“If a barrel of manure exploded somewhere in the country, the CPSU was responsible for it, specifically the secretary of the regional committee”

Historian Arseny Zamostyanov about the strengths of the ruling party in the USSR and what destroyed it

“If a barrel of manure exploded somewhere in the country, the CPSU was responsible for it, specifically the secretary of the regional committee”
Photo: Thomas Taylor Hammond (wikimedia.org)

Thirty years ago, on July 2, 1990, the last, 28th Congress of the CPSU was held. Shortly before this forum, the party, which had governed the country for more than 70 years, handed over power functions to soviets at various levels. Whether this process was inevitable, how much the people supported it, and why the Politburo did not put the “Russian Jiang Zemin” at the head of the country — this is what the deputy editor-in-chief of Istorik magazine, Arseny Zamostyanov, discusses in the series of interviews with Realnoe Vremya dedicated to the 35th anniversary of the beginning of perestroika.

“The CPSU was treated as a serving nobility in the 19th century”

Mr Zamostyanov, what was the party for the majority of Soviet people in 1985? Did everyone see in it only careerists and well-to-do nomenclators?

The attitude to the CPSU in the country, on the one hand, was more than respectful, but on the other, of course, the Soviet people did not have a serious frenzy in relation to the ideals that were proclaimed by the Communists.

By and large, the party was treated as a serving nobility in the 19th century — as an important element of life, an effective political and managerial vertical.

And I think that the efficiency of the CPSU is not surpassed even today. After all, the vertical of district and regional committees, starting from primary organisations and ending with the Politburo of the Central Committee, was very effective in solving economic issues. Not so much political as economic ones!

Here there was just an internal contradiction — the party was proclaimed as an ideological value, a machine and a system, but in fact, the CPSU was “economic”. Although Andropov and Chernenko, however, when came to power, took two posts at once — General Secretary and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council.

Can we say that in general the party was engaged only in agriculture, and the Politburo was engaged in politics?

The economic function was proclaimed by Lenin's policy. Lenin generally believed that the party is a cadre plane that generalises and unites all branches of government, and no issue should be resolved without the party.

Naturally, the CPSU also dealt with state issues, and the Politburo was a narrow circle of superprofessionals, each of whom was responsible for a huge industry: Gromyko — for foreign policy, Ustinov — for the army, and previously for the defence industry, Gorbachev — for agriculture, Grishin — for Moscow, and so on.

If the CPSU had such a decent efficiency in the same economic activity, what failed it?

When Gorbachev came to power, unlike in the past, he did not rely on collective leadership, but soon became the sole leader in all matters. Although he was democratic — he introduced freedom of speech, free elections, but in the discussion of political issues, he was a real dictator. Nevertheless, until the autumn of 1988, Gorbachev had only one post — General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, and this was enough for him to solve economic issues, to represent at the international level. This was the peak of the party's importance because when Brezhnev came to power, Kosygin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, played a no lesser role — both in economic matters and in international affairs, there was a kind of dual power for a while.

Why did Gorbachev need only the post of General Secretary to lead for three years? This issue is related to what we recently discussed — the country's Constitution.

In 1977, the new Constitution was adopted in the USSR, which included article 6, which more clearly than before proclaimed the leading and guiding role of the party. That is, from 1977 to March 1990, the CPSU was not only de facto but also de jure the governing structure, until it itself gave up this role and until the people's deputies voted to repeal this article.

Gorbachev by this time had already decided to replace his party role with the role of the president, but this operation of the presidency he failed.

In 1990, the party decided to replace the deputies, but from the point of view of managing the economy it became worse. Let's take a simple example — the national debt of the country. While this issue was under responsibility of the Politburo, the national debt did not grow to critical proportions, as it did in 1990-1991, when the Politburo dropped off and Gorbachev decided to engage in politics himself. As a result, our state has become one of the largest debtors in the world. And, if I am not mistaken, it was only in the 21st century that we paid off Soviet debts, but these were not just Soviet debts but the debts of 1989-1991, when these issues were solved not even by Gorbachev but by this screen of parliamentary democracy.

