Commentary Magazine

As I See Gorbachev

Three days before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit last December, I was invited to a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in which four Soviet officials—in the new spirit of glasnost—spent 90 minutes answering journalists’ questions. It did not take long to realize that while now smiles were allowed to crack the grim visages of the actors, and sweet courtesy was replacing rude and clumsy stonewalling, the script of the show was the same: the same tired catechisms, the same doubletalk, and the same fear of making “mistakes.”

“What about violations of the Helsinki accords?” asked a reporter.

“You have a suit on and I have a suit on. Your suit wouldn’t suit me and my suit wouldn’t suit you. We shouldn’t try to switch suits,” answered Albert Vlasov, Communist party spokesman.

“Why have you not tried to publish the October 21 speech of Boris Yeltsin?” asked another.

“We thought it incorrect to publish a speech delivered at the party plenum,” said Yegor Yakovlev, editor of the Moscow News. And Vitaly Korotich, editor of Ogonyok magazine, the flagship of glasnost, chimed in: “As a member of the party I would not dream of permitting myself to violate party discipline and disobey its instructions.”

“When are you going to have a free press?” yelled an impatient questioner.

“We have a free press!” answered Yakovlev.

I was experiencing déjà vu, as if I were back at the Moscow headquarters of the KGB in the 70’s. I said to a reporter, “You see, at the lower levels, the KGB is rude and rough, but at the top they are rather intellectual and smooth. The way they answer questions now is a lot like that. They acknowledge almost every problem in the distant past, but they really won’t confront problems that are still going on now. Glasnost is not a form of freedom. It’s just a new set of instructions on what is and isn’t permitted.”

To my surprise, my remarks and my picture got almost as much space as the Soviets did in the following morning’s Washington Post. To my even greater surprise, the day the story appeared a brick was tossed into my host’s car—in which he had driven me from the briefing—while it was parked in front of his home. It smashed the rear window and reached the steering wheel, leading the police to believe that it had been thrown from a passing vehicle. In Moscow, correspondents who drove spokesmen of dissidents around would find their cars with punctured tires in the morning. The déjà vu was complete.



Mikhail Gorbachev is a huge success in the West. Viewed as more honest, more talented, and more courageous than his predecessors, he has induced a euphoria in the media, in the public, and among politicians. He regularly bests Western leaders in public-opinion polls. He, not Ronald Reagan, is the hero of the arms-control agreement and his glasnost and perestroika, now securely ensconced in our language, are viewed as harbingers of even better things to come. The conventional wisdom is that he is on the right track, that while he cannot change everything at once (“he has opposition in the Kremlin and in the bureaucracy, you know”) he will, given time and Western support, bring democracy and renewed vigor to the Soviet Union and peace to the world. Concomitantly, most seem to believe that the Soviet people, like a sleeping princess now awakening to the kiss of glasnost, are pining for Western-style democracy and ecstatically relish the daily broadening of their horizons.

There is something very winning in this optimistic view. But it fails to consider the genesis, purpose, and depth of Gorbachev’s reforms, and it underestimates what generations of coercion, negligence, tyranny, and brutality have done to the soul of the Russian people.

Not that the reforms have been insignificant. Some have been dramatic and, in the context of Soviet society, even revolutionary. But a comparison with the upheaval which led to Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power in the 50’s is instructive. Then, the KGB chief was executed, and the KGB’s iron grip on the government and the populace was noticeably weakened. Hundreds of thousands were released from the gulag, exonerated, and rehabilitated.

Under Gorbachev the KGB may be more subtle and sophisticated, and careful to keep a low profile. But there is no sign that its powers have been curtailed. With its blessing, and using glasnost as a license, Nazi-like anti-Semitic gangs have been allowed to organize and grow, to distribute The Protocols of the Elders of Zion freely, and to assault Jews in the streets, thus doing the KGB’s dirty work without reflecting directly on the regime. Jailed refuseniks, known as “prisoners of Zion,” and a few score of dissidents, mostly “celebrities” famous in the West, have been released, but there have been no admissions of error by the regime, and none of the falsely convicted has been rehabilitated. (The privilege of rehabilitation is now reserved for figures from the 20’s and 30’s who were murdered by Stalin and have been non-persons ever since.)

