Interview with Leon Bagramov, Toronto, March, 1992
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Bagramov (B): I’ll tell you how I got involved in agriculture, and writing about agriculture. It happened by chance. At that time I was working for the magazine called “World economy and international relations”. It’s the publication of IMEMO. I was the head of the American Department which covered the United States, Canada and Latin America. Once I was walking along Gorki Street in Moscow an met a friend of mine who was my roommate when I studied at the Institute of International Relations and at that time was working for “Pravda”. He offered me to go to London as a correspondent of the newly born newspaper “Rural Life”. First I was surprised because I new nothing about agriculture. But he said that though the target readers were the agricultural community I would not have to write just about agriculture because people living in small towns and villages were interested not only in agriculture but also in international affairs, and maybe be even more in the latter than in the former. He said I could write for the international department of that newspaper. So I said OK and in two months found myself in London.
M.Spencer (M): How long did you stay in London?
B: For about a year. Then they decided to transfer my office to Canada. They thought that Canada was more inportant from the point of view of agriculture. And they were right. By my friend was only partly right when he said that I would not have to write too much about agriculture. I had to write a few strictly agricultural articles. So I had to learn about all this. And it was a hard work.
M: So how would you solve, how would you’ve already solved Soviet agricultural problems? How would you have done it different?
B: I think this (agriculture?) is the weakest link in our system. There’s great resistance to reform on the part of local bureaucracy and heads of collective and state farms. They are not interested. I wrote about this in my book “Modern Capitalism and the World Food Problem”.
M: Is it in English?
B: It was translated into English, but I rejected the translatrion which was done in India. But it has been translated into Spanish and French.
To my opinion it is a semi-feudal agriculture. And I’ll explain what the “feudal” means in this context. Feudalism is associated with uneconomic ecforcement. Which means that people produce not because they are motivated economically (selling their produce and getting some profit ) but because they are forced by somebody else to produce. Before 1963 our peasants didn’t even have passports, I mean internal passports. And that meant that while in a city they couldn’t stay at a hotel because you need a passport to get registered there. So it was very difficult for them to leave their farms.
M: It’s like serfs.
B: Exactly. And I think that we still have this semi-feudal system in our agriculture. One of the other features of this system, apart from uneconomic enforcement, is that peasants have their tiny plots and they are bound by those plots to the big estate (kolkhoz). And their motivation, as far as working for the kolkhoz is concerned, is very low, because they are remunerated very poorly. So one quarter of all agricultural produce in the country comes from these tiny plots, although they make only three per cent of all arable land. That shows that this system of production is very ineffective despite all the machinery used, fertilizers, etc. The real reason for poor performance of collective farms is lack of motivation on the part of collective farmers, which means the reason is the system itself; where something belongs to everybody it belongs to nobody.
There people who say: Why should we divide the land between peasants, whereas in the developed countries farms are becoming bigger and bigger. But one should understand that there’s a difference between farms in this country and farms in the West. The farms we have are semi-feudal, with poor farmers, low levels of production, low motivation, etc. While big farms here in Canada or in the US ae usually part of a bigger system, part of agribusiness. And the system here is very efficient. So we cannot compare our farms with those big ones.
We too have some big farms in Kazakhstan and in Siberia. Now there’s a tendency, a requirement actually, to divide big collective farms, especially those which are inefficient. But it’s easier said than done. There’s a very strong opposition to that. First of all local authorities don’t want any changes, and for a very simple reason: they get a lot of stuff produced by collective farms free. Secondly, some farmers have been spoiled by the system. They prefer to live on the welfare. Actually it is a welfare system.
They prefer this lazy type of life and don’t care about how things are going at their collective farm. There are some though who would like to break with this kind of life. But they face great problems. Because they are given the worst land, they are paid worse for their produce, they usually have to sell their produce to the collective farms. They are very often treated like outcasts. So as of now there are very few collective farms that have been privatized, i.e. divided between the farmers. I don’t say that when those farms are privatized overnight we’ll have the abundance of food. Because privitization does not only bring profits but also involves spending money. But anyway that would be a basis for radical changes. When Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy in 1921, within two years our food stores were filled with food stuff. It was like a miracle.
