Chris Harman


Boiling point

(December 1988)

From International Notes, Socialist Worker Review, No.115, December 1988, pp.7-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV expected it to be his year. True, his programme of restructuring (perestroika) of the Russian economy, and with it the huge managerial-bureaucratic apparatus, faced strong resistance. But Gorbachev was able to use the slogan of glasnost as a weapon against this resistance.

Gorbachev’s whole political career has been within the political-managerial bureaucracy. His skills learnt then did not, however, prepare him for dealing with the reactions of millions of people outside the ruling bureaucracy as glasnost gave them, for the first time since the late 1920s, the chance to discuss the conditions under which they lived. The pale promise of glasnost from above was enough to unleash a vast wave of glasnost from below.

At first, glasnost from below seemed mainly a phenomenon confined to the Moscow intelligentsia. More important though, is what has been happening outside Moscow, in towns and cities throughout the USSR.

Thousands of small, informal groups were already organising at the end of last year, often centred around individuals imprisoned or victimised for “dissent” in the 1960s and 1970s. They have agitated around local issues – pollution from a local factory, the dangers from a nuclear power station, the corruption of a local political boss, the discrimination against a local non-Russian language, the fate of local people during the Stalin years.

The arguments in the run up to the special party conference last summer suddenly gave them an opportunity for real mass activity, and a wave of demonstrations swept the country.

These protests had the deepest roots in the non-Russian republics of the USSR. Here economic and social discontent has long merged into resentment at national oppression.

The process by which Stalin pushed through Russification of the non-Russian areas of the USSR was part of a more general process of creating a monolithic bureaucracy. This hammered down the living standards of workers and peasants in order to carry through state capitalist industrialisation, discriminating against non-Russian speakers at every level of society. Even at nursery and primary school level children from non-Russian nationalities would often find themselves educated in a language they did not understand.

There was a further twist to the policy. While the majority non-Russian population would be discriminated against as compared with Russians, it in turn was allowed to discriminate against other non-Russian minorities – against Poles and Moldavians (Rumanian speakers) in the Ukraine, against Armenians in Azerbaijan, against Azeris in Georgia and so on.

So, in every republic, at the bottom of society would be ethnic groupings suffering from the worse material conditions and discriminatory policies.

The Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, where the national grievances first exploded in February, is typical of many other cases. Three quarters of the population were Armenian. Yet there were few Armenian language schools, papers, or television stations. On top of this, economic conditions were among the worst in the whole of Azerbaijan. Komsomolskaya Pravda could claim:

“The Karabakh protests began as protest against catastrophic mismanagement and miserable economic conditions. Only later did it take a nationalist turn...”

The newspaper said meat and butter had been rationed for a long time, even though the Karabakh is a farming region. Half the peasant families have no cows, and a third have no animals at all. People in Stepanakert had running water for only one hour a day because of insufficient supplies, and there was no proper sewerage system. The area was one of “labour surplus” (that is, unemployment). A later report told that average meat consumption was 20 kilos a year, compared with an average of 36 kilos for the republic as a whole. Yet it should not be thought that the Azeri population was “privileged” in any real sense. A report in Moscow News described the living conditions of those who took part in the anti-Armenian riots in Sumgait in February. They lived either in barrack-like hostels or in Third World-style shanty towns:

“There were 55 hostels in one small town. And they were the lucky ones, because others had to make do with shanty towns made out of old tin plates, cockleshells and defective concrete blocks nest to plants belching smoke, soot and dust... If it had not been for laundry hanging on ropes and TV aerials sticking out of the ground we would never have guessed that people existed there...”

The Baku paper Kommunist noted that there are 250,000 people in Azerbaijan as a whole “not engaged in socially useful labour” (probably unemployed), and Baku radio reported on an official party conference about discrimination against the Azeri language in favour of Russian.