The less publicized victims have been less fortunate, however. Anatoli Marchenko and Alexsei Niktin, proponents of free trade unions, have died in prison, and Vladimir Klebanov, another labor activist, is lost somehere in the psychiatric gulag. Vazif Meilanoff, who spent seven years in an isolation cell for the crime of protesting Andrei Sakharov’s exile, is himself still in exile, and Leonid Lubman, who was arrested on trumped-up charges very similar to those used against me, and sentenced to the same term—thirteen years—is still in prison. The number of such prisoners is estimated at anywhere between 2,000 and 15,000, but only 500 of their names are known to Amnesty International. When Robert Bernstein, chairman of Helsinki Watch in America, asked Gorbachev why, after two-and-a-half years in power, he did not simply release all political prisoners, he replied, furiously, with a harangue about Americans shooting at Mexican “wetbacks.”

Khrushchev, as it turned out, did indeed have strong opposition in the Kremlin—the KGB and other elements whose wings he clipped never forgave him. But until he was finally toppled, rumors of rifts in the leadership were vehemently denied by the Kremlin. Now news of opposition to Gorbachev, a KGB protégé, usually originates in the Kremlin and is disseminated with great fanfare. The purpose, it seems, is not only to aver that unless he is supported abroad he will be overthrown at home, but to impart the impression that the Kremlin is just like any other government, with hawks and doves vying for influence.



Another useful comparison can be drawn in the area of emigration—this time between Gorbachev the “reformer” and Brezhnev the “ruthless dictator.” Under Gorbachev the number of Jewish applicants granted exit visas jumped from 1,000 in 1986 to 8,000 in 1987. Under glasnost-less Brezhnev, almost 300,000 Jews left the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, 51,000 of them in the peak year of 1979.

It is testimony to Gorbachev’s skill that the sudden but far from impressive increase in exit permits, accompanied by hints, winks, and veiled promises by Soviet officials to visiting Jewish leaders, gave rise to hopes of massive Jewish emigration. In the general euphoria, many failed to realize that the new Soviet emigration law enacted under Gorbachev is not designed to facilitate emigration but to terminate it. It limits eligibility for emigration to those who can receive invitations from blood relatives of the first degree living abroad—parents, children, or siblings. It thus excludes over 90 percent of the 400,000 Jews who have indicated their desire to leave.

The Soviet authorities, now in a post-summit mode and flush with Gorbachev’s popular success, are stringently enforcing these draconian restrictions. The new regulations also stipulate that of the 10 percent eligible to apply, those who possess “state secrets” would automatically be turned down. (The Soviets have applied this restriction to, among others, a seventy-four-year-old widow whose mathematician husband died seventeen years ago, under the pretext that he might have left her “state secrets.”)

Not surprisingly, the number of would-be emigrants now refused visas on these grounds has drastically increased, and some old-time refuseniks have been notified that previous reasons for rejecting their applications have been canceled only to be replaced by “security considerations.” Even relatives of such refuseniks, known in the dark humor of Jewish activists as “genetic security risks,” are thus excluded. And since applying under these conditions courts being branded a traitor willing to compromise state secrets, a potential applicant would have to contemplate the possibility not only of being fired and harassed and of living in limbo for many years but of imprisonment for treason. The few who succeed in getting through this sieve are required to provide an affidavit from all relatives, including in-laws and ex in-laws, that there are no financial claims against them. A brand-new regulation stipulates that they must pass a psychiatric examination to ascertain their sanity before they can exit.

