International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International (1990): 50 years since the assassination of Trotsky

Interview with a Soviet historian

On November 8, 1989, North interviewed a Soviet historian whose specialty is the activity of nonformal political movements.

Q: Would it be possible for you to review the non-formal political movements that are now operating in the Soviet Union?

A: It’s very difficult for me to talk about other regions and other republics. I will just talk about Moscow.

In defining the opposition movement—remember that due to the complete monopoly by the regime on political means of expression, all democratic movements are considered oppositional by the regime—you can select the following main tendencies within this movement.

We’ll begin from the right wing. Those tendencies are Slavophile. They mainly began in the 70s and early 80s. Some of them have an earlier history. The most extremist on the right wing is Pamyat. It is known under that name in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities, but it can also have other names in different places. It is a decentralized movement. There are many leaders and tendencies which oppose each other. It is not a mass movement. There are a few groupings in Moscow of this tendency. What unites them is their common chauvinism and anti-Semitism. They are opposed to democratic movements, but they are also in opposition to the pro-Western policies of Gorbachev. The biggest of them is the National Patriotic Front (Pamyat). Up until 1988 it was headed by Dmitri Vassilyev, but then there were disagreements and Vassilyev left the movement. As a matter of fact, the KGB accused them of chauvinist propaganda and persecution and the more rational leaders of the movement had to get rid of the extremists.

This movement stands for the separation of Russia from the USSR. It is supported by some Russophile writers and political leaders, writers like Putin and others.

Q: And political leaders?

A: No one speaks openly in favor of this movement among the political leaders, but I think it is possible to find its supporters within Gorbachev’s cabinet. I think that Ligachev sympathizes with Pamyat, but because of its extremist nature, he can’t talk about it openly.

This movement conducts closed meetings. Sometimes they have open meetings and demonstrations and they also sometimes try to counteract and block demonstrations by the democratic forces. The ideological supporters of Pamyat have been presented for election. They have been proposed for election in Moscow, for instance, a widely-known ecologist, Dr. Lemichev; a colonel from Afghanistan, Roskoy, but they did not receive wide support from the voters. At the same time, supporters of Pamyat tried to undermine the election of such people as writer Mikhail Shatrov and Korotich.

Some of the more liberal tendencies of this Russophile movement are such tendencies as the Renewal and Fatherland. Professor of Literature Appolon Kuzmin supports it

Some of these writers support this, like Rasputin, the author of the book Roots of Russia. The journal Nashe Slavo and The Young Guard represent this tendency. They polemicize constantly against organs like Ogonyok and Moscow News. The more moderate tendencies do not openly propose chauvinism or anti-Semitism. Their program is for the renewal of Russian orthodox religion, moral renewal of Russia. They’re very hostile to the cooperative movement, very opposed to it

As for the socialist movement, it is also very decentralized now. The socialist movement has undoubtedly a pro-Westem orientation, but it orients itself not to capitalists, but to Western socialists, for instance, the New Left The socialists participate in various organizations like the Moscow People’s Front and Democratic Union. They have a common ideological program, but they have various tactical approaches. This was the state of affairs throughout the course of perestroika, but now the majority of socialists have feelings towards reunification. A couple of months ago, there was formed a Moscow Committee of New Socialists. Its goal is the creation of a socialist party. This committee unites representatives from different socialist tendencies. You can find social democrats, anarchists, narodniks and even Trotskyists in this committee.

The socialist movement has a short history because it was destroyed many times by the state. The socialist groups which arose in the 60s and 70s were suppressed under Brezhnev. As distinct from the civil rights groups, which tried to appeal to bourgeois liberal tendencies, even then the socialist tendencies tried to form themselves into organizations, into groups. Of course, these were underground and illegal organizations, highly secret. In my opinion, the KGB felt that these secret organizations presented much more of a threat to the regime and so they directed their fire against them. People from some of the old movements were imprisoned. I can, for instance, cite the affair of Kasnafiertsev in ‘57.

It’s a half-forgotten history. Kasnafiertsev was studying at the Moscow University, predoctorate studies, and he was a revisionist Marxist. He tried to organize a revisionist Marxist student organization which studied the works of Lenin, Trotsky and the social democrats. But in 1957 this organization was destroyed and its organizers got themselves big terms in the camps.

