Monday January 30, 2023

Soviet memories (Part - II)

August 23, 2021

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

When I landed in Moscow as a student in 1984, initially there was a sense of satisfaction at the way the communist system worked. Students were properly taken care of; hostels were not excellent but good. There was sufficient stipend to live a reasonable life. The local people were friendly, and money didn’t matter much as the essentials of life were the responsibility of the socialist state.

As I lived and interacted with more and more local people – both Russian and non-Russians from other republics – I could see beneath the surface. Belonging to a political family, it was – and still is – my habit to read newspapers and magazines in detail. I had senior Pakistani friends such as Dr Sultan Jhanji and Dr Mahmood Sadid who enhanced my understanding of Soviet society and how the communist system worked. The Soviet communist party appeared to me more as an administrative party, closely intertwined with the state administrative structure. At the university, our teachers stressed upon the unique historical role the party was to play.

If you talked to young and old communists alike, they preferred the ideological and philosophical justification for the party’s dominance, and highlighted the prescribed goal of communism. The Soviet system claimed to be democratic, resting on popular consent and projected an image of a people united behind the party. The system regularly staged elections in which more than 99 percent of voters supported the party. But then, when you talked to non-communists, they laughed it off. Soon it became evident to me that all was not as it appeared; the perception of crisis was there – if you cared to see.

In 1982, the Brezhnev period had ended with his death after 18 years in power; he was 76. The next leader was 68-year-old Andropov who had been the KGB chief for 15 years. He died in 1984, and when I arrived in Moscow the same year, the Soviet leader was 73-year-old Chernenko. He seldom appeared in public and I was surprised to see that many common people made fun of him. The electronic and print media was fully controlled by the communist party which always projected its successes across the Soviet Union.

After just one year in power, Chernenko died, and I as a politically conscious foreign student was very interested to follow what was about to happen. There were no public holidays for mourning the Soviet leader’s demise. There was silence all over, and the very next day the top brass elected Mikhail Gorbachev as the new Soviet leader. One of the first things that he did was acknowledge that the country was facing a slowdown in economic growth. It was an unprecedented admission by a Soviet leader in living memory, and people loved it.

After some time, there was more to come. He started delivering extempore speeches in which he dilated upon how the crisis had become particularly acute. He started blaming the postponement of important investment decisions under Brezhnev. Then gradually he started talking about a social malaise that reflected in declining health levels. People waited for his speeches in which he railed against alcoholism in Soviet society and discussed marriage breakdowns and youth alienation. It was a breath of fresh air in Soviet society which now had a 54-year-young leader who did not deliver boring written speeches.

When Gorbachev started talking about corruption, he appealed to most of the common people. When he lamented that there was poverty in rural areas, everybody praised him for his candidness. He stressed that the need for policy initiatives was clear. Listening to all this, one could wonder how the surface forms of Soviet elite politics continued their regular patterns with little hint of the build-up pressures occurring below them. Even before Gorbachev the leading organs of the party had continued to meet on a regular basis, such as the Central Committee plenum occurring twice a year with some more extra meetings.

The Politburo was the highest body which met after every eight or ten days. When I travelled to other republics of the Soviet Union, it became obvious that Brezhnev’s ‘stability of cadres’ policy had ensured the aging of those in responsible positions throughout the country. Though even before Gorbachev there was some talk of corruption in various parts of the party structure, it was not widely discussed. Now, Gorbachev had come to power with the approval of a moderate reform coalition, and he tried to strengthen it. In a speedy manner he recast the personnel of the leading organs of the party.

In Moscow, one could meet and talk to many communists as they populated educational institutions widely. But across the Soviet Union one could hardly meet a ‘proper communist’ among the common people. One was surprised to see not many communists in the public sphere. Soon the reason became clear to me. I found out that the official membership of the Soviet Communist party was just 18 million in 1985, out of a population of nearly 280 million. This was hardly 10 percent of the adult population of 180 million. So if you met 100 Soviet people, you were likely to see 90 non-communists.

Gorbachev appealed to communists but even more so to non-communist Soviet people who loved him and his style. His appeal was in the populace at large who wanted more vigorous policies in society. They wanted more changes in top leadership which was old. Just to give an example, at the time of Gorbachev’s election, of the ten full members of the 26th Politburo, one was 80 years old – prime minister Tikhonov. Four others were in their 70s, such as Grishin – secretary of Moscow city committee; Gromyko – the longest serving foreign minister of the USSR; and Kunayev – the first secretary of Kazakhstan communist party.

In that Politburo, three were in their 60s such as Aliyev, the communist leader from Azerbaijan. Gorbachev was the youngest member and the seniors decided to trust him, as they themselves had finally become aware of the need for change. Normally, a plenum of the central committee took place after the death of the party chief, so within a month after Chernenko’s death a plenum was called and three new members of the Politburo took office. Within a year, Gorbachev reshaped the Politburo and Secretariat. Ligachev and Chebrikov, the candidate members of the Politburo who had supported Gorbachev in March 1985, now became full members.

Ryzhkov became the new PM, replacing 80-year-old Tikhonov. As an aside, Ryzhkov is still alive at 92, Ligachev died earlier this year at the age of 101. In July 1985, another plenum was held in which Politburo candidate member Shevardnadze was promoted to full status. He was to play an important role in the reshaping of Soviet foreign policy when he assumed the office of foreign minister after taking charge from Gromyko. Yeltsin joined the Secretariat and then became a candidate member of the Politburo just for two weeks.

Yeltsin also became the Moscow party chief, and he too was to play a significant role in the unravelling of the Soviet Union in the years to come. With this background the stage was set for the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. This Congress was perhaps the most important Congress of the party in 30 years; the last being the 20th Congress in 1956 in which Khrushchev had attacked and criticized Stalin who had died in 1953.

To be continued