Mikhail Gorbachev has evidently imagined that a government turned virtuous would elicit a generous response from a naturally virtuous people. It is an “immaculate misconception” because the Russian people, always lethargic in the face of their leviathan government, have endured in the Soviet experiment a unique erosion of Edward Gibbon’s old Greco-Roman ideal of civic virtue. Lord Acton suggested that power corrupts. Studs Terkel maintains that utter impotence corrupts more yet. But the Soviet people have experienced the worst corruption of all, the juxtaposition of unlimited power in the government and unqualified impotence in the people.
There is a simple explanation for the trials and travails of Gorbachev’s program of reform. He has misconceived the Russian variant of human nature, and he suffers from an ahistorical perception of the Russian political tradition. Moreover, his game plan is surprisingly blind to Russia’s experience with reform, and in three ways in particular.
First, there is a distinct parallel between the crisis that afflicts the Soviet Union today and the similar crisis in 1917, which the Russian Empire did not survive. To the government of Nicholas II, it seemed obvious that both economic and political reform were required to secure the long-term survival of an outworn system. Yet the reforms that were devised, the Witte program of planned industrialization and the awkward constitution of 1906, were applied in such a way as to aggravate in the short run the very situation they were designed to alleviate in the long run. Gorbachev’s reforms obviously entail a similar risk.
Second, Gorbachev sells himself as a populist and a democrat. Thus he ignores what is perhaps the most conspicuous and persistent characteristic of Russian politics: the progressive nature of the authoritarian state. Contrary to American popular mythology, which cannot free itself of its mistaken image of George III, monarchy in early modern Europe (1500-1789) was usually an agency of progressive modernization, frequently also an agency of popular justice. It was aided mightily by an ally ultimately more progressive than itself, the bourgeoisie. The monarchy in Russia, on the other hand, lacking a bourgeois ally, has been the unique agency of progressive, though often brutal, innovation, and public opinion has typically ranged from passive and lethargic to conservative and even reactionary. No one has summed up this interpretation of the Russian political tradition so pithily as the dissident mathematician Igor Shafarevich in a remarkably imaginative work entitled Sotsializm kakiavlenia mirovoi istorii (Socialism as a Manifestation of World History). Shafarevich quotes the fifth-century B.C. Chinese sage. Lord Shang; “Where the people is strong, the state is weak; and where the people is weak, the state is strong.”
Third, Gorbachev has failed, in his naiveté, to consult those political theorists who would have been most useful to him. The ancient Kremlinologist whom we know as Ecclesiastes would have warned him of the difficulty of reform: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” He would have called Gorbachev’s attention to the Soviet bureaucracy: “what is crooked cannot be made straight.” And he would have cautioned him about economic planners: “what is lacking cannot be numbered.” Another unimpeachable authority, the Marquis de Sade, would have warned that “crime serves nature’s intentions as well as wisdom and virtue [do].” Thus he would have had Gorbachev “sally forth into this perverse world” in a distinctly more cynical spirit. And the American theorist of the “booboisie,” H.L. Mencken, would have told Gorbachev that only countries naturally rich and safe can afford democracy, for “democracy is the most expensive and nefarious kind of government on earth.”
Ecclesiastes stands here for the idea of cultural conservatism. No state, no matter how mighty, has yet acquired the power to change mentalities, the cake of custom, in a mere fraction of a generation. The Marquis de Sade we might also paraphrase: until Gorbachev succeeds in attaching an Adam Smith corollary to his naively Stoical preachings of virtue, he will find that private vices do not make public benefits.
The force of these observations is revealed in the particulars of Gorbachev’s policies. His first entry onto the stage of reform was the now notorious campaign against alcohol, on the face of it a great idea to which no one of sound mind or morals could object. But there were precedents that should have informed Gorbachev of the pitfalls of trying to separate Russians from alcohol. The earliest surviving Russian historical document, the 12th-century Primary Chronicle, explains that the Russians chose to convert to Christianity rather than Islam because Islam proscribed the use of alcohol, and “drink is the joy of the Russes.”
A more recent parallel sets an even more dubious precedent. A month after the outbreak of World War I, that unholy holy man, Gregory Rasputin, intervened in a temperance campaign. Well-known for his pro-German sentiments, Rasputin persuaded Nicholas II that the state’s monopoly on the production of spirits was unworthy of the moral strivings of the nation at war. Nicholas decreed prohibition and thereby wiped out the single largest source of revenue of a government fighting for its life against a superior opponent.
