Medvedev assesses the Gorbachev era

November 6, 1991

Roy Medvedev was the leading dissident Soviet historian during the Brezhnev years. He was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1969. In 1971, following the publication in the West of his monumental study on Stalin, Left History Judge, he was dismissed from his academic position and forced to work as a freelance historian and sociologist.

Medvedev was elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, readmitted to the Communist Party and elected to its Central Committee in 1990.

On October 1 he was interviewed for New Left Review by Renfrey Clarke and Jonathan Steele. In the following extract, Medvedev assesses the impact of Gorbachev's reform process.

* * *

In my view it's still too early to make any definitive characterisations. As a historian, I have to take a long-term view, and with Gorbachev that's not yet possible.

You have to ask: what did the person in question leave behind? Take Khrushchev. Although many of Khrushchev's reforms were unsuccessful, nonetheless a great deal of what he did remained. However much Brezhnev wanted to rehabilitate Stalin, and to restore certain of Stalin's policies, he had only limited success.

You can call Gorbachev a great reformer, but we'll only really be able to pronounce judgment on this in another 10 or 15 years.

Gorbachev embarked on huge reforms, but he didn't have any conscious plan. From the very first, his reforms were badly thought out, and quite devoid of effective forecasting. He followed a course that consisted of successive zigzags to the right or left.

Many of Gorbachev's reforms were simply mistaken and sharply undermined people's confidence in him. Despite Gorbachev's aura of the great reformer, despite the fact that he radically transformed our society, the mass of the population have a very low regard for him. Now the last vestiges of support that he had within the Communist Party are gone as well — Gorbachev himself renounced them. Communists now despise him even more than other people.

When Gorbachev took power, our country was in a perilous condition. Six years after Gorbachev began his reforms, what do we see? In economic terms, the country is behind where it was in 1985. We're producing less in quantitative terms, and the quality of our output hasn't improved. People are working worse than they were before; only a few individual enterprises are working better. The performance of our agriculture has deteriorated; none of the underlying problems in this sector have been solved. The union has fallen apart into a series of separate republics, and in many of these a similar process of disintegration is going ahead. The monetary system is disintegrating, and inflation is speeding up.

Now there's at least a certain freedom of speech and freedom of opinion, and of course this is good. But to a significant degree this occurred independently of Gorbachev; the situation in the country became so bad that people simply spoke out, and couldn't be stopped.

Gorbachev introduced certain changes to ideology, but didn't carry ogical conclusions. He proclaimed the advent of "new thinking", but this was merely a slogan. There was talk of a new concept of socialism, of a new approach to socialism, but this wasn't followed up.

Gorbachev was always making drastic changes of direction. In 1985 he began his reforms with his anti-alcoholism measures. Using forcible and quite undemocratic administrative-command methods, he tried to wean people off vodka. There was also a campaign against smoking. Now people are drinking more. But the anti-alcoholism campaign helped bring about the collapse of the financial system, because the government drew a great deal of its revenue from alcohol sales, which are a state monopoly.

Then in 1986 Gorbachev began a struggle against unearned incomes. It didn't last long — about two months. There was supposed to be a struggle against speculators — somebody who obtained a sack of potatoes from his neighbour and sold them at the market would be regarded as a speculator because he sold them for more than he paid his neighbour. The markets stopped working, and the links between the countryside and the towns suffered.

Then we saw a turnaround. When it became obvious that the government's policies were arousing dissatisfaction and that the economic situation was worsening, the law on cooperation was adopted, along with legislation on the independence of enterprises. But these moves weren't properly thought through. For this reason the cooperatives right from the beginning took on a speculative character and not a productive one; they failed to put significant new quantities of goods on the market.

The law on the independence of enterprises was also poorly thought out. We saw the rise of "collective egoism"; each enterprise thought solely of itself, just as in Yugoslavia. The links between enterprises were broken, and production levels didn't improve.

In the countryside, Gorbachev sought initially to solve the problems through changes to the system of administration of agriculture, just as Khrushchev had done, without understanding that the critical thing was initiatives from below, from the peasants themselves. Huge, unwieldy new administrative apparatuses were set up — Agropromsoyuz, Agroprom of the Russian Federation. Today nothing remains of them. They hindered the development of agriculture rather than helping it.

The question arose of how to bring about improvements in the quality of Soviet-made goods. A State Committee for the Control of the Quality of Production was set up. As well, a huge state organisation called Gospriyomka ["state acceptance agency"] was established. Gospriyomka was supposed to accept the products of the enterprises and to test their quality. A huge new apparatus arose, with thousands of functionaries, but the quality of goods failed to improve.

Now we're trying to carry out a transition to the market, so that the market will directly regulate the quantity and quality of goods.

But they decided they wanted to carry out this transition fast. Last year they worked out the "Program of 500 Days". Over 500 days, we were to make the transition to the market.

But making a transition to the market in the space of 500 days was impossible. Because in so enormous an economic system as the Soviet Union, there were few banks capable of providing financial services under market conditions, there were no exchanges, none of the structures of the market system existed. I'm not an economist, but I consider that a market economy is a much more delicate creature, much more difficult to regulate than a command-administer system.

The market system is much more subtle. It demands quite different people, quite different economic structures, quite different relationships between regions, a quite distinct system of relations between enterprises.

In the West all this was established over centuries, but we decided to create it in the space of 500 days. And of course, it didn't work. So in the Soviet Union today no-one lives better than they did 10 years ago, if we don't count the two or three per cent of the population who are growing rich on speculation.

Glasnost was an excellent thing, but its effect was to release a flood of complaints. During the years of Soviet power a huge volume of dissatisfaction had built up. The effect of democratisation wasn't that people expressed their good will, their suggestions, their constructive ideas, but above all their animosity. Instead of enthusiasm, an enormous negative potential rose to the surface.

I repeat my conviction that it was possible to carry out reform in a peaceful and consistent fashion. It was possible to work out an intelligently conceived, properly considered plan of reforms which would have brought steady improvements to the situation in the economy, to the situation in politics and ideology, to the situation with regard to the national question.

It was necessary to draw up a thoroughly researched program of perestroika, to map out the time frame and the methods for implementing this program, for introducing the methods of the market economy, for introducing private production, for developing small and middle production as well as large enterprises, for bringing about competition between enterprises and for putting an end to the system of large monopolies in the economy. It would have been possible to work out such a plan.

At earlier stages in the process I was very impressed by Gorbachev, but now I can see that his main role has been to destroy rather than to construct.

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