The Soviet Union is going through its most radical transformation since the 1930s or, arguably (indeed, as argued by its leaders), since the 1917 Revolution. Many ‘impossibles’ become possible overnight. There has been a rapidly broadening political involvement of different social forces: administrators and officers, artists and writers, workers and peasants, of the different ethnic, gender and age strata and of different political generations. Major cities are alive with informal groupings; newly created clubs debate, and factions rapidly break surface. The mood suggests the Europe of 1968, from Paris to Prague, both in the explosion of new ideas and in the rapidly opening gap between words and deeds. And, as in every revolution initiated from above, the assumptions and the ideas professed by the main theorists matter profoundly. Only with their help can an extraordinary phenomenon be explained—a section of state bureaucrats leading a revolt against the Old Regime which bred them and pampered them for generations. Also, the language of ideas is the major means by which elites locked in conflict can establish bridges with their political hinterland, evoking mass support which could make the programme of change, or else provoking the foot-dragging or sabotage which could break it. Last but not least, in such historical moments some individuals, leaders and theorists assume extraordinary roles. When social structures harden, the force of inertia and of the reproduction of the status quo seem unlimited while the leaders appear as no more than privileged operatives of a machine which runs them. But then, occasionally, the human-made nature of the social structure becomes clear; the historical process opens up, and ideas as well idea-makers begin to ‘make history’. The Soviet Union finds itself at this stage today.

In the context of a great effort to shift a country of immense size and inertia the identities of the people behind the ideas can tell us something about the ideas themselves, about the country and about the forces involved. One major figure who has dominated the debate and shaped the ideas of the perestroika is Abel Aganbegyan. To begin with the formal biographical details: Aganbegyan is fifty-five, an Armenian educated in the Russian provinces of the Union, a graduate of the once excellent Economic Planning Institute in Moscow. He began work in the state apparatus, was the Director of the Institute of Economics in Novosibirsk, is now a member of the Praesidium of the Academy of Sciences. He is also the Academy’s Secretary for Economics, the titular head of the country’s economists’ research establishment. But this tale can be differently told.

A brilliant young man, an accomplished econometrician, Abel Aganbegyan landed the well-cushioned job of Section Head at the powerful State Committee for Labour and Wages. This meant the privileges of senior officialdom, a decent income and a measure of power, foreign trips and the security of further promotions. But then Aganbegyan did the unexpected. He asked to be relieved from his office to return to the academic fold. This was promptly refused by his bureaucratic outfit as an outrageous frivolity and foolishness—for everybody should know which side of the bread is buttered. Aganbegyan forced the issue, volunteering to work in Siberia which by government decree had priority in the employment of specialists. His Moscow employers were not amused. Nevertheless, he survived and indeed found success. In the distant scholarly outfits of Siberia the mathematical maverick was first asked to disprove the views of the economic unorthodoxy of the 1960s, especially of Kantorovich. Aganbegyan, however, came down on the latter’s side, lost a job, moved to a new place of work. Siberia was going through an economic frontier boom with advanced mining and modern transportation breaking into virgin forests and icebound lands. Economists were needed, specialists were in short supply, and at the frontiers there was more elbow room for unorthodoxy. Aganbegyan’s skills were appreciated: he eventually rose to become the director of his institute and was elected to the Academy of Sciences—Soviet scholars’ highest accolade. During twenty-four years in Siberia he also established a style of his own: moving constantly through the territory, endlessly visiting enterprises, talking to constructors, engineers and workers. He was also exceptional in that his vision of economics was broader than the usual one—the best Soviet unit of applied sociology grew up and survived hard times in his institute and under his stubborn protection. The leader of this unit, Tatiana Zaslavskaya, Russia’s leading specialist in economic sociology, became a friend and ally. When a new and surprisingly young man Mikhail Gorbachev was put in charge of the country’s agriculture and was called to the Politburo, both Aganbegyan and Zaslavskaya were invited to meetings with social scientists which Gorbachev introduced as part of his new regime—gatherings to discuss informally economic and social matters. The ‘Siberians’ with a message and the Politburo member with a new style took to each other.

In the Brezhnev days, ussr-watchers in the media and academia of the West consistently missed an element of the political life of the country they reported. Their conception was one of a dual polity: on the one hand the establishment and its power, Byzantine in its complexity and elliptical in its language, on the other hand the dissidents and the underground press, easily recognizable to the Western reader by their principles and language, and admired for their stubborn courage. The rest of the population was supposed to be apolitical. What this perception missed was a third group who did not join the dissidents but also refused to toe the line and to hold their tongues, i.e. to be cheerful and agreeable towards those at ‘the top’. They usually kept their jobs (the dissidents lost theirs) and kept their party tickets. After every ‘black eye’ given to them by the bureaucratic bosses they came back for more—arguing, objecting, demanding. In some ways their position was the worst of both worlds. At odds with the bureaucratic ‘yes-men’ and with the cynics, they refused also the mental relief of complaints to, and contact with, the Western press. They were thus attacked from both flanks: smart men on the make made careers out of abusing them while knowing their response would be muted; the dissidents condemned them as opportunists lacking the courage of their convictions. Without the recognition of this opposition from the inside and the related phenomenon of the building up of a Soviet public opinion, perestroika becomes inexplicable.

During the twilight of the Brezhnev era, the rule of old men with their energies spent, the Novosibirsk Institute and its social scientists developed into a fortress of alternative thought. From there came protests when nature was being destroyed by state profiteers and when good people got hurt by Byzantine tricks: from the destruction of Lake Baikal to the trumped-up charges against Khudenko—a man who dared to prove the Kazakh bureaucrats wrong by increasing fivefold the agricultural production of his enterprise and who subsequently died in prison. It was from Novosibirsk that the memorandum came which defined the state of affairs as a growing split between the relations of production established in the 1930s and forces of production which had moved on by fifty years. The intellectual products of the Party Schools in the leadership ranks read this for what it was—a projection of a rapidly approaching revolutionary situation. Some of such writings were leaked to the Western press; most of them reached a growing circle of better educated administrators, technologists and scholars—an Establishment, but a very particular wing of it which came increasingly to favour a revolution from above. With the help of people like Aganbegyan and Zaslavskaya they were increasingly armed with an alternative programme.