The 1980s for the Soviet Union: The Space of Power and a Search for New Ways of Historical Progress

Hosei University, Tokio, February 19, 2007


n the focus of my speech – the 1980s, both remote and close. They embraced 3 different, but connected with each other, eras: Brezhnev’s socialist «apogee», Andropov’s «turn» and Gorbachev’s «perestroika».

No wonder, there is a huge literature on the subject, both researching (Yu. Aksjutin, G. Arbatov, A. Barsenkov, G. Boffa, A. Vdovin, St. Cohen, M. Lewin, M. Malia, R. Medvedev, R. Pikhoia, A. Fursov, A. Yanov, etc.) and memoir (S. Akhromeev, A. Bovin, F. Burlatski, Yu. Voronov, A. Gaidar, A. Gromyko, M. Gorbachev, A. Dobrynin, A. Yegorychev, B. Yeltsin, A. Kornienko, N. Ryzhkov, V. Semichastnyj, P. Shelest, D. Shepilov, A. Yakovlev, etc.).

Let me draw your attention to only two problems which, I seem, can improve our understanding of the Russian 1980s and give a possible perspective on their studying.

The first problem is that of a space of power. This space is a specific interactive sphere where government proper is exercized.

The second problem concerns the way of the country’s motion during the 1980s: mobilization or modernization?


But first let me remind you in brief the Soviet history of 1980s.


n the first half of the decade, the political life in the Soviet Union was quaked with frequent changes of leaders. In January 1982 Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologist of the party, died. Later that year, in November, Leonid Brezhnev, the long-time head of the party and state died, too. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov who died in less than 15 months, in February 1984. Konstantin Chernenko acquired the highest authority, but in March 1985 there was another funeral and another changing of power.

Mikhail Gorbachev and his team staked on “acceleration”. But this policy appeared to result in growing number of accidents in different sectors of economy. The Chernobyl nuclear power station accident of April 1986 became a gloomy symbol of catastrophe.

In 1987 Gorbachev launched “perestroika”, which meant radical economic and political reforms as well as ideological revision. In 1989 the First Congress of People’s Deputies elected by a new electoral law was convened.

At the same time, the Baltic republics appeared to fully intend to withdraw from the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation headed by Boris Yeltsin passed a declaration on national sovereignty. In the 1990 the Communist Party ceased to be a nucleus of the Soviet political system, and this fact was reflected in the Constitution. The multiparty system started to revive. In December 1990 Nikolai Ryzhkov, the head of the Government, stated the collapse of the economy and the “breakdown of perestroika” and then resigned.


Let me also remind you about foreign factors.


hat were the early 80s internationally? There are only a few, most important developments:

The “Solidarity” Movement in Poland signifying a starting-point for the crisis of Soviet satellite system in Central Eastern Europe;

The Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan gradually bleeding the USSR dry;

The disposition of American cruise missiles in Western Germany, Great Britain and Italy, and then, of Soviet missiles in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany, which marked a turn from the détente policy to confrontation;

The shooting-down of a South Korean passenger aircraft which encouragied Reagan to brand the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.

In 1987-88 Gorbachev proposed an idea of “new thinking” in international relations. Soviet-American summits were restored. An agreement was reached about the elimination of a whole class of nuclear weapons. Soviet troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan. In 1989-90 “velvet revolutions” took place in East European countries. Communist parties there were deposed from power. The German Democratic Republic as a state, disappeared and merged with the Federative Republic of Germany.  

Even a brief enumeration of these significant events demonstrates how difficult for historical analysis were the 1980s. A possible key to it can be found in a question worded in the Soviet Academy of Science in 1980 like “Have we built the right society?” A bit later it was publicly repeated by Andropov himself. Why did the question was put just this way?

By the early 80s , an illusion had reigned in the Soviet Union about a successful economic development based on the renovated, after Stalin’s death, Command Administration System. Steel, cement, tractor productions were increasing rapidly. But traditional, out-of-date branches consumed a lot of natural resourses which often were not used efficiently. Modern high technology productions formed only a small sector of economy. Moreover, they worked mostly for military orders.