Similar organizations, which maintained contact with this group, existed at the time in Leningrad and in a couple of other cities. They were all destroyed.

Q: What happened to this individual?

A: He was sent to the camps.

Q: Did he survive?

A: Yes, he is out of the camps and living in Moscow now, but regrettably he doesn’t maintain contact. It is difficult to explain why these activists from the 60s and 70s are inactive now. It’s hard to explain.

The last of these socialist affairs known to me happened in 1981. This was the group headed by Kagarlitsky. They were called Young Socialists. It was also suppressed by the organs, but when Andropov came to power he did not pursue the affair. It is explained by some internal disagreements between party and KGB organs. The majority of the activists in this organization were let out of jail.

In 1987 the socialist movement organized itself into the Federation of Socialist Society Clubs. In their majority, these were small Marxist student groups. Two groups in Moscow headed these organizations. They were like umbrella organizations for them. These were the society Obshchina and the Socialist Initiative. The members of Socialist Initiative considered themselves supporters of the New Left and Trotskyists and the supporters of Obshchina considered themselves to be anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists. There was constant competition between these two major tendencies, and because they could not win out within the federation, they both left the federation and it fell apart.

The leader of the group Socialist Initiative was Boris Kagarlitsky and the leader of Obshchina was Andrei Pisayev. The group Socialist Initiative joined the organizational committee of the Moscow People’s Front. This was in the summer of 1988. The Moscow People’s Front tried to form a wide coalition of the various progressive forces. It’s a big issue and we could talk about it forever; but for now we’re just going to talk about the Moscow People’s Front. In many cities of Russia and other republics, the People’s Fronts have developed quite a bit, but in Moscow and Leningrad this regrettably did not happen. I explain this by the complicated social base of the people in these tendencies, especially in Moscow and Leningrad. But let’s go back to the summer of ‘88 when the Moscow People’s Front was created.

Because of the disagreements between the two main tendencies in this coalition, most of the tendencies left it very soon. And for a time in the autumn of ‘88 and the winter of ‘88-’89, the tendencies predominating in this People’s Front were socialists and oppositional communists. The People’s Front developed a wide range of activities during the election campaign. It put forward some candidates for the elections, but they failed in the elections. But one of the deputies and a member of the coordination committee of the Moscow People’s Front, Sergei Stankevich, was elected to the Congress. Because of his radical speeches he did not get into the Supreme Soviet. I don’t want to talk too much about him because I consider him a conformist. He’s a member of the Communist Party and does not intend to leave it

At the same time, the People’s Front began to develop editorial cells and factory branches. During the constitutional convention of the People’s Front in the spring of ‘89, the liberal democrats in the organization confronted the socialists within it. This situation is even sharper now. Because of that, many of the activists of the People’s Front of socialist conviction do not participate in the work of that organization. They joined the Moscow Committee of New Socialists. The situation is developing so quickly that as soon as an organization forms and constitutes itself, it already falls apart This was the situation with this Federation of Society Clubs and with the Moscow People’s Front So the majority of the activists think that it is now time to organize a movement of a party type.

And now something about the group Obshchina and the anarchists. In May of ‘89 the anarchists conducted a constitutional convention of the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists. This confederation was joined by representatives of some anarchist clubs from the Ukraine and some Siberian cities, which were previously members of this Federation of Socialist Society Clubs. In the last period, some organizations of anarcho-communists have sprung up and they’re now also talking about joining into a united federation. They have fairly close contact with anarcho-syndicalists. Because the groups were so small, even though there were ideological differences, they could still unite on the basis of common agreement and participate in certain activities; for example, last year during the demonstration on Pushkin Square and this year during the huge meetings and rallies in Lushniki. Sometimes up to 100,000 people participated in those rallies, and yesterday, November 7, there was also a united and joint democratic rally.

Now a few words about the oppositional party Democratic Union. They call themselves a party, but a party of a transitional type because they think that this party in the future will split up into various other parties. This party is composed of fractions like social democrats, liberal democrats, Christian democrats and Eurocommunists. This may be very strange for Westerners and it’s strange for us because all these forms of political activity are only now arising in Russia. As a specialist, I do not find an analogy in Russian history to this situation.

