To Western observers, Soviet society at the end of the 1970s seemed hopelessly conservative and arguments over the ‘unreformability of Communism’ became commonplace among dissidents and the liberal intellectuals who sympathized with them. Pessimism reigned even among official experts, many of whom, on their own admissiom, ‘had fallen into the depths of despair’. footnote1 There seemed no prospects for the future of the country other than an expectation of slow decay. However, with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, the general mood rapidly changed. People who, until recently, had had no faith in even the possibility of reform, began to speak confidently of its irreversibility. The experts were gripped by reformist euphoria and the western press, of both left and right, began to write of the success of the changes in the ussr with unprecedented enthusiasm. Although nobody denied the difficulties being encountered by perestroika—particularly the opposition of the bureaucratic apparatus and the complex economic situation of the country—nothing was capable of shifting the general mood of triumph.
Hopeless pessimism was transformed into so much unbridled optimism, although the actual dynamic of social development was much more complicated and contradictory than was generally recognized.
Soviet society has never been as monolithic as it was presented by Stalinist ideology or the oversimplified western conceptions of totalitarianism. Numerous interest groups, forming both within and outside the apparatus of power, have always exerted influence on decisionmaking and engendered a variety of conflicts. In Stalin’s time these conflicts were one of the reasons for the mass ‘purges’ within the Party when the executions of prominent party and state figures signalled changes in the relationship of forces between different groups within the apparatus. Under Khrushchev the terror was brought to a halt, but a continuation of the open struggle between factions led first to the downfall of the all-powerful Minister of State Security, Lavrenty Beria, and later to the removal of Stalin’s ‘veterans’ Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich. In the last analysis, Khrushchev himself was a victim of this struggle.
It was not simply a matter of clashes between people sharing power or of a conflict of opinions. Each of the participants in these events leant for support upon definite structures in the apparatus and championed their interests. It was precisely the lack of faith of the broad bureaucratic ‘mass’ in Khrushchev’s programme of reforms, and the absence of a social base for it outside the apparatus, which led to the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.
At the moment of Brezhnev’s accession the reformist faction in the ruling circles had practically no serious backing. The rehabilitation of victims of the terror in 1954–56, the debunking of Stalin’s ‘cult of the personality’, the loosening of state control over cultural life and the vital extension of individual rights in that period were a very great historical achievement, but it should be remembered that all of these radical measures also played a major role in the struggle between apparatus interests by weakening the position of one faction and structure and promoting the role of others. Khrushchev’s early success was connected with the unanimous desire of the ruling circles to put an end to the omnipotence and irresponsibility of the repressive organs at that time, and to place the reorganized state security service under Party control. At the next stage the impulse for continuing the political (but not the economic) reforms was the striving of the younger generation of apparatchiks to strengthen their own position and to edge out and discredit Stalin’s ‘old guard’. From the moment these goals appeared to have been achieved, the reformist potential of Khrushchev’s thaw was exhausted and those people who had risen to their positions thanks to destalinization were interested not in continuing the changes but in preserving stability. Since Khrushchev, carried away with his own reforms, did not wish to take this into consideration, he was removed
The most important peculiarity of the Brezhnev period consisted in the ability of the leadership at that time to maintain a stable compromise between factions in the apparatus while simultaneously raising people’s standard of living. It was necessary to guarantee significant and consistent economic growth so that each social group could increase its share of the cake without affecting the interests of others, and to a certain degree this objective was achieved. In the late 1970s and early 1980s workers’ incomes grew rapidly and their way of life changed. There was a sharp increase in the number of privately owned cars, nearly every home acquired a television and refrigerator and millions of people continued to be rehoused from the ‘commmunal quarters’, where several families shared a kitchen, into normal, modern accommodation. The quality of building and the general provision of living space also improved. It is characteristic of the period of Brezhnevism that there were virtually no major strikes or disturbances comparable to the events at Novocherkassk in 1962 when the Khrushchev leadership was forced to send in troops to crush workers’ protests against a rise in prices.
All of these social successes were achieved with a simultaneous growth of the armed forces and a rapid expansion of the government apparatus (which, from the point of view of the bureaucrats, served as the most important indicator of progress). Military—strategic parity was gained with the usa and the influence of the ussr in the world, particularly with developing countries, increased rapidly. Contrary to the popular view which formed towards the end of the Brezhnev era, the 1970s were undoubtedly one of the most prosperous and successful periods in Soviet history. What means were employed, and at what price these successes were achieved, are another question . . .