After 1960, when in West Sibiria huge resourses of oil and gas were discovered, Soviet assets grew significantly and made economic reform unnecessary, at least for some time. As economist later put it, oil became a drug for the Soviet economy. The country was turning into an oil and gas addict. Huge pipe-lines transferred oil and gas to the West in exchange of hard currency. “Oil dollars” were spent for import consumer goods, foodstuffs and high technology equipment. Framed against the background of national agricultural crises, Soviet dependency on food imports became more clear and dangerous.

In the late 70s, another attempt to initiative economic reforms was made, but it was blocked by the political leadership. As it was the case in the late 60s, they saw in economic transformation a threat to their political authority.

It is not the coincidence that many scholars tend to see the reason of Soviet economic stagnation, deepening crises and, consequently, growing opposition attitudes exactly in the sphere of power.



t is accepted that Soviet history in Stalin’s years was connected with mobilization and, consequently, extreme concentration of national resources. The Requirements of mobilization development created extremely concentrated power. It’s space can be presented as a pyramid (look at the screen, please). In the centre there is the Supreme power-holder (The Ruler). He doesn’t only control the currents of mobilization energy, but also produces them. This is an important feature of the ideocratic regime. The Elite, during mobilization spurts, stays inert and serves as a docile instrument of Ruler. The People in the pyramid is out of  the space of power. So, relations between the Ruler and the Elite remain unaffected by the pressure from below.

As the mobilization temperature becomes lower, the Ruler’s freedom of control reduces (look at the screen, please). The Elite, on the contrary, grows stronger and tends to become an independent subject, not an instrument in hands of the weakening Ruler. While a pressure “from above” decreases, and a pressure “from below” doesn’t exist, the Elite begins growing fast. It surrounds the Ruler and adopts his function of power-producing.

Thus, a period of stagnation becomes a time of the Elite’s revenge. Just in Elite-dominated, stagnating periods Russia has been involved in the different modernizing experiments, trying on these or those Western patterns. But such modernization used to turn out a surface imitation of European practice. In the West, modernization was “heated” by the energy of popular initiative and based on a balance of interests. In Russia, the Elite saw in modernization the best way of their own accommodation.  



rezhnev’s regime was the apogee of the Elite domination. The Communist Party leader depended on the party nomenklatura but kept all formal attributes of supreme sovereignty. The Elite being a conglomerate of competitive groups, needed the General Secretary as an arbiter. But the Elite's primary goal was to find out ways to the property from which they were still alienated. They had been long dissatisfied with the role of material resources managers.

The nomenklatura privileges provided by Stalin's regime, to a certain degree, had met officials’ interests. After Stalin’s death and Khrushev’s deposition, the Elite got a real chance to approach to their main goal. The task of  creating a «non-transparent», or «shady» economy  was put on the agenda. But Kosygin’s reforms in the mid-60s splitted the Elite in two camps: ministerial and territorial. The first camp included upper managers of central ministries, the second one -- large plant and farm directors together with regional party officials. The Central Party authorities tried to stay «over fight».   

Territorial managers controlled the production they secured the effective functioning of a "shady" part of their economic activity. The ministerial bosses hadn’t got such opportunities and they had to be content with bureaucratic racketeering. The central Party authorities found it more and more difficult to control illegal financial flaws in lower echelons. As a result, the Elite torn apart by inner conflicts, was losing the opportunity to play a role of a governing subject. It required an external force capable to restore order, and more important, to launch market changes. Only they allowed to legalize the «shady» economy.

Yuri Andropov got a sort of carte-blanche from nomenklatura, that is,. a certain freedom of action in exchange of securing order and entering the market. Andropov understood that he got a unique chance – to strengthen his power and, under favorable circumstances, to restore the Party nomenklatura's monopoly it had possessed before Khrushev.  

Andropov acted swiftly, trying to prevent nomenklatura’s consolidation against such measures. He put heavy, Stalin-like pressure on the nomenklatura. In short time, 18 Union ministers and 37 regional Party Secretaries were disposed. The General Secretary obviously showed that he could, at any time, deprive any official of the opportunity to use the state property in his interests. The nomenklatura had to retreat and admit, if only formally, the supremacy of the new leader.

Andropov knew that in Russia, traditionally, the Ruler's power becomes invulnerable when a mobilizing project takes place. And the Elite, on the contrary, becomes stronger during modernization. In order to withdraw the Soviet Union from stagnation, to strengthen his own power and to «press down» the nomenklatura, he began to prepare a mobilization spurt. This spurt was aimed at the entering a postindustrial stage of development, by means of high technologies and science-based production. An idea of «acceleration», later adopted by Mikhail Gorbachev, emerged just then.

