Our society has turned out to be seriously diseased. This did not come about suddenly; it was the result of a complex historical process. Its last stage has been called “the era of stagnation”. The symptoms of our malaise are known, and to some degree we understand its causes and internal workings, though we are far from a complete understanding of all its facets.
The first cause was the absence of pluralism in the government, in the economy (except for the period of the New Economic Policy¹), and in ideology. The bureaucratization of the entire life of our country is closely connected with this. All the strands of administration have been concentrated in the hands of people who hold power because of their official position in the government or in the Communist Party, and who constitute a distinct bureaucratic caste. Bureaucracy is of course a necessary element of contemporary society, in fact, of any organized society. But several negative phenomena often appear in conjunction with its normal and often highly useful functioning: elitism; inflexibility, and an administrative command structure which strictly subordinates its middle ranks to the higher instances and completely disregards any democratic control from below, often with negative consequences. In the “anti-pluralistic” conditions of our country, these negative phenomena have acquired a qualitatively different and intractable character.
Stalin personified this new social force. This does not mean that the bureaucracy had an easy time under Stalin. In actual fact, his era saw the emergence of a one-man dictatorship, aggravated by Stalin’s cruelty and other negative traits. Nevertheless, although other factors contributed to his ascendancy, Stalin had received his mandate to govern from the bureaucracy. This new power first showed its teeth by liquidating NEP, which could have served as the basis for a pluralistic development of our society in combination with voluntary co-operatives in the countryside and the rational growth of state-owned industry on a healthy economic foundation. But this pattern was unacceptable for the new Soviet bureaucracy.
What came afterwards is well known: forcible collectivization, the impoverishment of the peasants for the sake of hasty industrialization, and mass famine, with the appalling isolation of the regions condemned to destruction and almost no assistance for those starving to death. (This was just the time when our export of grain to the West peaked.) Then came the Great Terror, which devoured not only the Revolution’s old guard and the military commanders but all the vital forces of our society, reaching its tragic apogee in 1937. And much more frightfulness followed.
The reforms attempted by Khrushchev and his aides were opposed by the bureaucratic establishment, the nomenklatura, and accomplished little. The economic reforms of the 1960s accomplished even less. These failures greatly influenced the psychological climate of the decades that followed. A further experiment with perestroika in the socialist camp was suppressed by tanks in 1968.
Nevertheless, after Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress, the Soviet system rid itself of the extremes and excesses of the Stalin period and became more civilized, putting on a face that, if not entirely “human”, at least was not that of a man-eating tiger. More than that, this new era was in some sense psychologically comfortable for many people.
But it was also a period of stagnation that led the country deeper and deeper down a blind alley. The possibility of expanding the economy by extensive means had been exhausted, and the system was incapable of growing by intensive means. As technical progress was not profitable for managers operating in a bureaucratic system, new technology was not applied nor was it even developed since bureaucratization also affected science. Many of our scientific and technical ideas have come from the West, often after a lag of years and even decades. For all practical purposes, our country has been dropping out of the scientific revolution and becoming its parasite.
Our productivity has fallen drastically. New construction is painfully slow. Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent statement sums it all up: there has been no growth of our gross national product during the last four five-year plans, and in the 1980s, it has even declined. Our agriculture is in a state of permanent crisis, resulting in poor nutrition of the population, limited selection in food stores, and the necessity of purchasing grain and other agricultural products abroad. Despite all this, the bureaucracy strenuously opposes all initiatives seeking to strengthen the independent activity of the lowest links of the economic system and the material interest of workers in the results of their labour. A recognized example of this is the fate of Khudenko, one of the forerunners of perestroika, who was accused of violations of financial discipline and sent to die in a labour camp².
Another aspect of our “era of the bureaucracy” is the moral degradation of society, which is itself closely linked to our economic deformities. Hypocrisy and lies flourish in the press, on radio and television, in schools, in the Communist Party youth organization (Komsomol), and in the family. Having been deceived so often by pretty words, people no longer believe in them. Our society is overcome by apathy. The stifling psychological atmosphere weighs especially on young people, alienating and corrupting them.
The bureaucracy is far from self-sacrificing. Concealing the realities behind demagogic slogans, our officials make a mockery of social justice in housing, in health care (most people, for example, have no possibility of getting up-to- date medicines), in the quality of education, and in people’s material needs in general. The salaries of many workers, and especially those of teachers, doctors, and other rank-and-file intellectuals, have been artificially reduced, in effect imposing a hidden tax that weighs most heavily on the lowest paid. The great majority of pensions are shamefully inadequate. At the same time, elite groups enjoy enormous, unjust privileges.
