Five months ago, in its January 1 issue, Time magazine chose to honor Mikhail Gorbachev as the “Man of the Decade.” Although several prominent Frenchmen have suggested that Pope John Paul II has had an equal influence on the tumultuous events in Europe (notably because of his powerful support of the Solidarity movement in Poland), few, I think, can reasonably deny this remarkable Soviet politician’s right to this honor. Yet the fact of the matter is that after wading through pages and pages of superlative tributes and encomia, I was not one whit wiser at the end as to Gorbachev’s secret thinking and ultimate objectives, which remain—at least for me—as shrouded in mystery as ever.
There were, however, three sentences in Time that brought me up with a start. In a long article entitled, “Rethinking the Red Menace,” Strobe Talbott could write: “A new consensus is emerging, that the Soviet threat is not what it used to be. The real point, however, is that it never was. The doves in the Great Debate of the past forty years were right all along.”
The enormity of this tranquil affirmation left and still leaves me speechless. For it betrays an ignorance of the certain basic facts of the start of the Cold War that, if shared by millions of Mr. Talbott’s readers (which may well be the case), bodes ill for the future. It is, indeed, vain to expect persons who willfully choose to misread the past to display any marked ability to diagnose the immediate future.
Let us refresh our memories for a moment by going back to the critical summer of 1948, when Stalin launched his blockade of West Berlin. Strobe Talbott may have chosen to forget (or possibly he may never have known) that when the crisis broke a majority of Harry Truman’s military advisers and (so I have been reliably told) no less than ten out of the twelve State Department officials of ambassadorial rank whom he consulted advised the President to pull out of West Berlin because our position there was militarily untenable.
There was one general, however, who pointed out that West Berlin had to be held, no matter what, because if abandoned, it would fatally undermine the confidence of all West Germans in the resolve of the United States to defend their vital interests. He was General Lucius Clay. Harry Truman, a Democrat, was wise enough to heed this urgent plea made to him by a staunch Republican, and as a result West Berlin, and with it Western Europe, was saved during a tense 12 months (1948-1949) by two Americans who were not exactly “doves.” But for their courageous decision, Konrad Adenauer never could have established the Federal Republic. The Germans who, for all their virtues, are often prone to political opportunism, would have drawn the inevitable conclusion—that the Western allies could not be trusted—and they would have chosen to make their peace with the victorious superpower of the East. The consequences for Europe would have been incalculable, rendering impossible the creation of NATO and the later establishment of the European Common Market.
Now here is another example, but of a rather different sort. In June 1953 the workers of East Berlin rose up in revolt against the detested system that had been forcibly imposed upon them by Walter Ulbricht and his Moscow-trained colleagues of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands—the so-called “Socialist-Unity” Party of Germany, a python-like political “front” specially designed to devour and swallow up East Germany’s many Social Democrats). What happened? In Washington, where General Eisenhower had taken over after having campaigned, with John Foster Dulles, on the need to “roll the Red Army” back to the frontiers of the U.S.S.R., the new administration simply sat tight and did nothing. In other words, despite all the hawkish rhetoric, Ike and Dulles on this occasion behaved like “doves.”
It is important to recall this crucial moment in postwar European history because our passivity effectively froze a situation that remained congealed for the next thirty years. This was brought home to me forcefully in the summer of 1964, during a visit to Czechoslovakia. In the Moravian capital of Brno a former Social Democrat said to me: “You missed a golden opportunity back in 1953. Stalin had just died, there was bitter in-fighting in the Kremlin between Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev, and the Soviet Union was in a state of leaderless confusion. Here we were all waiting for a word of encouragement from Washington, and if it had come, believe me, we would have risen as one man—Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, all of us to express our solidarity with the workers of East Germany. But the word we were so anxiously awaiting never came.”
It can be argued, of course, that workers’ hammers and peasants’ scythes and sickles are useless against tanks, and that if the captive peoples of Central and Eastern Europe had at that moment risen up in simultaneous revolt, the result would have been a Soviet-ordered bloodbath. All things considered, it was thus preferable to allow the tough guys in the Kremlin to crush the various revolts in turn—East Germany in 1953; Hungary in 1956; Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the fact remains that by doing nothing to encourage the East Germans and the others in 1953, at a time when we were at the height of our military power (with a vast superiority in nuclear bombs, with the bombers to deliver them, and 21 U.S. Army divisions that had been formed for the recently terminated Korean War), we contributed willy-nilly to the consolidation of the Soviets’ grip on Central and Eastern Europe. If the “doves” thus contributed to maintain an uneasy peace in Europe, they also condemned one hundred million Europeans to a continuing enslavement, which was only partially ended in the final months of last year. This is an “achievement” that none of us should forget.
