Is Glasnost a Game of Mirrors? (1987)

«The New York Times» (22 March 1987)

Are Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s new policies the historical turning point we have been praying for, signaling the end of oppression and misery in the Soviet Union? Or are we witnessing only a short-lived ”thaw,” a tactical retreat before the next offensive, as Lenin put it in 1921?

True, a number of the most prominent human rights activists have now been released from prison labor camps and from exile. As welcome as this gesture is, however, we cannot fail to notice that such selective mercy is of the kind exactly calculated to make a maximum public impression with a minimum of genuine concessions.

If the Soviet Union is really undergoing a change of heart, why has it not simply declared a general amnesty for all prisoners of conscience instead of resolving certain highly visible cases one by one over the course of a year?

We have not, for instance, heard any clear condemnation of the criminal use of psychiatry — the most notorious of the Soviet methods of repression. Nor have we seen any progress with respect to emigration.

Another welcome development, of course, is Moscow’s recognition of the need for radical economic reform. Yet to date no serious sign of this reform is anywhere in evidence.


The Soviet Union’s announced desire to end the war in Afghanistan could be even more welcome. But if the Kremlin really means to end the war, why does it not simply withdraw its troops? If the purpose of the delay is to leave behind a stable government, why not allow free and fair elections under strict international supervision? Since neither of these solutions seems to satisfy the Kremlin, we are forced to conclude that all it really wants is the appearance of leaving Afghanistan.

Perhaps the greatest puzzlement of all is that created by the new policy of ”glasnost” (openness). Indeed, it must be bewildering for many people to be reading in Pravda the very criticisms of Soviet reality that only a few years ago would have been branded as ”anti-Soviet slander” and rewarded accordingly. This new policy, too, is to some extent merely making a virtue of necessity. By now, it is senseless for the Soviet regime to maintain a huge and costly internal propaganda machine whose products are believed by few.

Thus, glasnost is helping the leaders regain the attention of the Soviet public while at the same time enhancing their image abroad. Real glasnost would involve genuine public debate in which everyone could take part without fear of punishment. It would, in other words, be a public guarantee against the abuse of power — whereas, what we are seeing is only the same old Party monopoly on the truth, with the order being that for the moment truth must be critical of the regime itself. Such an order could be countermanded tomorrow.

Consider the posthumous ”rehabilitation” of a few prominent writers such as Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Gumilev and Vladimir Nabokov. We note that the privilege of rehabilitation seems to be conferred exclusively on the deceased, who are guaranteed not to say or do anything unexpected. Moreover, a long line of less fortunate dead writers are still waiting their turn.

The same holds true for the current interest in the corpses of certain artists such as the opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and the film director Andrei Tarkovsky, who died expatriates and whom — against their explicit last wishes — the authorities are desperately trying to repatriate post-mortem.

This macabre body-snatching can hardly be called cultural freedom — nor can the invitations to a few prominent émigrés to return ”home” like so many prodigal sons, the past ”forgotten.”

No one, after all, prevents the Soviet Union from distributing the books and records of émigrés or from showing their films and plays and paintings. Were Soviet audiences simply allowed to choose for themselves, émigré artists and writers would require no back-door negotiations with the authorities. One might forget the past, but how can anyone ”forget” the continuing omnipresent party control — especially after tasting freedom in the West?

Finally, suppose that Mr. Gorbachev’s most daring suggestion to date — that is, freer elections within the Party — were to be implemented. Such a great leap forward would merely grant the Soviet people what the blacks currently enjoy in South Africa: 7 percent of the population would hold ”free” elections for themselves.

The fact is that the Soviet leaders could, without truly altering the nature of the regime, afford an even greater temporary ”retreat” than that which is giving rise to so many undue hopes at the moment. They could reduce the excesses of the criminal-justice system, permit far greater emigration and withdraw from Afghanistan. They could even publish Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. They could become as ”free” and ”capitalist” as Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia or China.

The real question is not how far the current ”thaw” will go, but how long it will last. For unlike Hungary and Poland, the Soviet Union does not live in the shadow of a Big Brother that can come to the rescue, and, unlike China, it has a host of small brothers to look after.


What Westerners fail to understand is that if the Soviet leaders were really intent on radical change, they would have to begin by discarding the ruling ideology.

Ideology is that hard core of the Soviet system that does not allow the country to deviate too far for too long; unless the central ideological tenets were to be challenged, long-term Soviet strategy would remain imprisoned by its assumptions.

As long as there is no doctrinal possibility of peace with the ”class enemy,” how can there be genuine peaceful co-existence with the ”bourgeois” world? Nor is peaceful co-existence inside the Soviet Union any more likely.

As long as the ”historic struggle of the two worlds” rages, Soviet citizens cannot simply be left to pursue their private lives and aspirations: They are conscripts in a nationwide army of ideological warriors, pressed to view themselves not as ordinary members of the human family but as bearers of ”Socialist justice,” ”Socialist culture,” ”Socialist sport” — and now even ”Socialist glasnost.”

For the West to take the new policies at face value is to deal with symptoms and ignore the disease. Meaningful change would require the Soviet leaders to reject the basic fallacies of Marxist-Leninist dogma, cease the one-sided ”historic struggle” and allow the Soviet people to be ordinary humans for whom words like ”democracy,” ”culture,” ”justice” and ”glasnost” are permitted to mean what they mean to their ”bourgeois” brothers.

Moreover, if the Kremlin sincerely wants to turn over a new historical leaf, it must stop exploiting the painful memories of World War II for propaganda, close down the vicious ”Military Patriotic Program” obligatory in every school and prevent any further militarization of society. Most of all, it must tell the full historical truth about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.

National reconciliation cannot be achieved by releasing a couple of hundred prisoners from jails, where they should not have been in the first place.

The Soviet Union is a gravely sick country, whose leaders have had to break with a 70-year tradition of silence merely to gain a little trust from both the Soviet population and the world outside.

It is they, however, who must learn to trust. They must give the people the right to administer justice in proper courts, and they must learn to have enough respect for public opinion not to engage in their customary tactics of disinformation and manipulation.

Even a fool can see by now that if 70 years of doctrine have brought to ruin one of the richest countries on earth, the doctrine must be faulty. Mr. Gorbachev admits that no one in all those years succeeded in putting the country right. Perhaps, then, the time has come to reject the system itself. Was it not Lenin who said that only practice can ultimately judge theory?

As for the West, is it not an embarrassment for people to be in such a hurry to applaud the Soviet Union for promising conditions that they themselves would not tolerate for one moment?


This article was prepared by a group of dissident Soviet émigrés,
all living in the West. They are

Vasily Aksyonov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Edward Kuznetsov, Yuri Lyubimov,
Vladimir Maximov, Ernst Neizvestny and Aleksandr Zinoviev

Copyright 2015 The New York Times Company

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