A social portrait of the era of stagnation would be incomplete without remarking on the colossal growth of various forms of corruption. Mafioso groups have sprung up, entwined with local Party and government structures, and with connections, as a rule, to higher-ups. The Uzbekistan mafia is a prime example, with its multi-billion rouble embezzlements, its inflated reports of the cotton harvest, its systematic bribe-taking, and its exploitation of the cotton-pickers. Thousands of people, children in particular, have become victims of the uncontrolled and massive application of defoliants and other toxic chemicals. Those who protested have been subjected to cruel punishments in underground dungeons and psychiatric hospitals.
In the Stalinist era, the forced labour of millions of prisoners, perishing in the terrible Gulag system, played a substantial economic role, especially in developing the sparsely populated regions of the East and the North. Of course, this system was not only infinitely inhuman and criminal, it was also inefficient, a substantial element in the wasteful extensive economy of that period, not to mention the far-reaching consequences of the barbaric destruction of the country’s human potential. In recent years the use of forced labour for economic purposes has declined dramatically, but between one and two million persons are still in labour camps or fulfilling compulsory labour assignments.
Conditions of detention remain very grim. They fail to satisfy present-day standards and the demands of humanity. Prisoners suffer from unbearable labour, from inadequate food, from restricted visits (permitted extremely rarely, and then only with relatives), as well as from the whims of their keepers. Sentences are unbelievably long. In contrast to the Stalinist era, our prisons are now filled primarily with persons convicted of ordinary crimes, but it is important to bear in mind that our judicial and investigative systems are very primitive. (With the advent of glasnost in recent years, information about this has appeared in the press.) The ethical conduct and legal knowledge of our judges are often quite poor. They depend for support on the local authorities. Their decisions often lack any explanation. They repeat the arguments of biased investigators, which are sometimes based on coerced confessions obtained by third degree methods. Moreover, our most dangerous criminals appear to be immune to prosecution, and some occupy high posts. The police, the Ministry of the Interior, the prosecutors and judges have turned out to be closely connected with this mafia in a number of cases.
The world of the camps is the very bottom of our society. Their horror, the lack of any prospect for a brighter future, reflect the social tragedy and moral sickness of our life, as do the media reports about the awful conditions in our orphanages and reformatories. A disproportionate number of prisoners are products of our orphanages, and they tend to receive very severe sentences. It seems that such deprived individuals should be treated with special leniency, but in fact, the contrary often turns out to be the case. Former convicts also tend to receive unjustly harsh sentences. During the 1970s, I received hundreds of letters about these problems (and also about difficulties associated with emigration). Unfortunately, I was unable to help my correspondents.
As regards the KGB, in the 1970s and 1980s that organization recovered the influence it had lost in the 1950s and 1960s. But I should also note that the role of the KGB is not entirely negative.
On one hand, the KGB conducted a ruthless campaign of repression against the dissident movement that appeared in our country toward the end of the 1960s (or somewhat earlier). Though relatively few in number, it laid the psychological and moral groundwork for the pluralistic development of our society. I especially admire individuals who dared to act in defence of glasnost and human rights, among them the editors of the celebrated Chronicle of Current Events. This typescript samizdat periodical appeared for more than thirteen years (with one brief suspension). It informed the Soviet and international public about our unjust trials, psychiatric repressions, conditions in places of detention, and our country’s problems regarding emigration, religious life, and minority nationalities. Other dissident groups were interested in particular issues, including some of the problems I have mentioned above.
Dissidents were harshly persecuted in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them spending long years in prisons, labour camps, and psychiatric hospitals. Some died in confinement, including Estonian scientist Juri Kukk, the remarkable Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus, the Ukrainian teacher Oleksa Tykhy, and the worker and author Anatoly Marchenko. The misuse of psychiatry for political purposes was especially cruel and socially dangerous. (The danger was not reduced by the fact that many victims of psychiatric repression needed proper psychiatric assistance. It was in fact comparatively rare for a completely normal individual such as General Pyotr Grigorenko, one of the outstanding personalities of our time, to become the object of psychiatric abuse.) Justice requires me to note that the scale of political repressions during the era of stagnation was immensely reduced from the Stalinist era.
Did the KGB have links to the “Terrorist International,” which appeared on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, or to other destructive forces? This is an important question demanding a detailed and impartial investigation making use of glasnost and patterned on the US investigation of the CIA. I am convinced that our country needs to learn the full truth about our past and present, however difficult it may prove to be. There should not be any inaccessible corners of our life. (I am not, of course, suggesting the “outing” of our intelligence agents working abroad.)
