Volume 19 Number 1
A Matter of Conscience
01 February 2006
Peter Thwaites reads a book charting the change of heart which led to the end of the Soviet Union.
THE AMERICAN political scientist and former presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski described Alexander Yakovlev, the co-architect of Gorbachev's reforms, as 'a man of conscience'. Yaklovlev, who died in October, is one of 55 figures from the Soviet political establishment and from dissident circles interviewed by Philip Boobbyer in his new book Conscience, Dissent and Reform in Soviet Russia (Routledge, London and New York 2005).
Boobbyer is a British academic and this is a historian's work, telling the story of a whole nation during an extraordinary period. But the book focuses less on events than on what went on in the minds of Soviet citizens, especially those whose personal decisions led to the dismantling of the USSR's 70-year experiment with Marxist-Leninist social engineering. Its originality is that it deals with the inner, mental forces driving events.
True to his trade, Boobbyer presents the clash of philosophies and the cataclysmic events with dispassionate understatement. (Sometimes he just notes an issue, as if for investigation at a later opportunity.)
In spite of this, the book is stirring. For this is the stuff of the strongest passions: both 'conscience' and 'ideology' touch the core of human personality where normal self-interest meets with idealism, altruism, religion.... Here culture and literature, the bearers of values, also play their powerful part.
It appears that human nature is not just egotistic and social, but spiritual, capable of great evil but also containing an innate sense of justice and truth. As the Soviet enterprise came into conflict with this element of human nature (the conscience), it sustained increasing damage which led to its demise. Claiming a moral goal, it inflicted moral injury and, as Boobbyer writes, 'lost its moral legitimacy.' (Or, as the German philosopher Vittorio Hösle put it in 1992, 'died of hypocrisy'.)
The book starts out by summarising Russia's history (always from the inner, 'conscience' perspective) since the arrival of Christianity in 988, including the extraordinary flowering of literature, culture and thought in the 19th Century. By 1917 much of the intelligentsia had turned away from traditional, Christian views towards the new, anti-religious, revolutionary ideas. The warnings of the celebrated writers of Landmarks (1909) came too late, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks swept them and their call for Christian revival from sight, apparently forever. Yet, as Boobbyer relates, the seeds of that deeper-rooted, earlier culture germinated again after the fire of revolution had reduced the forest to ashes.
The turning point came with the death of Stalin in 1953 and his denunciation by the new leader Khrushchev. Up until then the momentum of so-called 'revolutionary ethics', where all humane concerns were sacrificed to the idea of communist power, had been unstoppable. With Stalin gone, other ways became possible. Despite a continuing totalitarian system and the Brezhnev 'years of stagnation', the momentum moved increasingly towards a reassertion of 'universal human values'.
Boobbyer devotes several chapters to the courageous individuals who began to speak their minds, defying the secret police and leading to a human rights movement within the USSR. There is a chapter on Soviet literature where there were both cautious and bold attempts to extend the boundaries of what was ideologically permitted. Finally there are three chapters on the ethical ideas which began to penetrate the regime and produce 'in-system dissent'.
The climax comes with Gorbachev's perestroika years, and, perhaps most extraordinarily, with a widespread acceptance of the need for repentance and restoration for past evils committed by the Soviet state. The human rights movement grew into the democratic movement, where dissidents who had been persecuted worked together with Party reformers.
I was struck by how much the changes which broke upon the world in the 1980s and 1990s were generated within Soviet and Russian society itself. This depended not just on the dissidents but equally on a growing conviction among the political establishment that fundamental change was needed. Thus while the Soviet Union 'collapsed', its internal society and its component nations, especially Russia and Ukraine, were undergoing processes of renewal. Such processes tend to be hidden from outside observers. We need studies like Boobbyer's to turn the key in the lock and open the creaking door to that other world.
We glimpse hundreds of individual destinies in these pages. Nonconformist writer and scholar Grigory Pomerants tells Boobbyer how he fought his own fear. Following questioning by the KGB in 1984, he felt on the brink of psychological collapse. 'I began to pray: "Lord, stop my thoughts".... After a few minutes I felt strength flowing into me. I prayed continuously for an hour, and when the hour came to an end, I felt myself completely free from fear.'
There is an interesting discussion of the problem of zalozhnichestvo, where the lever employed by the regime (from Lenin onwards) was a threat not to the target but to the target's close family or friends. In January 1974, the month when Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported from the USSR, Tatyana Velikanova, Sergei Kovalev and Tatyana Khodorovich confronted this blackmail in an open letter, making it an explicit principle never to bargain with the authorities on such a basis.
These are just two samples from a truly vast range.
Perhaps even more revealing are Boobbyer's portrayals of those who worked for reform from within the regime. If such a book can have 'heroes', Yakovlev is one of them. He tells Boobbyer how moral attitudes learnt from his mother stayed with him through all his years of serving the Soviet state: nelovko (uneasy), neudobno (uncomfortable) and stydno (shameful).
Events have rushed on even since Boobbyer finished his research, but his insights into Russia's recent intellectual history give essential background for understanding the Russia of today. And, as he concludes, some things refuse to change quickly. The rebirth of universal morality and 'conscience' in Russia, he writes, 'was a paradigm shift, but it did not immediately transfer into a change of mentality and practices.... Yet history is like that. One of the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution was that a change of political system and ideology does not necessarily lead to a change in human nature and motivation. Russia after 1991 discovered the same thing.'
This is a book for study and reference rather than bedtime reading, though there are many fascinating short stories or passages on which to reflect. Students of Russian history, and of the history of ideas, will want to return to it frequently.