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9-08-2015, 23:41

CRUSHING THE PRAGUE SPRING AND THE FAILURE OF REFORM

During the Brezhnev years, the Soviet Union’s relationship with the outside world began to change significantly. The Kremlin now accepted that an armed clash with the West was unlikely, provided the Soviet Union was strong enough to ensure that war would prove suicidal for both sides. It was paradoxically also an era of rapid growth in nuclear-missile armaments. Latitude was permitted to the Warsaw Pact allies to develop their economies on less rigidly state-planned lines. In János Kádár’s Hungary limited private enterprise, various incentives and Western loans turned a stagnant economy into what was, for a time, a flourishing one, by the previous standards of the people’s republics. But Kádár knew where to draw the line and accepted the diktat imposed by Soviet intervention in 1956. The Polish economy, despite large Western loans, failed to make much progress. The general detente between East and West in the 1970s and the recognition of Poland’s existing frontiers at the Helsinki Conference in 1975 eased relations, but popular criticism of the Communist Party’s failure to improve living conditions led to recurrent crises. Nationalism was strong in Eastern Europe, and anti-Russian feeling was kept barely below the surface. Communism appeared safest in the rigid hands of the orthodox leadership of the German Democratic Republic: the Protestant Church was the only organisation left capable of any opposition, but it raised its voice mildly, while expressing loyalty to the state. Romania, equally orthodox under the Stalinist rule of Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, followed an uncomfortably nationalistic and independent course. The Soviet Union did not discourage the people’s republics from seeking Western economic assistance or trade; their development also assisted the Soviet Union, which delivered oil at advantageous prices in return for more advanced technological manufactures, for example computer chips from the DDR. The US and Western embargo on the sale of goods such as advanced computers made this technical support especially valuable. But Soviet troops were still stationed in Eastern Europe as members of the Warsaw Pact and as ultimate guarantors of Soviet dominance. There were limitations to sovereignty. The Soviet leadership imposed two conditions on the Eastern European states within its security sphere: that each should adhere to the Warsaw Pact alliance and that the Communist Party should exercise sole political power. The coalition partners, the other small political parties to be found in Poland and the German Democratic Republic, were mere satellites, agreeing with whatever course the Communist Party decided to follow. Their real influence was non-existent. The Communist Party with its nomenklatura – the network of appointees occupying all key posts in administration, industry and party – took its instructions from the Politburo and derived its privileges and income from the system. All this was in accordance with Lenin’s principle that there could be discussion within the party but that there could be no anti-party: only one party was allowed. The Hungarians had broken both conditions in 1956. A decade later, in 1968, the Czech leadership of Alexander Dubcˇek appeared to the Kremlin to be following the same dangerous course. Dubcˇek’s ‘Prague Spring’, granting greater freedom to press and radio, and promising economic reform, was intended to modernise socialism, to create ‘socialism with a human face’, turning it into an attractive system of government rather than a repressive one to be feared. But Dubcˇek’s reforms appeared to be heading towards the forbidden shores of ‘democracy’, a multi-party system that would reduce the power of the Communist Party machine. The reforms were immensely popular, and started the process of replacing control from above by support and consent from below. Was Czechoslovakia only a step away from abandoning the Soviet alliance for the West? The Kremlin’s fears were exaggerated; with the experiences of Hungary before them, the Czech leadership understood that they could not afford to denounce the fraternal Soviet alliance. Despite the international outrage that would ensue, Brezhnev and the Politburo, after repeated altercations with the Czech leadership and debate among themselves, opted for armed intervention. The Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks on 20 August 1968. It was a clear indication of the Kremlin’s continued paranoia about safeguarding the frontiers of the USSR. The figleaf of intervention by all the Warsaw Pact allies – Romania alone refusing – only made a bad situation worse when East German troops entered Prague thirty years after Hitler’s Wehrmacht had crossed the frontiers of a democratic and sovereign Czechoslovakia. The Soviet justification was embodied in the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that socialist states (that is, communist) had the right to intervene if a neighbouring ally threatened to revert to capitalism. That, it was claimed, represented a danger to all; by Soviet definition this unnatural course could only be the result of internal and external Western subversion. Little more than a decade after the Prague Spring and the reimposition of one-party communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the Politburo