But let us return to Time magazine’s decision to name Gorbachev the “Man of the Decade,” and more particularly to its willingness to take him on trust without making any serious effort to probe the mysterious ideological development of this “sincere communist.” This can be regarded as a typical example of our inveterate tendency to personalize general issues, instead of asking ourselves how the Soviet system could from its ranks produce such a maverick, not to say a heretic. Most Americans, and indeed most Europeans—including persons as temperamentally different as Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand—seem to regard Gorbachev as a kind of anti-Stalinist Superman, more or less sprung out of nowhere, who has flung open long-closed doors and windows (glasnost) and who, even if he has failed to improve the living standards of his countrymen (perestroika), is at least on the right track and must consequently be helped and assisted in every possible way.
The French, who are among other things a nation of skeptics, are luckier than we are, if only because one of their more brilliant young sovietologists, Françoise Thom, has produced a small, fact-crammed book, Le Moment Gorbatchev, which seeks to prove the magical trompe-l’oeil of Gorbachevism and to reveal what lies behind—the whys and wherefores of glasnost and perestroika—and to show, with a compelling weight of documentary evidence, that they are not at all what many Westerners naively believe they are.
I regret that there is not space here to list the five cogent reasons she gives to explain the birth of glasnost—still a highly conditional freedom for press and media, as is attested by the persecution of Serghei Grigoriantz’s Glasnost periodical and the condemnation last November of Serghei Kuznetsov, an independent journalist and contributor to Glasnost, to three years in a labor camp. But the most significant part of Françoise Thom’s book concerns that complex phenomenon perestroika, on the success or failure of which Mikhail Gorbachev’s future is certain to depend.
Thom distinguishes two essentially different periods. The first (1985-1986), essentially a prolongation of the previous “Andropovian” period, was characterized primarily by a massive drive against corruption and alcoholism; the second phase, now entering its fourth year, has been one of frantic improvisation, intended to improve a deteriorating economic situation.
The drive against alcoholism, as we now know, boomeranged dramatically. Because of strict vodka-rationing, millions of Soviet citizens took to brewing their own distilled liquor (bathtub samogon, etc.) In 1986 158,000 were arrested for clandestine home-brewing activities. By 1988 the figure had climbed to half a million. The run on sugar needed for home-brewed vodka has been such that it has emptied shops in towns and cities all over the country.
Far more damaging in its economic consequences was a far-reaching law passed in May 1986, which, on the one hand, outlawed illegal revenues obtained from “parallel” industrial or commercial activities (i.e., those not officially controlled or sanctioned by the State), and, on the other hand, legalized “individual professional activity.” As Thom puts it, “the State tried to control what it does not forbid.” Or, to put it in blunter terms, the State with this law undertook to take away with one hand what it appeared to give away with the other.
The purpose of this ill-conceived law, which few people in the West have ever heard of, was to flush out “profiteers” and others who for years had been operating on their own in what has come to be called the “second” or “shadow economy.” During the period of Brezhnevian “stagnation”—which in the commercial field may turn out to have been less stagnant than many now claim—a whole class of clever entrepreneurs and get-rich-quick operators gradually developed to supplement the slow-moving, bureaucratically paralyzed State-controlled enterprises, which had to work according to production quotas and other norms laid down by the State Planning Commission in Moscow. This was in fact the beginning of a spontaneous attempt by thousands of enterprising Soviet citizens to inject a badly needed element of flexibility into an economy that was paralyzed by its “orders-from-above” character and its ideological contempt for ordinary market forces. The enormous scope of this phenomenon may be judged by the figure divulged a year and a half ago by the economist Tatyana Karyaghina, who estimated that the U.S.S.R.’s “second economy” was now producing at least 145 billion dollars’ worth of goods and services per annum.
The drive to “clean up” this “second economy” by officially legalizing it, and by punishing those who had most profited from it, was undertaken for at least two reasons, as Françoise Thom shows. The first was the realization by Yuri Andropov and then by Gorbachev and his associates that the party was gradually losing control over the Soviet economy, or at any rate over its most dynamic elements. The second was the realization that alongside this “second economy” and battening off it like locusts were hordes of gangsters, who were undertaking to “protect” clandestine entrepreneurs from party interference and at the same time exacting “hush money” for their services. In other words, the primary aim of perestroika from the very beginning was not, as is so generally and naively believed in the West, to loosen up the Soviet economy, but precisely the reverse—to reestablish the party’s control over an economy that was beginning to get out of hand and to develop a dynamic life of its own.
