It is difficult, even 22 years later, to fully appreciate everything that happened during those 12 long months in 1988. Gorbachev’s reforms started to bite, and the Soviet Union, like a patient whose supply of medicine and anaesthetics, in the form of a planned economy and an ideology had been cut off, began to show signs of terminal illness. As a free market appeared and property rights were discussed, the union of Republics began to break up. No longer was politics a preserve of old men shuffling around the Kremlin; people became engaged in current events for the first time, and took sides. The participation of Soviet citizens in politics, which lasted only a few years, was perhaps Gorbachev’s greatest achievement, and paradoxically it led to his downfall.
Texts and photos by John Harrison
January. The market economy charged straight into Soviet society. In January 1988, a draft law passed the year before came into effect giving workers the right to elect factory directors. Previously directors had been appointed centrally. Provisions were made for five state-controlled banks to be set up. Gorbachev still seems to have thought at that time that a NEP-type, market economy could exist within a much larger state sector, and that together both sectors would reinvigorate the Soviet economy. In May a law on co-operatives was passed allowing people to set up their own production procedures and make their own deals both in the USSR and abroad, in other words, private business was finally legalised.
February 4. Nikolai Bukharin was posthumously rehabilitated as a member of the Communist Party, along with nineteen other Bolshevik leaders after a campaign in the press. For all the arguments for and against Gorbachev and Perestroika, commentators were too busy to note that in 1986 Gorbachev, himself from a family of ‘enemies’, granted full amnesty to most political prisoners. By 1988, virtually the whole camp system, including the use of psychiatric hospitals to dope thousands of dissidents, had been disbanded. Most of the ex-prisoners were soon forgotten about, their dissidence being submerged in the reforms of the time. Some, however, vented their anger and went straight from prison to the wild world of provincial politics. One of these was the Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was soon elected president of his country and started advocating independence.
Stalinism became one of the most widely-used words in the Russian language. A film about the first concentration camps, Vlast Solovetskaya, directed by Marina Goldovskaya, was shown to packed audiences during 1988. In the foyer was a huge map of the USSR with lamps placed over almost the whole map showing the location of the GULAG camps. In May, a new mass-burial grave of 1930s terror victims was found in Kuropata near Minsk; 510 bodies were found, however an estimated 30,000 people were shot on a 30-hectare site. Most incredibly, the issue was fairly openly discussed in the press.
February 17. Alexandre Bashlachev, one of the most popular Russian poets and songwriter died. Bashlachev sang of Russia’s hidden moral life, which Western style bureaucratism, imported into Russian by Peter I and passed down to Soviet times, had not, according to Bashlachev, managed to trample down.
Rock in Russia started later than in the West, as it was repressed by Soviet authorities. This repression made it easy for the West to win the information war in the 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s, records were brought back home by Russian diplomats then passed on and duplicated using reel-to-reel tape recorders, and even home-made records. Russian rock thrived in the underground. By 1988 a distinctive Russian kind of popular music was present. It was angry, and it was Russian. The late 1980s and early 1990s were in many respects the heyday of Russian rock, be it rock, punk, new wave, heavy metal, vodka-driven rock. There was still something to sing against and now there was the freedom in which to sing it. Few of the original rockers survived the transition to the more commercial world that was to follow.
On the 20th February a group of deputies from Nagorno- Karabakh petitioned the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and two neighbouring Soviet Republics to allow Nagorno-Karabakh (historically part of Armenia) to leave Azerbaizhan (Muslim) and join Soviet Armenia (Christian). Of the 200,000 inhabitants of this mountainous, 4,400 sq km area, 90 per cent were Armenians, and Christian. Typically, Stalin had placed the area under Azerbaijani control, presumably to break down nationalistic feelings within the population. Azerbaizhany rule was inefficient; Nagorno- Karabakh was treated as a colony, and neglected in terms of infrastructure. This first open armed conflict in the USSR began, and it soon turned into war. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole country was a powder-keg about to explode.
