Talk to guests at book launch, Toronto, 23 January 2011

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When Gorbachev came to power, there were about 270 million Soviet citizens, over 90 percent of whom conformed to the demands of the state without complaining. I will hardly mention them. I deal instead with the three significant groups whom I call Dinosaurs, Termites, and Barking Dogs. These people had strong political opinions and my book traces the changing power relations among them, showing how profoundly foreigners, especially Western peace activists, influenced them and even Soviet policies.

About 20 million people belonged to the CPSU, probably 19 million of whom wholeheartedly favored militaristic Soviet authoritarianism. These hardliners I refer to as “Dinosaurs.”

The remaining one million party members I call “Termites.” They did not publicly state their opposition to the regime, but quietly burrowed within the system, awaiting the time when their country would disarm and become a democracy on friendly terms with the West. Their ideas came from foreigners. Termites were disproportionately people who had studied abroad, worked in embassies abroad, or participated in transnational organizations such as Pugwash, IPPNW, the Dartmouth conferences, END, or the dialogues in Moscow to which were invited Western peaceniks such as myself. In those meetings I was surprised that high level Soviet officials were really listening to us— unlike our own politicians. Although their speeches at the conference table were predictably formulaic, offstage they made it clear that they enthusiastically welcomed my own polite criticisms of the Soviet Union when it came to human rights and democracy.

Besides Dinosaurs and Termites there was a third political wing consisting only of a few hundred dissidents. They lacked power, but tried to stir up political opinion by making a lot of noise, so I call them Barking Dogs. They included Andrei Sakharov, the Helsinki Group, which promoted human rights, and the Trustbuilders, peaceniks who tried to improve relations with the West.

Since the Barking Dogs and Termites shared the same goals—democracy, peace, freedom, and disarmament—they should have been allies. To my surprise, however, they despised each other because they disagreed about how to reform the country— whether from above or from below. The Barking Dogs believed that real change could come only from below, from grassroots resistance. The Termites considered that impossible. Instead, they had long been waiting for a new top leader who would bring reforms. The rivalry and mutual contempt of the Termites and Barking Dogs split the progressive forces. I consider that the chief reason why perestroika was doomed to fail. At first the Barking Dogs were too weak to matter, but during Gorbachev’s era, this would change.

The Soviet population suffered (and to this day still suffer) from low levels of trust. The explanation is historical. For 70 years they were isolated from foreigners and even before that, Russians had experienced what Helju Bennett calls the “peer-keep” system. Under the Tsar, if a neighbor knew that you intended to run away but did not denounce you to the authorities, he would be punished as if he too were guilty. Naturally, people learned to keep their thoughts to themselves. But democratization requires “social capital,” the kind of relationships that emerge in a strong civil society. Under Communism, organizations were controlled by the state, so social capital was low and censorship kept people vulnerable and ill-informed. To travel abroad was a rare privilege, because the party knew that travelers brought critical ideas home with them.

As Robert Putnam has pointed out, there are two kinds of civil society organizations. Both of them augment social capital, but not equally so. Groups comprising people of similar backgrounds, interests, and opinions tend to generate in-group solidarity, which he calls “bonding” social capital. Groups that have great diversity among their members create what he calls “bridging” social capital. Democracy requires the bridging type of organization, which exposes people to strange ideas and teaches them open-mindedness. Transnational organizations are inherently of the bridging type, hence are immensely valuable politically to the Russians, whose levels of trust are astonishingly low. Only a few high-ranking Termites had the opportunity to get to know foreigners, but during Gorbachev’s time, it was they who made the greatest contributions.

Prague was a special place for those Termites. Many of them had worked there on a world-wide Communist magazine, Problems of Peace and Socialism. They told me that they found that job as enlightening as another whole university education.

Gorbachev never worked in Prague but he had a Czech friend during his university years — his roommate, Zdeněk Mlynář, who would lead the Prague Spring in 1968. Those reforms, though initiated from above by party officials, enjoyed immense popular support throughout Czechoslovakia—but the Soviet army crushed it. As a convinced Termite, Gorbachev did nothing to defend his old friend. He didn’t even approve of the Prague Spring until he visited that city and saw Czechs turning their backs on him to express their hostility. For many years thereafter he had no contact with Mlynář, though he always called him his closest friend. Still, the Prague Spring was a crucial event in the thinking of the entire Russian intelligentsia, many of whom were shocked when the Soviet regime crushed it.

Gorbachev, the consummate Termite, took power in 1985. His plan was to avoid civil war by holding the extreme right and left together while moving forward toward disarmament and democracy. (Today, Obama’s political strategy is much the same.) The Termites—the intelligentsia inside the party—were Gorbachev’s base. His opponents were the Dinosaurs, whom he tried to keep dreaming while he created democratic socialism. One early step toward that was to create a democratic parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies.

His team of Termites actively sought contact with Western peaceniks and were favorably disposed to their ideas. Several chapters of my book are devoted to documenting the powerful consequences of these contacts. To mention only three examples, Pugwash can claim much credit for the ABM Treaty. Parliamentarians for Global Action. along with American scientists such as Frank von Hippel, persuaded Gorbachev to let American seismologists to set up monitoring stations at nuclear test sites to prove that they could verify the explosions. IPPNW’s leader, Bernard Lown, persuaded Gorbachev to unilaterally stop nuclear testing. I could go on all day, describing the transnational contacts of the Gorbachev years.

