Commentary Magazine


The Long Road to Freedom, by Walter Laqueur

The Future of the USSR

The Long Road to Freedom: Russia and Glasnost.
by Walter Laqueur.
Scribners. 325 pp. $21.95.

The massacre at Tiananmen Square is a compelling reminder that Communism, long believed to be a highly stable system, is in fact extremely volatile, especially in periods of change. An obvious and entirely relevant question raised by the China tragedy is whether a similar fate might befall the Soviet Union. Nationality protest and upheaval have gripped fully eight of the USSR’s non-Russian republics, ranging from massive movements for independence in the Baltics to inter-ethnic violence in Central Asia. While overt anti-Soviet motives have been limited to Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, in every case the source of strife can in part be traced to policies and arrangements dictated from Moscow.

That the central authorities do not appear to have lost control is largely due to the absence of direct challenges to party policies in Russia proper. But as Walter Laqueur points out in this invaluable book—which is at once a historical account of the Russian idea of freedom, a description of the changes that have taken place under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, and an analysis of what these changes imply for the Soviet future—the potential for unrest has emerged in Russia proper as well.

Ironically, it is glasnost (or “openness”), a foundation of Gorbachev’s program of change, which has contributed to popular discontent that could conceivably escalate into direct challenge to the leadership. The dangers to the Soviet system, in fact, are considerably more substantial than in China. In China, a relatively narrow group of students and intellectuals demanded democratic reform; in the Soviet Union, glasnost has affected practically everyone, and for some Russians at least, the impact has been to bewilder and frighten people who drew comfort from the status quo, however failed and corrupt.

As conceived by Gorbachev and his most trusted allies, glasnost was designed to serve several quite specific political goals. First, cultural and political openness was meant to build a constituency for the new leadership among the intellectual class and no doubt also among a foreign audience whose support for Soviet policies is seen as crucial. At the same time, revelations of criminality and sloth were used to discredit Gorbachev’s enemies within the party, a group of conservative time-servers who have proved a surprisingly easy target. Finally, publicizing the system’s failures was encouraged in order to mobilize support for perestroika, changes in the economy that the leadership fully recognized as threatening to a pattern of life to which the Russian people had grown accustomed through the decades of Soviet rule.

For Gorbachev, glasnost did not signify unrestricted debate or the free flow of information, as that concept is understood in the democratic world. Glasnost was to be measured, controlled, guided, a means of moving people toward certain policies and ways of thinking. Early on Gorbachev cautioned that glasnost “should unite and mobilize people rather than disunite them and generate lack of confidence.”

In practice, glasnost has moved well beyond Gorbachev’s modest expectations; pressed boldly ahead by adventuresome journalists, historians, and economists, openness has taken on a life of its own. Laqueur declares that the limits of glasnost had been reached at the time of the book’s completion, in mid-1988, a prediction we now know to be inaccurate. During the past few months Soviet audiences witnessed the astonishing spectacle of parliamentary representatives attacking such hitherto sacrosanct institutions as the military, the KGB, even one-party rule. Futher-more, prominent figures such as Yegor Ligachev, Andrei Gromyko, and Gorbachev himself (not to mention Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa) have been criticized and humiliated, and all this before a national television audience of over one hundred million.

These openly political manifestations of glasnost come on top of a relentless assault on some of the most cherished features of the Communist system. The health service, an icon of Soviet propaganda, is routinely assailed for its deficiencies, as are the economy’s inability to produce sufficient consumer goods and the farm sector’s failure to provide adequate food. Drug abuse, once dismissed as an exclusively Western problem, is now acknowledged; so is rampant crime, alienation of youth, and the luckless lot of Soviet women. There have also been honest, if guarded, assessments of a few of the darker chapters of Soviet history, including the Ukrainian famine, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the occupation of Afghanistan, and the slaughter of Polish officers in the Katyn forest during World War II.

The West has watched these revelations with awe, and rightly so. Although prerevolutionary Russia enjoyed a measure of openness more substantial than the current state of affairs, today’s glasnost is without precedent for the Soviet period, and its impact is probably greater than before 1917 because of the far higher level of education and the influence of modern communications methods, notably television. More to the point, acknowledgment of Soviet deficiencies will have a profound and permanent effect on Soviet society. While the state surely retains the power to bring glasnost to an end, the party has forever lost the authority to instruct citizens on what to read, think, and believe.

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Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm over Soviet change, few in the West have asked the relevant question of glasnost’s repercussions among the Soviet people, especially the vast majority outside the narrow group of intellectuals who comprise the core support group for Gorbachev’s policies. Especially pertinent is the response of Russians. It is, after all, Russians—not Moldavians, Georgians, or Uzbeks—whose national consciousness is identified with Soviet power. And it is Russians who, in the new atmoshpere of candor and protest, have often served as the principal target of non-Russian anger.