In January 1988 violence broke out in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny-Karabakh. Azeris reciprocated by staging a pogrom of Armenian residents in Sumgait, near Baku. 90 people were killed, according to official figures. The unofficial figure was far higher. Hundreds of thousands fled. Azeris in Armenia, no longer feeling secure, followed their example. Moscow tried diplomacy and failed. Then extra troops were introduced, but often the soldiers surrendered their weapons to irregular militia bands. The disputed region was placed under a ‘special administrative regime’, but also this proved ineffective, and in 1989, violence escalated.
Equally unstable was the situation in Georgia. Many outside observers presumed that local ethnic differences had been merged into a common allegiance to a single Georgian nation. This proved to be naïve. Georgians were united in opposition to centralised Georgian power, just as they were in relation to the USSR. Patriotic societies were set up, which pursued both cultural and political goals. The National Democratic party was established, which openly called for secession. During 1988, Tbilisi was full of strikes and meetings to agitate against forthcoming changes to the Soviet Constitution which promised to limit the Republics’ option to opt out of the Soviet Union.
In the Baltics, opposition to the Soviet Union was also longstanding. The ‘Helsinki-86’ group demanded the restoration of cultural rights (notably the use of the native languages), an end to Russification, and the holding of a referendum on secession. Major demonstrations took place in Riga, Latvia, in 1987, and similar protests broke out in Estonia. The Republics’ respective legislatures were re-elected in 1988 and local languages were reinstated in Latvia in 1988, in Estonia and Lithuania in 1989, along with pre-Soviet national flags, anthems and public holidays. Sovereignty was the new unifying creed in the Baltics.
In 1988, the Belorussian Communist Party Central Committee tried to prevent a new popular front from gaining strength in Minsk, but the members simply decamped to neighbouring Lithuania and held their founding congress in Vilnius.
May/June. 1988 was the 1000-year anniversary of the conversion of the Rus to Christianity. On the eve of the official church celebrations, the Soviet government unexpectedly decided to turn away from official atheism and make the religious festival a state holiday. The return of church property, most of which had been seized by the state, began; 809 churches were restored to clerical use in 1988, and over 2,000 in 1989. This was in a country that had declared ‘God to be a Joke’ only in 1963.
On the 29th of April, Gorbachev met the Patriarch Pimen and the permanent members of the Synod in the Kremlin. This was the first such meeting since 1943, when Stalin, needing the support of the church to help motivate the population against the Nazis, restored the Patriarchy. Suddenly in 1988, TV viewers were shocked to see crosses on churches. Previously filming such symbols was sacrilege. For the first time in the Soviet Union, there was a large print run of bibles: 100,000 were distributed. Suddenly it was permissible to be both Christian and Soviet, and adults were for the first time able to openly wear crosses on necklaces or bracelets.
The new acceptance spread to moral values as well. Over 55 million people saw the film Malenkaya Vera in 1988, making it the most popular film that year. The film was a about a teenage girl who has just finished school, and felt trapped in her provincial town. The film had a pessimistic view of Soviet society, and this ‘chernukha’ (black stuff) became the name of the day. The film featured pretty explicit sexual scenes which were suddenly no longer controversial.
One would have thought that the whole government had been behind the changes taking place in Soviet society, so great were they. But this was not so. The party was split, with hardliners adamantly protesting against the apparently wayward Gorbachev, who seemed bent on destroying everything the Communist Party stood for. The hardliners saw their chance when a long letter from a communist in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) called Nina Andreeva was published in Sovetskaya Rossiya on the 13th of March. She demanded the rehabilitation of Stalin’s reputation and implied that the country’s woes after the October revolution had been chiefly the fault of the Jewish element in the party’s leadership. The letter was professionally rewritten by Sovetskaya Rossiya journalists in conjunction with officials from the Central Committee. Despite the anti-semitism, Yegor Ligachev, who was in charge of the party apparatus and ideological concerns, facilitated the letter’s publication and organized a meeting of newspaper editors to impress on them that the season of free-fire shooting at communism’s past and present was at an end. I remember seeing the contents of this letter being read out on TV. Gorbachev was abroad that week, and people started saying: ‘Oh you know it was all going to end sooner or later, nothing ever changes here.’