On the positive side, the KGB, because of its elite status, was almost the only force untouched by corruption, and therefore a counterweight to the mafia. This ambiguity is reflected in the personal fate and position of Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB [1967-1982], who, becoming head of state continued to fight corruption and crime, but took no other steps to overcome the negative phenomena of the era of stagnation.
Examination of our international policies pursued during recent decades is also necessary. They too exhibited signs of stagnation, insufficient flexibility, and the absence of a truly fresh approach to today’s unprecedented problems. ...
Trust in the USSR – and consequently, international security – has steadily declined. The noisy, often artificially instigated, “fight for peace” changed nothing in this respect. The USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan has had especially serious, tragic significance. The introduction of Soviet armed forces met with strong national resistance, which the USSR countered with a cruel, multi-year war that has caused enormous suffering for the Afghan people. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 Afghans have been killed. Hunger and disease are epidemic. More than 4,000,000 Afghans have become refugees, a quarter of the country’s population. Many Russian soldiers have been killed or crippled. The waging of this unjust war has had devastating psychological and social effects within the USSR itself. The events in Afghanistan have become a major source of international tension and mistrust in the region and a threat to peace everywhere. The Afghan adventure embodies the whole danger and irrationality of a closed totalitarian society³.
I have outlined the stagnation and dead end of the mid-1980s. Fortunately, persons came to the fore who recognized that it was impossible for us to continue in this way. The slogans of perestroika and its ideology are well known: economic reform, glasnost, democratization (in particular, new principles for picking our leaders), social justice, new political thinking, and the priority of the common human goals of survival and development over particular state, class, ethnic, departmental and private interests.
Is the program of perestroika realistic? This is a question that interests everyone today. First of all, I want to emphasize that I am convinced of the absolute historical necessity of perestroika. And like war – victory is a must! But serious economic, psychological, and organizational difficulties and obstacles are inevitable. For many years, the people (and here I include the intelligentsia) have been schooled in pretending to work, in hypocrisy, lies, and egoism, in adapting to a corrupt system. Have they preserved within themselves adequate moral force? If this force is insufficient, then our progress will be slow and contradictory, with backsliding and reverses. But I believe that among the people, and among the young especially, a vital fire burns beneath their outer shell. It must make itself known. This depends on us all. Moral and material motivation is needed for perestroika. Each of us must be interested in its success. However, the sense of a great common cause cannot be instilled by decree or conjured up by pep talks, and yet, without it, everything will remain up in the air. The people have to believe that they are being told the truth. This requires our leaders to speak only the truth and the whole truth, and always to back up their words with deeds. Even in the most favourable circumstances, there will still be great difficulties. Already, the transition to enterprise self-sufficiency and self-financing, to new systems of supply, to co-operatives⁴, has cost many people part of their income, and some have even lost their jobs. And this is only the beginning of our difficult transition. It would be better, of course, if we can make fewer foolish mistakes and proceed in a more rational and responsible manner.
The main obstacles to perestroika are the ossification of the bureaucratic administrative system, which has grown with time, and its millions of employees at all levels, who have no interest in an efficient, self-regulating system. This creates the danger that some of them will actively, or passively, through lack of understanding or ability, hinder perestroika, will pervert it, will ridicule it, or will represent its temporary difficulties as its final collapse. We will have to get through all of this.
What more do I expect from perestroika?
First, glasnost. Glasnost ought to create a new moral climate in our country. We have made great progress in this regard. There are now fewer and fewer forbidden themes. We are beginning to see our society as it was in the past, and as it is today. People should know the truth and be able to express their thoughts freely. Corrupting lies, silence, and hypocrisy should be banished from our lives forever. Only an individual who feels himself free can display the initiative needed by our society.
A second, equally important foundation for society’s moral health is social justice. I have already touched on the privileges of the elite, wages and pensions, social equality and certain other aspects of this broad, multi-faceted topic. ...
As I have mentioned, dissidents were subject to harsh persecution in the 1970s and 1980s. In the course of 1987 the majority of “prisoners of conscience” – persons imprisoned for their opinions or for non-violent actions in support of their beliefs according to Amnesty International’s definition – were released. Some, including Anatoly Sharansky, Yuri Orlov, my wife and myself, were released even earlier. However, about twenty persons sentenced under Article 70 of the RSFSR Criminal Code remain in prison, labour camp, or internal exile, as well as some prisoners of conscience sentenced under other articles of the Criminal Code, or confined in psychiatric hospitals. All of them should be freed. This is critical for improving the moral atmosphere in our country and for overcoming “The Inertia of Fear”⁵. It is psychologically important that all prisoners of conscience should be rehabilitated, and not simply pardoned and quietly released. It is past time to end the practice of rehabilitating innocent people posthumously instead of during their lifetime. Furthermore, the 1987 demand that prisoners of conscience should formally request a pardon was clearly improper from a moral and legal standpoint. All articles of the Criminal Code which were used to prosecute persons for their opinions should be repealed. This includes the above-mentioned Article 70, which is almost a word-for-word copy of the notorious Article 58 in force during Stalin’s time. There is also Article 1901 [circulation of fabrications known to be false which defame the Soviet state and social system]. Judges do not trouble themselves with seeking proof that the statements were “known to be false” or with analyzing the meaning of this phrase. In addition, there are Article 142 [Violations of laws on separation of church and state and of church and school] and Article 227 [Infringement of the person and the rights of citizens under the guise of performing religious ceremonies], which permit prosecution for religious practice. And, of course, the penal system should be made more humane and brought into line with international standards.
