When, in the spring of 1985, the third ceremonial funeral in three years took place in Moscow, most of the intelligentsia were in a state of apathy and pessimism. This was due, not to regret for the passing of the cpsu general secretary, Konstantin Chernenko, but to quite different causes. The Brezhnev epoch of Soviet history was described by the ideologists of that time as ‘an era of stability’. Later they took to calling it ‘a time of stagnation’. There is an element of truth in both appraisals, but the main problem in the early eighties consisted not in knowing whether Brezhnevism had been good or bad, intrinsically, but in the fact that this policy had now exhausted itself. The country’s economic situation was steadily worsening. Cultural life, based on the ideas and controversies inherited from the sixties, was in profound crisis. Brezhnev’s passing had clearly ‘come too late’, and with it also the change of course. The accession to power of Yuri Andropov in November 1982 aroused in many the hope of seeing radical changes, but unfortunately he was to outlive Brezhnev by no more than fifteen months. In that space
At the beginning of 1985 the most widespread view among the liberal and left-wing intelligentsia was that ‘Brezhnevism without Brezhnev’ would be the country’s fate for ages to come. Some of the traditional spiritual leaders of the intelligentsia had died (Vysotsky, Trifonov), while others had emigrated (Lyubimov, Tarkovsky). Those who were left were sunk in deep pessimism. However, the times did change. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power with the firm intention of implementing the changes that Andropov had not lived to accomplish. The balance of forces in the Party leadership altered to the advantage of the reforming and technocratic tendencies, which dissociated themselves from Brezhnevism. The restructuring that now began was bound to affect all spheres of life in Soviet society.
In their profundity and scale the changes can be compared only to the policy of de-Stalinization pursued by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. Such a comparison, however, reveals both similarities and differences. When in 1956 Khrushchev came out with his exposure of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, most of the population suffered shock. Among the intelligentsia the turmoil soon gave way to a reformist euphoria. Left-wing intellectual tendencies were formed and became active very quickly, even though they often based themselves upon rather naive notions. Thirty years later the 27th Congress, under Gorbachev’s leadership, featured no sensational revelations. The changes in the country were not at first so abrupt, although they went considerably deeper. Unlike in Khrushchev’s time, it was now not a matter of ‘correcting mistakes’ in the political sphere but of an extensive ‘restructuring’ that affected economics, politics and culture.
The intelligentsia, in its turn, took some time to overcome its apathy. Just as before, everything began with a re-examination of history. Even before the Party Congress Moscow’s theatres had presented Mikhail Shatrov’s play The Dictatorship of Conscience and A. Buravsky’s Speak. . . The former, by an author who had been popular in the sixties, was dedicated to Lenin, and its main purpose was to revive the liberal ideas of Khrushchev’s time. The latter came from the pen of a young writer who subjected these ideas to ruthless criticism from the left. In Speak. . . the action takes place in the provinces in the early fifties. Stalin dies and Khrushchev comes to power. The local leaders are also replaced. The new ones sincerely want to improve the situation, to better people’s lives. But until the masses take their fate into their own hands there can be no real changes. And when rank-and-file working people begin talking openly about their rights, putting forward their own demands and electing their own leaders, the progressive officials take fright no less than the conservatives. The initiative assumed by the lower orders appears as ‘insubordination’ and ‘mutiny’.
There is no place in the eighties for the illusions of the fifties. This is a sign that society has matured, but a sober awareness of the difficulties standing in the way of change holds many people back. It is now harder to decide on serious actions and to work out a line of conduct than it was in the earlier period. Yet, after the 27th Party Congress, changes really did take place. Television became considerably more interesting, the powers of the censorship were sharply restricted, the influence of the Ministry of Culture on artistic creativity declined to a marked degree, and books began to be published which had previously been banned.