M: I’ve heard a tape by Henry Trofimenko who says that he recalls that even in one week the shops were much fuller than before.
B: I don’t think he can recall because he’s about my age. We are friends actually.
M: Maybe it’s not Trofimenko. It could have been Berezhkov.
B: Probably Berezhkov. OK, back to the NEP. What they did was they decreased the tax. And they allowed farmers to sell the surplus over the production quota, set by the state. So selling that stuff[at their own prices?] made them much more prosperous. Some other elements of free enterprize were also introduced. A lot of small businesses appeared, like private restaurants,etc. And he [Lenin] said that there was not any danger to socialism in that, because all big factories, plants, as well as railways, banks, telegraph were still owned by the state.
M: This is fairly similar to the Chinese reforms, isn’t it? And the Chinese were consciously emulating NEP in their reforms? Or not?
B: I don’t like Stalin. He was a villain, a mafiosi. But he was a clever man. No doubt about that. He was not stupid. And he was not a bad speaker.
I don’t mean that he was a kind of a speaker who would arouse emotions. But he wrote well. Why I am saying all this. Because he said once: Historical parallels are very risky, and some of them are senseless. For example comparing him to Peter the Great. So answering your question I can say that there’s a very big difference between the Soviet Union, or the former Soviet Union, and China. The thing is that in China they have very connected [close] families. Unfortunately in our country many young people left their villages for cities leaving behind middle-aged and older people. There’s a big difference between the Russian and Chinese family systems. They, the Chinese work like the ants. This is the difference. But of course there are things in common too.
M: And you would have started perestroika with agricultural reforms?
B: Yes. It’s my opinion that first we should feed the people. And more than that. What I’ll say now may seem foolish to you, but I think that we could use [or could have used ] the Communist Party for transforming our agriculture. Because it was a party ruled by command. So this reform could have been initiated by the command from the Communist Party. And though some of the local authorities would probably have been against it they would have had to obey the order of the party leaders, and later may have become rich farmers themselves. One of our businessmen of the younger generation when being in China asked one of the Chinese businessmen about what it takes to get a license to start a business like his. And the answer was that it was very simple. You should join the Communist Party, work for five years, and after that you can obtain the license. Of course it’s all very funny, but that’s how the Chinese Communist Party managed to stay in power. Why I’m saying all this. Many people argue that you cannot change agriculture without changing the political system because everything is interconnected and so on. I claim, yes, we could have done this.
M: But the Chinese did not change there political system.
B: No. And their annual rate of the growth of agricultural procuction was 8% a year! I don’t know what the figures are now.
M: Surely there must have been the discussion of this in Russia.
B: I think sometimes that we live now at the time when time is not just money, it’s life. We in our country need time to do all these reforms before the frustration of the people becomes unbearable.
M: You said you would have done the agricultural reforms first, and you wouldn’t have done, am I reading into it, the political reforms that were needed?
B: I would have done everything but gradually, starting with one thing and going further and further.
M: You must have discussed this with other people, like three or four years ago. Were you saying the same thing then? And what effect did it have?
B: That book I was writing was my private undertaking. It had nothing to do with my job at the Institute where I was the head of the Canadian Department. Yes, I discussed this matter with other people, and I read a lot about agriculture. I don’t know whether you’ve heard about him or not, but there’s a man who writes on agriculture. His name is Chernichenko, and he is very good. What he writes on agriculture is very radical and revolutionary. I think it was him who first wrote about an Arkhangelsky muzhik. Arkhangelsk is a city in the North, and muzhik is a peasant. So that peasant worked much more effectivly and was producing much more beef than collective farmers at a nearby collective farm. And there was a real battle between him and that collective farm. They hated him. And of course local authorites took the side of that collective farm. Then Chernichenko, I think it was him, got involved in this, backed the farmer and the farmer won in that dispute but it took a lot of nerves and expenses. There was also a TV documentary about that.