Gorbachev’s campaign has had similar consequences. In the first year of its implementation, it cost the Soviet budget 45 billion rubles of revenue—and that at a time when falling world oil prices were depleting the largest Soviet source of earnings in hard currency. To make matters worse, thirsty Russians transferred their business from state facilities to private concerns, and the production of samogon (white lightning) soon ballooned to such proportions that sugar simply disappeared from the consumer economy. At that point, the government was compelled to use its diminishing funds of hard currency to enter the world sugar market, where it spent over a billion dollars to buy 2.2 million tons of sugar which Comrade Gastro could not supply.
A story universally told in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1986 maintained that it was precisely the anti-alcohol campaign that precipitated the Chernobyl disaster. The technicians at the nuclear facility were perfectly competent, so the story goes, to operate it in a drunken stupor, as years of experience had convincingly shown. It was only the unfamiliar condition of sobriety that confused them.
According to appearances, Gorbachev has had much better success with his glasnost campaign, but there is an enormous amount of Russian tradition antagonistic to his efforts. Most fundamentally, in a country that never had a Latin Catholic culture there is no foundation for the humanism that in modern Europe became liberalism. In this sense, the Iron Curtain is now a thousand years old. The most socially comprehensive form of Russian culture is Orthodoxy, pravoslavic. Consider its semantics; literally, right praising. The semantics of the contrary idea, that of dissent, inakomysliashchie, are, literally, otherwise-thinking. The point is exemplified by what may be the only ideological revolt in Russian history, that of the Old Believers against the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century. An old Russian proverb maintains that “all evil comes from opinion.” I wonder how long our contemporary Russians will tolerate their current conflict of opinion.
Gorbachev’s glasnost is a total overturn of the old Soviet practice of secrecy. As the current saying in Moscow has it, it has become more interesting to read than to live (i.e., it is still more than difficult to eat). Every day brings new and surprising revelations. In the field of the arts, Pasternak, Zamyatin, Nabokov, and even Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag have been published. In politics, Stalin is held responsible for bringing Hitler to power, for the brutal repression of 40 to 50 million victims of collectivization and the purges, and for the defeats of World War II that cost a newly estimated total of 40 million more lives. In economics, we have discovered Gorbachev’s salary (1,200 rubles a month), and we have learned that the Soviet budget deficit is three times larger than ours relative to the GNP. Moreover, the Moscow News tells us that the Soviet Union ranks between 50th and 60th in the world in per capita standards of consumption.
News of this sort from Soviet sources is little short of sensational, and the conditions that make it possible—not the conditions described—are understandably the occasion of much rejoicing. If the new policy in the media is to be appreciated justly and realistically, however, it must be treated with certain reservations. The Soviet press is not yet free, as the journalists who work in it readily admit. It is simply subject to new kinds of controls that serve new kinds of purposes. It is possible that glasnost is a transient and reversible phenomenon. Further, it is not nearly so fundamental an achievement as that at which Gorbachev aims in his more ambitious program of perestroika.
More seriously still, glasnost produces obvious liabilities as well as benefits. Ear example, it inflames unrest among the nationalities, most obviously in the Caucasus, where the conflict of the Armenians and the Azeris has now been followed by that of the Georgians and the Abkhazians; in the Baltic; where the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians are demonstrating against the Russians (and vice versa); and, most recently, in Moldavia, where the native Rumanian majority wants to do business in its own language.
Perhaps the most serious threat posed by the policy of glasnost is just beginning, and it is here that the historical shortsightedness of Gorbachev’s public information policy may be most evident. Some of his editors seem bent on outdoing the shamelessness of Rousseau’s Confessions. If they continue to pursue so stubbornly as they have recently the intention to uncover all of the “blank spots” (belye piatna) of Soviet history, it is almost inevitable that they will convict Soviet government of so much scandal, dirt, and blood, so much crime against the people, as to raise the question of its own legitimacy. How can such a government plausibly lay claim to the loyalty of the population? That population is already muttering rather loudly that the mess of their lives was the work of the Jews who made the Revolution.
In addition to the increasingly lurid revelations of Stalin’s crime, recent articles have called into question the whole doctrine of Marxism and argued that Lenin himself was responsible for establishing the tradition of flouting legal and constitutional norms.
