level, it was becoming clearer that without a multiparty
democracy and a market economy, without independence for republics thrown
together by coercive tsars and general secretaries, there would be no
Gorbachev's personal tragedy is that his own conversion, his rethinking of
his historical place and political allies, came so late and so grudgingly.
The same man who had opened the way, if reluctantly, to the creation of a
multiparty system was furious when historical developments hurtled beyond his
grasp. The same man who did nothing to prevent the liberation of Eastern
Europe did all he could to resist the will of the Baltic states. He used the
Party machinery to smear Yeltsin and tried to deny him the Russian
leadership. He appointed cretins and crooks to the highest posts of
government. He failed dismally to understand the moral and political genius
of Andrei Sakharov. He saw only collapse when others saw necessity.
In January 1990, Gorbachev went to Lithuania, confident
that he could somehow finesse the alarming developments there, that he could
use his charm and talent for balancing powers to slow down the sprint to
independence. Yakovlev had already been to Vilnius and had admitted it would
be "immoral" to deny the Lithuanian argument that Moscow was still
running a coercive empire.
Gorbachev plainly disagreed. In one striking incident in Vilnius, Gorbachev
confronted an elderly factory worker who was carrying a sign reading
"Total Independence for Lithuania."
"Who told you to write that banner?" Gorbachev asked angrily,
according to a reporter for Agence France-Presse.
"Nobody. I wrote it myself," the worker said.
"Who are you? Where do you work?" Gorbachev said. "And what do
you mean by total independence?"
"I mean what we had in the 1920s, when Lenin recognized Lithuania's
sovereignty, because no nation is entitled to dictate to another
nation," the worker replied.
"Within our large family, Lithuania has become a developed
country," Gorbachev said. "What kind of exploiters are we if Russia
sells you cotton, oil, and raw materials—and not for hard currency
The worker cut off Gorbachev. "Lithuania had a hard currency before the
War," he said. "You took it away in 1940. And do you know how many
Lithuanians were sent to Siberia in the 1940s, and how many died?"
Gorbachev finally could not bear this impudence. "I don't want to talk
to this man anymore," he said. "If people in Lithuania have
attitudes and slogans like this, they can expect hard times. I don't want to
talk to you anymore."
Raisa tried to calm down her husband.
"Be quiet," he snapped.
The crackdown in Lithuania one year later—the first of two rehearsals for the
August coup—was a conversion experience for nearly every major figure of the
Gorbachev generation. Shevardnadze had warned of disaster, of an incipient
dictatorship, and now it had shown its face. The army and KGB, masquerading
as a Committee for Salvation, tried to overthrow the democratically elected
government in Lithuania and killed at least thirteen people in the process.
Gorbachev did not apologize or take action; in fact, the morning after the
raid he barely expressed sympathy for the dead. Instead he defended the thugs
surrounding him, indulged their most cynical lies about the operation, and
even took a stab at rolling back a law on press freedom.
Many people had long since given up on Gorbachev, but for the remaining
reform-minded loyalists of the thaw generation, this was the breaking point. Moscow
News editor Yegor Yakovlev, liberal aides such
as Stanislav Shatalin and
Nikolai Petrakov, and such eminent scholars as
Tatyana Zaslavskaya quit Gorbachev's orbit and the
Communist Party and joined Yeltsin's opposition. Though they had always been
uncomfortable with Yeltsin's penchant for the bombastic gesture and his
authoritarian tendencies, they could not deny any longer the contrast between
the country's two leading politicians. While Gorbachev persisted in defending
the indefensible, Yeltsin went immediately to Tallinn and supported the
elected governments of the Baltic states. One man had cast his lot with
reactionaries in the name of stability and tactics, while the other had
During that terrible winter of 1990—1991, I was among many reporters hanging
out in the halls of the Kremlin waiting to spot one official or another as
the legislature met. Suddenly, I saw Gorbachev coming up the stairs and,
before he headed toward the cameras, I asked him if it was true that he was
now moving sharply to the right.