faced what looked like a similar challenge to the Brezhnev Doctrine in Poland. The economic failure of the Polish communist regime in the 1970s became evident when the dash for modernisation based on heavy industries and Western technology landed the regime deeply in debt. Agriculture, though largely in the hands of small peasant farmers, lacked the investment necessary to make it productive. To provide food at prices the urban population could afford on their low wages required heavy state subsidies. The huge rise in oil prices in 1973–4 added to the country’s woes. When the government attempted to improve its economic management by cutting food subsidies, workers marched in protest at the ensuing price rises. From 1976 onwards, despite arrests and repression, the Polish masses could no longer be totally subdued by the regime. Intellectuals led by Jacek Kuron´ set up a Workers’ Defence Committee, demanded the release of arrested workers, and insisted on truth instead of lies, the reality of justice in place of rhetoric and propaganda. Polish nationalism was further encouraged by the visit of the Polish Pope John Paul II in 1979. An alliance formed with the workers by Catholics, intellectuals and other opponents presented a powerful challenge to the regime. Another rise in food prices in the summer of 1980 sparked off strikes and a nationwide political confrontation. It began in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdan´sk. An electrician, Lech WaΠe¸sa, emerged to become a national hero. The striking workers at Gdan´sk proved more determined than the communist leadership. The Gierek regime, forced into negotiations, effected a tactical retreat, promising to allow the setting up of free trade unions, the right to strike, freedom of the press, and the right of religious organisations to propagate their faith. The new free trade union was called Solidarity and soon attracted 9 million members, presenting as it did an alternative organisation to the Communist Party and to communist satellite organisations. Though it had in theory accepted the ‘leading role of the Communist Party’ and claimed not to be a political party, it nonetheless represented a political challenge to the communist state. The Polish Communist Party was losing its grip. It is likely that the alarmed Kremlin signalled the need for a Polish (rather than Soviet) crackdown, especially as the Soviet Union had become embroiled in the civil war in Afghanistan. Even so, in Poland there was much talk of a possible Soviet intervention. General Jaruzelski, austere and colourless, preempted any such move by declaring martial law in December 1981 and by establishing a communist military regime. The army proved reliable and, even though the Communist Party lost so much credibility that it could never recover, Jaruzelski imposed a martial peace. Solidarity leaders were arrested or driven underground. But the Jaruzelski decade could not solve Poland’s fundamental problems nor cow the spirit of Solidarity. In central Europe Soviet dominance was upheld with difficulty. Cracks were showing – but no one expected that the whole system would disintegrate before the 1980s had ended. Brezhnev was anxious to present a peaceful image of Soviet intentions. The missile and space programmes were costly but only by catching up could the Soviet Union treat with the US as an equal partner and perhaps limit this huge drain on resources. Anything that extended the capabilities of conventional warfare or that raised tensions would not only impede the attempts to halt the continued increase of nuclear armament expenditure, but provoke an inexorable rise in the cost of conventional weapons as NATO increased its own military preparedness. Thus Brezhnev welcomed West Germany’s readiness to promote relaxed relations with the East German regime and to reassure Poland that its new western frontier, which enclosed within Poland former German territories, would never be changed by force. West Germany became an essential trading partner of East Germany. That was incentive enough for the communist regime. But the easing of movement between the two Germanies and an effective settlement of confrontation in Berlin by four-power treaties in 1971 and 1972 (which reaffirmed Western rights in the city) made a real contribution to a more peaceful international atmosphere. The Federal Republic also recognised the DDR. This reluctance to become directly involved in other countries’ affairs during the 1970s was particularly marked in Asia, until the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The development of friendly relations between the Soviet Union and India in the 1970s and 1980s is one of the few success stories of Soviet foreign policy. But it did not come cheaply. The Soviet Union supplied substantial military and economic aid. And good relations with India meant, almost inevitably, bad relations with Pakistan. These were exacerbated by Brezhnev’s decision – there were rumours in Moscow that he was drunk at the time – to invade Afghanistan in December 1979. That invasion was, however, a logical extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine to a neighbouring state whose communist regime had to be maintained against the revolt of Muslim fundamentalists, even though they enjoyed wide popular support. A successful coup to place an efficient Afghan communist puppet in power supported by a brief intervention was what the