Gorbachev’s perestroika is a more formidable and forbidding undertaking than glasnost. If we examine the perestroika of the past, we find ample reason to take warning. It is said that Peter the Great (1682-1725) pulled uphill with the strength often while the whole nation pulled downhill, and his son Alexis was associated with a conspiracy which aimed to dispose of Peter in the fashion of so many of his 18th-century successors. Catherine II (1762-1796) wrote a project for a liberal codification of the laws, but her bureaucracy and Legislative Assembly contrived to defeat the idea. We know with what enthusiasm the Russian nobility responded to the great reforms of Alexander II (1855-1881). Prime Minister Peter Stolypin attempted (1906-1911) to free the Russian peasant from a semi-medieval system of collective land tenure in order to make him a private proprietor, but the peasant successfully resisted.
The contemporary Russian public evidently regards perestroika in the abstract as a good idea. A public opinion poll recently taken in the Soviet Union by the Christian Science Monitor (with what reliability we can only guess) showed that 61 percent of the population believed that perestroika would eventually succeed. On the other hand, a Time magazine poll taken in Moscow recently showed that a plurality of Soviet citizens expect perestroika to make the material conditions of their life worse, and the evidence more than bears out their expectations. The press is full of stories of hard luck for the consumer. One item prominently featured recently is the shortage of baby food, a situation that occasions long lines and ignites hot tempers. The There are a variety of ways to give to educational and charitable organizations, like rationing of sugar is in effect, and most of the rest of the list of foodstuffs is said to be under consideration. Hardship has evidently produced a new wave of criminal activity. In various parts of the Soviet Union crime is currently growing, according to the chief Soviet judicial officer (General , Procurator A. I. Sukharev), at rates ranging from 32 to 88 percent per year. This from the August 12, 1989, edition of Pravda!
However much it may be approved in general, the particulars of perestroika affect the interests of different groups of people in different ways. As hard as it is to get a fix on the opinion of the “dark people,” the peasants, we may infer that they ought logically to approve of Gorbachev’s economic policy, as it envisions paying for their produce in hard currency and dissolving many of the features of the hated collective farm system. It also promises them free and therefore higher prices for the commodity in shortest supply and greatest demand in the country, the food which they produce. The workers, on the other hand, will have to suffer the cost of those higher prices. Moreover, they will suffer lower pay for poor work, punishment for drunkenness, and even dismissal and unemployment. They are afraid of perestroika. But the social category that has the most to lose is that large group of people in retirement. The pensioners comprise 20 percent of the population, nearly 60 million people. Their incomes are fixed, some of them at 50 rubles (approximately $80) a person, a month, and they have already seen the prices of some commodities multiply by five or six times. Much of the population exhibits a roaring rage against the “speculators,” i.e., those taking advantage of the newly enfranchised cooperative businesses that operate as a form of free enterprise.
There is a whole series of ironies in the current Soviet scene. Marxism teaches the primacy of economics in social and political development, that politics is a passive function of economics. Yet the history of the Soviet Union has illustrated with more dramatic irony than that of any other country the elementary error of Marx’s teaching. Lenin explained and Stalin illustrated the primacy of politics, and now Gorbachev, having defied Marxist logic and common sense together by growing ever stronger in politics as he grows ever weaker in economics, is unable to wield his vast political primacy in traditional Soviet fashion to lift the nation out of deepening depression.
There is one bright ray of hope in perestroika. On March 9, 1989, Pravda announced that 20 McDonald restaurants are soon to be opened in Moscow. The only question is, will 20 be enough?
Demokratizatsiia is also a troubled idea. It is in a sense produced by disillusionment with the quality of the “new Soviet man” who presumably staffs the bureaucracy. He was supposed to have represented some imaginary compound of Poor Richard, Samuel Smiles, and the Boy Scouts, a kind of Calvinist communist imbued with the ideals of socialist construction. He has failed, and Gorbachev is now evidently searching for the same type of personality in the virtues of the common man—or, better, woman. But the promise of the search seems compromised by two considerations. The first is that if perestroika and price reform seriously threaten the interests of different groups in society, then what reason is there to believe that the public will support the program?
The second consideration has to do with the nature of Russian democracy, and here I think that we ought to recognize that in our studies of foreign cultures we treat the subject of Russian democracy quite wrongly. Our first mistake is to think that democracy is conspicuous in Russian society only by its absence. On the contrary, in various nooks and corners of Russian life, it has a stronger grip on the people than it does among us. If authoritarianism has been a prominent feature of Russian life, so has egalitarianism. It is naturally more evident on the streets and in the apartments in the Soviet Union than it is in American libraries.