In our “Literary Gazette” there was a column called “If I were a director”. So if I were a director, I would start with agriculture, with the food problem to fill the shelves of our stores with food. Which by the way I saw in China. You were in China, weren’t you. I was there in 1989. And the stores there were full of food, no lines at all.
M: Still the question haunts me. Everybody has the example of China, everybody has the example of NEP. So why didn’t they do it?
B: I’ll give you another example. The first bill, or rather decree introduced [under perestroika] was the legislation on alcohol. The idea was to reduce the consumption of alcohol in the country.The second side of the tape.
M: Is it possible that my friend’s idea is correct or partially correct that because Bukharin and Chayanov were the sources of NEP and they had not been rehabilitated that it was not acceptable to think in terms of repeating NEP.
B: They have been rehabilitated.
M: But they weren’t early on. They have been rehabilitated recently but not at the beginning on perestroika.
B: You know part of the problem is that we put in charge of our agriculture not the best people. For example, Gorbachev made Ligachev responsible for agriculture just because they were rivals. And Ligachev was a very dogmatic man. Maybe in some respect he was better than others in his time, I mean after the years of stagnation. But for agriculture he was very dogmatic. He was defending those collective farms and so on.
So we actually haven’t paid enough attention to agriculture all these years. We talked a lot but we haven’t done anything really important.
M: Let me turn to what is the big project for me. And that is trying to identify the sources of new political thinking. And, if possible, the ways in which the East-West dialogue of the ’80s, especially the peace people, but also any visits, any contacts had any influence on that. And I’m thinking about four different dimensions. I’m leaving out the economics because that’s a whole thing in itself. But if you just talked about democratization, human rights, transparency in government and so on. The second would be demilitarization, or disarmament, or all the initiatives toward policy such as reasonable sufficiancy and so on. The third would be the Sinatra doctrine, non-intervention, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the decision not to enter Poland, and finally the decision not to stop the reunification of Germany. And, I guess, the fourth would be a much more positive attitude toward international organizations and agencies and so on typified mostly by Gorbachev’s speech at the United Nations. And this didn’t all happen in the brain of one man. I visited the Soviet Union a number of times. I speak no Russian. So I’ve had no experience with the kind of backstage discussions of people who make policy. But I’m trying to sort of get a mental map of who gained influence, for example, at your institute, and also where they get their ideas, how they develop their ideas. Whey did ideas become acceptable to say that had previously been unsayable? Actually I ask people personal stories. Not necessarily about themselves, but times and events that they remember, when a conversation occured,that surprised them, that they thought they could not have been hearing a few years before.
B: I’m sure that our institute has made a very significant contribution to that. And not only our director, Mr.Arbatov, a man of very strong convictions, who for many years has been struggling for arms reductions.
We’ve had several scientific meetings. They were interesting. Apart from our institute there are others which contributed a lot to the development of new thinking. If we take individuals, we should mention Yakovlev and Shevardnadze. And some other people, like Petrakov, Shatalin, Shakhnazarov, etc. Gorbachev was lucky to have those people as his assistants, and it was not very clever of him to get rid of them. They actually resigned because they opposed his policy when he shifted to the right.
M: Can you identify any particular changes, times probably when you were surprised at a certain reversal of policy, say when Sakharov was released, or when some law was changed about immigration, or when they stopped prosecuting people for betraying the country, for having private political meetings?
B: I don’t think there was any particular landmark. Everything happened very fast.
M: Tell me, if you can, what was going on, say, in your institute, as people themselves were coming out in favor of these changes, and having to reverse themselves. What was it like? What did it feel like to people who had to sort of eat their own words?
