Perestroika from the Outside
- How did you come to be interested in the Soviet political life?
- I became interested for, as I say, unusual reasons. I took part in the student movement in the 1960s, and it was obvious to us that there would soon be a revolution. There was a general understanding of imminent revolution. I read some things about the Russian revolution and I realized that you made a lot of mistakes, tragic mistakes, because you were experimenting. So I thought: “Why do we have to experiment? After the revolution they’ll need some people around who know that something should be done this way, not that”. So I decided that I personally might be an advisor to the revolutionary government. I decided that I should study the Soviet Union, I should study the history of Russia’s revolution and come to understand their socialism with its defects for the purpose of minimizing those defects. I realized pretty soon, maybe in a year, that studying of the Soviet Union (from that point of view) was a waste of time. However, by the time I came to that realization it was already too late. Russia had become for me something unimaginably interesting. Fatally attractive.
- One more question then. Could you really think that some changes in the Soviet Union were possible already in the 70s?
- Later. When I became a Soviet specialist. I worked at the cathedra of Soviet Construction and State Law at MSU. I took one occasion in the late 70s or early 80s, another occasion in 1982, I think… And there people were quite sincere, well-intentioned, and knowledgeable and very much intent on making improvements. So I didn’t dismiss the possibility of improvements. However, everything I had learned up to that point told me that there was not a great chance for that. But I kept looking for possibilities. And when the Perestroika came, I said: “Aha! It is possible!” And then I began studying Perestroika and I came to conclusion that it was probably not possible, but what Perestroika had done was giving birth to a popular movement, the Democratic movement. And that was the hope. But the system itself did not seem to be capable of generating a political will to change. All the reforms were either perverted or made on paper. But–the change in the situation, the change in the political climate was such that independent forces emerged. And these independent forces seemed to me to offer hope.
- What was the general emotion in the American society concerning these new trends in the USSR? Was it really a complete shock for Americans?
- I cannot speak for all Americans. I may speak only about academics, like myself, or people in the journalistic community. Up until at least 1990, or 1989 elections, the majority of opinion was basically that this was rather “pokazuha” [than real reforms], the Perestroika was not real. But the elections came and this could no longer be ignored. And now this is a new reform, and besides Gorbachev is [retreating from the Eastern Europe], so he cannot be a bad guy. And so then it became a question of supporting Gorbachev and his reforms. … But it wasn’t until Eltsin’s presidential elections and may be not until the putsch that it became clear to political scientists that [reformers] would be at the top. I was fortunate because I didn’t live in hotels and meet with people from the Central Committee as my more distinguished partners did. I went to basements and talked to “neformaly”. So I had a much better idea.
- Let us return a bit back. Who were the very first people whom you met when you began to communicate here.
- The first people, of cause, were from Moscow State University. It was in 1979. The people both from my cathedra, lawyers, people, with whom I played basketball … on our cathedra team, and this was more than a cathedra team, it was a division team. And also people from Scientific Communism. One of them was Michail Malutin. We often got together and talked about socialism.
- How did you become later associated with this independent political movement in Russia?
- In 1988 I returned to Russia to effectively carry out the same project that I had done in 1979—1980. It was a study of local popular participation, in other words, how local soviets, local governments associate with population, how they actually participate in government at the local level. But since Russia was that time changing with Perestroika, that same project would [show things quite differently]. So I came back and it was interesting to see what was going on. But, accidentally, I again met Malutin. And this time he was in Narodny Front. And he said: “We are having a meeting on Monday. You should come”. I said: “Great!” So I began to go out to meetings. And it was very interesting, more than interesting—it was astounding!—to see this activity in Russia.
- Was it unexpected?
- Absolutely unexpected. Unimaginable. What happened was impossible. [For all contradictions], it was extraordinary fascinating! And then one day, at one of these meeting, the guy, sitting next to me, said: “You should go and see the other group, it is more interesting”. So he gave me his [phone?] number. At that time I was changing my project, because not local soviets [any longer], but other groups like Narodny Front and other “Neformaly” seemed to be nourishing participation. So I called up this guy, Sergey Mitrochin, and he said: “I’ll meet you tomorrow, by metro Proletarskaya, at one o’clock”. But, when I came, he was not there, but Igrunov was there. We talked a little bit, Mitrochin didn’t show up, it was 2 o’clock, 2.30… I said: “I have an interview with Mitrochin, but he hasn’t come. Can I interview you?” “Sure!” So, I interviewed him. When I came home and played the tape, I realized that the battery in the machine was too weak, so the interview came out awful. I called him back up and said: “Viacheslav… or Viachek already, he called himself informally… you know what happened yesterday, the battery was working in the machine bad, and the interview I took with you sounds terrible. I’m sorry, if it isn’t embarrassing, can I interview you again?” “Sure!” So I came the next day and they had two or three tape-recorders there for me. And I would go down there often, I found then Mitrochin and I met Pribylovsky there, and Zolotarev, and other of these characters. And so due to them I had some understanding of the informal movement and its relations in Russian politics. So I wrote a short book on it that summer. I came back in 1990 and I had a press pass then.
When I visited in 1991 I was a kind of a journalist. Those days were very tempestuous and I did my best simply to cover events and tried to understand and describe them, to get about the meetings, just watching what’s going on, since the changes were so fast. It was very fortunate to be here in 1991 and I met people from the informal movement, who were working in Eltsin’s campaign. So I asked if I could just come to their campaign, headquarters and watch. They looked at me as if I were crazy. And there was an old woman there, forget her name, she said: “Listen, history needs a chronicler, so if this American is able to do that, we should let him”. So I did. So I learned a lot about Russian and I got to meet a lot of people who were around Eltsin’s campaign. I was promised a meeting with Eltsin himself, but [it didn’t work out]. … So, these days were days that simply gripped me—I didn’t have my own life, my life belonged to the politics in Moscow. I came back as often as I could, usually about six weeks a year, sometimes more. Then I would just go and talk to people, they would talk with me. So I worked as hard as I could, trying to formulate some kind of view of what’s going on, some kind of analysis. With Viachek and Sergey I wrote a book…
- “The Rebirth of Politics in Russia”?
- Exactly. Plus a lot of articles. And I was very-very busy in those days. Even when I was at home, I wasn’t at home: I would watch Russian television, I would read Russian newspapers. During dinner-hours I would talk with my wife and my children, but though physically I was in Santa Cruz, mentally I was in Moscow. And it would go for years. Then I got seriously tired of it, especially because of the disappointment from the whole adventure, you know, when the people whom I met in 1988 were involved in the process which led to people like Berezovsky. That’s disappointing! That’s very disappointing. So I was looking at something that I could do and at that point I found… I was in S.-Petersburg and I found some people who played blues music (I did a little bit of it myself in the past). And what an idea of writing a book about Russian blues! So, the kind of technique which I learned by doing politics, talking to people, going and observing, simple things. I did that again. I needed someone from the inside like Viachek and Sergey to be my compass. And such a person found me. His name was Andrey Evdokimov, he works on “Echo Moskvy”. Evdokimov has a blues-show [on the radio], called “All this Blues”, “Весь этот блюз». He was my compass. When I finished that book I was just a little too young to retire, and so I have a new project now.
- As far as I understand, you cooperated with Viacheslav and organized International Institute for the Humanities and Political Studies there in California. Is that true?
- …I’m a member of the Body of the founders… Staying in Santa Cruz and studying Russia, I don’t send reports to Moscow. I’m simply a person out there who is affiliated with, and from time to time is able to cooperate with people from this institute. And I’m very proud of that.
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