Democratic Union was formed in May 1988 out of a seminar, “Democracy and Humanism.” This seminar was organized by the supporters of the human rights groups of the 1970s. Democratic Union in its majority is formed by people of pro-Western orientation. They now have affiliation in 40 cities of the USSR, but the total membership of the party is 2-3,000 people. Some other democratic groups call themselves parties, for instance, the Democratic Party. But this is a party which, as the Italians say, can sit down in a taxi. This is like the party of town and country entrepreneurs. It’s just a name.

The whole spectrum of these organizations in Moscow is very contradictory and mixed up and complicated. This is just a very schematic analysis.

Q: What is your assessment of the United Toilers Front?

A: The United Toilers Front is not an oppositional group. The bureaucracy is attempting to preempt any kind of oppositional development by organizing its own movement. But as for these other movements like Pamyat, on the one hand they are right-wing movements, on the other hand they are oppositional. They’re oppositional to the pro-Westem policies of Gorbachev and also to the attempts to hold Russia within the same constitutional and international framework.

Q: But you would suspect that behind the scenes there are relations between these tendencies and Pamyat?

A: I cannot confirm it, but it’s possible to assume and from some statements it’s possible to draw such inferences that even if they don’t exist, they will exist tomorrow.

I don’t want you to confuse the Russian People’s Front with a movement that arose two weeks ago in Yaroslav, the Alliance of United Fronts of Russia.

There is a movement of support for Yeltsin. There is no pro-Yeltsin movement as such, but there are different groupings. In Moscow there was formed a society, the Moscow Society of Electors, and mainly the supporters of Yeltsin joined this society. Although they are legal organizations and have some funds and some official setup, they are undoubtedly in opposition to the regime.

There are also groups that support other prominent deputies like Gublian. He is the guy who supports the fight against the Soviet Mafia.

All of the organizations on the left have representatives in Memorial and the old civil rights groups as well. The organizational committee of this movement is big and represents various tendencies. Such people as Yeltsin and Sakharov are board members of the management council. Solzhenitsyn was invited, but he refused to join.

Q: Isn’t it true that the membership of Memorial is extremely heterogeneous?

A: Yes. Even the representatives of the government have joined Memorial, and yet the government is afraid to register this group because, first of all, many of the civil rights people who served time in jail and camps are members of the Memorial group. So that’s why the government officials are afraid to legalize it. Second, it also has members who are representatives of all these radical organizations. For instance, these two leaders who are members of the Democratic Union also joined Memorial. Democratic Union, of course, is radical and confronts the police all the time. And because registered, legal organizations can put forward candidates for elections, Gorbachev was afraid that Memorial would have Sakharov as its candidate. But Sakharov was put up anyway by the Academic Institute and he won.

Q: Could I ask you, just as an aside, how is Sakharov seen?

A: Many people popularize him. The powers-that-be, of course, have a very negative view of him and at the same time many radical nonformal organizations are also critical of him. And there is also the wide view that he is too old and sick to really be a political leader. But he is considered an honest man.

Q: Could you tell me more about Democratic Perestroika?

A: Democratic Perestroika is a fairly large group. It is divided into two fractions, one of which joined the Moscow People’s Front. The other one stayed out. Democratic Perestroika has a meeting place at the Center of Economic Mathematical Institute. At the beginning of ‘85-’86 there was formed a club called Perestroika. It split apparently into five groups. One was Civil Self-Respect, which later formed a party, Constitutional Democratic Party. Another part formed Democratic Perestroika. Another part joined another group and formed Memorial. A fourth part formed Perestroika ‘88. Then there were liberal democrats who joined the Democratic Union and Socialist Initiative.

It was formed in the beginning stages by people who returned from jail. This movement was only necessary at the beginning stages of consolidation.

Socialist Initiative existed from ‘87 to early ‘89. It was founded by Kagarlitsky and Alexander Grishen.

The group Democratic Perestroika is now publishing a magazine, Open Zone.

Q: What is the relationship between Democratic Perestroika and the Moscow People’s Front? Do they have dual membership?

