To the Editor of Commentary magazine
by Vladimir Bukovsky
It is a pity that in his otherwise interesting and informative article Waller Laqueur presents a somewhat inaccurate account of my views of Gorbachev and his policies. Thus, among other things, Mr. Laqueur writes that “Soon after the General Secretary came to power he was called a Stalinist by the prominent emigre intellectual, Vladimir Bukovsky …," and that my “original thesis was developed in an article in Obozrenie”.
To begin with, there must be a mistake in his reference: I do not recall ever seeing a publication named Obozrenie, let alone writing an article for it. Perhaps Mr. Laqueur means the English magazine Survey (which in Russian is “obozrenie"), where a speech I gave at a conference of the Committee for the Free World was reprinted (Spring 1985).
What is more important, assuming my guess is correct, is that I did not there call Gorbachev a Stalinist. Commenting on the fit of euphoria that had overtaken many in the West upon Gorbachev’s accession, I simply pointed out that nothing in his previous career would indicate that he was in any way different from the so-called “old guard" which had, indeed, brought him up, educated him, and promoted him. I trust that Mr. Laqueur would agree with me that such patrons of Gorbachev as Andropov, Kulakov, and Suslov, and later Ustinov, Gromyko, and so forth, could hardly be described as a "new guard" or “liberals.” Clearly, a man who joined the Communist party in 1952, during Stalin’s last campaign against Jews and intellectuals; who became a local party boss in 1966, just after Khrvishchev was dismissed; who became a member of the Central Committee in 1971, and a member of the Poiitburo in 1980, could hardly be a compulsive reformer. If nothing else, he must himself have been at least partly responsible for the “stagnation” of the Brezhnev era which he was now criticizing so much, and it was at best ridiculous to call him, as the Western media did back in 1985, “a new face in the Kremlin”.
Furthermore, as I tried to explain in that speech, the tendency to portray the internal Soviet situation as a struggle between an old guard and a new guard, or between conservatives and reformers, was a simplification based on the “mirror-image” fallacy so common in the West. The reason for such senseless preoccupation with the personalities of Soviet leaders must lie in a failure to understand totalitarian systems. One could like or dislike Gorbachev, but one would have to “do business” (in Margaret Thatcher’s unfortunate phrase) not with him but with the whole political system. The General Secretary of the Communist party is not an autonomous individual, he is a function. His personal inclinations are irrelevant, because he is not a czar and the Soviet political system is not an autocracy. Thus, the emergence of a new leader does not automatically signify a new policy. Rather the opposite is true: a decision to change policy brings a change in leadership.
This was certainly true in the case of Gorbachev, whose renowned policies of glasnost and This perestroika were worked out in principle long before he became General Secretary—according to some reports, during the last years of Brezhnev’s rule and Andropov’s subsequent short term in power (see, for example, Dusko Doder, “Andropov Rushed Renewal into Motion,” Washington Post, July 28,1985). Needless to say, this decision was not prompted by that anyone’s great urge for reform, or by a concern for the well-being of the Russian people, but by the catastrophic decline in the economy which was undermining the status
of the Soviet Union as a superpower.
There is no need to ascribe this interpretation to me, as Mr. Laqueur does in his article. The fear of lagging behind South Korea, to say nothing of the United States, is a constant theme in the Soviet press. The fear of being unable to maintain superpower status, of allowing the “position of socialism the modern world” to suffer, has been a constant theme of Gotbachev’s speeches starting with his maiden speech in 1985, and a justification for introducing radical change. Somehow, I find it easier to believe in the sincerity of this fear than in a sudden change of heart in yesterday’s oppressors.
The point I tried to make in my speech was that the West should not hasten to rescue its bankrupt enemy, should not eliminate the need for painful internal reforms by providing economic assistance to the Soviet Union and its client states or by reducing the pressure of the military competition. Mr. Laqueur asserts that “the Russians have not been beneficiaries of massive credits,” and therefore that my “fears that the West will end up paying for Communist expansion” are not “fully warranted.” But recent OECD estimates show, to the contrary, that Soviet-bloc debt has increased 55 percent since 1984. According to the Wall Street Journal (December 7, 1987), the current rate reached a staggering $700 million a month; at least half of the country’s hard currency income is spent to prop up client states like Cuba, Nicaragua and Vietnam. Moreover, the Journal indicates: “Remarkably, as debt rises, terms decline. From 1983 to 1986, the Soviet Union saw the average interest rate it pays drop from one to 0.15 point above the Libor benchmark. Brazil pays at least 0.75 of a point above Libor.” This is exactly what I call “paying for Communist expansion,” whether Mr. Laqueur finds my view “fully warranted” or not.
Even more frightening is Western willingness to disarm just for the sake of glasnost. No one has as yet explained why we need an INF treaty. In what way does it improve Western defense? All we hear are vague (and debatable) assurances that the treaty will not affect NATO capabilities. If so, why do we need it? Just to “help Gorbachev” in his struggle with the mysterious “old guard”? Or perhaps, to appease the Western peace movement? Or, better still, to pave the way for a START agreement? None of these reasons seems to me “fully warranted.” And what if the Soviets were to redeploy SS-20s, or their like, three or five years hence? Can anyone truly believe Western governments would be able to summon the political will to counterdeploy Pershings?
