Interview with Andrei Melville in Moscow, July 22, 1991
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Melville: I have contacts, but I tell you frankly, I am kind of skeptical. I may very well be wrong. I feel very skeptical about the outside effects on the Soviet system. The journey of concepts, etc. Maybe I am wrong in my understanding of the ancien regime in this country, but I think it really was a closed regime that was unable to digest ideas from outside. In a very few cases I think new ideas could have penetrated this system but in general the nature of the system prevented any kind of intellectual influences. Maybe I am exaggerating my skepticism because of course people from think tanks, from the arts, traveled to the West, met their colleagues here, and little by little ideas from the outside penetrated and undermined this existing political culture.But I draw the line between the political culture of the society and the system, per se. It seems that they were correlated, but the political culture was broader than the system of the Soviet Union, so the influences from outside, could have modified the political culture of the society without influencing the internal dynamic of the system.
My feeling of how the dynamic started to work in this country in 85 is not so much that there were pressures from below — from the human rights movement, from rank and file people. They were very effectively crushed. But the change came deliberately from the top but it penetrated a fertile soil that was already prepared for change. So I distinguish the impetus for change from the preconditions for change.
If we concentrate on the preconditions, we can look for all sorts of stories and we can enjoy the adventures and journey of ideas. That might be true because, here I would agree with those political scientists in the West. Well, you name them — Fred Stark, Gail Lapidus, George Breslauer, and others — who claim that the seeds of political culture emerged little by little in the Soviet Union —outside and independently from the system, creating a context which did not cause change but was favorable when change came, but it came from the top, inside the closed and isolated system. The mystery is, how this could have happened. We do not have data, information, which would show how this change originated and how these people, such as Gorbachev himself and the people around him, such as Yakovlev and others, really changed their positions and tried to change the views, their stances, their positions, and work for change. This beats me! I cannot understand how, in the midst and the very centre of the nomenklatura establishment system, such people emerged and what made them change.
But what I know, I do not have information that these people were what is a very famous saying in the West — that Andropov himself was kind of a closet liberal who liked Scotch, jazz and detective stories and that’s why when Brezhnev died, he started to change something. I am opposed to this notion. I do not have information that Yakovlev, Shevardnadze, or Gorbachev were these closet liberal who were hiding their democratic values and ideas in the past and then, when the moment came, were able to express their ideas. My understanding is of a much more difficult, painful (politically, personally, and emotionally) of the leader, which grew in the centre and context of traditional, closed nomenklatura system which killed individuality, but then, some creative elements which were left in the personality, they kind of found their way to express themselves, and then the change of context and the reaction in the environment — a reaction that in the very beginning was an absolutely traditional communist reaction — modernize, let’s change the system, this system, not create something new — and maybe it will work again. That’s why all these ideas, before perestroika, of acceleration. Gorbachev himself, for maybe half a year or a year of his office, there was no talk of perestroika. There was talk about making the system move again. . .
Spencer: Anti-alcoholism. productivity.
Melville: Absolutely. But then the changing environment started to create real danger to the very existence of the system, made the leaders look for new approaches to save the system.The process moved ahead and some of them came to realize that you cannot save the system without radically changing it. I think the very notion of the change of in, of the system is the major dividing line between two camps, two trends in the process of reform: one tries to continue this traditional line of communist reformism, of change from the top and inside the system, and another position which calls for change outside the system and not from the top but from below. The ultimate paradox of communist reformism in this country proves what has happened already in E. Europe — that is that the impulse for communist reform creates in itself the potential for self-destruction. Because the logic of communist reformism — inside and from the top— create the forces that annihilate it. That is, in trying to enlarge the social base for reform, this communist reformism inevitably creates the mass base for popular democratic movement, the movement from below, which basically undermines the reform from the top.
Spencer: How long have you believed that?
Melville: I started to think this maybe one year ago. Because, very frankly, I was the great enthusiast of perestroika and of Gorbachev for four years of his being in power and, in this book with Gail Lapidus, I very sincerely in the introduction said that Gorbachev represented the core of reformism in this country. But little by little, analyzing what is happening around me, I think — and of course, looking backward, the gentle revolutions of 89 and the beginning of 90 changed a lot of my ideas about what is happening here in the Soviet Union.
But if you want a story about how ideas penetrated from outside, penetrated the upper echelons of thinking in the Soviet Union, I can give you one story and you can check it in the U.S. I would be surprised if people would tell you the truth because I don’t think that at this level of political life people would, still being in office, would tell you the truth. But you, as a social scientist, can compare the texts even without taking interviews of the officials. But the story that I am going to tell you only underlines the point — that the impulse for change can in some cases penetrate the nomenklatura system but, in order to do this, to penetrate the obstacles, very special conditions should already exist outside and inside the system. The conditions must make it imperative for the system to try to change itself —otherwise, none of the ideas would really penetrate the thinking of the old guard. AS a ping pong they would just be thrown away.
This is a story about the conceptual origins of the new political thinking here in this country. There were lots of articles saying that this thinking originated in the Kremlin in the mind of the General Secretary Gorbachev, but anybody who knows anything about the new political thinking (and people are already beginning to forget about this notion because it is already outdated).