Photo: andcvet.narod.ru/
The efficiency of the CPSU has not been surpassed even today. After all, the vertical of district and regional committees, starting from primary organisations and ending with the Politburo of the Central Committee, was very effective in solving economic issues

“There appeared a team of three or four reformers, and the whole party found itself in an artificial situation”

But look, there are reforms supported by people, people support Gorbachev. Wasn't the CPSU's authority growing at the same time?

No, this can't be said. It just went against the CPSU itself. Although the party was considered the initiator of perestroika, and it strongly emphasised this, nevertheless, Gorbachev and his team were grabbing the biggest piece of the pie, which was not so important to the party position, as the proximity to Gorbachev personally. A team of three or four reformers appeared, and the entire party found itself in an artificial position, in a position outside the game, including members of the Politburo. This can be clearly seen in the discussion of Nina Andreeva's famous letter criticising perestroika, published in Soviet Russia in March 1988.

Andreeva said that we spat too much about our past, and this, they say, would one day hit us. Specifically, it was about Stalin: although Andreeva recognised all that was said about Stalin at the 20th and 21st congresses of the CPSU, recognised his excesses, the cult of personality, and so on, but she did not consider it right to turn spitting on Stalin into a “favourite sport”, and then this was abused. At the time of the article's release, Gorbachev was away and absent from the Politburo meeting that discussed the publication, and everyone who attended the meeting — Ligachev, Gromyko, Vorotnikov, and KGB Chairman Chebrikov — expressed their agreement with the article and strongly approved it.

After a while, Gorbachev returns, they report to him, say that they had approved Andreeva's article, and Gorbachev in a nutshell crosses this decision of the Politburo, ignoring it. The article was “refuted” by another article in Pravda. Under Brezhnev, of course, there were no such things; Leonid Ilyich could not go against the majority in the Politburo. Even if he wanted to, he prepared such approaches for a long time and tried to win someone over to his side, create a majority, and only then, relying on them, speak out. Gorbachev, on the other hand, acted as if he was a force separate from the Politburo. In other words, he put himself outside the Politburo.

That is, some questions required a balanced solution, but Gorbachev was principled?

That's right — we needed a balance, we needed a healthy consultation of professionals, and there was no such thing. Previously, the Politburo could invite professionals — ministers and so on — to discuss it, and it was a workable body. But Gorbachev did not have such agencies, he was a loner. Both Yakovlev and Shevardnadze were single, but they did not have an agency where they could work together. This predetermined Gorbachev's defeat in 1991.

Why was Gorbachev so principled? Maybe the position on, for example, Stalin seemed to him to slow down perestroika? Or it seemed like a position of stagnant times, a throwback? Or maybe he already had a lot to do with the Soviets?

Gorbachev made a big mistake by putting the Congress of people's deputies as the main body of power. But he bet on it because he was terrified of party secretaries. And here it could be understood — before him there was the example of Khrushchev, Gorbachev was afraid to repeat his fate. After all, Khrushchev was not removed as a result of a conspiracy, as we are often told. The Central Committee voted against him according to all party norms, and Khrushchev was dismissed. And Gorbachev was afraid of this. To protect himself, he took away the party's power and formally handed it over to the Congress of deputies. And the Congress turned out to be demagogic and unable to lead the country.

In March 1990, when Gorbachev was already elected president, he did not create any effective bodies. The Presidential Council did not work properly, and there was no resemblance to the current administration of the President of Russia, which can be efficient, control the branches of government and hold power in its own hands. Gorbachev only reveled in his fame, especially international fame, and this blunted his political sense. He did not feel that the danger was coming to him not from the party but from the opposition, which had formed, among other things, at the congresses of people's deputies. Thus, from 1989, the party was simply squeezed out of power, taking away its economic initiative.

Photo: ed-glezin.livejournal.com
In March 1990, when Gorbachev was already elected president, he did not create any effective bodies

“Romanov would be a Russian Jiang Zemin for the country”

How did Gorbachev see the new CPSU?