B: I recollect that before perestroika our party meetings were very dull, nobody actually cared. Though even then our institute was very progressive. The employees of our institute were involved in preparing information for the country’s leaders when they were going abroad for meetings with leaders of other countries.
I’not sure, but I think that the principle of reasonable sufficiency was born in our institute too.
M: Didn’t it become official policy during the 27th Party Convention? I mean this reasonable sufficiency doctrine.
B: I don’t remember. Trofimenko would probably now better because he was the head of the Department of Foreign Policy of the United States. He’s in New York now. He’s teaching at the Columbia University. He personally has taken part in the preparations for many summits.
M: Do you have any idea of whatever happened to documents when you sent a memo up to Gorbachev or a foreign minister or wherever you sent them? Did you ever get feedback on what they thought or what happened to these things? Did you even know for sure that they were read?
B: They were read, and they were used. That’s for sure.
M: Were many of these changes debated? Did people argue at lunch about the changes I’ve mentioned? Take, let’s say the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
B: We have the Strategic Studies Department. And there was the Department of Foreign Policy of the United States. I’m sure that they discussed this. But when you are at lunch it’s just lunch.
M: To what extent, do you think, the people who are making or influencing policy, are aware or read or are influenced by the ideas from abroad. And to what extent most of the policies are locally made, without reference to theories or analysis from abroad.
B: I can’t tell you to what extent, but I can make one general statement. Before perestroika we paid much less attention to the statements which were made abroad, and we evaluated those statements much more negatively. After perestroika we started to think that probably there is something useful in those ideas. And that was the beginning of new thinking. In our Canadian department, when we have conferences, very often the statements made by my Soviet colleagues coincide with the statements made by Canadians. But often they don’t. So now the division is made not along the line Soviet-Canadian, but along the line one opinion-another oppinion. That’s a new phenomenon.
M: Can you give some examples?
B: The most interesting example is the free trade agreement.
M: I was able to participate in several dialogues. In Vienna, in Moscow and some others. After the meetings there were memoranda written up summarizing the main points. And those memoranda, those notes were circulated. Do you remember seeing such things?
Bagramov(B): And we have never attended those conferences. … , so I have never attended them. Of course, I attended many other conferences.
My impression was that in every country certain groups of people had been formed who attended various conferences in various countries. They knew each other and this was a kind of closed club. New people were not allowed to that club. It’s not that there was any written rule but definitely there were unwritten rules. It was the same people going from one place to another discussing all those problems in a friendly atmosphere, often with good parties which followed. We called them professional fighters for peace.
Spencer(S): Name some.
L BAGRAMOV Oh, I would rather not. Some of them are friends of mine.
So they became professional fighters for peace and they were enjoying their life. Actually one of the reasons why those talks in Vienna, on the reduction of conventional forces, were going on, and on, and on, for so many years was that the people who were involved in those talks had a very good life there. And they were interested in those talks never ending.
S: No. There’s MBFR talks. I think it was thirteen years they did it. But I think they were told, “You are not allowed to solve this. We don’t want any solutions.” And when they decided they did want some solutions, they … and they had the CFE, and they got it done within six months.
L BAGRAMOV Maybe. But there is also some truth in what I am saying. Though there’s no need to emphasize it too much. This certainly played a certain role. But basically what I wanted to say was that there were professional fighters for peace who formed a certain group. And they knew each other, they visited each other’s countries. And this was sort of one line. And the other line was real politics. And sometimes it had nothing to do with the first one. They were separated. I don’t know, maybe it was useful. I’m sure it was useful. But to a limited extent. This is the view of an outsider.
S: OK. What has happened to the Soviet Peace Committee and the World Peace Council?
L BAGRAMOV As far as I know there’s no Soviet Peace Committee [any more -?]. Probably it is true that the money that was spent by the Soviet Peace Committee very often was misused. There are novels about those [members of the Committee – ?] who are very rich, and not only novels, there have also been articles published.
