Monday January 30, 2023

Soviet memories (Part – I)

August 22, 2021

With the Taliban reentering Kabul triumphantly and the American forces evacuating their embassy staff, political observers have been recalling the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Some even attribute the implosion of the Soviet Union to its failure in maintaining its hegemony in the region.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The event which expedited the Soviet collapse was a putsch in Moscow exactly 30 decades ago in August 1991. The putsch temporarily removed Soviet leader Gorbachev from power and unsuccessfully tried to restore the old dominance of the Soviet Communist Party. Gorbachev had assumed power in March 1985 after three old Soviet leaders died in quick succession from 1982 to 1985. I happened to be studying and travelling in the Soviet Union from 1984 to 1988 and became a keen observer and witness of the events unfolding in the Soviet Union during that period.

In a series of columns, I will recollect my memories of that eventful era in Soviet history which led to an abrupt demise of the socialist bloc from the world scene. To understand what unfolded in the USSR in the mid-1980s, it is helpful to get some basics right. The Soviet Communist Party which had been in power since 1917, had started losing its organizational adaptability after 50 years in power in the 1960s. This inability of the party to adapt to a changing environment led it to shun arguments and debates at public forums.

Of course, the Soviet political model was fairly different from the liberal democratic experience that Western countries had gone through. The communist system followed a non-liberal democratic model with tight control exercised by the communist party. Though some other countries also followed the one-party system, the distinction between broad and narrow single parties is significant. Broad single parties tend to be much more relaxed about factions and internal disagreements, but that was not the case with the Soviet Communist Party arguably from the time of Stalin.

If a party tries to rule as well as play a dominant part in administration, it ends up making a mess in most cases. Perhaps it is better to rule but leave administration in the hands of a neutral bureaucracy. After the Soviet Revolution in 1917, the initial idea was that the functions of the party and the soviets (elected local councils) were not to be confused and the party was to implement its decisions through the soviets. The party could direct the activities of the soviets, but not replace them. But ultimately the party became functionally a part of the administrative framework of the state, with party organs being organized in all arms of the bureaucratic apparatus.

Party leaders sought to ensure the loyalty of the administrative machine by penetrating it with loyal party cells. It is interesting to note that a majority of one-party states rely on state funding of the ruling party. In a multi-party democracy this is not the case as each party has to find resources to fund itself. In military dictatorships, the army itself becomes a party which has an upper hand thanks to its own state funding. If you apply this to countries such as Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand, it becomes clear that these countries had multiple dictatorships that drew funds from the state itself.

For example, Generals Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq targeted political parties and attempted to destroy them; and in this process had at their disposal the entire state machinery and its funds. In that case, most major issues are discussed at the forums of the dominant single party or the strongest state organ funded by the state itself. The dominant party or the security apparatus has the conviction that it is the most appropriate forum for resolution of major issues. This leads to an elite conflict within the party or the state organ which keeps the conflict within its closed sphere.

The party head or the army chief extends personal dominance and reduces all others to the status of relatively minor actors in the political arena. Stalin, Mao, and most other autocrats – including our own share of military dictators – did almost the same. Decision-making and implementation both came under the purview of the dominant force in society. In the Soviet Union, the Politburo at the national level discussed issues concerning the USSR as a whole. It was the highest policymaking authority within the communist party. Its membership varied from five to 15 at various times with another five to ten candidate members of the Politburo.

The Politburo was responsible for most major decisions at the top, and became a high-powered clique led by the party secretary. The decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 was essentially the result of the deliberations by the Politburo with Brezhnev as its head. But if you think it was undemocratic, think about the decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq by ‘capitalists and democratic powers’ ignoring mass protests across the world. In capitalists and democratic countries there is an upward flow of information, which is conveniently ignored. In the Soviet Union, administrative means of obtaining this upward flow of information was not functioning properly.

The party had an expansive view of its own role that many party leaders took for granted. Through the system of nomenklatura, the communist party had the capacity to fill by appointment all responsible positions in state and other structures. All leading state officers, as well as many people filling ordinary positions, were also party members who obstructed the flow of correct information to the top tiers. The central authorities, principally through the Central Committee Secretariat, from the revolution to the rise of Gorbachev pursued an interventionist policy with regard to lower-level party affairs.

There was a poor state of intra-party democracy because of the intrusive nature of the central party leadership which relied on ideological education and propaganda. In the pre-Gorbachev period, the penalty for perceived failure was high such as loss of position and under Stalin even loss of life. Communist ideological considerations conflicted against rationality and resulted in inefficient performances. In countries that take pride in their ideological roots – be it nationalistic, political, or religious–such conflicts and inefficiencies are not uncommon; again, look at Pakistan for another example. Such ideologies expect nothing short of total commitment on the part of those below in hierarchy.

This is exactly what was happening in the Soviet Union till the 1980s. In such ideological states, the demands emanating from above are not always correctly expressed and consistent. Ideological machinery uses language that is often vague and exhortatory. Inconsistent and even mutually contradictory instructions become rampant and affect productivity. As the central leaders continually increased demands, the arbitrariness of higher levels created even more problems. The Soviet Union had 15 republics, each with its own local communist party and administration. There were personalized cliques in regions across the Soviet Union. A local leader’s cronies united around him often to their own material advantage.

They were the ones who controlled the information flow to the centre. The Brezhnev leadership had introduced the ‘stability of cadre’ policy, leaving the regional leaderships to their own devices and resulting in the corrosion of formal party norms and the whole administrative system. This had continued till the mid-1980s when Gorbachev sought to change this.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.