Kremlin had anticipated. Instead the Soviet armed forces had to be reinforced until they exceeded 100,000. The mujahideen in their mountain strongholds could not be wiped out by helicopter rocket attacks. The communist Afghan army and Soviet troops controlled the cities and the main lines of communication, but in the rugged countryside and mountains the mujahideen, fortified by American weapons and by rear bases in Pakistan, proved unbeatable. Non-combatants streamed into refugee camps in Pakistan, thus relieving the fighting units of their care. For Brezhnev the long war was a treble disaster. For the privates conscripted to fight in Afghanistan and for their families, the endless struggle (which was to bring 60,000 casualties) against largely hidden enemies far away from home was a heavy and unpopular burden. For the Red Army generals the war was an opportunity to try out tactics and weapons and to demand more and better tanks, guns and planes. These could not be denied them, and Brezhnev had to find and divert resources to meet new military needs. Finally, Washington’s failure to understand Soviet motivation put pay, at least for a time, to detente, and impeded – in critical areas, halted – Western technological assistance so badly needed in the USSR. Apart from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s policy in Asia was cautious. It supplied only limited help to the North in the Vietnamese civil war, and took care not to respond in kind to American intervention on the ground. The most serious problem in Asia was the hostility of China. The Sino-Soviet split, which had opened up in the days of Khrushchev, deepened with Mao’s radicalisation in the 1970s. Mao condemned Soviet relaxation of repression as counter-revolutionary. The Chinese also criticised the invasion of Czechoslovakia and saw themselves as the only true centre of the world communist movement. This did not stop them from improving relations with the US in the 1970s: in Chinese eyes, the arch-enemy now was not Western imperialism but Soviet ‘hegemony’. In 1969 serious armed clashes occurred in places along the Sino-Soviet border, the longest frontier in the world. The USSR had stationed crack divisions armed with nuclear missiles to defend its territory. A paranoia akin to that provoked by the ‘yellow peril’ at the turn of the century began to take a grip on the Kremlin. The sheer size of China, with a population five times greater than that of the Soviet Union, and with a radical and xenophobic leadership, presented an increasingly nightmarish threat to Moscow. From the 1960s until the early 1980s periods of vituperative exchanges alternated with Soviet efforts to place relations with Beijing on a better footing. But everywhere in Asia, for example in India and Vietnam, Soviet diplomacy and aid were countered by Chinese diplomacy and aid, as in Kampuchea and Pakistan. The Soviet Union’s ambitions to extend its influence to the Third World and the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s brought little reward and created obstacles in the path of detente. In Africa, poverty, ethnic and racial conflicts and the fierce new nationalism provided fertile ground for the proselytising of the authoritarian socialist system as the only way out of the continent’s cycle of devastation and deprivation. The Eastern bloc gave support to movements struggling to overthrow the last vestiges of white supremacy in Portuguese Africa, Rhodesia and South Africa. The global East–West struggle was thus extended to Africa. But Moscow’s new clients were fickle. When Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat could not get what he wanted from Moscow he showed no gratitude for the huge amount of civil and military aid (including training in modern weapons technology) which Egypt had received – the largest amount of aid the Soviet Union had supplied to any single country during the two decades from 1955 to 1976: $4,750 million. In 1972, Sadat ordered Soviet personnel to leave the country and took over the installations and weapons they had to leave behind. It was a valuable lesson: whatever the complexity of the indigenous government, socialist or not, its authoritarian leaders sought only to exploit superpower rivalry in pursuit of their own interests. Other African countries accepted Soviet aid and tutelage only to break with the Soviet Union, and expel Russian advisers. The list is long: Algeria, Ghana, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. More enduring was Soviet influence in Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique. Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, proved more of an embarrassment, since his support of terrorist groups and his territorial ambitions in Chad have been strong destabilising factors. In the Middle East, Syria was Russia’s most reliable ally. After the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Iraq too became the recipient of Soviet arms as Moscow sought to check Khomeini’s Muslim fundamentalists, who cursed not only the American devil but also atheistic Russia. With millions of Soviet Muslims susceptible to an Islamic resurgence, Khomeini’s ideology posed a new threat to Soviet stability. In Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet Union had gained its first communist ally in Cuba. Castro was no easy bedfellow and the promise to purchase Cuba’s sugar crop, previously exported to the US, in order to keep the Cuban