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RUSSIAN VOICES : Annals of an Apparatchik : INSIDE GORBACHEV'S KREMLIN: The Memoirs of Yegor Ligachev Introduction by Stephen Cohen ; Translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Michelle A. Berdy and Dobrochna Dyrcz-Freeman (Pantheon Books: $25; 369 pp.)

March 21, 1993|Reviewed by Geoffrey Hosking | Hosking is professor of Russian history, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London

In the 1960s, Yegor Ligachev once visited a shipyard undergoing a complete overhaul. "A large, tall new building was erected over the old building without touching it," he recalls. "Only after completion of the new roof was the old structure inside taken down." Looking back in his memoirs on this experience, he cites it as an object lesson for the political reconstruction, perestroika , which the Soviet leaders undertook in the '80s.

If politics were that simple, Ligachev would be the ideal politician. The simile of the shipyard sums him up well: He was fascinated with industrial processes and reckoned that methods derived from them could be applied unchanged in reforming society. He was flesh and blood of the Soviet party-state apparatus, which also thought in these terms. True, he was not just a smooth bureaucrat from the capital city: He made his career in Siberia, "where people tell you what they think to your face, while in Moscow they stab you in the back."

He came from the wing of the bureaucracy that was indignant at the complacency and corruption of the Brezhnev era. Promoted by Yuri Andropov in 1983 to instill discipline and rectitude in party cadres, he was initially a staunch ally of Mikhail Gorbachev, and propounded glasnost and perestroika with conviction, at least until late in 1987. Then he began to realize that something was going seriously wrong. He traces the trouble back to a Politburo meeting of December, 1987, in which it was decided to replace command planning in the economy with a system of contracts. But that meeting was merely symptomatic of much more far-reaching changes.

For all his Siberian bluntness, Ligachev was used to a world in which telephones rang discreetly in quiet offices behind well-padded doors. In this world, there was no problem that could not be solved by a conclave of honest, bluff Ligachevs backed up by deferential apparatchiks waiting to receive orders over those telephones. If things went wrong it could only be the result of personal intrigues or foreign subversion.

At first Ligachev regarded Gorbachev as an outstanding member of this exclusive club: Working together with him during the Chernenko interregnum (1984-5), he became convinced that he was an energetic, honest and capable person, the best qualified to assume the leadership. Later, when he became disappointed in Gorbachev, he could only conclude that he had succumbed to scheming personalities--and seducer No. 1 was Alexander Yakovlev, the party's principal ideologist of perestroika .

This reduction of the issues to personalities betrays the narrowness of Ligachev's mentality. He knew that something was wrong, but he had no conception of the abject condition to which the rule of the conclaves and the discreet telephones had reduced the country. Soviet industry did not just have a few problems, it was a whole industrial revolution out of date.

Ligachev does not seem to appreciate the full impact of the progressive degradation of the environment, the intellectual and scientific stagnation, the worsening poverty and falling life expectancy of the population, and the failure to keep up with the Americans even in the one area where the Soviet Union excelled, military technology. Significantly, he scarcely mentions Chernobyl, the nuclear explosion which did so much to reveal to the world, and to most Soviet leaders, the mortal dangers which lay in such a secretive and slovenly system.

Unlike Ligachev, Gorbachev did come to appreciate the full seriousness of these problems. He realized that reform needed to be far more radical than Ligachev could begin to imagine. He knew too that creating a new political system is not like constructing a new building: People have to go on living in the old one even as it is being revamped. Much of his frequent inconsistency and indecision, which Ligachev highlights, can be attributed to the difficulty of reconciling genuine change with the continued dominance of the apparatus of which he was the head. But if the apparatus did not dominate, then everything might collapse.

To overcome the resistance of his own bureaucrats, Gorbachev began to involve the public, encouraging them to form their own civic movements and even abolishing the party's monopoly of power so that they could have a real influence on politics. When the public sometimes responded with lively hostility to the party, Gorbachev was taken aback and uncertain how to proceed. His touch was especially faltering when it came to ethnic movements, whose potential strength he seriously underestimated. But no one can accuse him of not having attempted to grapple with the problem.

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