Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest central committee. -Rosa Luxemburg
Four days that fascinated the Soviet people. But did those four days shake them out of apathy and skepticism; did they convince them, after so many disappointed hopes, to try once again to take their destiny into their own hands? And is it possible to transfer “all power to the soviets” from above, under full party supervision? Is it conceivable that the party apparatus will preside over the limitation of its own prerogatives? Or, to put it differently, can socialist democracy be combined with a one-party state? These are some of the questions and contradictions that sprang to mind as the 4,991 delegates were leaving the glass hall in the Kremlin on July 1, at the close of the really extraordinary Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ended symbolically with the decision to erect in Moscow a monument to the victims of Stalinism. (The third time, incidentally, that this decision has been taken, but it looks like third time lucky .)
The Russians, and the world at large, were astonished. Most speakers stressed the fact that their country had not known anything of the kind for some sixty years. In Stalin’s time heretics were sent to Siberia, and discussion, therefore, was stifled by fear. (“I gave him a quotation, he replied with a reference,” one bitter joke claimed–bitter because ssylka in Russian means both “reference” and “deportation.”) Relative freedom under Nikita Khrushchev did not last long enough to consolidate the habit and, although repression could not be compared with that of Stalin’s time, the reign of Leonid Brezhnev was one of conformity. Hence the contrast. No wonder Soviet citizens rushed for their newspapers and were glued to their TV screens. For them the performance was unprecedented.
They could see, on one hand, say, Mikhail Ulyanov, a famous actor, pleading eloquently for a world in which people would not be “mute cogs,” where “talent and labor are more prized than a position on the nomenklatura,” attacking bureaucrats preoccupied merely with “clinging to posts from which they can issue commands” and then explaining why people should lose “faith in anything, seeing the universal lies and thievery.” And they could watch, on the other hand, the Slavophile Yuri Bondarev vituperating against a press that “destroys, denigrates” and seizes this opportunity “for the revision of faith and morality”; a Bondarev complaining that words like “fatherland” or “patriotism” provoke “serpentine hissing” and defining the motto of the critics as “let all weeds bloom and let all evil forces contend.”
The viewers could see a Moscow party boss, reciting self-praise as in the good old days, driven from the platform with mock applause. They could watch the now-famous scene when the delegate from the cold climate of the Kormi S.S.R., arguing that those responsible for stagnation should be kicked out of their jobs, was asked by Gorbachev to name names and replied without hesitation, “I would include comrade M.S. Solomentsev, above all, and comrades A.A. Gromyko, V.G. Afanasiev, G.A. Arbatov and others” (that is to say, a member of the Politburo and the current President, sitting on the platform with Gorbachev, and the editor of Pravda and the head of the Institute of American and Canadian Studies, both delegates sitting in the hall). One could add to these highlights the confrontation between the downgraded Boris Yeltsin, who appeared rather ill at ease, and Yegor Ligachev, who was in fine form.