I cite four examples. First is the artel, a cooperative organization especially prominent in the economic life of the emerging lower middle class before World War I. There were industrial, commercial, and credit artels as well as artels of consumers. The spirit of the organization was purely egalitarian, and the management of it was democratic. Second is an institution far more familiar to us, the mir or obshchina, the peasant commune. It was the darling of the intelligentsia, both radical and conservative, as it represented the spirit of the demos in its presumably pristine form. It had a seamier side, one that ran to drink and dissipation, but democratic it invariably was. The third such institution is criminal society. There was honor among these thieves, and blood oaths; they swore, among other things, never to cooperate in any fashion with conventional civil society and to kill any of their fellows who did. We can see glimpses of their organizations in most of the memoirs from the camps. Both the KGB and the FBI are currently devoting massive attention to them, and anyone at all can see their descendants in Brighton Beach, New York. My last example is nearly omnipresent in Soviet Russia: it is the city bus. Each city bus contains a spontaneous but quite distinct government, and in spite of its volatile and transient character, the fact that a part of this government departs the scene and a new part enters at every stop, the character of the government remains noticeably stable and uniform. The city bus manifests in its most spontaneous form that cantankerous interventionist impulse that J.R. Talmon has termed totalitarian democracy.
Admittedly, democracy has not been a powerful phenomenon at the national level, but that may be fortunate, because our second serious mistake in considering Russian democracy is to imagine that it is naturally progressive. It has often been otherwise. Thus the transfer of a democratic dynamic from local into national politics in the Soviet Union might have a retrograde or even paralytic impact on the course of national development.
Let us consider the evidence. The peasant commune stubbornly repudiated economic opportunity, seeing in it apparently some burden of obligation rather than godsend of promise. We can recall the response of Leo Tolstoy’s serfs to his proposal to set them free. They scratched their heads and declined. The Stolypin “wager on the sober and the strong,” the dissolution of the commune, and the inauguration of private proprietorship they resisted more vigorously. The “land and liberty” for which the Russian peasant longed evidently did not mean freedom for the individual. It meant freedom from the capricious tyranny of the landlord, not from that of the beloved tyrannically democratic commune. In the film of Brighton Beach, The Russians Are Here, made by the PBS station in Boston, the emigres repeat two observations like a constant refrain: “There is too little security in America, and there is too much freedom.” I hold with the controversial thesis that Muscovite folkways are “risk-aversive.” If so, Gorbachev is attempting to make war on the whole character of the Russian people.
We have been reminded by the striking miners of the Donbas and the Kuzbas of the unpopularity of the new Nepmen, the free enterprisers. Gorbachev’s resolution of that problem reflects the old proverb that “the shortages will be divided among the peasants,” for the allocation of additional goods to the strikers will simply increase the shortages elsewhere. Similarly, a part of the merchandise of Moscow has just been reserved for residents: it is not to be sold to the several million itinerant shoppers who visit Moscow daily.
Incidentally, the activity of the miners may well be the first spontaneous and democratic entry of the Russian public into the national arena of perestroika on a non-ethnic issue. This is evidently, what Gorbachev has been seeking as a desirable development. It might just as easily be regarded as ominous.
Perhaps Gorbachev’s most immediate problem at present is that glasnost and political reform have proceeded much faster than anyone imagined possible, and the perestroika of economic reform has moved even more slowly and reluctantly than seemed likely. Now, the combined factors of the fast pace of political reform and the slow pace of economic reform have catalyzed the expression of discontent and thereby threaten the stability of the country. If the reform is at once too fast and too slow, it is as hard to imagine now as it was in 1914 what kind of policy might deliver the country from disaster.
As a colleague of mine put it, Gorbachev has in the present crisis no usable Russian traditions. The enlightened despotism of the 18th century was a progressive model of modernization for a conservative and uneducated people, although it necessarily violated their tastes and their somewhat undeveloped concept of Russian national interests.
Nowadays, since the Soviet government has educated the minds of the people, we can recognize his policy as a genuine expression of their national interests—and, happily, of ours. But centuries of authoritarian government have virtually paralyzed his people, leaving them unable to undertake the most essential part of their role in his reform: cooperation among themselves and with the government in spontaneous and responsible enterprise.