But this was not the end. On his return from his week-long visit to Yugoslavia, Gorbachev conducted an enquiry, and Ligachev denied any involvement. Gorbachev took the opportunity to promote Alexander Yakovlev, who had become a Politburo member in mid-1987 and now became a radicalreformer counterweight to Ligachev in the central party apparatus. Yakovlev supervised the publication of material about abuses under Brezhnev as well as under Stalin. A number of articles appeared about Bukharin, who was depicted as the politician who had deserved to succeed Lenin. The image of Bukharin as a harmless dreamer was at variance with historic reality, but Gorbachev needed positive stories about Soviet communism to balance the horror tales of the 1930s which were rife in the press. The reformist magazines were bringing existing and past Soviet politicians, with the notable exception of Gorbachev, into disrepute. If only the first decade of the USSR’s history was now deemed to be acceptable, how could the Politburo justify its continuing rule?
Gorbachev’s answer was to get rid of as many of the old guard as possible, and then claim ‘nothing to do with me’. Between 1985 and March 1988, new first secretaries in the RSFSR’s provincial party committees were appointed by Gorbachev personally. However once in power, these new secretaries did not implement reforms as quickly as they could have done. After all, the emperor was a long way away. The fresh air ventilating public discussions in Moscow rarely reached the provinces. Gorbachev’s appointment of his own aides was far from democratic.
In April 1988, the USSR announced its wish to make a swift, complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Gorbachev emphasized his commitment to ‘new thinking’ in international relations.
Gorbachev opened the 19th Party conference on 28 June 1988 in the hope of getting rid of a lot of dead wood, although he had only half-succeeded in having his supporters elected as delegates. He wanted to disband the economic departments in the Central Committee Secretariat and to reduce the size of the party apparatus in Moscow. The Supreme Soviet, which previously had only an honorific role, was to become a kind of parliament with over 400 members who would be in session most of the year and be chosen from a Congress of People’s deputies consisting of 2,500 persons. In a sop to the Communist Party, one third of these delegates would be provided by ‘public organisations’, including the party. Gorbachev expressed the hope that delegates would be also elected to the Supreme Soviet, really wanting the electorate to use their votes to get rid of his opponents.
Gorbachev’s audience consisted of delegations led by precisely the sort of Communist Party officials he wished to eliminate. Ligachev received rapturous applause; Gorbachev not much. Things were definitely not going Gorbachev’s way. Then prodigal son, Boris Yeltsin, unexpectedly strode boldly down to the front of the conference holding his party card and demanding to be reincorporated in the party elite.
This time Yeltsin had nothing but praise for Gorbachev and Perestroika, but this only encouraged Ligachev in tearing Yeltsin to shreds. Nevertheless, Yeltsin’s interjection did allow Gorbachev to rush through a couple of votes severely limiting the size and function of the central party apparatus. The party was dropped as being the vanguard of Perestroika, now was the time of the Congress of People’s Deputies elected by the people, at least that was the idea. The same plenum left Vadim Medvedev instead of Ligachev in charge of ideology and gave Yakovlev a supervisory role in international affairs. Foreign policy veteran Gromyko was pushed into retirement and replaced as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet by Gorbachev himself. The Soviet Union remained a one-party state but the party as such had lost much of its power.
September 1988. An exhibition of modern and contemporary Russian art in Moscow was held in the summer of 1988, organised by Sothebys of London. There was great competition amongst artists to participate, and some of them became bewilderingly rich overnight. The quality of some of the paintings was questionable, however, as purchasers found out in years to come; many of the leading artists had already left Russia by 1988.