It was supposed to become a social structure, one of several parties. And, most likely, the Communist Party would have been decomposed into a few parties of the socialist persuasion. Life, of course, did not allow this to be done because Yeltsin appeared and a strong internal rival in the form of the Russian Federation.

What was the last Congress of the CPSU, which turned out to be the last one?

It was already the congress of the faculty of unnecessary things series. If the 27th Congress of the CPSU was an effective meeting, the 28th was the congress at which it was understood that the party was barely holding back from collapse. And there was no longer the same unanimity as before at the congress. Gorbachev won the General Secretary election with difficulty, and the opposition there managed to show itself but not strongly enough.

What was the CPSU in 1990-1991?

It was a party without authority. The strength of the CPSU was that it had the authority and responsibility to history and the country. If a barrel of manure exploded somewhere in our country, the secretary of the regional committee was responsible for it, not someone else. But now, if this barrel of manure explodes, both the opposition parties and the ruling party will be criticised, but the president is responsible for everything. Then the party was responsible.

Therefore, the party should be respected — it was related to everything that was done in the country, and now we do not have such party, and in general, party construction is at an extremely low level.

Nevertheless, most of the inhabitants of the USSR did not know any other serious parties, except the CPSU. If a referendum of confidence in the CPSU had been held in 1990 or 1991, how many Soviet citizens would have supported it?

People always vote as they are told. Well, three-quarters definitely vote like this. If in those years the propaganda “for!” had been included and then they would talk about the problem of housing, the problem of the deficit, which could only be solved by the CPSU, then, of course, in six months it was quite possible to change public opinion in favour of the party. We saw this in the mid-90s, when parties that played on nostalgia for the USSR gained a majority in various elections. This is Communist Party, Agrarian Party, and even LDPR. Besides, former party leaders won elections in a number of regions.

Let me remind you that rallies in support of the CPSU were held throughout 1990. In Leningrad, they were often held by the city's party leader, Boris Gidaspov, who believed that the party also had the right to take to the streets. They were there after the putsch, in October-November 1991. And the SCSE, if it had participated in elections then, would have received a lot of support — among the older generation for sure.

But you must agree that the CPSU was unpopular among the young. With with the accession to power of Brezhnev, it stopped rejuvenating.

This was a significant mistake, but the country was developing, and I think that history will pass a verdict on Brezhnev with a plus sign. After all, if we compare something now, it turns out that in many respects we are losing to, for example, 1970s.

Speaking of development. Wasn't it the Brezhnev-era CPSU that slowed down the beginning of the scientific and technical revolution in the USSR, as a result of which the country lagged behind the Western countries in technological development for several decades?

We couldn't accept computerisation then. Most of our economy was classified, and the computer system could be easy prey — the opposition was serious then. Besides, such ideas were not discarded but simply put on the shelf. In the 1990s, it would probably have been time for such planning, and the 1960s were not suitable for computerisation in the USSR.

Photo: ALDOR46 (wikimedia.org)
Grigory Romanov was the number two figure in the secret election of the General Secretary. Romanov would be a Russian Jiang Zemin for the country

Maybe the dogmas of the CPSU are to blame, that the country fell behind and ended up like this.

I think we were thrown back by that in 1985 the old men from the Politburo were not quite dogmatic and did not elect the General Secretary of the one who was closest to production, which we have always had above agriculture — the area of responsibility of Gorbachev from the late 1970s to 1985. If Gorbachev had not been elected, then Grigory Romanov would have been elected, he was the number two figure in the secret election of the General Secretary. Romanov would be a Russian Jiang Zemin for the country. Kosygin and Brezhnev could be considered Deng Xiaoping in two persons — they still brought the country out of the emergency regime that it had in the war and post-war years, and out of the regime of constant shaking of the Khrushchev time, they introduced the concept of profit into the economy.

After Deng Xiaoping, a Jiang Zemin is always necessary, a rational and technocratic leader like Romanov. But we had Gorbachev coming to power. But Romanov also had a team — they were his colleagues from Leningrad, plus the Central Committee had grown-up technocrats Baklanov, Maslyukov, Gusev from Saratov, and your Shaimiev would have been a good leader of the Union level.

By Sergey Kochnev