No, I do not think that the West can actually make Communism work: there is probably not enough money in the entire world to fulfill that particular dream. But it is quite possible to keep the Soviet system alive, though doing so might entail the disappearance of a few more nations from the face of the earth. Why must we undertake such a thankless task? Franklin D. Roosevelt liked “Uncle Joe” Stalin and apparently felt he could “do business” with him and millions of East Europeans had to pay with their lives for that presidential urge. Ask the Cubans how they liked Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence.” Ask the Ethiopians, Angolans, Nicaraguans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Afghans how they liked Brezhnev's “detente.” In those days, too, we were supposed to be helping “doves” fight “hawks” in the Kremlin. We were told that Brezhnev was the best we could hope for, and that we must not miss this golden opportunity to “improve relations.” And now, just fifteen years later, no less an authority than Gorbachev himself has disclosed that Brezhnev was actually a “hawk." Whoops! Never mind, just a mild embarrassment for such wizards of Western Sovietology as Stephen Cohen and Marshall Shulman, and a bit too late for the nations listed above.
So why not stick to what we know reasonably well? And we do know that the huge Soviet empire is in the grip of a grave structural crisis. To judge by the experience of some East European countries, the empire is unlikely to solve its problems within the existing political framework, and seems headed for a period of popular unrest. We also know that in the past, every period of “thaw,” “relaxation,” “detente,” etc. has ended in a further expansion of Communism and has led to a renewed period of “cold war” and international tension. Such is very likely to happen again, as the Soviet ruling elite may not be able to slow down the erosion of the political system by any other means. Should their current reforms fail, as they are likely to do, a renewed aggressiveness may be the only way for the members of the Soviet elite to save their political hides. Would it matter, then, whether they themselves are Stalinists, anti-Stalinists, or neo-Stalinists?
If there is even the slightest possibility of such an outcome, what right do we have to ignore it? Instead of playing the stupid game of good guys / bad guys in the Kremlin, why do we not prepare ourselves? Why weaken ourselves just at the moment when we may need all our strength? It is frightening to think how the West might be forced to respond to an unrestrained act of Soviet nuclear blackmail aggravated by a huge unrepaid Soviet debt. We have already had the pleasure of witnessing the mass hysteria of the peace movement of the early 1980’s, when NATO still provided a sufficient deterrent; imagine the hysteria when there will be no such deterrent! We already know how helpless and accommodating creditor nations are vis-a-vis debtor nations. And we have seen how servile democratically elected governments can become when dealing even with ordinary terrorists. Are we willing to test all this against the most powerful machine of subversion and terror ever known, a machine which has so far been completely unaffected by perestroika?
Unfortunately, after living nearly twelve years in the West, I am only too aware that my warnings, and similar warnings by other “emigre intellectuals,” are destined to remain unheeded. Where Mr. Laqueur is quite on target is in reminding us how wrong were the seemingly sophisticated diagnoses of many Western Sovietologists in the 60’s and 70’s. Yes, indeed, these Sovietologists have a skeleton in their filing cabinets. Unlike real scientists, they would rather be “moderate” than correct, and so they invented a lot of reasons why the testimony of emigres should be ignored. We were, they said, “reactionary’’ and “biased"; and our views represented, at best, only a tiny minority. We were supposed to have chips on our shoulders, albatrosses around our necks, grudges in our pockets. Thanks to the efforts of these people, whose arrogance was matched only by their ignorance, we emigres were virtually ostracized, banned from the public debate, silenced in the media.
I am therefore afraid that the “full post-mortem on two decades of Western Sovietology” called for by Mr. Laqueur will be grossly incomplete unless there is some admission that the failures were due to more than simple mistakes of analysis. How many scholars were forced to sacrifice the truth in order to be accepted in academic circles as “moderates,” or in order to get their works published by prestigious presses? How many of those (particularly in the emigre community) seeking grants and tenure were forced to lie in order to survive professionally? What we have here are not the honest errors of some misled scholars but the acts of a mafia establishing its authority and protecting its interests.
And yet, at the end of the day, all the sophisticated books and learned articles of the Sovietological mafia have been exposed for what they are—a pile of trash. When we emigre intellectuals were living in the Soviet Union we were sent to jails and lunatic asylums for demanding glasnost; today, now that glasnost has become official policy, Moscow itself has confirmed, almost word for word, what we have been saying for a good twenty-five years.
What amusing reading these "scholarly works” thus provide. But can we say that justice has finally triumphed? Have the godfathers of Sovietology lost their prestige and influence? Are they ashamed and repentant? Far from it. They are still all over the place, advising governments, enlightening public, writing their sophisticated articles and books about the struggle between “conservatives'' and "reformers'' in the Kremlin, as if nothing had happened.
As for us, we are still “emigre intellectuals” with something on our shoulders, or around our necks. We are still “too extreme" and not sufficiently “balanced.” But I am confident that a few years hence the Sovietologists will be proved wrong once again, and we — right because they have only their (or someone else’s) opinions, while we have a knowledge of that unique political system in which we were born and brought up. If only the price to be paid for their “mistakes” were not so tragically high.
Commentary magazine, November, 1988.