Lest it be forgotten, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, reaffirmed in the Helsinki accords, to which the USSR is a signatory, clearly states that the right to leave any country, including one’s own, is a basic human right. Contracts obviously mean different things to different people. Or, as the Communist party spokesman put it in Washington, “Your suit wouldn’t suit me and my suit wouldn’t suit you.”

The one area in which glasnost has had to “give” more is the field of communications and the arts. Even seventy years of primitive conformism have not completely destroyed the Russian genius in literature, music, and dance, or suppressed the ferment among the intelligentsia and artistic community. To assuage the envy with which the Soviet intelligentsia view the freedom their colleagues in other Communist countries have been enjoying for decades, creative editors have been appointed at newspapers and magazines, and such subjects as crime, drug addiction, corruption, the Afghan war, and even—though rarely—anti-Semitism, all hitherto virtually taboo, are now discussed. Some banned dead writers, including Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vladimir Nabokov can now be read, and even a live émigré, Nobel-prize-winner Joseph Brodsky, is being published. Marc Chagall’s paintings, previously considered prime examples of “bourgeois decadence,” were exhibited in Moscow last year, albeit without mentioning his Jewishness, and the movie Repentance, a potent denunciation of Stalinist terror, though still cautious enough never to mention him by name, is a big hit. The restless energies of Soviet youth, for whom anything Western is a seductive symbol of liberty, have been placated by the legitimizing of rock, jazz, and jeans.

Other foreign influences, however, have not fared so well. At last year’s Moscow book fair, forty English-language books and twenty Russian books published outside the USSR were confiscated, and foreign artists of whose affiliations and sympathies the Soviet Union does not approve, including such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, and Daniel Barenboim, cannot perform there.

The traditional fear of foreign influence is matched by the traditional horror of demonstrations and rallies, and of the uncontrollable momentum they might create. When a large group of Tatars, a people exiled by the Soviet authorities from their land during World War II and never allowed to return, tried to demonstrate in front of the Kremlin, they were forcibly packed into buses and driven away. When a hundred refuseniks gathered in Moscow on the day a quarter of a million Jews marched in Washington to demand free emigration for Soviet Jews, they were roughed up by 200 agents of the KGB and dispersed. Peaceful protests of Jewish women in Moscow and Leningrad, by Latvians in Riga, and by Kazakhs in Alma Ata, were also forcibly put down.



What is discouraging about these incidents is not that they were suppressed, but that the grabbings at the crumbs of freedom have been so few. Almost all have been expressions of national and ethnic aspirations by minorities, not a surge for liberty by the majority. This tends to confirm the pessimistic view that the apathy, fatalism, and cynicism that permeate the Soviet Union make a groundswell for greater liberty—something like the momentum for liberalization which occurred in Poland during the heyday of Solidarity—quite unlikely. Alexander Zinoviev describes the new Soviet man as an empty vessel unable to think or revolt, ignorant of the world and his own history, and conditioned to believe not that what the authorities tell him is true but that it must be accepted as an inevitable part of life, the way one accepts rain. And, indeed, not only the authorities consider citizens cogs in the wheel of the state, the people so consider themselves too. The Western notion that the government is subject to the constraints of law is alien to the Soviet citizen. The government is the law. It can grant rights to its subjects and it can take them away. It can be benevolent and it can be cruel. But, by definition, it cannot violate the law. Gorbachev has not changed this principle, nor can he do so within the framework of the system. All he has done is to increase the number of gifts the government is currently willing to bestow.

The “credit” for creating such passivity and conformity should perhaps not be given exclusively to the Communist regime. The czars, although far more liberal in allowing foreign contacts and emigration, deserve at least part of it. A decade before the Bolshevik takeover, the Stolypin reforms encouraged peasants to emerge from feudal “collectivism” and adopt free-enterprise methods. The reforms were an abysmal failure because, among other reasons, those who established successful independent farms were assaulted by fellow peasants who considered the communal tenure of the feudal village the only just and egalitarian system.