S: Really? Where have these articles appeared?
L BAGRAMOV In … , for instance.
S: I heard something when I was in Moscow about Borovik. I think the implication[?] was that Borovik was … .
L BAGRAMOV Yeah, there was something. But again I don’t want you to write about Borovik because we were classmates. I don’t want to tell something bad about my friends.
S: Sure. Tell me what you like about Borovik.
L BAGRAMOV I like that he is very flexible. He is a real political journalist. He has a certain charisma. But flexibility might have its darker side. Because we in our country, unfortunately, have too many flexible people. And what we need really is people of principles. … showed himself as not a man of principles(?). But we need people who are ready to resign if the policies they have to pursue contradict their convictions. But he has made progress. He combines different talents, those of a politician, journalist, TV commentator, writer all in one person.
S: Do you have any sense of how this … non-intervention abroad developed?
L BAGRAMOV I guess, this is a part of new thinking.
S: Right. I’ve been trying to identify how the different elements of new thinking came into being.
L BAGRAMOV I think this is the part of new thinking that questioned everything. Like whether we were right doing our interventions and pretending that we were defending socialism in the countries which really wanted changes. And who has given us the right to act as the judge, to decide what is good and what is bad.
S: Can you remember the first time you heard anybody talk that way?
L BAGRAMOV No, I don’t remember. But I think … … everything came together. Then again there’s another question: why do we have to sent our troops, say, to Angola, or to Ethiopia, or to other parts of the world when we have so much to do in our own country? And then who do we support in those countries? Are they really socialists as they pretend to be? Or are they just dictators like the one we had in our country?
I think the main feature of new thinking was that we started questioning everything, maybe even something that didn’t have to be questioned. But we did start questioning everything. Actually Marx said, “Put everything to doubt.” Doubt everything. And then there should be a way to progress(?). And I agree with Marx because it’s the same thing as with a scientist who if 100% sure that he’s right is finished as a scientist. Of course he believes that he is right but he always leaves room for doubt. That’s an important characteristic of a real scientist.
S: When the coup took place, did you think it could possibly succeed?
L BAGRAMOV I think it was possible, unfortunately. Some people say it didn’t succeed because it was doomed to failure. It’s very easy to say this after everything is over. But I think it could have succeeded. Probably if the plotters themselves had been more militant, more prepared (it was all done in such secrecy that their own colleagues didn’t know what was going on, which is very strange)… . But I think even if the coup had succeeded, the success would not have been a lasting one. Because the country is different now, the people are different. And then, what did the plotters suggest, what did they have to offer? There was no program at all! I criticize perestroika, but that doesn’t mean that I can accept their program. Because that was not a program. That was a road back to what we were trying to change. They suggested collective farms, they suggested people from urban areas, students go and help farmers, which sounds ridiculous now. That’s what we had during previous years. So I think those people could have seceded for some time due to terror. But as I said people in the country have changed now. It seems to me that something very important has happened. We have a different country. The people probably still have some of the slave mentality, but definitely not to the extent they used to have. They are more like free people now, they feel like free people. They are ready sacrifice their lives for freedom. And it was very interesting to see Russian people demonstrating against use of force in Vilnius, Lithuania. That was something new. That was not a demonstration for bread and butter, that was a demonstration in support of democracy, justice, against brutality. This was really important. Hundreds and thousands of people took to streets in Moscow demonstrating in support of Lithuanians. So this is a new country. Of course everything is mixed now, old and new. You have one thing today and another thing tomorrow.
S: Do you think there’s still a possibility of such a coup or a popular movement pursuing the same goals]?
L BAGRAMOV I don’t think there’s a possibility of a real coup because now there are no forces which can back such a coup. But there can be food riots or something like that. That’s quite possible. So I don’t think there’s a real possibility of a coup now. But I mean now, I am not talking about tomorrow.
S: There’s some kind of strange, right wing, fascist guy or something.
