Zdeněk Mlynář on Mikhail Gorbachev

Zdeněk Mlynář, in l’Unità Dal Mondo, 9 April 1985
“My Classmate, Mikhail Gorbachev”
Trans by Tony Mirinzi

The West is gradually getting used to the fact that at the head of the Soviet movement is a man 20 years younger than his 3 predecessors. Journalists, politicians, and diplomats agree that Mikhail Gorbachev is a man of high intelligence, practical in negotiating and demonstrates to be very knowledgeable. To the journalists, he seemed pragmatic, a capable ‘manager’ in the sense of praise, and for lack of other news items, importance was attributed to a fact accidentally observed by journalists: while in London, he did not visit Marx’s grave; instead he bought his wife a pair of earrings like Mrs. Thatcher’s. Based on this, then, at times, there are those who attempt to speculate superficially on his possible role at the Kremlin.

As western Europe, what must we do about such a portrayal? I know Gorbachev personally and I know that the portrayal does not do him justice. For this reason, I decided to make known some certain impressions that I consider to be more useful to the cause.

The Student

We studied law at Moscow together from 1950 to 1955. We lived in the same residence for five years, we belonged to the same program, we prepared for exams together and both of us, finally, graduated with honors. We were more than classmates; we were known as good friends by everyone.

At the time, Soviet students were divided into two main groups. There were those who arrived at university right after high school and those who arrived as demobilized soldiers from the front. Gorbachev was too young to be a veteran from the front. Nevertheless, there was an important life experience for him. He had experienced it near the Caucasus front and he felt it as a source of suffering for the people, which was not indicated by the soldiers’ war-like romanticism.

In any case, he wasn’t a member of the first group either. After finishing high school, he had worked as a kombayn. He sometimes put the “Order of the Workers” red flag on his jacket which had been conferred on him. This was an extraordinary honor for a young man of 19 years, who let others imagine that he had really done and excellent job and always as an award for work done he had been sent from his town to the University of Moscow.

When we were studying kokhonik law, Gorbachev taught me how small the role of that law was in daily life and how big, in contrast, the role of common violence was in order to guarantee worker discipline in the kolkhozy. When I saw the kolkhoznik tables falling under the weight of all the food in the film “Kuban’s Cossacks,” it was still from Gorbachev that I found out how those tables really were.

From the Marxist philosophy classes he always drew, as his favorite, the line from Hegel that started, “truth is always concrete.” In complete contrast to us, Gorbachev then did not understand it in the strict Hegelian philosophical sense. He loved tough to repeat it every time a teacher or student chatted about general principles but completely ignored how very little they had to do with reality. In contrast to many Soviet students, for Gorbachev Marxist theory was not made up of a bunch of axioms that were to be memorized. Instead, they were the means in acquiring knowledge of the world and I think that even 30 years later Gorbachev could’t just disappear into political pragmatism.

Today Gorbachev obviously knows from experience what power is, what political procedure is, and how they are different from theory. I don’t think, though, that he’s a man for whom politics and power have become ends in themselves. He was never a cynic but characteristically, a reformer who considers politics to be the means and the people’s needs the end. What importance this may bear on the role he is taking on now is a difficult and open question.

In 1952 at the time of the reigning stalinism, we studied the official history of the USSR that told us to believe that any idea that was different from ones already established was to be considered an “anti-party deviation” and those who maintained these different ideas were eliminated, executed, and erased from history. It was right at that time that Gorbachev once said to me, “Lenin never had Martov arrested; he let him emigrate from his country.” Nowadays, expressions like this no longer have a heretical sound to htem — not even in the USSR. But in 1952, those words meant that Gorbachev, the student, doubted that men were divided into partisans and criminals. He knew tht in addition to the opponents, there could be critics and reformers who shouldn’t for this reason be called criminals and that this would also be related to the Socialists and Communists. In addition, to trust a classmate with such an opinion, a foreigner moreover, wasn’t really a common phenomenon. Surely, an opportunist, for whom one’s own convictions don’t have a decisive role in politics, would not have acted in such a way.

Gorbachev, the student, was not only very intelligent and gifted; he was an open man whose intelligence never made him arrogant. He was knowledgeable and he wanted to listen to the speaker. Loyal and honest, he earned an authority that wasn’t formal or spontaneous. Not that he was in any way unsure of himself. He was conscious of himself, the type of man who new that he had everything he had thanks to his own strengths, talents, and diligence and not because of protection or social origin. It should also be mentioned that such an awareness has grown and it has been reinforced with the passing of years. This will be certainly noticed by those who get the opportunity to have in Gorbachev a partner or political opponent.

The first true foreigner Mikhail Gorbachev had the opportunity to meet was no other than I. In 1951, I was on vacation and I sent him a postcard at his birthplace. In the summer, he worked again as a kombin worker. Having both returned to Moscow, he told me what had taken place. Looking for him in the fields where he was working, the station police chief arrived and gave him the suspicious item: the picture postcard from abroad. Both of us laughed about it, but he was able to laugh about it then because that which came from abroad was handed out only by way of the police.