The consequences of the equivocal law of May 1986 have been catastrophic. The drive for more “discipline” and for “honest” entrepreneurial management has led to the creation of an army of “people’s inspectors” now ten million strong! In their “eager-beaver” zeal to uncover cases of wrongdoing and corruption, they have discouraged individual entrepreneurs who might have been willing to strike out on their own had they felt completely free to operate as they saw fit, instead of being made responsible for efficient production methods (the so-called khozrazchot system of self-sustaining, unsubsidizing accounting) while having to fulfill quotas imposed by the State. During the 1985-1986 period no less than 800,000 “dishonest” black-marketeers were thus arrested and forced to shift their operations to another economic field. All sorts of hitherto available commodities then disappeared from the shops. Efficient entrepreneurs, encouraged by the ostensible new economic “liberalism” of the regime, have found themselves being taxed up to 90 percent of their profits. Many simply gave up. In the countryside the law of May 1986 was used by local party officials to declare war on the private farm produce of individual peasants (working their personal lots) in what must have seemed to many of the latter a savage resumption of the Stalinist campaign against the kulaks. One result has been the present catastrophic situation in food supplies all over the Soviet Union. As one of Radio Liberty’s Munich analysts recently observed, “Sugar is rationed in Moscow, and the only reason that many other goods such as soap, cooking oil, and meat are not rationed is that there is not enough available to ration.”
The recent disappearance from shops all over the Soviet Union of washing and laundry soaps of all kinds can be held up as a typical example of why Gorbachevian perestroika has been such a fiasco to date. In a detailed article published last November in Radio Liberty’s weekly Report on the USSR, D.J. Petersen pointed out that the current soap shortage is the result of a panic fear of impending shortage on the part of millions of Soviet housewives, who during the last months of 1988 began rushing to the nearest store to buy up all the soap they could lay their hands on. A similar panic fear with similar results swept the U.S.S.R. in 1980 and 1981. Yet, paradoxically, soap production in the Soviet Union has (at any rate on paper) been steadily rising from year to year. In 1988, for example, it reached a level of 7.88 kilograms of soap for every man, woman, and child in the country—a level comparable to those found in relatively “advanced” countries like Finland and Japan. However—and this to me was an eye-opener—it turns out that all of the synthetic laundry detergents offered to consumers in the Soviet Union use sulphanol as their primary active ingredient, and, to quote D.J. Petersen, “all of the sulphanol for the production of Soviet laundry detergent comes from the Khimprom enterprise located at Sumgait, Azerbaijan. It was decided in the 1970s that Khimprom would be the sole supplier of sulphanol, despite the fact that, when shipped great distances in its prepared form, the sulphanol becomes compressed and is thus rendered useless. As a result, the sulphanol must now be diluted with an equal amount of water and transported in liquid form. This has doubled the shipping costs and subjected it to the vagaries of the workings of the rail networks even more. In the eyes of the planners, though, one central source made life easy, while, for the politicians, it represented a nice reward for local officials.”
Can one imagine a situation in America whereby Procter & Gamble, let us say, enjoyed an absolute monopoly on the production of detergent soaps and had decided that, for the sake of simplicity, it would be a good idea to place the one factory producing its most vital ingredient in Florida or New Mexico? The idea would be greeted with howls of laughter. No wonder even David Rockefeller was ruefully forced to admit last year that his once high hopes of being able to do business in the U.S.S.R. had for the most part been frustrated.
While it is impossible to forecast exactly what is going to happen tomorrow to the Soviet Union, one thing at least is certain: the longer it takes Gorbachevian perestroika to achieve tangible improvements, the more disruptive are bound to grow the centrifugal forces now at work along the vast periphery of the U.S.S.R. In 1938 the standard of living of Estonians was roughly on a par with that of the Finns. Today, however, the per capita income of Estonians is exactly one quarter of that of their Baltic neighbors to the north. Such is the price that they have had to pay for fifty years of sovietization.
Or let us take another example. So long as Nicolae Geausescu reigned supreme over a cruelly impoverished Romania, no citizen of the neighboring Moldavian republic would have dreamed of demanding an eventual reunification of this province (artificially annexed and incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1940) with the Romanian “motherland.” But no sooner had the hated Conducator disappeared from the scene than the cry “Re-u-ni-ft-cation!” [ could be heard in the streets of Iasi—uttered not by local Romanians but by “Bessarabians” from the Moldavian capital of Kishinev, who only a few weeks before had blocked the official military parade commemorating the November 7th anniversary of the “glorious” Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and who, on November 10, had stormed and wrecked the Interior Ministry building to protest the beating of demonstrators by police and soldiers. Since the majority of the four and a half million citizens of the Soviet Moldavian Republic are ethnic Romanians who can now tune their radios and televisions to the uncensored broadcasts of Radio Bucharest, the gravitational attraction is likely to prove irresistible if Big Brother in distant Moscow cannot make life more attractive.