A: Moscow People’s Front has two ways to join, individual or organizational. A whole organization can join or just people individually. Individuals are formed into cells and these cells can form along editorial lines or along industrial production lines, according to factories or organizations. But if the organization joins en masse, then a part of this organization didn’t have to join.

One man can belong to 10 different organizations these days. I am a member of the Moscow Committee of New Socialists and the Moscow People’s Front, because I earlier participated in Socialist Initiative which joined en masse. I am also a member of Memorial.

Q: Is there a minimum point of agreement which is necessary to be a member of the Moscow People’s Front?

A: That is so. All organizations have their programmatic statements with which you have to agree, and because these programs put forward the perspective of democratic rights.

Q: So the basic agreement is on democratization?

A: First of all is the freedom to organize, freedom of association, freedom of the press. This unites all the different oppositional movements.

Q: But questions of program at this point are not a distinguishing factor inside the Moscow People’s Front?

A: This is because at first the Moscow People’s Front united mainly just the socialist groups and the oppositional communists. There was some sort of a broad agreement on economic questions. But because now there is a big fraction, the Democratic Front, with somewhat different opinions, one can say that there is no really common economic program. For instance, the Democratic fraction considers that now they have enough supporters within the Moscow People’s Front to take over the leadership. But so far the basic statement of the Moscow People’s Front presents the program of the socialist tendencies. But this sort of union does not satisfy some of the radical democrats and some of the radical socialists, so therefore the Moscow People’s Front is on the verge of a split.

Within Perestroika there was Socialist Initiative on the one hand, and then, from about ‘85, there emerged out of a pedagogical institute Obshchina, which was more of an anarchist tendency.

Socialist Initiative as well as Obshchina joined the Moscow People’s Front a year ago. Obshchina publishes a magazine with the same name. Right now it’s the organ of the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists. During demonstrations by some of these groups, the internal security forces were arresting those groups. However, some of the groups within the Moscow People’s Front carried Gorbachev’s portrait and the security forces did not touch them. So there was a conflict over the situation within the Moscow People’s Front between supporters and detractors of Gorbachev. So there were resignations from the Moscow People’s Front

After that, the anarcho-syndicalists, Obshchina, began to constitute an alliance with the other anarchist groups in different cities. It is called KAS, Konfederatia Anarcho-Syndicalista.

There is also an associate group of anarcho-communists who are trying to build an organization. They don’t have any influence in Moscow, but they do have some influence in Leningrad. They are publishing a paper in Leningrad called the Black Flag.

Q: What was the basis for the formation of the Moscow Committee of New Socialists (MENS)?

A: The different socialist groups thought that this MKNS would be the nucleus of a new socialist party, so they formed this and they brought in people from other groups. They want to conduct a constitutional convention of the new party, the Socialist Party, in 1990. They are now forming a cell in Prokopyevsk in Kuzbas, the heart of the miners strike, and the members of the strike committee will join this organization. MKNS has no program yet, but it’s being worked on. Last week there were several meetings devoted to discussion of this program. They have a name for this program: “Revolutionary Reform.” The different socialist tendencies constituting this are social democrats and reform socialists and independent socialists and some Trotskyist tendencies.

Q: I wonder to what extent the terms you use correspond to the way in which we understand these terms. What do you mean by the term “social democrat”?

A: It’s hard to answer this question because different variants of socialists call themselves social democrats. That is a whole subject of terminology. The name social democrat has been changed and used in different ways.

Q: Do you understand what this term signifies in Western Europe?

A: I understand that even there it changed many times and means different things.

Q: In our political vocabulary, social democrat means an extreme right-wing socialist, a bourgeois labor politician. Social democratic parties have their historical origin in the Second International, but have historically evolved into bourgeois labor parties.

A: I agree, but I also would like to just point out that some social democratic groups have their origin in the Vienna International which was considerably to the left.

Q: Are you speaking of Otto Bauer?

A: I am referring to left Mensheviks and left SRs in that respect.

Q: In other words, Martov’s school, the Socialist Internationalists.

A: That’s why they call themselves New Socialists, to distinguish themselves from, first of all, orthodox communism. They’re not trying to just translate or import en masse the programs of some other socialist or Trotskyist groups, but to take pieces of those programs. But they expect this party to unite reformers and radicals and that’s why they call it Revolutionary Reform.