At the same time, Andropov didn't reject an idea of the limited using of market mechanisms in economic management -- but only on the shop-floor level. In fact, he tried to repeat a success of the NEP policy of the 1920s which had been achieved amidst a mobilization spurt of the early Soviet years.

For a few months, Andropov managed to restore a party leader's monopoly in the space of power and to «put the Elite to their place». He «attacked» the Elite during all his, not so long, ruling period. For this purpose, he used, directly or indirectly, the State Security Committee (the KGB) he had headed for one decade and a half.



ikhail Gorbachev, from the first days of his presidency, was in a very different situation. He was much influenced by his "apparat" background. As a Party secretary, he supervised local agriculture and actively lobbied the interests of territorial nomenklatura which also controlled the «shady market». Strong prejudice towards the opposing ministerial bureaucracy grew into a distinguishing feature of Gorbachev’s presidency. He followed Andropov’s "acceleration" line. But Gorbachev's «acceleration» had a clear antiministerial tendency. It can have a following explanation. Soviet industrialization in the 1930s was exercised by means of resource "pumping out" from the countryside. The 1980s «acceleration» was to be based on rationalization of production through improvement of managing mechanisms. A policy of permitted "glasnost» was aimed at criticizing of the bureaucracy which considered to have created the Brezhnev «stagnation».

This clarifies an idea of ministerial enlargement. Any shifts at the top level of bureaucracy inevitably weakened the established ministerial vertical of management. The territorial nomenklatura, free from the central authorities control, gained the upper hand. That was also true about an idea of transferring principal managing functions from center to regions. The ghosts of Khrushchev sovnarkhozes began haunting the Soviet economy. The Agroprom (Agriculture-Industrial Complex) embodied those ideas. A system of RAPO (District Agricultural and Industrial Complexes) worked directly for the interests of local managers. Moreover, Gorbachev even intended to transfer a part of party district committee responsibilities to RAPO.

The General Secretary’s initiatives significantly weakened the influence of Party officials, too. The Central Committee Plenary Session in the early 1987 was held in order to discuss the Party personnel policy. The results of this discussion appeared no less than revolutionary. In fact, there wasn't discussed the Gorbachev team actions, but a problem of basic principles of the political system and ways of its functioning. The Plenary session also replaced a nomenklatura principle of appointment for party positions with direct and alternative election – from bottom to top, and set a course for "revival" of the vertical of Soviets. The party apparatus itself, after delegating of some of its functions to the Soviets, was to be reduced.

At the XIX Party Conference in 1988, the Andropov model of "acceleration" was given up. Gorbachev’s intention to fully transform the regime became obvious. In the complex transformation of the Soviet system, the political reform took a dominant place. The improvement of the economic mechanism now was considered as an integral part of a general democratic process. Moreover, the economic changes of the early «perestroika» were considered as democratization of the inner industrial management. Elective management was introduced into practice, the role of enterprises in decision-making expanded.  

Thus, a centralized and balanced system of appointments and control was weakened and not replaced by market stabilizers. It made economic and political processes uncontrollable. In these circumstances, an epoch of people's deputies congress began and Gorbachev became a President. At the same time the 6th Article of the Constitution was canceled and the Party became an outsider. Gorbachev consistently went on with lobbying the interests of local officials. The XIX Party Conference especially emphasized an opportunity «of transfer to self-financing for republics and regions». It was another "black mark" for Union ministries and their departments and, in perspective, for all Union’s statehood. A law «On Cooperation» gave start to legalization of the «shady» business of regional elites. Henry Kissinger later on noted: by 1990, the centralized planning system of the Soviet Union had finally ossified.  Numerous bureaucratic organizations established for control over all aspects of citizens’ life, instead of it, began to conclude «non-aggression» pacts with those whom they were supposed to control.  The bureacracy’s primary task became self-preservation. Gorbachev’s attempt to let loose the initiative undermined the system and “pull it down to a brick”.           



his process took place amid disintegrating actions of the republican congress of people’s deputies and their established governing bodies. The sovereignty of the first Soviet President was evaporating almost visibly. Supported and promoted by Gorbachev, local “nomenklatura” launched a fly-wheel of the Union break-down. The Union became an obstacle to satisfying material needs of this “nomenklatura”. Framed in the acting Union legal field, the situation turned out hopeless. This fact urged a part of the Union leadership to take extraordinary measures. These measures resulted in August 1991 in a attempted coup d’eatat which signified the country’s entering a new decade and a new epoch.