Spencer: The concept of new political thinking is outdated?
Melville: I think it is because, simply, I tend to think that the New Political Thinking (NPT) about a year and a half or two years ago, came to a certain dilemma which the New Political Thinkers in the Soviet Union ex officio were unable to resolve — and that is either to continue to pursue the logic of the notions of NPT, which draw people to distinctive ideational conclusions which undermine the basis of the system, or try to sit on the fence or sit on two chairs in Russian, by trying to combine the old with the new. That is what happened to the NPT conceptually, though of course there were very practical challenges to it also.
Spencer: Are you thinking, for example, of the attempt to combine two different economic models?
Melville: That might be one example, but if one explores the correlation of ideas which one finds at the basics of the NPT — such as the impossibility of winning nuclear war, the outdatedness of war and force itself, a much publicized idea of the de-ideolization of international relations, and the political breakthrough in our thinking, freedom of choice — but if one explores this notion, then one comes to the conclusion that very many fundamental pillars of Marxism-Leninism have to be abandoned, and Marxist-Leninism itself is something which is no longer relevant at all for modernity and for the new system in the country and for the world at large. But these people, until now, are not willing to openly accept this. Recently these new thinkers ex officio, were trying to hide themselves from this basic truth and not to continue to argue for the vitality of the modernized communism, but as they are not ready and don’t want to openly accept this failure and openly embrace a different set, not simply of ideas but of basic VALUES, this so-called NPT will remain in crisis.
But in the initial stages of the NPT you can see that many of the ideas —the interconnectedness of the world, the erosion of the role of force in the world, the nuclear revolution which undermines many of the basic notions of the political past — they can be seen as elaborated concepts in the works of Western political scientists, psychologists (that one trend) and another trend in the writings of the anti-war movement. I see in two basic trends at the origins of the NPT.
The story is the following: Seweryn Bialer, whom one can hardly call a new political thinker in the strict sense of the word (he is a real political figure in the sense of realpolitik and no idealist at all) but I am fond of his writings and he one of the authorities in political science in the West. Somewhere in 84 or 85, he started to explore some of the ideas which were connected with what later emerged as new political thinking. I can refer to his brilliant lecture published in a separate booklet in Columbia University in, I think, 84 or 85, about the nuclear revolution. It was published as a lecture of a distinguished professor. There he explored many of the ideas of this sort — that the world after the nuclear revolution has changed, politics have changed, etc. — many ideas which later were developed in the context of the NPT. This in itself, if you draw the line even deeper, this is not really in Bialer, but Bialer was using some of the ideas of Robert Jervis, who discussed these ideas in his lectures and articles. I was following his writings and I saw that Jervis was the originator of many ideas that were kind of absorbed by Bialer. Bialer comes to the SU (in I do not remember the year) and just after publication of this brilliant lecture, he comes and as usual he meets VIP level officials in the Kremlin and the Central Committee, and I remember escorting him to Shakhnazarov’s office, who was the usual contact for Bialer in the Central Committee. I have not idea what they discussed, but I watched what was published. And in 3 months or so, Shakhnazarov publishes an absolutely amazing article, “The Logic of the New Thinking,” first in the magazine XXth Century and Peace, and then in an expanded form, in the Problems of Philosophy Journal. And if you simply put the two articles together you see that many basic notions from the Bialer lecture, you can find in Shakhnazarov’s article. That was an exciting experience because I could see the channels of ideas. But I would disagree with those who would say, Well, that is simply intellectual magic that Bialer was able to convince Shakhnazarov of all these truths. I think if Bialer had tried to do this ten years earlier he would have been politely thrown out of the office, but now (I don’t want to sound too Marxist in this) but when objective conditions were created, the environment inside the system was more susceptible to such ideas, and they were able to penetrate.
Spencer: It seems to me you are making a big distinction between yourself and others. I thought when I met you the first time in Toronto, you were very democratic, and when I mentioned your name to people here in Moscow, they said, Oh, yes, he is well-known to be a very liberal and democratic man. Now I don’t know whether you call yourself a closet liberal, but I assume that the values and opinions that you hold now, you always held.