This kind of attitude puts the prospects of Gorbachev’s perestroika into question. Gorbachev wants to introduce a modicum of free enterprise, create new incentives to prod people of talent and intelligence, and allow efficiency and productivity, rather than bureaucratic inertia, to determine the survival of plants and factories. He wants to do this without giving up the power to dictate, without a real decentralization of economic planning, and, needless to say, without allowing market forces of supply and demand into play. His reforms, at least initially, will mean more work and less vodka, higher prices and lower wages, and the dislocation of workers and unemployment. They will require enthusiasm, enterprise, and a lot of popular trust in the party-created ruling class, which is just as remote from the masses and just as privileged as the czars and noblemen who preceded them. It is a tall order.

The generalizations about the Soviet populace do not usually apply to Jews. Perhaps because they have always been considered outsiders, or because their own cultural heritage served as a powerful counterinfluence, the Jews never quite accepted enforced conformity and the obliteration of individualism. Ever since emerging from the ghetto they have tended to push for change, and the number of Jews who participated in revolution and upheaval was always grossly disproportionate to their percentage in the population. But in times of retrenchment, their effervescence was deemed dangerous, and they have never been considered loyal Soviet citizens. Much is being said about the possibility, the logic of which is seemingly unassailable, that Gorbachev will attempt to make life in the USSR so attractive for Jews that they will not want to leave. For most, the freedom to study Hebrew and worship in a synagogue is less important than the prospect of attending a good university and attaining a high professional position. But it is doubtful that they will be given these opportunities.



Gorbachev’s reforms are not, then, intended to lead to the democratization of Soviet society or to any true pluralism. As he himself told the French-USSR Friendship Society last year, “We openly say that nobody will be allowed to act against socialism.”

The reforms are dictated, rather, by the need to invigorate the Soviet economy, now in one of its worst slumps since the 1920’s, and to reverse its decline. International factors, like the crash in oil prices, which has caused Soviet indebtedness to the West to rise to $40 billion (it may reach $60 billion by 1990), as well as industrial inefficiency, corruption, backwardness and sloth, and a lopsided defense and space-exploration budget, threaten to make the economic gap between the USSR and the West unbridgeable. Even if perestroika succeeds beyond expectations, the modernization of the economy cannot be achieved without Western help. The official bluster about the inevitability of socialist victory over capitalism notwithstanding, the Soviet leaders know that the limitations inherent in the Soviet system preclude successful competition with the West. But the West, wary of dark dictatorships, must be assured of Soviet benignity. As Gorbachev put it on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, “[Our reforms] are eliminating the fear of the ‘Soviet threat.’”

The formula for this was found not in Marx or Lenin, but on Madison Avenue, or, rather, through Soviet officials familiar with the American public-relations-conditioned psyche. Shapers of Soviet thinking of the old school like Boris Ponomarev were replaced by Ambassadors Anatoly Dobrynin and Aleksandr Yakovlev, who had served many years in North America. English-speaking “journalists” versed in the ways of the West, like Gennadi Gerasimov, who used to be minor apparatchiks and anonymous lackeys, are now official spokesmen. It finally dawned on the Soviet leadership that in the day of television a smile, a modulated voice, and an amicable appearance are far more effective than bullying and threats, and immeasurably more important than substance in shaping public opinion.

In the substance of Soviet foreign policy it is difficult to discern change. Despite the dire economic conditions, the Soviet Union has reduced neither its military budget nor the military aid it extends to its client states. Last summer, in a major speech in Warsaw, Gorbachev reiterated his commitment to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which sanctions Soviet intervention to defend socialist regimes from foreign attack as well as internal upheaval. He has also made it clear that while economic liberalization in Eastern Europe is welcome, there will be no loosening of either the political or the economic leash with which the USSR holds these countries.

