The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

9 The Beginnings of
Independent Political Activity

GEOFFREY A. HOSKING

To all appearance, the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s offered a very unpromising soil for the development of civil society—of institutions and associations independent of the state and the ruling party. It was a uniquely centralised polity, in which the party-state apparatus governed not only the aspects of society normally associated with authority, but also the economy, culture, science, education and the media. Everyone's employment depended on the state, and senior appointments in all walks of life were decided under the nomenklatura patronage system controlled by the party.

This made the Soviet Union very different from Spain, Portugal, Greece or any of the Latin American countries feeling their way from authoritarianism to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s. In all those countries, there were social strata which long pre-dated the authoritarian regime and did not owe their existence to it; there was a market economy, distorted perhaps by the state but not entirely dominated by it; there were autonomous churches and religious associations, interest groups and ethnic movements, even sometimes opposition political parties, albeit underground. Such bodies either did not exist in the Soviet Union, or were totally dependent on the state.

Even this list does not quite grasp the peculiarity of the Soviet system (and other communist systems), for its essence lay not in the tightness and pervasiveness of its bureaucratic controls, important though they were, but rather in it adoption of a degenerated utopianism as an ideological adhesive to hold the system together. The fanaticism, brutality and terror of the Stalinist system had largely disappeared, to be replaced by a political charade. The population did not believe in the ideology, but signalled symbolic assent to it in a variety of public rituals. Václav Havel once summarised the spiritual consequences in the person of the greengrocer who displays in his shop-window a placard reading 'Workers of the World, Unite!', not because he believes in workers uniting, but because he wishes to convey to all and sundry that he is willing to assent to the system in order to stay out of trouble. Aggregated individuals acts of this kind confirmed and consolidated the system;, indeed, in a sense they were the system. 1

Against such a regime the normal methods of political struggle—the formation of oppositional parties and the drawing up of alternative programmes—were impracticable or futile. Social interest groups had no identity separate from the nomenklatura hierarchy, so there was no question of their formulating their dis

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