This new series looks at Russian history year by year, from 1986. If you were here in the eighties, and would like to share your experiences, before we forget, please write to the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
At the 27th Party Congress, which opened on the 25th of February 1986, Gorbachev proposed economic reforms which would, through perestroika, “reveal the potential of socialism”, and the Party. The General Secretary was either the ultimate ‘God’s fool’ for believing that the Soviet Communist Party could survive in any form in Russian free market conditions, or an incredibly clever politician who only revealed certain sections of his master plan when the time was right.
Democracy in the western sense of the word had never taken hold in Russia, and to expect the Soviet Union to be able to adapt principles of social democracy as advocated by his friends Willy Brandt, Francoişe Mitterand and Felipe González (who were not Leninists) in a few years seems in retrospect rather naïve. After unleashing explosive pent-up public opinion there was no way back.
He might have achieved his goals which were to modernise the Party if he had followed the Chinese model of reforming agriculture first and allowing private enterprise but leaving the press clamped. But Russians aren’t Chinese. In the end of the day, Gorbachev did all he could have in the situation.
25th-26th April 1986, Chernobyl. At 1.45am, technicians at the Chernobyl nuclear power station near Kiev carried out an experiment. Two massive explosions occurred which dissipated a lethal amount of radiation into the atmosphere, exceeding norms 87 times, mostly because the technicians involved didn’t communicate with each other. Special equipment and specialists were not brought until the evening of the next day. The leadership in Moscow wasn’t even aware of how serious the problem was. Emergency workers received heavy doses of radiation. Fifty thousand citizens living locally were evacuated at least a day late. Only on the 28th of April did a short bulletin on the national news programme ‘Vremya’ convey that there had been ‘an incident’. Glasnost had failed miserably, probably because it was initially designed to be an instrument of the government in shaping public opinion, not to work in the other direction. One hundred and twenty five people died as a result of Chernobyl over the following ten years. Gorbachev declared that the event ‘was a turning point’ in terms of the development of greater awareness.
June 1986 Glavlit was instructed to relax its rules. Hitherto unpublished novels were printed. Classics such as Sobachoe Serdtse by M. Bulgakov, Kotlovan by A. Platonov, forbidden works by Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshenko, Osip Mandelshtam, Vladimr Nabokov and many others were printed for the first time in huge editions. In the summer of 1986, ‘guided glasnost’ (directed by the propaganda Department of the Central Committee) began. The most popular vehicles of the ‘new thinking’ were Moscow News which was headed by a new editor Yegor Yakovlev, and Ogonek, editied by Vitaly Korotich. Both publications were used to agitate for change. As Archie Brown, in his book The Gorbachev Factor points out: ‘On the one hand [this] made possible the maintenance of political stability. On the other, it made impossible a root-and-branch critique of all that was wrong with the Soviet system’.
From 1985 onwards the Party introduced measures to reduce alcoholism which by 1984 had beaten all known records: half a litre of vodka per week for every man woman and child! Vodka sales were severely restricted, resulting in a growing black market. People bought moonshine and counterfeit vodka from taxi-drivers with the code words “have you got anything to read?” The driver would nod and silently produce a bottle rolled up in newspaper for ten roubles. Taxi-parks became very popular destinations. Some have said that vodka was a Brezhnevite ‘opium of the people’, with a docile population and the govemment benefitting from massive tax revenues.
October 1986 Gorbachev met President Reagan in Reykjavik and won him over to an agreement for all nuclear weapons to be abolished within ten years. But at the last moment Reagan’s aides, who wished to bargain from a position of military superiority, dissuaded him from signing the preliminary agreement.
November 1986. The Law on Individual Labour activity was passed which semi-legalized black-market activity such as selling clothes and food from stalls. This law was the forerunner of much more far-reaching legislation on cooperatives in 1988.
16 December 1986. Gorbachev seemed to have reached a point in his secretarship where he felt strong enough to do something quite horrible to the party hardliners. He lifted the phone and spoke to the dissenting physicist Andrei Sakharov (who spoke on a phone specially installed in his flat) and invite him to return from exile in Gorki. Sakharov stated his approval of Gorbachev was ‘conditional’.
Mark Bond 1986
It was June 1986 and I was coming to the end of my year studying in Moscow as part of my degree in Russian at Oxford University. I was about to get married to my Russian girlfriend, which I had managed to organize in time before my visa had run out at the end of the month, through the good contacts of a famous Russian lawyer friend.
The only place that a foreigner was allowed to get married: Marriage Palace 1 (or ZAGS No.1). I was also working for TBS/CNN, producing short “fillers” of 3 minutes about Russia for the American public as part of the Goodwill Games taking place that summer. I was given a large Texan cameraman to take around, but we were unable to do much filming, because every time we asked for permission to film a market or a monastery, it would take 4-6 weeks for permissions to come through.
So one day we took our State Television minibus and drove to Kolomensky Monastery in Moscow and filmed the beautiful building and the ordinary Moscovites having fun in the park and on the slope down to the river. A colonel of the KGB turned up and started berating us for filming without permission to which I asked him why was it necessary to have permission to film people at play? He started shouting and I shouted back saying that we were showing Americans that the Russians are normal too and that he must be anti-Soviet if he objected to that. I have never seen any Russian official’s jaw drop like that before or since.
Having married, I thought that as in any normal country I would be allowed to stay. TBS tried to get my visa extended, but the Russian side was adamant that I had to leave. Ted Turner Jr. decided not to pursue this matter since he thought that it was more important getting goodwill going. I tried several other jobs, e.g. for Progress publishers as a translator, but was told off the record that the “Pervy Otdel” or KGB cell had blocked any employment.
I had become a threat due to the fact that I had married a Russian. So I left four days after my wedding and was only able to come back once in October 1986 on an Intourist trip to see my wife, where I had to pay for the hotel and transfers etc. TheIntourist tour guide was rather put out when I told her that I would see them all 3 days later at the hotel when we were due to fly back. She told me I was not allowed to spend the time with my wife. I disregarded her advice. I was also told that there were problems my wife’s exit visa, since her stepfather worked in the defence industry as a radio technologist. This was obviously laughable, since the USSR was many light years behind western radio technology, which had then made the step up to digital.
Finally, after a great deal of behind the scenes political and diplomatic pressures, my wife and my daughter who had been born by then were granted an exit visa and Xmas/New year 1986 to 1987 I was allowed to come and pick her up. I was prepared for the same dour and unfriendly exterior of Moscow as before and was duly stopped at customs and had one book of Bulgakov short stories from the Oxford University library confiscated as well as my suitcase turned inside out as usual. It was at this time, at the end of December 2006, that I finally discerned a thawing of attitudes on the street.
Up to this time, it is often forgotten, that Gorbachev had been in power for almost 2 years and there had been no real sign of glasnost. However, suddenly, I noticed something strange, some people were talking and laughing loudly on the street, which only had seemed to happen before when they were drunk. It was a strange realization, since I had been used to some people staggering away from me in almost terror, when they heard Russian with a slight foreign accent, when I asked the way. When we went to someone’s apartment, I was told to keep quiet and literally hold my head down, since neighbours might inform on the host that a foreigner had come to visit and then everyone would be in trouble.
So at the beginning of January, 2007, I finally got my wife out of Russia and left intrigued, that something may be happening and that a thaw may be on the way.