To put Gorbachev’s dilemma in a nutshell, he represents the good old Russian tradition of the progressive initiative of central authority in the interest—sometimes unrecognized—of a public disinclined to undertake such initiative for itself. Unfortunately, he presides over the public’s destiny in an age when progressive reform is more and more consensually regarded in many parts of the world as liberal and democratic, free and enterprising, which his public is still disinclined to be. The chances of his finding a way out of this dilemma in less than several generations are not very good.
For Gorbachev to succeed, I believe he will have to build his constituency squarely on two traditionally disfranchised groups in Soviet society: first, the church, and second, women. The church has, admittedly, a disappointing record in the history of Russia, both before and after the revolution, of asserting itself for the protection of the people from the ravages of the state. On the other hand, it is the natural vehicle these days for constructive sentiments of an alternative kind. Many of its adherents are all too willing to resort to the impulses of aggressive or even vicious nationalism that would aggravate an already threatening inter-ethnic combat. But it represents, too, the tradition of the popular St. Sergius of Radonezh, of the umilenie (loving kindness) of the Virgin of Vladimir, of the reviving ideas of hesychasm (a Byzantine mysticism of meekness, mercy, and piety), and it provides the most obvious rallying point for a Russian renaissance of a civil and decent kind.
As for women in Russia, more than elsewhere in Europe, they have been the stepchildren of an unusually misogynist society. “If the hair is long, the mind is short.” But Gorbachev has recognized them, as he himself has said, as his “best supporters.” He and they have similar sentiments about the prohibition of alcohol, mismanaged though the campaign was. They are sober and practical-minded. While many of the males soar high above tangible reality on waves of poetry, philosophy, mysticism, or alcohol, the women do the practical everyday work without which the system might cease to function at all. Their special responsibility in the family at home and in the nation at large has probably been an indispensable given since the purges and the war removed so many men from civil society. Russian men admit in their candid or inebriated moments that “only the women work.”
Now having criticized Gorbachev vigorously, in order to balance the ledger of my account, it is only fair to observe that he is both an authentic hero and a genuine genius of original thinking. Only a fool or a hero would have undertaken this near-hubristic enterprise, and his scarcely believable mastery of the political apparat in the face of economic and ethnic chaos shows him to be far from foolish. Moreover, he has, in one of the world’s most unlikely environments, wrestled mightily to learn the unhappy truths that set men free. New political thinking of the order of magnitude of Gorbachev’s is so fresh and rare as to be nearly miraculous. If we compare him with 20th-century statesmen of comparable prominence, he far exceeds the originality and the daring of Churchill, Roosevelt, or de Gaulle, all of whom were culturally consonant with the countries which they governed, and he belongs perhaps in the league of Mao as revolutionary—not, of course, of Mao as administrator. Furthermore, he has dared and succeeded as few have to be a peacemaker, though Ronald Reagan—and perhaps Suzanne Massie—probably deserve more credit here than academic historians will soon give them.
Still, heroes and geniuses, in real life as in mythic epics, have been endowed by the gods with flaws to match their gifts, flaws without which their striving would not be epic, and Gorbachev may yet become the victim of a Soviet variant of Greek tragedy.
What are the implications of all of this for us in the Western world? We must wish Gorbachev better success than the imprudence of some of his policies seems to promise, and we should support him more than we do—chiefly symbolically. We must welcome his foreign policy in Afghanistan (in withdrawing Soviet troops), Poland, Hungary, and the GDR, in arms control, in Mongolia, and in Vietnam. We must find him, after all, as good for us as the Soviet population finds him doubtful for itself.
For we are now witnessing more genuinely than before the convergence of systems that has been prophesied. Gorbachev is doing just what we have demanded from the Russians. Unfortunately, despite our self-satisfied habit of sneering like Pharisees at the shortcomings of Soviet society, the most fundamental problems of the Soviet model are also ours. They are the natural outgrowth of the hubris with which the Enlightenment effectively contaminated all of modern secular civilization—the pagan credo that man is the master of all things.
Mencken’s observation that democracy is the most expensive and nefarious government on earth suggests that the Revolt of the Masses leads almost inevitably to revolutions not merely of rising but of unrealistic expectations. Ours simply runs its course with more bourgeois moderation, or dignity, than did the Russian—with some exceptions, of course: crime, drugs, and AIDS. But the Russians, having for a couple of generations exchanged conservative for radical mysticism, are now becoming better prepared than we are, under the tutelage of such prophets as Solzhenitsyn, to escape the destiny of an unholy future.