economy afloat cost the USSR thousands of dollars annually in the 1980s. The Soviet Union’s client states in Africa, the Middle East and Asia were a further enormous drain on resources which were so badly needed to modernise the Soviet Union itself and raise the living standards of the Russian people. World aid was unpopular in the Soviet Union, whose citizens point to the saying that charity should begin at home. Central to Soviet foreign policy was detente with the US, which in the 1970s and 1980s could by itself enhance overall security and reduce the military budget. The exorbitant expense of developing modern weapons and of attempting to frustrate the US Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’, became a Soviet nightmare. The much greater industrial and technological capacity of the US and the West meant that it was essential to the Soviet Union to set limits on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. In a non-nuclear war, moreover, the outcome would be determined by the sophistication of conventional weapons. American cruise missiles without nuclear warheads could still cause havoc, destroying command centres; superior aircraft and antiradar devices could penetrate Soviet airspace. So military budgets had simultaneously to carry the burden of conventional-weapons development. But to have provided all the armaments that the military were clamouring for would have crippled any attempt to improve living standards for the ordinary Soviet citizen, when it was in any case becoming increasingly difficult in the second half of the 1970s to raise national production. Worst of all, the failure to give the Soviet people some sense of material progress would undermine morale, arouse nationalist rivalries between the constituent republics and so threaten the stability of the whole Soviet system. Brezhnev and his successors responded to this dire predicament by launching peace offensives. Brezhnev and Andropov repeatedly declared that the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers were more than sufficient to serve deterrent purposes and that no nuclear war was ‘winnable’. As Andropov put it, ‘One has to be blind to the realities of our time not to see that, wherever and however a nuclear whirlwind arises, it will inevitably go out of control and cause a worldwide catastrophe.’ The Soviet Union and the US, however suspicious they might be of each other, also shared common interests. One of the most important was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Accordingly they concluded on 1 July 1968 a treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which bound them to refrain from assisting non-nuclear nations to obtain or make nuclear weapons. Although the treaty has been signed by more than a hundred countries, nuclear-weapon capability continues to spread; the supposed safeguard of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency is proving ineffective in such countries as Israel and Iraq. During the 1970s there was a rational dialogue between the Soviet Union and the US about how a nuclear war between them, which would destroy both countries, could best be guaranteed never to take place. The answer they found seems perverse. They concluded that it could best be prevented by ensuring that both countries would indeed perish. This could be effected by a treaty severely limiting the defences that could be set up to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. The Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-ballistic Missile Systems, known as the ABM Treaty, was signed on 26 May 1972 during a visit to Moscow by President Nixon. On the same day an Interim Agreement on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, known as SALT I, was also concluded. The US already had more than enough nuclear missiles to destroy the Soviet Union. MAD, mutual assured destruction, was the name given to this doctrine that was designed to ensure peace. Then the impetus for further disarmament came to a halt. SALT II, negotiated by President Carter and Brezhnev, and apparently sealed when the Russian leader kissed the US president on the cheek in Vienna on 18 June 1979, was refused ratification by the US Senate. It had sought to reduce the nuclear weaponry on each side, but it was a dead letter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; there now appeared to be no prospect for negotiation towards SALT III to reduce offensive weapons on both sides. But during the Brezhnev period meaningful Soviet–US negotiations had begun to find a way out of the blind alley of piling on more and more weapons of mass destruction. After an interval of nearly a decade, Gorbachev and Reagan in the second half of the 1980s resumed this sequence of mutual accommodation in the interests of the Soviet Union and the US, and indeed of the whole world. The seventeen Brezhnev years, together with a brief postscript, marked the final phase of authoritarian, monolithic communist rule, a military superpower with economic feet of clay, an empire of nationalities held together by force. Not until well after Brezhnev’s death in 1982 did the West, to its own astonishment, recognise how weakened the Soviet Union had become. It has been another example of how the undercurrents of change in history accumulate slowly, until there is a sudden disintegration of stability evident to everyone. The Soviet Union was losing the race with the West, unable to