Forgetting Glastnost

Alexander Yakovlev perestoika’s key ideologue was laid to rest last week with much pomp and circumstance. Yegor Yakovlev a former editor of “Moskovskiye Novosti” (“Moscow News”), a “cult” weekly of the same period, had passed away a few weeks before. The ideological history of perestroika is inextricably linked with these two names. Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo member in charge of ideology, gave instructions on the introduction of glasnost and set the rules for exercising freedom of speech. Yegor Yakovlev, put these instructions into action and made sure the rules were obeyed. Both men became idols of the intelligentsia. It’s not accepted to speak ill of the dead, but I’m talking here about the living, because the ideology of measured freedom and managed democracy has now come to fruition. Both are now regarded as the normal state of affairs. The liberal intelligentsia is only upset because the limits of the permissible are now being defined not by their friends and patrons, as was the case under Mikhail Gorbachev and during the early years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, but by people who are entirely alien to them. The rules of the game have changed, but the meaning of the game remains the same.

The liberal intelligentsia is whining and complaining, nostalgic for the good old days when their kind of people were in charge. During Yeltsin’s re-election bid in 1996, for example, the liberal press openly rallied behind the president. As one “democratic” editor put it: “We locked our conscience in a safe for the duration of the campaign.” One of his colleagues acidly remarked that the key to that safe subsequently got lost.

Meanwhile new demands arose at the grassroots level, including the demand for full-fledged, unrestricted freedom. The new generation can’t understand how the perestroika years were any better than the present. Then as now, public debates were stage-managed to ensure a desired result. Then as now, a few major players were given freer rein than everyone else.

Editors were free to express themselves without censorship. But these editors themselves were appointed by the Central Committee (Alexander Yakovlev made all key decisions personally). These were people consolidated not only by ideology but also by personal loyalty, which was replacing an outdated concept of party discipline.

Later presidential administration inherited tasks and functions of the Central Committee. It also inherited the building and hordes of functionaries. Now they are not appointing every single editor individually. They just instruct everybody on what should or should not be done. And if you fail to understand, you will sooner or later face trouble. It comes in a whole variety of forms from tax inspectors and sanitation experts to unexpected creditors all of whom will find lots of sophisticated ways of closing you down. But there is yet another crucial difference. During perestroika, the official media were the only influential source of information. Western radio stations, which the government suddenly stopped jamming, more or less echoed the new party line in Moscow as the bulwark of communism reinvented itself as a capitalist state. It was difficult to take issue with the old communist ideologues who had turned into anti-communists overnight.

One of the first victims of glasnost was samizdat, the unofficial distribution of texts in typed, mimeographed and even handwritten copies. After all, why struggle through an article typed on poor-quality paper when you could read much the same thing in professionally printed publications? Samizdat was not just about criticizing the existing order, however. It was also about the writer’s self-expression, something that a society carried away with glasnost seemed to lose track of.

Today samizdat has been reborn online, but to be honest I prefer the old version. Back then writers showed respect for their readers and their opponents, something sorely lacking in today’s web-based debates. There was more pathos than hysterics. The tone was more literary. Unlike the Internet, the original samizdat was not choked with verbal and commercial refuse. It was, in short, a more intellectual enterprise, though it must be said that more people take part in unofficial online debates today.

In the end, the issue is not how many hits are recorded by a particular site. A critical mass of public opinion has formed. These public and political debates have a life of their own. The masters of the official media can no longer control them. The ideas advanced by the official media have no resonance here. Their attempts to initiate discussion fall on deaf ears. The figures they build up for public consumption are subjected to ridicule.

Millions of people have no access to the Internet, of course, and they remain victims of television. But glasnost also had little to do with the effectiveness of propaganda aimed at the masses. The greatest achievement of glasnost was the mobilization of the intelligentsia, the ease with which opposition intellectuals could be drawn up into ranks at the Kremlin’s command.

Those happy days for the ruling elite are long past. The Kremlin can control loyal intellectuals, herding them into the Public Chamber or the Civic Forum, but these organizations are entirely self-serving. You can allocate a 10 billion dollars for the development of a new national idea, but the money itself should tell you that the only idea you’ll come up with this way is how to steal a million bucks.

There’s something to be said for the way things are today. In fact we did make some progress. Manipulation technologies have their limits, whether spin doctors like it or not.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.

Leave a comment