Gorbachev, his expression weary and pained, said, "I'm
going around in circles." His confusion could not have been more
evident. The same skill that helped elevate Gorbachev to power and navigate
the first years of perestroika—the ability to balance forces and steer a
"middle course" toward essential reform—was now his worst enemy.
While the reformers abandoned him, Gorbachev did what he could to please the
Party, the KGB, and the military. He listened to them unquestioningly, even
to their wildest deceptions. Yakovlev told me that Gorbachev believed the KGB
last March when he was told that the reformers were actually planning to
storm the Kremlin walls using "hooks and ladders." Against Yakovlev's advice, Gorbachev ordered troops and armored
personnel carriers to form an iron cordon around the Kremlin on March 28, the
day Yeltsin convened the Russian Parliament.
The scene on the streets of Moscow that day should have been an adequate
warning to the Putschists of just how much the
country had changed, how fearless so many had grown. Tens of thousands of
people defied the Kremlin's order against demonstrations and flooded the
areas around the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and the Arbat
Metro station. If the attack on the Lithuanian television tower was the
rehearsal for the coup, the steadfast protection of the Lithuanian Parliament
and the Moscow demonstrations last March were rehearsals for the resistance.
And the resistance looked far more impressive. How could the KGB have ignored
that? What's more, how could Gorbachev?
In the weeks before the coup, I interviewed a number of Gorbachev's closest
aides, men who refused to cooperate with the plot. Giorgi
Shakhnazarov, Andrei Grachev,
Yevgeny Primakov, and
others of lesser rank had no illusions about the animosities of the leaders
of the army, the KGB, and the Communist Party. There could not have been more
warnings, more hints, more evidence that a full
scale conservative offensive was possible, if not probable. The plotters had
already made their intentions known in Lithuania and later in the Supreme
Soviet; their apologists were publishing fanatical manifestos in the
newspapers Dyen ("The Day") and Sovietskaya Rossiya.
And yet these liberal advisers, like their boss, seemed to be living a wish.
When Yakovlev told Gorbachev that he was surrounded by enemies, Gorbachev
expressed surprise, then anger: "You exaggerate!" he said. When
George Bush warned him of a coup, Gorbachev told him only "madmen"
would attempt such a thing. He awaited betrayal with the hubris of a
Shevardnadze, whose instincts and judgments have been uncanny since the day
of his resignation speech, sees in his friend Gorbachev a man who is a
prisoner "of his own nature, his conceptions, and his way of thinking
and acting." Writing after the August coup, Shevardnadze sympathizes
with Gorbachev, but, he says, it was
none other than Gorbachev himself [who] had been spoon feeding the junta with
his indecisiveness, his inclination to back and fill, his fellow-travelling,
his poor judgement of people, his indifference toward his true allies, his
distrust of the democratic forces, and his disbelief in the bulwark whose
name is the people—the very same people who had changed thanks to the
perestroika he had begun. That is the enormous tragedy of Mikhail Gorbachev,
and no matter how much I empathize with him, I cannot help but say that it
almost led to a national tragedy.
After Yeltsin's singular leadership helped smash the coup, Gorbachev could
only return to Moscow and, after initial hesitation, take part in the
dismantlement of the Party, the old KGB, and the unitary structure of the
Gorbachev yielded, and held on to his presidency. But his power is fast
draining away. The center hardly exists and he remains a force only at the
pleasure of the republics. He acts now like a glorified foreign minister and
an occasional opposition moderate. What is more, Gorbachev's lack of
democratic legitimacy is more embarrassing by the day. He has never faced the
voters and was made president by a parliament that was hardly democratic. Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of
the newspaper Nezavisimya Gazeta, wrote editorials in the months preceding the
coup defending Gorbachev against his most dismissive critics, reminding the
Soviet audience just how much Gorbachev had accomplished in the first years
of reform. But when the Putsch collapsed, Tretyakov
wrote of Gorbachev, "It seems that during the days of the coup, he was a
victim, and for a while the victim's halo will keep him on the surface. But
today we need him only to personify the resurrection of our constitutional
order." George Bush, who has long been dismissive of Yeltsin, seems to
regard Gorbachev as the master of Moscow. Nostalgia is probably not a useful
emotion in the conduct of foreign relations.