present a viable and attractive alternative to market capitalism and democracy. These were the years when the communist leadership tried to reform and to make their system work better. The results in the early years were mixed; the exploitation of Russia’s rich oil and mining resources at a time of high energy prices in the 1970s provided a boost. But the lack of investment had dire consequences as factories were not renewed and the infrastructure, roads and means of communication, was neglected. Vast sums were diverted to the military. Maximum exploitation without thought for pollution prepared the way for ecological disasters. A vast bureaucratic machine, which could only stifle initiative, had to be paid for. With increasingly outdated technology and lacking incentives, the Soviet worker became hopelessly unproductive. In the end, though ‘reform communism’ did produce changes and some improvements, they were not enough to save the system. Twenty years earlier, the first attempt to give the communist state a new face had ended with the fall of Khrushchev. The Politburo for a time preferred not to trust any one successor after that. In 1964, three leading members were assigned the principal offices of state: Nicolai Podgorny became president, Leonid Brezhnev party leader and Alexei Kosygin chairman of the Council of Ministers. Kosygin was an able technocrat who was well aware of the shortcomings of the Soviet economic performance. In place of Khrushchev’s sudden changes, Kosygin, very much in harmony with the thinking of his two colleagues, attempted a more consistent and gradual approach. The task the Soviet leaders set themselves was to improve standards of living, to keep the KGB under control, to catch up technologically and quantitatively in the military sector, whose backwardness America’s missile superiority had so cruelly exposed during the Cuban crisis, and to do all this without creating new tensions in Soviet–American relations. The course set was one of reform and ambitious development, but the political system and central control were not to be weakened, let alone endangered. Brezhnev was to become the leading exponent of this policy of trying to please everyone, particularly the three main pillars of the communist system, the party hierarchy, the bureaucrats and the army. The antireligious course followed by Khrushchev was also dampened down. Given these priorities, the room for change and development was severely circumscribed. Progress between 1964 and 1984 was very uneven. After a spurt from 1961 to 1975, which owed something to the economic reforms introduced by Kosygin, there was stagnation. But the changes achieved in the Soviet Union were not fundamental: prices of input materials and output product were still fixed by the central planners; the ‘profit’ incentive introduced into the pricing structure could therefore be arbitrarily adjusted. Nevertheless the new incentive provided a stimulus to industrial managers and to workers, who welcomed bonus payments for higher productivity. During the decade from 1970 to 1980, 1 million workers were redeployed in the more efficient sectors of industry, thus reducing chronic overmanning and increasing productivity. But the central planners, Gosplan and the ministries continued to set prices, fix production targets and control supplies. The approach to economic reform was piecemeal, and good results were achieved in only a few sectors of the economy, which were held back from making faster progress by the backward sectors, the lack of communications, poor roads, widespread corruption, mismanagement and an overall lack of coordination, each ministry seeking to achieve the best results statistically in its own sphere without regard to the whole. This ‘sectional’ approach rarely brought any benefits to the consumer, unless a particularly efficient section actually produced what consumers required. Sometimes this had bizarre consequences. The strategic rocket forces began to produce the best refrigerator, and the Ministry of Aviation manufactured an excellent vacuum cleaner. The army had backed the overthrow of Khrushchev and had benefited from the increasing defence expenditure necessary to achieve parity with the US in nuclear and missile weaponry and to remedy Russia’s inferiority on the high seas. The strengthening of the armed forces from 1964 to 1974 was dramatic and absorbed a disproportionate part of the Soviet budget. But Brezhnev also wanted to preside over a consumer boom, and the armed forces and their ministries saw a chance for profit. They began by providing goods for their own military and civilian personnel – vegetables, prams and so on – then their products became more widely available. The problem of how to relate consumers and producers in a centrally directed economy without a market mechanism, in a system where prices and costs are arbitrarily fixed, was neither tackled nor solved. Could such an economy be reformed and adjusted to meet Soviet requirements, and yet retain its socialist character? That was the basic question that confronted reformers from the 1960s to the 1980s. With the relaxation of repression and increasing contact with the West, the Soviet citizen, especially in the major cities, became more sophisticated. Complaints and criticisms were articulated. One of the few success stories of the Soviet Union is the spread of education. Though loyalty to the Soviet state remained a basic