Ihave been thinking about this quite a lot because I wrote a book about him which needed updating. I found that his radicalization started at the end of 1986, when preparations were underway for the Central Committee Plenum on problems of ideology and leadership. At this time the conflict was growing sharper between the conservatives and the liberal or democratic wing, and the plenum was actually postponed three times because Gorbachev’s report was more radical than the Central Committee was prepared to accept. A number of specific measures during this period had a kind of spontaneous character: in the case of Sakharov, for instance, Gorbachev seems to have acted over the heads of the KGB and taken a personal initiative to secure his release from exile in response to requests from the Academy of Science and cultural organizations that were suffering from an American boycott. When the plenum finally took place in January 1987, Gorbachev had to compromise, but at least it decided to lift censorship from the general media. Shelved novels like Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat were cleared for publication, and the press started to take on a quite different character. If we take the example of Chernobyl, the press had been full of stories of heroism throughout 1986, but in 1987 material began to emerge which showed all this in a very different light. As glasnost started to become a reality, it affected Gorbachev himself, because he was not a personwho knew everything. On the other hand, conservative forces continued to put up strong resistance in 1987, including attempts to block various publications. The Yeltsin affair was a good indicator that there was trouble within the party leadership. Gorbachev’s report on the 70th anniversary of the October revolution, together with his book Perestroika, were more or less traditional ways of trying to compromise between different groups. But then the very poor performance of the economy in 1987 seemed to necessitate a series of reforms which Gorbachev expected to come into effect early in 1988. After several postponements Bukharin and other major figures were finally rehabilitated. And then there was the difficult decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which only happened after the removal of Sokolov and other military leaders and the appointment of the relatively young and unknown Yazov as Minister of Defence. So I think we can say that ’87 was important for the beginning of glasnost, and ’88 saw the start of real economic and political reform. Gorbachev made a large number of discrete changes before he became truly radical.

Yes, that’s right, although things were not all that clear at the time. The conference itself had a definite air of caution because it was convened according to the old rules: a complete process of indirect election or selection gave advantages to the conservatives, who formed the great bulk of delegates from the provinces if not from Moscow and Leningrad. However, this conservative majority didn’t have any thought-out programme, so Gorbachev was able to get through his reorganization of the party or state system and the proposals for election of a People’s Congress.

No, no, it was entirely unexpected, even by Gorbachev. Under the new system, a preliminary sorting took place at district level where there were often ten or twelve nominations and the election committee was able to refuse some nominations and accept others—few districts had more than two candidates, and about a fifth had only one. The second safeguard was the election of the Supreme Soviet by the Congress of People’s Deputies as a whole. The final insurance was a bloc of seats to be filled by nomination of the party or of various other official bodies or associations more or less controlled by the party. Most members of the Politburo and Central Committee, and many other key figures, were elected through the party to safe seats, in the Congress, and later to the Supreme Soviet.

This is an interesting story, which has a lot to do with the fact that the new system made it possible for people to take part in a genuinely secret ballot. Previously the ballot box would be situated just in front of the election committee, so that voters who did not have anything against the candidate—there was only one—were expected just to put the ballot paper into the box. There were some booths on the other side of the room, but the only reason for using them would have been to strike out the candidate’s name. So in effect there was nothing secret about the way in which people voted. In last year’s election, however, since there were often two or three candidates, people could not vote simply by placing the ballot paper in the box but had to use the private booth provided. About five hundred districts had only one name, but even there people still had reason to use the private booth because elections for the district representative were held at the same time as elections for the House of Nationalities where a choice of candidates was more common. Voters faced with only one name in the district elections felt cheated and many of them protested by voting against. In roughly half of such districts the single candidate was not elected.

Yes. But there is another aspect of the electoral arrangements which contributed unexpectedly to the defeat of official candidates. I believe that here in Britain or France, or in other countries, there is only a name and a party affiliation on the ballot. In the Soviet Union they made a very interesting miscalculation. They thought it wasn’t good enough to have just a name—sometimes people wouldn’t know that Ivanov or Petrov was regional or district Secretary. So they decided that the person’s position and residence would be indicated as well. Thus an obkom secretary who stood as a candidate expected that he would have an advantage over an ordinary housewife or worker or engineer or historian. But this was far from being generally the case: people preferred to give their approval to somebody who was not so important, not so elevated. Thus an admiral or Warsaw Pact commander lost the ballot in favour of some local military captain; or the chairman of a local collective farm won against the head of a Central Committee department. Another reason for this was that whereas in the past people thought a high Party official might help their district to get preference in supplies, or would be better suited to help them in some other way, the worsening economic situation had significantly weakened such expectations and shortages of every type meant that public dissatisfaction was greater. All these factors, then, played an important role, and had it not been for safe seats nominated by public organizations, many important figures like Ligachev would not have been elected.