Q: It’s important to try to understand what these terms mean when you use them. For example, the leading social democrats in the capitalist countries are Neil Kinnock, Bob Hawke, Vogel and Willy Brandt.

A: I think that social democrats of that type belong to the Democratic Union. But, for instance, when the New Socialists call themselves social democrats, it’s just important to honor the past of the social democrats, those old movements. The closest to them among the past movements is Martov and the Internationalists.

The socialist trade union is in the process of formation, and it unites both socialists and syndicalists.

There are five fractions within Democratic Union: democratic communists, Christian democrats, social democrats, liberal democrats and Eurocommunists.

Q: Again, these are terms which have a very definite meaning to us. I’d like to try and understand them. In the West, the Eurocommunists would be those sections of the Stalinist parties which are generally indistinguishable from social democracy like Santiago Carrillo or the late Berlinguer of the Italian Communist Party. Is that roughly what these people ...?

A: No, I do not understand it that way. There are no Stalinists within Democratic Union. It is the most oppositional grouping today. There is a wide range of organizations that support this one, smaller organizations, for instance, the Union of Young Democrats, or the military organization, Honor and Conscience. Another group that split with the Democratic Union is a group which calls itself Democratic Party. There is another organization, the Students Union, which is also in the process of formation and predominating within it are syndicalists and socialists.

There are a number of groups which are close politically to this whole range of groups, for example Free Emigration, which fights for the right to emigrate.

These groups are formed on the basis of a regular meeting, say, once a week. They’re formed around circles, discussion clubs. They didn’t coalesce organizationally.

Q: It seems that there is a certain arbitrary character to how a group gets formed. It’s not immediately clear to me what are the fundamental differences between different tendencies. There seems to be at this point an enormous amount of flux. Tendencies interpenetrate with one another and the actual structure seems arbitrary.

A: In general, that’s the stage it’s at. You have to understand the prehistory of these clubs. They were formed in conditions of illegality and strict conspiracy and when there wasn’t a free exchange of ideas. People with completely different political viewpoints were in the same organizations for security reasons. This question of the organizational coalescence of groups interests me enormously. I am planning to analyze this and publish a work on it, going back to prerevolutionary Russia and how parties were formed to show how similar these transformations are.

Q: In any one of these groups, what is the assessment of the causes of the growth of Stalinism? Would it be likely that the individuals within these groups would present a common explanation? If I asked the members of a group to define the class character of the Soviet state or to define the social character of the ruling elite, would it be likely that one would get a common analysis? A: I think it would vary widely from group to group. This is symptomatic. People unite not on the basis of their world views, but basically on the agreement of their analysis. Very often people unite today not on the basis of their world views, but on a common agreement of their analysis of a social structure, the class relations, or other sociological relations.

The Democratic Union is united by their common belief that this is a totalitarian society, and particularly they consider that totalitarianism was already essentially present in Bolshevik power. The leader of the anarcho-syndicalists said that the Communist Party is like a nobility. And some of the socialists and anarcho-syndicalists who joined the Moscow People’s Front think that it is possible to work with some of the reform-minded Communists within the party. But the Democratic Union does not make that distinction.

Q: To what extent have these movements or perhaps your own movement been following the events in Eastern Europe, such as in Poland, Hungary and East Germany?

A: All of these groups are interested in the movements abroad and they are trying to contact like-minded people. For instance, Kagarlitsky tried to make contact with pro-Solidarity groups in Poland. The anarchists are trying to set up contacts with anarchist groups in Eastern Europe and the West, I suppose, too.

Q: To what extent has there been any attempt to study the development of Solidarity from 1980 to 1989?

A: Some individuals who are acquainted with Solidarity and who have made contact with it have analyzed it and have presented seminars and discussions on this subject. Sometimes meetings occur between the leaders of these East European movements.

We are not even touching the subject of Samizdat and the independent libraries. These independent libraries have some collections of independent publications on the developments in Eastern Europe.

Q: You said this morning that many of the people who are involved in these movements are either critical of or hostile to Lenin and Trotsky. What about the question of Marxism in general?