The space of power under Gorbachev can be presented as follows (look at the screen):

Once integral “body” of the Elite became fissured; the fissures get wider and deeper, they swallow up the Ruler, and, at last, the whole pyramid collapses. The People remains the least affected by the collapse. It becomes “building material” for a new system, with a new Ruler and a new Elite.


It is important to make clear what was a predominant idea with which Russia was entering a new epoch? Without answering this question, it would be difficult to understand the nuances of modern Russian history.

In the late 1980-s dominating was a following model: “Democrats of the Communist Party plus outside Democrats against the Communist Party Conservatives”. But since 1990, most of emerging political parties were based on anti-Communism, and their tactical model was: “Democrats outside the Communist Party against the Communist Party”. The leaders of these new parties began to mock as a nonsense Gorbachev’s attempt to save Soviet socialism, or, at least, the country’s loyalty to a “socialist choice”. New parties were competing against each other under a slogan “More Liberalism!” Thus, the “Leftists”, most of whom had been Communists for years, now were turning into the “Rightists”.

This quick and strange transformation seems to be a consequence, first, of the Communist Party’s inability to exercise deep changes and to change itself, and second, of swift and victorious anti-Communist revolutions in the East Europe. That is, not deep ideological upheavals, but political circumstances made Radicals to break with a Socialist idea. It is essential that many ordinary people at this time turned against Socialist ideology wishing to live “like in the West”. But it was impossible at once to get rid of a mentality connected with ideas of justice more appropriate to Socialism, not Liberalism.

Radicals’ prompt separation from social, economic and cultural realities of Russia as well as their sharp turn to “pure Liberalism” appeared consequential, and the consequences have been sensible till now. Then, in 1990, a cult of Liberalism and denying of real Socialism reached its culmination.

According to VTsIOM polls, in 1990 32 % of Russians considered exemplary the United States (in 1989 – 28 %, while in 1991 – 25 %, in 1992 – 13 %); another 32 % praised Japan (in 1991 – 28 %, in 1992 – 12 %); 17 % -- Germany, 11 % -- Sweden, and only 4 % -- China.

Thus, at a historical turning-point, both a new Russian political elite and its mass social base saw further progress of Russia in exercising modernization by a Western liberal model.     

On this note the 80s came to an end. Further studying of this period, as it seems to me, would be connected with resolving of two methodological problems. I’d like to conclude my speech with a brief description  of them.


he first problem concerns the analysis of accumulation and resolution of conflicts which emerged in the Soviet society in different decades. The Brezhnev era had resolved the conflicts of 1930-50s. Andropov’s and Gorbachev’s policies were aimed at resolving of the conflicts that accumulated in 1970s and early 80s. At the same time, it would be a mistake to contrast the “stagnation” and the “perestroika”. The Gorbachev era, though formally divorced from the Brezhnev one, logically resulted from it. In this regard, the reasoning of my historian colleague, Alexander Fursov, seems to be true.

Formally, Soviet society was urbanized during the Brezhnev era. That was when the Soviet middle class began to prosper, not least with state-guaranteed benefits and services. As long as oil prices were growing, the nomenklatura and the middle class were consolidating their positions. Still, they were in conflict with each other, even if covertly. That was probably one of the main contradictions that developed during the Brezsnev era. In the mid-1980s, when, at the U.S.’s bidding, Saudi Arabia brought oil prices down, this contradiction rapidly took center stage. In those conditions, in order to maintain its level of consumption, privileges, perks, and further advance, the nomenklatura needed a chance in its status as a quasi-class. It had either to go back to the 1960s-70s or to transform into a propertied class. It chose the second option.

The second problem’s connected with a question of whether the Soviet system was reformable. This question has been a matter of a big and promising discussion going on both in Russian and in the West. I think, the results of it will provide new and interesting, (maybe, unexpected) perspectives on the problem of Soviet 80s.