L BAGRAMOV Zhirinovsky?
L BAGRAMOV Fortunately he is… to me he is a sort of clown. I don’t take him seriously. And many people don’t take him seriously. Fortunately he’s like that. What is bad is that he got 8% of votes in the Russian presidential elections. He came in third after Yeltsin and the former Prime-Minister Ryzhkov. But the gap was very big. Some people voted for him because he had promised to drastically reduce the price of vodka, by half actually, he was also talking about the need to get Eastern Europe back to the fold, to have it join the Soviet Union and that kind of stuff. Of course there are people who listen to him but he is not to be taken seriously.
S: Would you say, in your own changes(?), that your being in Canada affected the way you think much?
L BAGRAMOV Pardon?
S: You were in Canada for how long?
L BAGRAMOV Five years(?).
S: And how did it influence you? Or maybe didn’t?
L BAGRAMOV Yes, it influenced me. I like this country. I’ve always liked this country. But the point was that I never thought that my country was worse than Canada. I mean, until recently, because now we have a mess and it’s not a subject for a discussion(?). Even before perestroika, of course, I understood that we were not an ideal society because we had people who accepted bribes, we had corruption, bureaucracy, etc. And Canada is a rich, prosperous country, people are very kind in Canada, they live better than us, and so on and so forth. But sometimes I thought that I would not change my life for life in Canada because life in Canada is so boring. It’s like being in a cage of gold or something. This is an exaggeration of course. And I don’t know where the cage actually was – here or there. But that comes from the system. And there are also people. And people will be people irrespective of the system. I do not idealize the bourgeois society, I’ve never idealized it. I have come to the conclusion, and we have come to the conclusion, that there’s no such a thing as an ideal society. And what we had in our country was not socialism as we pretended. It was a bureaucratic socialism, feudal socialism, but not socialism [proper – ?]. What you have in your country is capitalism with elements of socialism, very important elements by the way.
So the lesson is that we cannot jump over the stages. In comparison with our society your society is more progressive. You have more equality, more democracy than we do, you are richer than us, and so on and so forth. But at the same time even now I do not idealize this society. It is better, that’s for sure. Because democracy here is limited, that’s for sure too, I don’t have to prove it. It’s mostly for those who have money. You have more democracy because you have a lot of people with property. How can we have democracy like you have, if we are all employees of one big cooperative by the name of the Soviet Union?! It’s impossible. Because if they hurt you, then what can you do? Nothing. And you can be blacklisted. You cannot go to another company, especially if you are a well-known person who works at an institute. But again it doesn’t mean that you here have 100% democracy. As they say, the one who pays orders the music.
S: I’m glad you’re saying all this because … … (?)
L BAGRAMOV Then one more piece of criticism about your society. But unfortunately this is just inevitable. And we are going to be the same some time down the road. People are money-minded. From dawn to dusk they talk about money. And this makes life poor. There are other, real, values. But if money is your idol, you don’t appreciate other values. In the bourgeois society everything – talent, achievement, etc. is measured by money. As you know Diogenes(?) and Socrates, two Greek philosophers, were very poor. Socrates walked around barefoot and he really was a great philosopher.
S: Yes, of course. It’s nice that you see this because most of our Soviet friends seem to be so dazzled by things when they first come to visit that they can’t believe there’s anything pretty bad here.
L BAGRAMOV I can make my own judgement. I’ve always said that everything is relative. Like they say we live under socialism. No. And unfortunately workers in my country are exploited a lot more than workers here. Workers in Canada are getting much more in return for their labor. And there this administrative – command machine is taking almost everything from the people. And some of that wealth(?) is used by the small elite. And the rest is used for God knows what – for reversing the flow of the rivers, this notoriously stupid project damaging to the environment. The plan should be fulfilled at any cost. If we ruin the environment, it doesn’t matter.
S: I think you were kind enough and we’ll let you stop.