Party Secretary at Stavropol

The last time we saw each other was in 1967, less than a year before the Prague Spring. I was in Moscow on a study trip and I went to visit him for a couple of days at Stavropol where, at the time, he was party secretary. It was also our first meeting after the fall of Khrushchev and this topic couldn’t not figure into our conversations.

For us Czechoslovakians, Khrushchev was, above all, the representative of that type of politicians who had opened the door to the consistent critics of the Stalinist period in Soviet history. we prepared precisely then to develop an idea for the economic and social=political development in order to be able to overcome the Stalinist past and to open new roads to the development of socialism—suitable new roads for the Czechoslovakian traditions and situation. What would have been the meaning of Khrushchev in the domestic politics of the Soviet Union or how Soviet leaders had considered his attempts at reform? On both counts, we don’t know much.

We didn’t regret the fall of Khrushchev. He didn’t consider this fact an event that could mean a return to the past. He evaluated the substituted leader based on, above all, domestic political criteria. He considered rather harmful his constant new interventions, generally not well-considered and often completely subjective economic management (in particular agricultural management) and institutional structures of the Soviet system. He attributed principally to Khrushchev the fact that in reality he had conserved the old method of arbitrary intervention from the centre upon the life of the whole country. The same Khrushchevian decentralizing ambitions had the form of bureaucratic and power intervention that moved from the centre to the heads and the will of “those who are at the bottom” who may regard for their own opinions. In short, Khrushchev had put in motion, unilaterally, a campaign directed from the centre and supportive to his own subjective criticisms spread about like a cure-all, as the only possible way to decide.

Greater autonomy and responsibility for the lower ranking leaders in the republics and individual regions was expected from Brezhnev. He considered this necessary for the true change in economic and political amangement systems in a country so to increase and different in terms of the various situations that make up the USSR; and as we know today, even from the Western media reports, in the following years Gorbachev demonstrated to truly know how to move toward an autonomous road. In the Stavropol region, in the area of his own jurisdiction and responsibility, he introduced important changes in the life of the kolkhoz. He substituted the administrative-bureaucratic structure with a system in which the individual working crew takes on duties relying on a notable independent authority, with which to decide on the way to carry them out. Greater arable farming, increase an enterprises and ingenuity, greater independence were not lacking and it showed in the incomes of people and members of the crews. In a few short years, in the Stavropol region, the wheat yield increased from 30 to 50%.

On this subject, the West German weekly, Der spiegel, writes today that “the kolkhoz in the Stavropol region have been, in fact, eliminated.” It’s a typical opinion of those whose reasoning is based on the principle that the socialist system would be the only one not to work while all that is economically viable would be none other than capitalism. Let’s all the author of similar formulas the right to his own opinion. But don’t be surprised if someone shows them that as such they cannot understand the possibiity of a reform development in the Soviet system.

A certain amount of merit for G’s success at Stavropol is due to his wife Raisa. Their marriage is one that goes back to their university years. Raisa Titorenko studied at the Department of Philosophy and lived in our same residence. Recently in London she shocked journalists because she doesn’t conform to their idea of a Soviet government official’s wife. And how could she have? She was the first to conduct introductory sociological research in the kolkhoz, which have even contributed to the changes adopted in the Stavropol region. As for me, I certainly don’t think the pair of earrings brought back from London is fundamental in characterizing her.

In 1967 I spoke with Gorbachev even about his ideas in terms of the necessary reforms in Czechoslovakia. We spoke with mutual understanding and both of us kept very present the fact that the Soviet Union is not Czechoslovakia. We knew that my ideas had to do with just the Czechoslovakian situation and opportunities. So, just as he was in favor of greater independence and responsibility for the republics and the USSR regions, Gorbachev was also in favor of the possibility for the various countries to move forward along their own specific paths of development. But certainly neither he nor I knew what would happen later, a year from then, in Czechoslovakia.

As I said before, that was our last meeting. After 1968, I never returned to the USSR. Gorbachev came to Prague in 1969 with a party delegation, still as secretary of Stavropol, but this took place a little after, together with other members of the Dubcek administration of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, I was excluded from the Central Committee. And in that situation, I really couldn’t meet with a member of an official Soviet delegation. A shame.

From then on, our lives and our experiences followed very different paths. His experiences tell him that whoever in politics has, at hear, the interests and needs of the people of a Soviet type society. he/she will be able to do something important, sensible, and realistic for those interests and needs but only in the Communist Party and with the right participation in the development of his/her politics. I understand such a position and I respect it. It’s the same one I held for most of my life until the particular experience of the Czechoslovakian “normalization of the situation” in the seventies brought about a change in the position. Doing so, though, I gave a certain progress to my life but I certainly didn’t exert influence on the opportunities of those who live elsewhere who had another testiny and who had decided differently.

An Opportunity Not Just for Him

During my life I’ve had many bad experiences and the worst, often, in spite of the optimism which is characteristic of me. But when I read Zhores Medvedev’s interview in L’Unita, where he says that there’s nothing unusual in the choice of Gorbachev, then I have to disagree. Certainly, maintaining those useful changes in the life of Soviet society, that for years demanded the same development,isn’t easy at all; and there’s no guarantee that he will succeed in it. Likewise, it is certain that this doesn’t depend on the individuals even though placed i a position with the highest political function. Notwithstanding this, I think that with the choice of Gorbachev, there is something new, a new opportunity for socialism has been offered.