Gorbachev’s foreign policy doctrine, known as “new political thinking,” was gleaned from foreign sources during transnational peace discussions. It consisted mainly of four principles: 1) common or mutual security—the notion that we make ourselves more secure, not by weakening our opponents, but by making them more secure; 2) reasonable sufficiency—the notion that there is no need to balance the forces of the Eastern and Western blocs because, once your side has enough weapons, you don’t need more, since you can’t kill anyone twenty times over; 3) non-offensive defence—the doctrine that a state should limit itself to short-range weapons, which reassure our potential enemy that, while we can defend our own territory, we are technologically incapable of going outside our own borders and attacking them; and 4) unilateral initiatives, the suggestion that one side can break an impasse in disarmament by taking the first step independently and expecting the other side to reciprocate, rather than negotiating an agreement between the two sides. I devote several chapters to proving that Gorbachev’s Termite team was actively seeking out these peaceable foreign ideas and adopting them. It wasn’t that Reagan won the Cold War by forcing Gorbachev to “blink first.” No, Gorbachev could see further ahead all along.

The Barking Dogs continued to hate all Termites, especially Gorbachev. As democracy and freedom of information increased, anyone could safely criticize the government. Many new people boldly joined the Barking Dog side, now calling themselves “radical democrats.” A new popular movement, Democratic Russia, supported Gorbachev’s bitter rival, Yeltsin, who was claiming to be even more democratic than him. He was gaining popularity while Gorbachev was losing it.

The radical democrats wanted eliminate the clause in the Soviet constitution that guaranteed the dominance of the CPSU. Apparently they did not consider how powerful the Dinosaurs still were, but Gorbachev did. His strategy was less confrontational. He planned to win support for a new democratic constitution, called the “New Union Treaty,” which would not abolish the CPSU, but make it into only one of several political parties. The Dinosaurs would have no role. But until that constitution was adopted, he found it necessary to placate them.

In the winter of 1990-91, he shuffled his cabinet, replacing some Termites with Dinosaurs. This was his famous “turn to the right.” I believe that it was actually an invisible coup. Some Dinosaurs had him by the throat and he had to comply with their demands or be deposed. Nevertheless, his actions infuriated his base, the Termites and the Soviet intelligentsia. Within a few months, they deserted him and joined the radical democrats, the successors to the Barking Dogs. Gorbachev was left with no progressive centrist base. By August, the Dinosaurs attempted a coup against him. It failed but three months later Yeltsin made a coup from the left, which succeeded. When Russia and two other republics seceded, there was no longer a Soviet Union for Gorbachev to rule.

Between 1990 and 91, Yeltsin ruled an increasingly chaotic Russia. It soon became obvious that he was no democrat. His elections were patently fraudulent and, when the parliament opposed him, he shelled it, killing possibly 1,000 people. He virtually gave the nation’s industries away, making a few men into multi-billionaires. By the time he left office, his approval ratings had fallen to 5%. Most Russians no longer wanted democracy anymore, for they believed that they had experienced it under Yeltsin. The sample was ample. The institutes that had been centers of new political thinking and democracy had become almost empty. Travel to the West was permitted, but transnational civil society organizations petered out. Russian Pugwash and IPPNW groups are moribund now.

Americans deserve much of the blame for the new Cold War that emerged under Yeltsin and Putin. When Gorbachev allowed Eastern Europe to abandon Communism, he did not expect that NATO would absorb those countries, as they have done. The US also offended Russians by bombing Serbia, a Slavic people whom Russians regard as close kin, and by planning to set up ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Obama has started to re-set the relationship with Russia, but far more needs to be done.

The popularity of the top Russian leader is always largely determined by the world price of oil, which fell to $7 a barrel when Gorbachev was in power but as high as $147 during Putin’s presidency. His authoritarianism was accepted because the standard of living improved, even though he stalled democratization by bringing civil society back under government control. But everyone in Russia today knows that the society’s level of corruption is staggering, and I know some reasonable people who think the government will collapse within a year. If that happens, the outcome may not be democracy but an even more repressive regime.

Russia remains vulnerable to the return of totalitarianism. The way to make any society less vulnerable is to strengthen its civil society, especially its bridging organizations. We could easily renew transnational civil society organizations—and even expand them now to include grassroots members. How? Most Russians now study English in school. The new version of the Skype videoconferencing tool can link up ten different people at a time, almost for free. I would like to see, say, 1000 discussion groups set up to meet once a month for one year. One of them might consist, for example, of four Russians in Krasnoyarsk discussing climate change, agriculture, nuclear weapons, or hip hop music with two Canadians in Regina and two Americans in Fort Worth, Texas. This is the kind of transnational civil society that would promote democracy in Russia. That would be a wonderful way to thank Mikhail Gorbachev on his eightieth birthday and it would be fun for us too.

Q & A session (after 8pm talk)

This lively session, which touched on a wide range of topics beyond Russia, is available in audio.

Apple and smartphone-friendly audio link: here

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books