Such problems are not confined to Azerbaijan. A recent “round table discussion” in Pravda contained accounts of how it was difficult to get hold of Georgian typefaces in Georgia, and of how someone in the Baltic states who spoke the local language as well as Russian would be denounced as a “nationalist”. Other reports have told how there are no books in the libraries for the one million Ukrainians who live in Kazakhstan and of how in the Ukraine itself a “great number of letters” have been received about the “serious shortcomings” in the study of Ukrainian in educational establishments.

It was such combinations of grievances which enabled unofficial groups in the Karabakh and Armenia to take the lead in mass movements in February and then again in the early summer and September. Even with the formal banning of the groups, they were able to launch general strikes in the Armenian capital Yerevan for around four weeks despite the massive presence of Russian troops, and in the whole of the Karabakh for much longer.

The agitation at the time of the party conference led to movements on a similar scale emerging in the three republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – annexed by Stalin as pan of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. More recently, the arguments over the new constitution have produced a similar upsurge in Georgia.

Such movements present particular problems for Gorbachev because they have created splits within the ruling bureaucracy itself.

On the one hand, there have been sections of the local bureaucracies who have attempted to improve their own situation by encouraging nationalist sentiment. This has, for instance, been true in Azerbaijan. The sheer scale of the anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait in February suggests it could not have been whipped up without the connivance of the local authorities. And the second wave of pogroms in November was certainly preceded by a series of official statements encouraging anti-Armenian feeling.

On the other hand, there have been other instances in which local bureaucrats, faced with a movement that has grown up independently of themselves, have felt they have no choice but to try to get to the front of it in order to contain it. So, in the Baltic states the local Communist leaders (often recently appointed by Gorbachev) took the gamble of party participation in the mass “Popular Fronts” created in the summer. They soon found that the only way to maintain any standing for themselves in those fronts was to echo some of the wider protests against national oppression – even in the Estonian case to the point of risking a stand up row with Gorbachev.

Such manoeuvres by the local bureaucracies have vastly complicated Gorbachev’s task. He needs people on the spot who can command some degree of popular support, but he cannot at all like a situation where the local media give voice to nationalist opinions diametrically opposed to his own.

Hence his table thumping declarations that:

“We cannot allow all sorts of antisocial, anti-restructuring elements to come to the fore, let alone people who are clearly pursuing different aims from ours in beginning restructuring. And of course, still less must we give extremists of any kind the chance to develop, inducing nationalistically minded ones...”

Yet, Gorbachev cannot crush the national movements without giving encouragement to those conservative elements in the bureaucracy as a whole who would drop restructuring for a return to the certainties of the Brezhnev era. Neither can he give way to the nationalist agitation without risking a loss of the increased personal power he has gained. In his effort to make the USSR’s economy as a whole more competitive with Western states and multinationals, the last thing he wants is the break up of giant, all-USSR enterprises into small, republic based firms.

And so he is forced to try to balance, to placate the nationalist agitation and to contain it, while playing off one nationalism against another. But this is a very dangerous game. It has not prevented the nationalist ferment spreading from Armenia to the Baltic republics and now to Georgia. It has not prevented a violent clash in Minsk as the police attacked supporters of the Byelorussian popular front trying to commemorate the victims of Stalinism. Most worrying for Gorbachev, it is by no means certain that he will be able to prevent an explosion of nationalism among the biggest of the oppressed nationalities, the 50 million Ukrainians.

Tsarist Russia used to be described as “a prison house of nationalities”. Stalin rebuilt the prison. Now Gorbachev is trying to reform the prison regime, without liberating those inside. He should not really be so surprised they do not welcome his methods.

Further explosions of discontent are inevitable. Socialists have things to say about them. There is only one way to prevent the explosions of nationalism creating growing distrust between the different peoples who live inside the USSR – this is by the granting of full national rights to all of them, including the right to self determination.

The Russian bureaucracy is, by its very nature, incapable of granting such rights. The only force capable of doing so is the multi-national Russian working class. But that requires it to mobilise behind its own slogans in revolutionary opposition to all wings of the bureaucracy.

Until it does so, there is every danger that after 60 years of Stalinism, the bitterness will flow into nationalist channels which turn people not only against the central bureaucracy, but against each other as well.

Last updated on 15 April 2010