As if to stress that arms agreements and closer ties with the West must not be allowed to change traditional Communist attitudes toward the capitalist world, there has been no letup in anti-American propaganda. Soviet papers still allege that AIDS was invented at Fort Detrick, Maryland, as a biological-warfare weapon, and that the CIA murdered the 918 members of the Jim Jones People’s Temple who committed suicide in Guyana in 1978 to prevent their emigration to the USSR. But this is either unknown or ignored in the West, where the preoccupation with nuclear disarmament overshadows all else, and it has not diminished the popularity Gorbachev enjoys for signing an intermediate-range nuclear-arms agreement. There would have been no treaty had the U.S. not introduced Pershing missiles in Europe despite the four-year Soviet walkout from the arms talks and the massive demonstrations throughout the continent. And it is a measure of Gorbachev’s public-relations adroitness that he successfully transformed a move dictated by strategic considerations into what is perceived as a gesture of magnanimity and peace.

At the summit he also succeeded in setting the agenda. Subjects the USSR preferred not to discuss—regional conflicts and human rights—were pushed aside. The principle of linkage, intrinsic to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties “favored-nation” status in trade relations to Soviet performance on human rights, and the Helsinki accords, which tie political boundaries and security arrangements to human rights, had disappeared. A State Department official told me just before the summit that the U.S. was no longer committed to linkage per se. “Now,” he said, “we conduct talks on the four main topics—arms, trade, regional conflicts, and human rights—in parallel fashion.”

“How, then, do you expect them to make concessions in such areas as human rights or regional conflicts?” I asked.

“We count on the atmosphere to do it, and on the fact that we clearly attach similar importance to all four subjects,” he replied.

To count on “atmosphere” to reverse Soviet policy is, to put it charitably, pollyannish. The Soviets encourage regional conflicts not only because they extend Soviet influence and power and serve as a trump card in dealing with the West, but because they inspire xenophobic ideological fervor in the Soviet population and a willingness to sacrifice and conform. That is why throughout its seventy years of existence, the Soviet Union has indiscriminately supported violent movements and regimes. Turmoil serves the Soviets well: violent conflict is the only area in which they can successfully compete with the West.

A withdrawal from Afghanistan is therefore a crucial test of Soviet intentions. For in addition to the moral, geopolitical, and strategic issues involved, it would constitute a precedent: the first time the Soviets have been willing to give up on a conflict and voluntarily relinquish a conquered piece of land. (When they joined the war against Japan in the last days of World War II, hardly engaging in the fighting with the Japanese, the Soviets captured four tiny islands near the northern coast of Japan, the largest of which, Shikotan, is barely noticeable on the map. Strategically, politically, and economically, these occupied territories are meaningless. The Japanese, who would like to have them back for reasons of national pride, have made extravagant offers, including substantial assistance in developing projects in Siberia which the Soviets cannot accomplish by themselves. But the thought of relinquishing a possession is such an anathema to the Soviets that even though they need the help, and are eager to improve relations with Japan, they have not been able to bring themselves to give up the islands.)



Another regional conflict in which the Soviets have been involved, albeit not with the Red Army but through proxies and advisers, is the Middle East. Recent Soviet moves hinting at the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel, and the resumption of such relations at a low level by Poland, have been perceived as a change of heart, as an inevitable and welcome part of the general superpower thaw. In fact they signify only a change of tactics. Soviet policy has been consistent. Even when its anti-Israel propaganda was at its most virulent, it did not want to destroy Israel. Unlike the Nazis, the Soviet rulers do not let their anti-Semitism determine foreign policy. What they want is an Israel weak enough to tantalize Arab radicals with hopes of destroying it, thus making Israel dependent on Soviet good will to squelch these hopes; and they want Arab regimes radical enough to nurse such hopes even at the price of total dependence on the Soviet Union. What they do not want is a strong, independent Israel capable of drawing Egypt away from the family of Soviet clients, able to frustrate Soviet-abetted terrorism by Libya, Syria, and the PLO, and ready to stabilize the region further by making its own peace with Jordan. When Gromyko says, “Zionist Israel is not what we voted for in the UN,” he means an independent, Western-oriented, strong Israel.