The evidence assembled by Laqueur suggests that the past few years have been unsettling for many Russians. Like everyone else in the Soviet Union, Russians have been the victims of the Communist system—some, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, would argue that Russians have been Communism’s chief victims. On the other hand, Russians have gained a measure of pride and consolation from the achievements and pretenses of the system. Communism, many continue to believe, transformed backward Russia into a superpower, feared, if not loved, throughout the world. Furthermore, Russia has proved fertile terrain for the cultivation of a primitive socialist mentality, an egalitarianism driven by envy and inertia. In such an atmosphere, proposals for reward based on merit, prices which reflect market value, the expansion of the private sector, and private (and non-free) medical care evoke at best a mixed response.

Thus, an unintended consequence of glasnost has been an emboldened cultural movement based on Russian nationalism. Historically, of course, Russian nationalism has been tolerated, and occasionally encouraged, at various strategic periods by the Communist leadership. The authorities long ago recognized the merit of identifying Soviet power with traditional Russian imperialism, and were willing to ignore ideological transgressions by Russian nationalists which would bring long stints in the gulag if committed by, say, Ukrainians or Latvians.

The nationalist camp has become more public, assertive, and extreme precisely when the Soviet Union’s political leaders are pursuing modernizing goals antithetical to the traditionalists’ agenda. And reactionary nationalists have proved as adept at exploiting glasnost as have liberal reformers. Their anti-Communism has become more overt; so has their anti-Semitism, especially as expressed by the Pamyat (Memory) group, which openly proclaims its belief in a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy to subvert traditional Russian values.

It may be, however, that glasnost has magnified the strength of the nationalist camp out of proportion to its real weight in Soviet society. Russian nationalism has produced talented and popular writers like Valentin Rasputin and has tapped a reservoir of popular frustration through its protests against environmental degradation and the destruction of churches and other symbols of the Russian heritage. But nationalist hostility to modern culture, especially American culture, finds little response from the people, particularly the young, who are attracted to consumer goods, rock music, foreign travel—precisely the features of Western life which the nationalists hold in contempt. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the limitations of the nationalist appeal is the results of the parliamentary elections, where nationalists fared poorly, and extreme nationalists of the Pamyat variety met total rejection. Ultimately, the nationalist camp’s greatest potential appeal is in its portrayal of Russia as victim—of Communism, of Western hostility, of the ingratitude of the smaller nationalities, of the changes introduced by Gorbachev and his radical economists. A shrewd Soviet leadership—and the current group is even more staunchly Russian than under Brezhnev—could easily manipulate Russian feelings of frustration and envy toward a reassertion of authoritarian rule.

Probably the weakest aspect of glasnost is in press treatment of foreign policy. A shift in tone, of course, can be discerned. Soviet media treatment of America no longer single-mindedly focuses on racial injustice, the crimes against the “Red Indians,” the plight of the homeless, or the rapaciousness of capitalism. Indeed, there is extensive commentary on the strengths of Western societies, particularly in economic matters. In general, however, the themes stressed in the media are those which fortify Gorbachev’s foreign-policy objectives. With the Soviet Union seemingly in the process of withdrawing from involvement in Third-World conflicts, the media have begun to emphasize the failures of socialism in the “newly liberated” states. The Soviet decision to pull out of Afghanistan was accompanied by press accounts of the “mistakes” of the old leadership in its decision to invade. Questions have also been raised about the militarization of Soviet foreign policy—just when Gorbachev was making a serious effort to convince the world, and Europe in particular, of his peaceful intentions. All or some of these changes may be welcomed; they do not constitute a real debate. Here, indeed, is glasnost as originally envisioned by Gorbachev: apparent candor in the service of official policy.

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Laqueur concludes on a pessimistic note. While the supporters of glasnost have achieved an impressive opening up of Soviet society, they have yet to demonstrate the ability to overcome the heavy burden of Russian history, with its unique tradition of hostility to Western-style freedom. At a time when Communist ideology everywhere seems to be disintegrating, Laqueur’s emphasis on the historical obstacles to liberty and openness is extremely important, and should be pondered by those who believed that Marxism’s collapse would automatically usher in a democratic millennium. Yet while Laqueur is duly appreciative of Communist totalitarianism’s role in compounding the dilemma of Russian authoritarianism, he perhaps does not give proper weight to the damage inflicted by seventy years of Leninist political organization. By imposing a single explanation for historical events, Communism has made suspect the process of critical and independent thought. By treating civic initiative as a form of treason, Communism has created almost insuperable oostacles to the reestablishment of political life. And by insisting on irrational economic policies, Communism has ensured that change will require prolonged periods of impoverishment, as witness the current tragic situation in Poland. A theme struck again and again by Soviet officials is the need to make the Soviet Union a “normal” society. It is their ill fortune to have inherited a system which, as Laqueur’s book makes clear, guarantees that the road to normality will be long and painful.

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About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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