requirement, education was provided on merit. This created a large educated class. Critical discussion began in the 1960s and 1970s among enquiring groups of university students, one of which included Mikhail Gorbachev; it encompassed professional circles of a whole new post-war generation but had to be conducted discreetly and privately. The thaw that had begun with Khrushchev could no longer be reversed in the Brezhnev era. But strict limits were set and exemplary punishment imposed on the most prominent dissidents, who courageously continued to speak out publicly – outstanding men such as Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yali Daniel. Some of the most prominent dissidents were Jewish. Anti-Semitism increased, and Zionism was equated with treachery. Jews who applied to leave the Soviet Union would lose their jobs, though some were eventually permitted to emigrate. But the restrained repression of a ‘reformed’ KGB, placed under the control of Yuri Andropov, could only contain, not eradicate, the by now widespread dissident movement. Duplicating machines acted as an underground press, whose samizdat editions passed through hundreds of hands. That dissent flourished is evidence of the courage of a section of the intelligentsia; years of communist propaganda could not obliterate independent thought. Now that world opinion was concerning itself with the fate of the dissidents, the Soviet authorities could no longer behave as they had in Stalin’s time. Moreover, the Soviet Union had officially adhered to the Helsinki Agreement of 1975, promising to respect basic human rights; this provided the protesters with some legal standing, at least internationally. The denial to Soviet Jews of permission to emigrate was countered by American congressional pressure which linked credit and trade concessions to the USSR to Soviet liberality in allowing Jews to leave (Senator Jackson’s amendment) at a time when American imports were of particular value to the Russians. Moscow reacted angrily to what it regarded as unwarranted Western interference in Soviet affairs. Over the longer term, however, the growing links with the West made mass repression of dissenting opinion impossible. In the 1970s the ‘prisoners of conscience’ in the Soviet Union, suffering hardship from house arrest to exile, from hard labour to forced detention in psychiatric institutions, were numbered in thousands, rather than the millions of Stalin’s day, and executions ceased. For the mass of Soviet peoples the awareness of poor living conditions coincided with the improvements made during the Brezhnev years. Grain production from 1964 to 1969 averaged 156 million tonnes a year, but varied in a particular year from a low of 121 million (1965) to a high of 171 million (1966). The average only just covered basic Soviet needs – there were no longer any famines or shortages of bread. But the people wanted more variety, more milk, more meat and more vegetables. Agricultural production, though higher, could not keep pace with what was required. Increased use of fertilisers, higher payments to farmers, the introduction of a number of incentives, including licences for larger private plots and allowing sales on a free market once production quotas were reached, all these reforms of the Brezhnev years failed to satisfy the growing demand. The deficit had to be covered by grain imports, above all from the plenitude of American overproduction, until the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the resulting US grain embargo forced a switch to other suppliers. More meat was made available; between 1970 and 1985, the average consumption rose by half. But grain production continued to vary widely from year to year. About 210 million tonnes was the normal annual requirement. A bumper harvest in 1978 produced 237 million tonnes, which covered all the grain requirements of the Soviet Union; but the following year the figure dropped to 180 million tonnes; in 1980 it rose to 189 million tonnes, only to drop again in 1981 to a catastrophic 160 million tonnes, requiring the importation of 46 million tonnes of grain from abroad, which used up valuable foreign currency reserves. Incentives and reforms and high investment were producing far from satisfactory results during the closing years of the Brezhnev era. With more money earned, the average monthly wage almost doubling, farmers, transport and construction workers doing even better and miners trebling their income, the ordinary Russian was living better and standing longer in queues chasing the subsidised goods in state shops or buying goods at high prices in the free and semi-black markets. Vodka consumption and alcoholism became an ever growing problem. The available goods, other than those satisfying the basic needs of shelter and food, were inordinately expensive by Western standards and were generally of poor quality. But it needs to be borne in mind that a much smaller proportion of the wage packet had to be spent on housing and the basics, whose costs were fixed arbitrarily low. The high prices for other consumer goods acted as a form of indirect tax to mop up excess money. Even so, the available consumer goods could not absorb the wages and millions of roubles piled up in savings accounts. The miner could not buy better housing despite his savings; he was rouble-rich but continued to live primitively. The most prized possession of newly weds was privacy and