Friday, November 20, 2009

When You're 99.9 % Sure

Head Of Cheka

To pick up where I left off, the letters that make up Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee’s book, Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok, 1987- 1990, measure the impact of Communist politics on ordinary people. When it came to politics, glasnost called into question the longstanding principle—in operation since 1918--that political parties as well as factions were a threat to the country. From 1987 to 1990, many Soviets had had enough: they now asked for personal rights, competition in elections, political pluralism, governmental checks and balances, decentralization, equality in political processes, and popular participation in politics.

Soviet elections were one area of concern for Soviets in the age of glasnost. As anybody of my generation will recall, Soviet politicians frequently won elections with 99.9 percent of the vote, or some similar crushing margin of victory. In Small Fires, we get a glimpse of one participant’s views on the subject. According to a voter, people brought passports to the voting booth in order to verify who they were while they performed their civic duty and, much more importantly, lived up to the expectations of local Communist Party officials. However, voters routinely brought the passports of other family members to register their votes as well. Party bureaucrats didn’t care what individual voters actually thought, they just wanted to report high levels of political participation to their superiors.

Of course, elections did not entail choice. Before Perestroika, Soviet voters had only one choice for any given election. The Party selected candidates, and voters endorsed the decision. Soviet politicians were one layer of the Soviet nomenklatura, the privileged caste in Russian society. Members of the nomenklatura often drove in black sedans, shopped in special government stores, avoided long lines at the doctor’s office, and had access to state-supported dachas.

In theory, the U.S.S.R. worked accordingly: local soviets reported up to regional executive committees who reported up the chain to the Supreme Soviet, which concentrated power in the hands of a small Central Committee. The units of government were districts, oblasts, and then, largest of all, republics. In this context, many ordinary people felt that Lenin’s idea that all power belong to the soviets had long since been betrayed. In the Soviet Union, power was thoroughly centralized, with all power residing in the hands of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The irony of glasnost and perestroika is that Gorbachev’s reform efforts were made possible as a result of this extreme centralization. Although his proposals threatened to undermine the authority of Party officials at many different levels, these officials were not accustomed to questioning central authority or resisting authority. Many of these officials had risen to power under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as a result of one factor—their personal loyalty to the Party Leader.

Since most Russians had never participated in politics, Gorbachev’s reforms—Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985--were shocking. In 1989, The Congress of People’s Deputies was televised for the first time. Yet once the floodgates of Glasnost and Perestroika were unleashed, there was no turning back. Letter writers in Ogonyok repeatedly criticized their government. They were shocked that leading dissidents such as Andre Sakharov were routinely vilified by the government. They were angered that the Congress of People’s Deputies didn’t even have current electronic voting technologies, and that members often voted for one another when one member decided not to show up for an official vote.

Ordinary Russians disliked the political system, but state repression operated on many different levels. The very concept of freedom was circumscribed in Soviet society. It existed, in theory, in the Soviet Constitution, but in practice it was a meaningless concept. The Soviet army was not accountable to anyone, and officers could bump civilians off of trains or force junior recruits into personal service. Experienced soldiers physically abused new recruits—the practice was called “the rule of the grandfathers”—and the army establishment did nothing. Courts could operate at night, away from prying eyes, without benefit of defense witnesses or juries. Citizens carried passports that assigned nationality status to all citizens and requested permission from local officials to move into a new jurisdiction. Some young men died from the abuse.

Worse than the army, was the K.G.B., a vast, silent, well-financed internal security service that opened people’s mail, enforced prohibitions against contact with foreigners (which had not been explicitly endorsed by a person’s supervisor), shut down protests, hassled Russians who illegally attempted to photograph bridges or train stations or anything else that had was allegedly related to state security, and guarded its secrets even in the midst of glasnost. Even in 1991, Russians hesitated to speak up about the dreaded K.G.B., symbol of everything wrong with Soviet life.

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