Melville: You know, I’d very much like to say yes, but this is not true. Yes, I always felt more liberal and democratic than many of my friends and colleagues, and much more liberal and democratic than the mainstream. In all my writings, I was not lying, but in many cases I was not able to say what I wanted. I was not saying everything. It is nice to say now and to pretend that even in the past, in the Brezhnev years, I was personally the same as I am now, but this would not be true. But it is an arrogant hope to say that we always knew the truth and only the system prevented us from expressing it and living according to these values. Many of us believed that as soon as you open the repressive lid, everything will be fine and everybody would start to work in democratic ways toward an idyllic democratic future. I had the illusion that I knew the answers to the questions, but the system prevented me from saying the truth aloud publicly. It was a painful experience to realize, after the repressive lid was taken away, the system liberalized itself and gave you the possibility to express yourself more freely or, rather, after you yourself began to set the new parameters of internal freedom,even in this situation, this was your ambitious illusion that you know the answers to the questions. This created the possibility for you only to pose questions and to look for answers. And to find the answers seems to be a much more difficult and painful procedures than many of us expected in the past. This is the learning process. In the context of my own thinking, this is the process of learning of democracy, of learning how to be able to put the difficult and painful questions, but to hope that we know the answers to the questions and we were closet liberals and we were reading Western political science literature and we associated ourselves with democratic values — I think this would be very nice, but an arrogant thing to say. We are learning to be normal, to be democratic, to become ourselves. Today I would dissociate myself from the democratic euphoria that you can see among certain intellectuals and definitely among the politicians who call themselves democrats. They think the know the answers. I think they don’t. And for me the basic thing that we are only now starting to learn, are the limitations of democracy and the problems that democracy itself poses for us, as well as for anybody else. Democracy is not idyllic, a happy situation where everybody will enjoy a free lunch and self-expression. Democracy only creates conditions for very hard and difficult processes of internal liberation and the liberation of the society. This is a damned process but all others are worse. So for me democracy is not manna from heaven or something donated to you from the leaders from the top, but something that you start to learn. The difficult dilemmas and antinomies of democracy, where it will be very hard to make the the trade-offs and democracy is as difficult and painful a process as in other countries. And we have to learn it, internally in our psyches, and in the Soviet Union.
Spencer: What a speech!
Melville: Oh, come on, come on! I suggest that you contact some people in the U.S.A. Canada Institute. They may tell you some interesting stories about the adventures of ideas and may sound more optimistic than I did.
Spencer: I want to contact Lev Semeiko.
Melville: Yes, I like him. I regard him as my friend but I would never regard him as a new thinker, as anything close to new thinking.
Spencer: I am thinking of a conversation I had with him about the inadvertent launching of a nuclear war, when I talked about the mathematical model of a Romanian named Bereanu. He assured me that my concerns would be heard, and I want to know in what way those practical, strategic issues were heard, if they were. I also would like to speak with Gen. Milshtein. [He suggests I call Alla Bobroshova for Milshtein’s number.] I was struck by your comment that the belief that the system would self-destruct was reinforced by the events of ’89. I remember a conversation I had with Aleksandr Likhotal near Vienna a few years ago. I said that it seemed to me that when the pressures were released, that there would be uprisings for independence in Czechoslovakia, and the other E. European countries. He seemed convinced, on the other hand, that once opportunities existed for these countries to become independent they wouldn’t take them, because they would be satisfied with the reforms Gorbachev was proposing. That’s what came to mind when you said that these events disproved basic assumptions. Would you say that was a turning point? And would you include yourself in the point of view that I just attributed to him?
Melville: I wouldn’t have expressed myself as strongly as he did. I simply was not sure in what direction things would change in Europe. I did not expect that the destruction of the communist regimes would take that little time and would go that smoothly. I felt that sooner or later, inevitably, this would take place, including the unification of Germany, and (elimination) of the old socialist states, but I felt that this would be a protracted process which would probably take ten years or so.
Spencer: I would have expected that view of Germany’s reunification to be a minority view here.
Melville: I started to express this idea openly at a time when it was a taboo but this is kind of a political mystery for me. From the appearance of events one should think that the Soviet people at large, and academics,and politicians, and old veterans of the Great Patriotic War would digest this change with pain, with frustration, with backlashes, with hysterical reactions. I was very much surprised how smoothly this process went. Putting this in a larger context I would say that the de-imperialization, external, the loss of the Soviet empire —not inside the union but outside — the erosion of the superpower status of the Soviet Union, went very smoothly and quietly and without real frustration. Because the hysterics by Alksnis and Petroshenko and the group Soyuz, these are minority things which you should not take into account when you talk about the nation in general. I think what was said about Great Britain, that this was the nation which was able to decline gracefully, this we can now say of the Soviet Union. The decline is kind of graceful, gentle and without frustrations —outside of the borders. Inside it is a totally different thing.
Spencer: Uh huh. In fact, one of the things that puzzles me and I may be wrong (people tell me I am wrong) is that it seemed apparent to me three or four or even more years before, even as early as the time that martial law was imposed in Poland, that the Soviet Union was not going to intervene in Eastern European countries. So I don’t know why it took so long for those countries to see their opportunity. People say it wasn’t obvious. Do you feel that it was apparent even before ’89?
Melville: That the Soviet Union would not intervene militarily? I think that any practical analysis at that time would convince us then or now that it was inconceivable, it was impossible to intervene militarily. But I don’t know how the regime would react to these changes if not for domestic problems and the collapse of the ancien regime. This is really an interconnected thing because on the other side you can ask yourself whether the events in Eastern Europe would have been possible if not for the Soviet domestic preconditions for this. What is interesting in all this, a more general issue, is the survivability of the communist regime under reforms. And this always reminds me of what _________ Velikovsky (?) the famous Polish philosopher said many years ago. I am not quoting but he said something like, attempts to reform communist system are like attempts to fry snowballs.