a home of their own. But young marrieds had to live for years with in-laws until a modest home could be allocated. The next most prized possession was a car. The mass production of Fiatdesigned cars also started in the Brezhnev years and, though by Western standards the proportion of car owners was low, by Soviet standards it was remarkable that one in seven families possessed a car, almost every household had a television set, a third of them in colour, a refrigerator and a washing machine. Leaving aside the chronic lack of space and the large number of extended family households that ensued, in terms of domestic labour-saving devices the average Soviet household had catapulted from pre-revolutionary conditions to the modern age in less than two decades. But if other indicators are considered, such as telephones and personal computers, the differential between the West and the Soviet Union remained huge. The economy as a whole was grossly inefficient in use of resources and burdened by out-of-date factories. Even more trouble was in store as machines wore out, and pipes, valves and pumps in the oil industry leaked and rusted. The Soviet Union could not even take advantage of its rich resources, its grain rotting for lack of transport and proper storage capacity. It was heading for a complete breakdown. The negative aspects of the Soviet command economy and the one-party state hierarchy were very evident. The burden of a stifling bureaucracy, the almost universal need for bribery, without which little got done, and the irrational division between rival authorities, ministries and party organisations were hindrances enough. In addition, the privileges enjoyed by the nomenklatura, their special shops, hospitals and holiday resorts, attracted jealousy and resentment. The residual heavy-handedness of the security services persisted during the Brezhnev years. Long hours of work were the norm for the average Soviet citizen. The protection of the law was never certain, especially as it was almost impossible to live strictly within it. The possession of a car, for instance, necessitated resource to the black market for spare parts and services. Thus disregard for the law, petty bribery and corruption were endemic. Higher up the administrative elite, corruption was practised on a grandiose scale during the Brezhnev years. Brezhnev himself provided a prominent example of high living, owning vast estates and a fleet of luxury cars. Promotion for men and women of ability still required the patronage of someone higher up in the party or a ministry. Corruption was not confined to the Kremlin but was widespread in the Soviet republics, indeed had become legendary in Georgia, where huge bribery allowed enterprising businessmen to build up private empires. Members of the nomenklatura lived in a style reminiscent of American tycoons. For the privileged few the products of the West were easily available: Mercedes cars, hi-fi equipment and Russian luxuries such as caviar. Andropov’s cleanup campaign while he was head of the KGB could scratch only the surface, though it reached all the way to Brezhnev’s family: his daughter, with her diamonds, was a conspicuous consumer, while his son Yuri, though often drunk, lived a charmed life. The Western lifestyles of many of the children of the elite were bitterly resented by the average Russian. Brezhnev’s deliberate consumer boom had nevertheless made many hitherto scarce goods more readily available, though they were often of poor quality. One of the most intractable problems of Soviet central planning was that the demands that had to be satisfied were those of the relevant ministries, not those of the consumer for whom the goods were intended. The consumer represented a mere abstract unit; the ministries decided what the consumer needed. Of course, the citizen’s wishes are not paramount in a command economy. It can hardly be otherwise, since no computer can be adequately programmed to take account of the complexities of consumer demand – the nationwide supply of shoes of different qualities and prices, sizes and fashions that would match consumers’ wishes, to give just one example – and in any case powerful computers were in short supply in the Soviet Union. Another bane of the system was the notorious ‘gross output’ indicator as a measurement of the fulfilment of plans. The distortions this created are illustrated by a factory that produced nails. Its target was set in terms of weight. The manager accordingly arranged for the manufacture of only very large and heavy nails. When the ministry discovered this and set the target in the form of quantity, the manager switched to very small nails. The story is probably apocryphal but it provides a good illustration of the shortcomings inherent in central planning. Where the consumer can set the requirements, as happened for instance in the supply of weapons for the armed services, the Soviet Union did better. The Soviet space enterprise, another example, caught up with the West and was perhaps even more reliable than America’s NASA. The record of the Brezhnev era was uneven. A start was made in economic reforms, though without questioning fundamentals. The exploitation of the Soviet Union’s vast mineral resources – the oil and gas and gold in Siberia and east of the Urals – and the limited introduction of Western technology raised output, but the greater part of industry was not renewed. The restraints placed