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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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»
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
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
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
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 %
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
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
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