A: A pretty widely held view is that Marx’s theory was fine for the nineteenth century, but it is obsolete today. It’s not the view of everyone, but it is a widely held view. But one should note that within different clubs there are people who consider themselves Marxists or neo-Marxists or revisionists. I am in solidarity with that commonly-held view, obsolete Marxism. I consider Marx undoubtedly as a great socialist, but I could not transfer his theories artificially to today’s situation. They are without basis today. As a historian, I would like to add that the application of these idealized Marxist theories, like for instance, in the years following the revolution, was wrong, was bad. Even Marx himself would not have approved of it For instance, a lot of people who call themselves Marxists now spend time studying the works of Kautsky.

Q: How is Gorbachev seen? You spoke about Bukharin and so forth.

A: At first he was widely supported and widely acclaimed because he was undoubtedly different from the past leaders and the reforms which people saw promised something for the wide masses. But the intelligentsia began to understand the real heart, the nucleus of Gorbachev. I think that now workers also understand this, and, as for the wise masters and the philistine population, the huge inflation is also driving them to opposition to the regime. That’s why Boris Yeltsin, this populist leader, enjoys such wide popularity now.

Q: What is the opinion among those who consider themselves socialists of the cooperative movement, and then how is it seen among the masses?

A: The wide masses view the cooperative movement very negatively in the form in which it exists today and basically see it as legalizing the underground black market economy. For instance, some of the markets are now monopolized by the cooperatives, like the market for food sale and eating places. And because the cooperatives resort to tactics like buying up products from state stores or illegally through the black market, this leads to revulsion among the masses. And among the wide masses, such cooperators are simply called speculators, and as for the intelligentsia, it tends to blame these policies on Aganbegyan.

Q: How do you see it yourself?

A: Undoubtedly, negatively. These are really degenerated and negative forms. And also a socialist, of course, has a negative attitude to these markets and pro-Westem tendencies.

Q: How do you interpret the tremendous emphasis being placed by the government on these economic measures?

A: It is probably the result of the procapitalist policies of Gorbachev.

Q: Do you think that there is a section within the leadership which seriously contemplates restoring capitalism within the Soviet Union?

A: Consciously?

Q: Yes, who believes that that is the direction in which the Soviet Union must develop.

A: I don’t consider that this is now some kind of a secret agreement of a conscious fraction, but I don’t exclude the possibility that it will develop that way. But I doubt that it will be a Gorbachev fraction. We still have memories of experiences when liberalization in politics did not lead to liberalization in economy. If there is such a fraction which declares its goal to be capitalist restoration, it will at the same time stand for expanding democratic rights. I think that the governing fraction of the Communist Party would in that situation expel that kind of revisionism, the capitalist faction, at least for the purpose of being able to cover themselves with red feathers.

Q: Could you describe some of the effects of the economic policies of the regime on the conditions of the population, the working class and so on?

A: First of all, there is tremendous inflation. Second, there are actual necessities that have disappeared from the stores, and prices rise in certain categories of goods. At the same time, the previously existing planned distribution and planning of production and distribution of materials within the Moscow region have been disturbed and this leads to resentment among the Muscovites, who before used to consider themselves privileged in relation to the other parts of the country. Also there are so many transformations of the ruble; everyone just exclaims they can’t believe it.

Q: Would you say there has been a very marked deterioration in the last five years?

A: It is not that it is difficult to answer the question, it is that it is difficult to answer it to a Westerner because there has always existed such a wide gulf between our ways of life and living standards. It’s probably hard to characterize the situation as a crisis situation simply in the social sphere, because this worsening of social conditions has occurred so gradually, imperceptibly and because before there were no channels of expressing these social needs publicly.

Q: Obviously, there are vast differences. I’m not speaking as one who would claim that socialism has ever existed in the Soviet Union. And yet it has been believed that to some extent within the Soviet Union, while obviously the general conditions of the masses are poor in terms of personal wealth and so on, that there existed certain social benefits which meant that extremes of poverty were not present. Is that true?

A: There has never been a guarantee of some kind of social minimum and the proof of that is the appearance now of the homeless and whole layers of the population who live in extreme poverty. There were always a lot of hidden problems.