In his slender book on the coup, Gorbachev provides no
new details of his capture and three days under house arrest. He passes
lightly over the drama in Moscow and somehow gives the impression that it was
his own brave face that won the day more than the resistance at the Russian
Parliament building. He is mistaken. But what Gorbachev does reveal is an
insistence on socialism as "an idea" and the very same version of
history and development that first appeared in the Revolution Day speech of
I am one of those who never concealed their convictions. I
am a confirmed supporter of the idea of socialism. It is an idea that has
been making a way for itself for many centuries. It has many supporters and
they have headed the governments of a number of states. There are various
branches of the socialist movement, because it is not a kind of model into
which society has to be driven. No, it is an idea, precisely an idea, which
embraces values developed in the course of a search for a juster
society and a better world. It is an idea that draws strength from many
achievements of Christianity and from other philosophical tendencies….
The thought does not leave me that, had it not been for Stalin's Thermidor in
the mid 1920's, which betrayed and trampled on the ideas of the Great
Revolution—a revolution that was genuinely popular and for the people, it
might still have been possible to direct the country along the path of
democratic progress, revival and economic prosperity….
make ironical comments about the socialist choice but they do not see that
the rejection of socialism in the public mind took place because socialism
was associated with Stalinism…. I am convinced that the discrediting of
socialism in the eyes of the masses is a passing phase. People's striving for
social justice, freedom and democracy is indestructible. It is, it might be
said, a global process, in the same stream as the general development of
civilization. The next generation will surely return to this great idea.
What a strange and elegiac voice in these passages.
Gorbachev leaches "socialism" of its tragic history, of all the
repression and bloodshed in its name. He blames all on Stalinism as if the
Chinese and Cuban landscapes were merely reproductions by the Master. He
describes the Bolshevik revolution as popular when he knows well that Lenin
crushed the Constituent Assembly just months after the revolution because the
Bolsheviks failed to win more than 24 percent of the vote. He abandons the
dogma of Marx and Lenin and leaves us with a fuzzy sort of impulse, a kinder,
gentler socialism. He leaves us with an "idea."
But of what? Gorbachev makes his "socialism" sound like the
principles of the New Deal or the left-of-center parties of western Europe.
We can only be grateful that he does not mention that last refuge of
socialist yearning: Sweden.
This tone has been in vogue for quite some time among Gorbachev's more
liberal confidantes, key aides like Shakhnazarov
and Anatoli Chernayev.
They speak of "socialism" and "capitalism", as having
"no meaning" in the modern world. If this is so, then why, when one
mentions the word "socialism" in Russia, does everyone roll his
eyes? No, the discrediting of socialism as an ideology is no "passing
phase." It is the heart of the matter.
Part of Gorbachev's drama is that after playing the lead role in dismantling
one of the most ruinous regimes in human history, his voice cracks a little
with a nostalgia for what never was. The revolution
he began has buried Lenin's own. But now, as Gorbachev begins his gradual
descent from power, as he moves into the late stages of a great career, his
sense of triumph seems tinged with regret.
 Most of the details here on the history of the origins of
the Lenin cult come from Nina Tumarkin's excellent
study, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Harvard
University Press, 1983).
 "Sources," Novy
Mir, No. 5, 1988.
 The Observer, October 6, 1991, p. 1.
 The Observer, October 6, 1991, p. 1.
 Summit, 1990. Reviewed in these pages on May 17, 1990.