Farewell Perestroika

Monday, February 18, 1991

Farewell Perestroika: A Soviet Chronicle

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Verso. 1990. $29.95.

Reviewed by Sally Low

That the reform process in the Soviet Union is currently under threat can be read in just about any Western newspaper you choose to pick up. News of economic problems, explosive tensions between Moscow and many of the republics, moves towards increased press censorship and the growing prominence of hardliners in the government create a gloomy picture. In this context, Boris Kagarlitsky's Farewell Perestroika is a timely book.

Kagarlitsky, a Soviet Marxist academic, is looking for left-wing solutions to the problems that the Soviet Union faces. His analysis is neither pro-capitalist nor pro-Stalinist and is based on a career of active involvement in the "unofficial" Soviet left. He was jailed in 1982 for collaborating on a left-wing dissident journal, has participated in building the Moscow Popular Front, was elected to the Moscow Soviet in 1990 and is prominent in the newly formed Socialist Party.

Written between 1988 and 1989, the articles in this book present a perspective that has not received wide coverage either in the West or in the Soviet Union — where, at the time of publication, none of the articles had been published in official journals or newspapers.

Through his coverage of some of the great events of perestroika — the 1988 party conference, the elections to the Congress of People's Deputies, the rise of the national movements and the miners' strikes — Kagarlitsky poses the problem of how to develop socialist solutions outside the framework of the ruling CPSU hierarchy.

Gorbachev and his supporters on the other hand, while they have often acknowledged that only the people can ensure the success of perestroika, have kept the major political struggle for reforms within the confines of the party's leadership bodies. They see no other way. Kagarlitsky argues that perestroika has been flawed and even defeated by this strategy.

Turning point

He sees the party conference and the 1989 Congress of People's Deputies elections as the turning point of perestroika. It was then that the whole country hoped for thoroughgoing democratisation and instead, says Kagarlitsky, was presented with half measures that satisfied no-one and allowed the conservatives to hold the line against a deepening of the reforms.

Undemocratic electoral procedures, the appointment of one-third of the Congress delegates by the official organisations and the open-endedness of the Conference Theses all allowed the apparatus to maintain control and avoid committing itself to anything too concrete.

Nevertheless, and this comes through clearly in Kagarlitsky's writings, the elections did open up the political process to an extent that had long been inconceivable.

Despite the huge difficulties placed in the way of unofficial candidates, some were elected. There were new opportunities for political debate and dissemination of ideas. There were large demonstrations in many cities to protest against undemocratic aspects of the elections and the Congress. More recently, some 100,000 to 300,000 people gathered in Moscow to protest against the January 13 shootings in Vilnius.

An interesting tactical point is raised by Kagarlitsky's suggestion

that Gorbachev could have run for election to the Congress in his own right instead of accepting one of the positions reserved for members of the party.

It is possible that such an option could have enabled him to consolidate a base of popular support independent of the CPSU. On the other hand, would this have created the danger of an open split and moves against Gorbachev by the conservatives? Even in retrospect, it is difficult to determine the rights and wrongs, the dangers and possibilities had that choice been made. Kagarlitsky's assessment seems to be that Gorbachev, ultimately committed to keeping the leadership of the reform process within the CPSU, would not have considered such a move.

Nationality question

Fascinating sections of the book deal with the nationality question, from the rise of the Popular Fronts in the Baltics to the effects of perestroika on power structures in the southern republics and the attitude of various republican governments towards ethnic minorities within their republics.

He argues compellingly that administrative methods have epitomised the responses of the Soviet government to these developments. Despite some diplomatic and legislative attempts by Gorbachev to address these situations, Kagarlitsky maintains that in general Moscow's responses were undemocratic and too late.

Farewell Perestroika does not give much detail of the Moscow Popular Front's discussions over what attitude to take towards the reform wing of the bureaucracy. More of this type of information would have helped to clarify, for example, what the likely effects of a final defeat of the reformers by the conservatives would be

and what tactics the "unofficial" left has developed towards this question.

Kagarlitsky expresses frustration at the lack of a clear alternative left program, and indeed the development of one will pose some very difficult questions. Given the fact that perestroika was started from within the bureaucracy, from the top down, how should it have proceeded? How will the economic and political hold of the apparatus be broken without such an upheaval leading to the restoration of capitalism?

Farewell Perestroika does not claim to be and should not be read as a definitive history of the period, but it does help to put some of the recent developments into context. Along with others such as Time of Change by Roy Medvedev and Giulietto Chiesa, it is a book that must be read by anyone who wants to understand the complex process that has been Soviet politics since 1985. n