Perestroika and After: Comrade Ligachev Tells His Side

By vanden Heuvel, Katrina | The Nation, December 2, 1991 | Go to article overview

Perestroika and After: Comrade Ligachev Tells His Side


vanden Heuvel, Katrina, The Nation


Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev may have been one of the best-known and most important, but also most poorly understood, political figures in the perestroika drama that began to unfold in the Soviet Union in 1985. By 1987 much of the Western media tended to portray the Communist Party's Number 2 leader as the archrival of perestroika, a die-hard conservative, even a reactionary, who opposed all the liberalizing political and economic reforms championed by Mikhail Gorbachev. When he retired from the party leadership in 1990, the move was widely regarded here as a victory for the forces of Soviet democracy.

Certainly, Ligachev was a highly controversial figure, the bete noire of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia. His policies and ideological statements, moreover, found little if any sympathy among those American observers of the Soviet Union who favor only those Soviet voices that seem most like their own. But Ligachev's role in Soviet politics after 1985 was a complex one, not given to easy categorization. A longtime provincial party boss in Tomsk, Siberia, Ligachev was brought to Moscow by Yuri Andropov in 1983 to help build a leadership team for the man Andropov hoped would succeed him, Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, Gorbachev probably could not have become Soviet leader in 1985 without the support of Ligachev and the provincial party secretaries, whom he represented. With Gorbachev's ascension, Ligachev became a full member of the Politburo and the party's de facto deputy leader. In that capacity, he was instrumental in initiating the reforms known as perestroika. By 1988, however, Ligachev began to protest--in the Politburo and other closed party gatherings--what he perceived to be a radicalization of the reform process in several respects: a sweeping re-evaluation of history, a premature introduction of market relations, a swift pace of political reforms and a chaotic upsurge of nationalist movements in the Soviet republics. He became, therefore, a moderating, some would say oppositionist, force inside the Gorbachev leadership.

Today, at 71, Ligachev continues to be an active and controversial political figure in Moscow. He is a self-professed Communist, but his Communism is hardly that of the antiperestroika wing of the party. A longtime anti-Stalinist who accepts the need for a market sector, he argues vehemently against Boris Yeltsin's ban on the Communist Party in Russia. He also remains a strong defender of a united Soviet Union.

In short, Ligachev was present at the creation of perestroika, not as its opponent but as a co-founder with Gorbachev. That his views began to depart from those of Gorbachev and his closest associates, including Aleksandr Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze, is not surprising. Differing opinions about the nature of perestroika existed within the original leadership team. Times became turbulent, and those differences became more pronounced. Ligachev may be out of power, but the social policy views he represents, though muted amid the clamor of post-coup Moscow, remain widespread not only among Soviet elites but among the Russian citizenry as a whole.

Ligachev is currently a member of the Congress of People's Deputies and the author of a memoir about the perestroika years, which will be published by Pantheon in 1992. On November 3, two days after he arrived in New York on a tour of American universities, Ligachev sat down with me for a discussion about Soviet politics before and after the coup.

KvH: I don't know how familiar you are with Western press reports, but you have been portrayed in the Western media as a villainous figure--the personification of reaction--who tried to thwart the reform process in Soviet politics. To what extent has the Western press, and segments of the Soviet liberal press, misrepresented your position?

YKL: I would say there is nothing further from the truth. If those people who claim that Ligachev is a conservative, a Stalinist, an opponent of change, if they proceed from the premise that the social order must be replaced in a radical fashion, then apparently they are right. …

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