What we have been witnessing over the past seven or eight months has not only been an extraordinary “acceleration of history”—a phrase now on everybody’s lips. This acceleration has been accompanied by the sound of hoofbeats from the past. Years ago, by cleverly adapting a common French adage—Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop (Drive out what is natural, and it will return at a gallop)—the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset defined history as lo que vuelve al galope—that which returns at a gallop. Today, everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe, the historic past that Stalin and his fellow revolutionaries strove so brutally to drive out and to trample underfoot, is returning at a gallop—as, sooner or later, was bound to happen.
For a long time the official “thinking” of the West was dominated by the Kissingerian notion that the essential aim of our diplomacy should be not to “rock the boat” lest a “provocative” attitude on our part exacerbate the pent-up grievances of one or another “satellite” country, encouraging new eruptions—like that of Budapest in 1956 or of Prague in 1968. This made us in effect the diplomatic accomplices of the Brezhnevian process of “normalization.” Today, far from having disappeared in the undertow of recent history, this apprehensive attitude still lingers on, the current fear being that the ferments of “liberation” now at work in Central and Eastern Europe are going to get out of hand and “destabilize” the continent. At the height of the Romanian crisis last December, Jacques Chirac, the former French premier and still the mayor of Paris, could find nothing better to do than to berate President Mitterrand for not having begged the Soviet Union to intervene militarily on behalf of the anti-Ceausescu “freedom fighters” who were battling the hated diehards of the Sicuritate. It is a measure of the diplomatic miracle Gorbachev has been able to pull off that in just five years he has transformed the image of his country from that of an aggressive and invading bully (Afghanistan) into that of a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed! As Françoise Thom rightly observes, Gorbachev may have failed dismally on the domestic front, but, like Lenin, to whom he still pays official homage, he has been brilliantly successful in the field of international relations.
There has even recently been pessimistic talk of a possible “Balkanizahon” of Eastern Europe, likely to return the continent back to what it was in 1919, or even in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. We would do well to beware of such phony historical parallels, which by prolonging the blackmail threat of “destabilizahon,” justify the former jailer’s superpower status as—of all things!—the guardian of peace and security in Eastern Europe. What made the situation so explosive from 1890 until 1914 was the imperial rivalry of two, or perhaps we should say three, European powers—Russia, Austria, and Germany—as Ottoman influence and authority receded. But today, with Austria reduced to a relatively small “heartland” of eight million inhabitants, and countries like Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia all quietly or defiantly ridding themselves of Soviet influence, no such great-power confrontation exists in the Balkans.
As for the “parallel” with 1919, it is even less apt. Bolshevism, described by Marshal Ferdinand Foch as “the disease of defeated countries,” was then a new revolutionary force that, after sweeping over Russia and spreading to Hungary, seemed for several turbulent years about to triumph in Germany—where the last “Workers-and-Soldiers” republic was not forcibly subdued by troops of the Weimar republic until 1924. But today Bolshevism is clearly a spent ideological force, while the nationalistic resentments created by the Treaty of Versailles have been replaced in Germany by a sense of economic pride that may seem overbearing to some, but whose roots—satisfaction in work well done—go back centuries to the industrious Germany of Martin Luther and Albrecht Dürer.
Even the often expressed dread that, if Gorbachev goes, the party hardliners and even perhaps the Soviet army generals will take over, strikes me as farfetched and one more prolongation of the Kissingerian mythology. For in the absence of a charismatic personality able to replace Gorbachev, there is nobody in the U.S.S.R. today who could conceivably hold its diverse components together, and particularly not for a campaign of military or ideological reconquest of Europe. Quite aside from the bitter resistance any such effort would encounter on the part of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, and even Bulgarians (far less pro-Russian, according to the late, poisoned-umbrella-assassinated Georgii Markov, than is generally supposed), any such attempt to “turn back the tide of history” would be furiously contested inside the U.S.S.R. itself, where already in the Baltic states local politicians are insisting that their Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian fellow-citizens not be forced to serve their compulsory terms of military service outside of their Baltic homelands.
This does not mean that we can now happily go back to sleep and withdraw all of our troops from a superannuated NATO—which is more or less what Strobe Talbott and other “doves” are suggesting. Military vigilance in these turbulent times is more indispensable than ever. But it is high time that we stopped wringing our hands over the prospects of destabilizing “catastrophes,” which only too often in the past have paralyzed our national will and so blurred our vision that we no longer knew who our true friends, and indeed our “allies,” in Central and Eastern Europe really were.