The complete abolition of the death penalty is also necessary. Beccaria, Hugo, Tolstoy and other writers and humanists of earlier times opened people’s eyes to the extreme psychological cruelty of capital punishment. Besides, errors in court proceedings are inevitable, and they cannot be corrected after a defendant has been executed. The abolition of capital punishment would be a step toward the humanization of our society. Unfortunately, many people are not convinced of this, and, appalled by certain crimes, continue to campaign for its retention. I hope that their opinion will not prevail.
Perestroika should promote the openness of our society as a fundamental prerequisite for the moral and economic health of our country and for international trust and security. The concept of “openness” should include: monitoring by society of key government decisions (repetition of a mistake such as the invasion of Afghanistan must be made impossible), freedom of opinion, freedom to receive and impart information, and freedom to choose one’s country of residence and one’s domicile within that country. All these points are contained in one of the most important documents of our time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and also in the UN Covenants on Human Rights, ratified by the USSR and referred to in the Helsinki Final Act. Freedom to choose one’s country of residence implies the right to emigrate and the right to return. The right to emigrate cannot be reduced to the reunion of families, and therefore the demand for an invitation (vyzov) from a relative – and still worse, from a “close” relative – is completely illegitimate. (Many applications for emigration have been refused on grounds of an insufficiently close relationship with the vyzov’s sender, and without a vyzov, there can be no discussion at all of emigration). In its most liberal form, the right of emigration has great social, political and international significance, permitting all citizens to choose the social and economic system, which they believe best for themselves. The borders between countries would disappear in some sense, and this would serve as an important guarantee of peace. A person’s decision to emigrate should not, however, have a final, fatal character. People should have the option to reconsider their decision and to correct mistakes. The right to return is an important adjunct to the right to emigrate.
I will proceed now to questions of peace and disarmament, which have been at the centre of my public statements since my 1968 essay Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom published in samizdat and in the West. The glasnost era has allowed me to present my views directly to the Soviet audience.
Taking a broader view, I believe it is practical and necessary for the USSR to consider a courageous step of extraordinary significance for people everywhere – a unilateral reduction of service in the Soviet army, navy and air force to approximately half its present length, resulting in a unilateral reduction of the armed forces, to be combined with a proportional, one-time reduction of all kinds of weapons. (The reduction of the officer corps should probably be smaller.) Naturally, such a decision can be made only after a complete review of all its possible consequences, including its effect on the military security of the USSR and other countries of the socialist commonwealth, as well as its social and demographic implications. It’s also necessary to forecast international developments, including possible difficulties. But what weighs on the other side of the scales must also be taken into account! The proposed initiative would immediately and fundamentally change the whole international situation. It would open the way for all kinds of major disarmament, for balanced reductions of conventional and nuclear weapons, including the complete destruction of existing nuclear weapons. It would strengthen international trust. It would promote the resolution of regional conflicts on all continents. Disarmament will free up substantial material resources needed for perestroika in the USSR, for solving social, ecological and other universal problems worldwide, for the struggle against hunger and disease, and for overcoming inequality in developing countries around the globe.
The domestic social consequences of reducing the term of military service will be significant. It will facilitate young people’s return to productive work and study. It will improve personal relations in the army – the basis for dedovshchina [brutal hazing of draftees during their first year of service] will disappear. Reduction of the term of service is completely practical, since draftees today are much better prepared than the recruits of the 1930s; many are already familiar with tractors, automobiles, radios, etc. They can learn their military specialties in much less time.
To retreat from the brink of global catastrophe, to preserve civilization and life itself on our planet, are necessary priorities for the current stage of world history. I am convinced that this can come about only as a result of profound geopolitical, social, economic and ideological changes leading toward convergence of the capitalist and socialist systems, an open society, and greater equality for all races and peoples, not only juridical, but also economic, cultural and social equality.
25 March 1988
© Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, heirs