To return to a position of arbiter after the defeat of its clients in the 1967 war, the Soviets floated the idea of an international peace conference on the Middle East whose participants would include the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the parties to the conflict. Except for a short-lived stab at it following the 1973 war, aborted after the opening sessions, Israel rejected the idea. But, under Gorbachev, the Soviets began to drop hints that, in return for Israeli participation in such a conference, they would resume diplomatic relations and allow free Jewish emigration.

Some Israeli leaders saw these hints as forerunners of a commitment, and agreed to an international conference, provided the PLO was excluded, and the role of the big powers was limited to the ceremonial. But for the Soviets to refrain from an active role at such a conference would contradict basic Soviet strategic and political dogma. The temptation to appear as the Arabs’ active champion in forcing an Israeli withdrawal would be irresistible, as would the opportunity to pressure the U.S. to make concessions at Israel’s expense.

If, say, the Soviets were to promise concessions, real or imagined, on the popular issue of arms control in return for American pressure on Israel, there is little doubt that not only the State Department but American public opinion would support the deal. And the Soviets would have a field day with Israel’s eagerness to reach its two main goals—peace and the emigration of Soviet Jews. If Israel refused to yield, the Soviets might threaten that Soviet Jews would suffer from Israel’s “intransigence.” Activists for Soviet Jewry would then feel compelled to beg Israel to make sacrifices for the sake of Soviet Jews. Conversely, if international pressure to release Soviet Jews were to increase, the Soviets could get tougher at the conference, until the Israeli government was forced to ask for the easing of such pressure so that the Soviets would be more amenable on Middle East issues. Free of pressure from press and parliament clamoring for settlement, the Soviets enjoy an advantage at such “peace” conferences that is unbeatable.

To believe that the advent of glasnost justifies giving the Soviets a role in determining the fate of Israel or, for that matter, in anything at all, is to ignore the fact that neither domestic reforms nor diplomatic thaws have ever heralded a moderation of Soviet ambition. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader most committed to reform, conducted an exceptionally adventurous foreign policy. And during the détente of the 1970’s, the Soviets exploited the improved international ambience, and the resultant public pressure for disarmament and disengagement in the West, to launch the biggest arms build-up in their history, foment wars in Ethiopia, Angola, the Middle East, and Nicaragua, and to invade Afghanistan.



Many conclude from this recent history that the Western response to Soviet reforms and gestures of rapprochement should not be one of conciliation and assistance, but of rejection and boycott, and that the troubled Soviet economy should not be rescued again the way it was salvaged in the 20’s, 40’s, and 70’s by Western assistance, but allowed to collapse. Only thus, the reasoning goes, can today’s totalitarian threat to the democracies be removed.

But to expect the West to launch a successful boycott of the Soviet Union in today’s world is not realistic. The Soviets have managed to circumvent even so watertight a constraint as the Stevenson amendment, which prohibits the U.S. Export-Import bank from granting Moscow taxpayer-subsidized trade credits. By going directly to major banks, they have received billions of dollars at ridiculously low interest rates in untied loans, not linked to any specific trade deal or project. The question is not whether or not there will be deals with the Soviets but under what conditions, and with what results.

Gorbachev is the most pragmatic and most realistic of all Soviet dictators. As his reversal of the Soviet attitude to arms negotiations following the positioning of American Pershing missiles in Europe showed, he has more respect for facts than for doctrine, and if an initial idea fails, he will cast about for others. Skillful in gauging and manipulating the public mood in the West, he can become more dangerous than his predecessors. But his realism also gives room for hope, for it should enable him correctly to assess his regime’s weaknesses and the real power of his adversaries. That is why it is vitally important to expose his deceptions and demonstrate massive opposition to his policies. The march of 250,000 Jews in Washington before last December’s summit, decrying Soviet violations of human-rights treaties and the ongoing refusal to allow Jewish emigration, aimed at doing just that. It also showed that the gut reaction of people is sometimes healthier than that of politicians.



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