3 October. As the nationality question exploded, conservative hardliners in the government probably realised that it was necessary to be able to put down demonstrations using a centrally-controlled force. OMON, whose mission was ‘to work where other MVD forces cannot’, was formed in 14 Russian centres in Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan.
7 December. As if the problems in neighbouring Nagorny Karabak weren’t enough, a 10-point Richter scale earthquake shook almost half of Armenia. The town of Sital, at the epicentre of the earthquake was completely destroyed. Only 15 people survived out of 20,000. As in Chernobyl, Soviet authorities proved themselves unable to cope with the emergency in the first crucial hours and days. Help arrived only 5-6 days later. This time, however, the USSR accepted foreign aid, which also arrived late.
Photograph supplied by Elena Derzhitskaya
In late 1987, the country’s leadership has declared a policy of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Suddenly people began to speak out loudly about what had been kept as secrets before. We partook of this freedom of speech, reading in thick magazines full disclosures about former leaders.
I celebrated the 1988 New Year in Kabul. At that time my international passport was given to me unexpectedly quickly (at Soviet times one needed a new passport for each journey abroad) and in late December I was allowed to leave for Afghanistan. My husband was serving as a translator in Herat, in western Afghanistan, and managed to get a holiday for the time of my arrival. We lived in an ‘advanced’ neighbourhood of Kabul which reminded me of Cheremushki suburb. The occasional tanks with Soviet soldiers passing down the streets, was pretty much the only reminder of the war.
We found a Christmas tree for the New Year celebration; I had brought decorations from Moscow with me. We celebrated New Year in a traditional Russian way, with champagne, Russian salad and lots of guests. My husband returned to Herat and I had to leave Kabul on my own. The night before my departure, the airport was bombed, and the flight was postponed for a day. Calling Moscow was impossible, and my family almost went crazy, running around Sheremetyevo airport, trying to figure out where the missing plane was. We flew out of Kabul on a foggy, cold morning. I am still impressed with the professionalism of those pilots who flew the plane up in a corkscrew flight path. It wasn’t exactly a smooth take-off; the aircraft flew up like a rocket. We were accompanied by helicopters in the dense fog, emitting rocket-protection chaff.
In February, teachers from the UK came to the school where I was teaching, and because, apparently, only I, a history teacher, could speak English (for some reason all the foreign languages teachers hid), the delegation was sent to my class. I wasn’t informed about their visit beforehand. But everything turned out pretty well, and both the children, and the guests, were very happy and so was I.
Then, another delegation arrived, of British Quakers (which I had never heard of before). They held a training session on Conflict Resolution. We didn’t even know that such a science existed at all. These were new times indeed.
In February the pull-out from Afghanistan was announced. At the same time my position at school changed: I became very popular among pupils because of Afgan stories and my knowledge of English. My kind colleagues could not bear the rise in my popularity and soon decided to exclude me from the Komsomol organisation, the membership of which was obligatory. But times were changing and my English knowledge was needed in school so my possible exclusion from the Komsomol was soon forgotten.
In the summer, my passport for another trip was ready in just one month, and when I rushed to the one and only air ticket booking office in Moscow, near the bridge at Park Kultury, I had a very unpleasant surprise. The office, which was usually deserted, was packed with people and I had to spend 3 days and nights in a queue for a ticket out of the Soviet Union.
In that queue the usual lists with the names of people standing in the line were made, and one had to be there day and night to make sure that your name wasn’t taken off them. Once I got to the cherished window of the booking office, I discovered that I could only fly to Kabul first class. After that I had to go and stand in a similar line at Sberkassa (the Soviet bank) the bank on Zemlyanoy Val, the only place in Moscow at the time where roubles could be exchanged for foreign currency.
Hooray! The Iron Curtain was lifted and life was changing in front of our eyes, and it was great! I was only 24 years old and the whole world suddenly opened up for me!