With his arrival ends the politics oriented mostly toward the past, “funeral-to-funeral” politics, the politics of postponing the solutions to problems that can’t be delayed where stagnation is the final outlet. Gorbachev and the leaders from his generation must consider the importance of the next decades. For them, the real opportunity for self-realization is now. They have a political and existential experience that is different than the one of generations past.

Generally, this is expressed by the recognition that, politically, they were formed in the post-Stalnist period. All this means that their experience is a very contradictory one and above all, an experience created with the failures noted by the methods and attempts at reform.

Khrushchev didn’t succeed. He had put as fundamental to his reform aspirations the criticism of the past to which was added the methodology of promising and breatthtaking [attractive?] charges but which were in reality void of any presuppositions. The experiments in systematic change tried in Central European countries in 1956, 1968 and 1980 were not successful. The reasons for all those failures are very different, it is true, but the fact remains that we are dealing with failures.

The experience created by the generation about which we are speaking teaches us anyhow that neither stifling politics nor removal of unsolved [pre?] politics are successful IN addition, in terms of the seventies, the fact that the reforms ceased to be, from the point of view of the needs and vital interests of the USSR, a certain something that presents itself as an element of inconvenience is new. In contrast, a reform development has become an indispensible domestic necessity. Gorbachev and other leaders have a personal experience. The situation in Stavropol Region, Azerbaijan Republic, or elsewhere cannot improve beyond a certain limit if changes on a inter-state level do not happen. And how clearly the brief period of Yury Andropov did show us this, however timidly.

And it is here that I now trace the news of the situation. Essential reforms have become characteristic for the original country of the Soviet system and they are no longer just a necessity for the smaller European countries; and precisely because we are dealing with a new situation, we cannot wait for a repeat of what has already happened. In this office I’m writing about my memories and personal impressions. Therefore this article cannot be the place for me to analyze the complex situation of the Soviet-type society. There’s no doubt, though, that for the reform development of the Soviet union, there is no satisfactory model. The elements of a pluralistic political democracy, traditionally connected for example to the Czechoslovakian historical evolution, will certainly not be a fashionable Soviet solution; and we cannot wait for a Soviet development similar to the one currently taking place in__. In that country, problems somewhat similar to the Soviet ones from the 1920s and 1930s (an not the ones from the 1980s) get resolved. Obviously, China resolves them with methods that are quite different from Stalin’s. They are closer to the Leninist idea of the New Political Economy and, in certain phrases, to the Bucharest opinions. However possible it is to trace here certain more general, valid experiences for reform development, not even Hungary provides useful remedies for the USSR. In fact, many economic, social, and political problems are quite different.

However, it is important that both China and Hungary and all the other countries can proceed toward their own paths without its being called anti-socialism and“inadmissible” just because their paths are different than those of the USSR. Just this single fact would be of great importance for a new chance at socialism in the world and viceversa, it would constitute an opportunity for reform deveopment in the USSR.

For what I know about Mikhail Gorbachev, the man I met long before he went so far as to occupy the office he now holds, certain hopes come to me. The principle that states “truth is always concrete” is certainly present in his way of thinking. It has to do with a man who attributes more importance to his own experiences, lived and felt, than to that which is offered to him in the charter. And he is capable, at the same time, of evaluating with a lot of rationality, his own experience, completing it and developing it with the help of other sources. He is capable of acting pragmatically, but also of reasoning theoretically. In his life, permanent values are important in addition to the momentary successes. And he has enough trust in himself to show to be in a position to be able to part from ideas that he, himself,has not demonstrated to be right.

I am very happy that Gorbachev himself has seen Rome during the days of Berlinguer’s funeral. He certainly knows that he could not have seen those hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, that accompanied the Communist Italian leader on his last trip anywhere else in the West. What he learned from the most diverse charters, he will certainly compare to that which he has experienced. It would be good if he could see China. In recent years I’ve been there twice and I’ve given lectures to the head officials of the party, on the soviet system and on the vain efforts of one of their reforms. What I got from the trip was, among other things, the impression that a trip from Moscow to Peking and vice versa is not part of the mere fantasy empire. Remember that at one time even trips from Moscow to Belgrade were unimaginable. I hope that precisely M Gorbachev. can be the first to accomplish a similar trip.

In the last discussion before become general Secretary, Gorbachev said that despite the great importance of Soviet-U.S. relations, one cannot forget that the world cannot be reduced to just the U.S. If, simultaneously one remembers that even the USSR is just one part, also strong and important, of today’s world and that every part wants and needs independence, it would be of great significance and importance. This would really show the world to see itself for what it is instead of through the distorting mirror of the superpowers bipolarity.

To conclude, I’d like to return to the opening sentence of this last part: It also have [had? bad?] experiences with the optimism that’s characteristic of me.

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