on the KGB and the better life enjoyed by the Soviet people were positive aspects, but the Soviet authoritarian system was not democratised in any essential. Brezhnev’s determination to stabilise the power base of the Soviet political structure entailed a policy of live and let live at the top: secure party fiefs and party cadres ensured stability, while corruption and privileges bought their support. The ordinary people, however, had few rights and had to do as they were told. This did not preclude the emergence of able and incorruptible party functionaries such as Eduard Shevardnadze, who as party chief in Georgia carried through a wholesale purge of the system erected by his corrupt predecessor. Yuri Andropov, as head of the KGB, was of a similar caste, and tried to rid the party of corruption. Although something like a cult of personality was fostered around Brezhnev, his power was not absolute. During his last years of ill health much of the work had to be carried out by deputies. The growth of general public irreverence towards the leader was perhaps best shown by the many jokes circulating about him during those latter years. Much had changed. No one would have dared to joke about Stalin’s decline thirty years earlier. But Brezhnev was perceived as a benevolent and increasingly easy-going leader. Although living conditions varied enormously from region to region, while in the countryside housing continued to be neglected and primitive living conditions persisted, life became better in the cities and overall. The new freedom of movement allowed to the peasants increased the drift to the cities so typical of countries in the underdeveloped world. Yuri Andropov seemed just the right choice to take over after Brezhnev’s death in November 1982. His lifestyle was in complete contrast to Brezhnev’s. He lived very modestly and had built his reputation on his shrewd handling of the KGB, bringing that secret organisation under control while maintaining its secrecy. He was a reformer, but by no means a liberal in the Western sense. Reform for Andropov meant control by the party leadership, reform of the communist state to achieve a more effective communist system, striking a careful balance between extra-legal repression of dissidence to maintain the communist order and avoiding unnecessary excess and personal abuse of power. Exile and detention in psychiatric hospitals were no longer the result of personal whims but were carefully calculated to deter dissent. The Western attitude to justice and legality was not acceptable, despite Helsinki, and the dissident Russian human-rights group, which made it its task to monitor the observance of the Helsinki Accords, was jailed or driven into exile by Andropov. When expedient, Andropov made concessions, yielding to international pressure. Nearly 300,000 Jews, who for many years had wished to emigrate, losing their jobs and even suffering imprisonment because they expressed this wish, were allowed to leave. But outspoken critics were silenced. Andrei Sakharov, the famous physicist, put under house arrest in 1980, continued to languish in Gorky. The celebrated Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, long-time critic of repression, forcibly deported in 1974, was prevented from returning. Both had to wait until Andropov’s death and Gorbachev’s succession. Executions were reserved for serious corruption and could reach high in the party ranks. As KGB chief, Andropov had built his reputation on his fearless attack on high party bosses in a series of anti-corruption drives during the 1970s. The Politburo had chosen Andropov without hesitation. To them his merit was that he was ready to get the USSR moving again economically without endangering ideological orthodoxy. He was thus a reformer of the right kind, in the opinion of the majority of the Politburo. The succession did not fall, as expected, to Konstantin Chernenko, who was too closely identified with Brezhnev’s declining years. But Andropov himself was ill, and under his ailing leadership his principal ally Gorbachev in 1983 took charge of a special task force in a vain effort to stimulate economic reform. An attempt was also made to change the composition of party leadership in the regions and districts throughout the Soviet Union. Andropov’s health declined too rapidly for these initiatives to bear much fruit; he spent his last few months confined to hospital with renal failure and died in February 1984. Gorbachev at this time was regarded as too young and too impetuous to be entrusted with the leadership and the post of general secretary of the party. But it was evident that the course set by Andropov was not to be abandoned. The septuagenarian Chernenko took over, but the powerful Politburo determined policy, with Gorbachev in charge of the economy and one of the longestserving members, Andrei Gromyko, remaining in charge of foreign affairs. Chernenko’s health likewise rapidly deteriorated; he was allowed to carry on until his death (he died of the progressive lung disease, emphysema) in March 1985. The deaths of three elderly leaders in the space of two and a half years, far from projecting an image of reform and change, created in the Soviet Union and the wider world the perception of a country that had become rigid in its ways and was presided over by a gerontocracy. That was about to change dramatically.

 

 

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