William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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The Soviet Union

Let's talk a little now about the Soviet Union. In your book Barbarian Sentiments you see the central problem confronting Gorbachev as "looking for a place to stand, a fulcrum from which to move society, a justification for their own power." Explain what you meant by that.

Mikhail Gorbachev governs the Soviet Union by virtue of his leadership, or is where he is by virtue of his post as leader of the Communist Party, which claims to be the agency of progressive forces in the ruling the Soviet Union. Now, he has been engaged in a transformation of the character of the party's relationship to society by a new constitution which has afforded much more power to state institutions, and he, of course, has now obtained for himself a state position rather than simply a party position. So that is changing. Nonetheless, the question remains: What is the basis of power in the Soviet Union if the party is not the historically destined agency of human progress, and if the Soviet Union becomes a multi-party society? What is the basis of Soviet power, Mikhail Gorbachev's power, if Marxism isn't true?

Marxism, Leninism, had become, as we know, especially in Eastern Europe, nothing but careerism and cynicism, and to a substantial extent in the Soviet Union. And yet, I presume, I'm prepared to believe, that there also has remained in it an element of belief, of idealism. In any case, it was, so to speak, the only game in town. You were educated as a Marxist. There was no alternative intellectual framework on which to base a politics. Now if that is discredited, what's left? What do they fall back on?

This is what Gorbachev and his people have been wrestling with in the past two or three years. One response, as I said, has been the reconstruction of state power and of state structure in the Soviet Union. It was civilian politics, so to speak, rather than merely party politics. But it's a process which we are far from seeing a successful conclusion of.

Quite apart from that, Gorbachev is swept up in a revolutionary process. Revolutions are very unpleasant things, and the number of occasions on which rational reformers have attempted to transform society that is experiencing revolutionary tensions, the number of time in which they have, in fact, succeeded in mastering change and surviving is a rare occasion. Gorbachev may well be the Kerensky of this revolution, the man who has loosed forces that escape his control, and indeed, which may escape rational control. I think that the prospects are very sobering about developments in the Soviet Union.

There's an irony here in the sense that, because of all that he's done in foreign relations, he has such a high legitimacy for external actors that have been positively affected by the actions that he's taken, but this goes with, as you say, a very low level of legitimacy within the society because of the demons that he's let loose, in a sense.

Also by the fact that he has failed internally. In practical terms, things have gotten worse. The political situation -- freedom of speech and so forth -- all of that has been transforming inside the Soviet Union, but, as we all know, the economic situation has gravely worsened, the reforms have made things worse without producing alternate [structures]. He's destroyed a system, a barter bureaucracy which, nonetheless, in a primitive way, functioned. His reforms have destroyed its functioning without producing a structure that functions itself.

The question here is not so much the legitimacy of success; the question here is simply, the people say, "It's all very well what he's done, but I can't find even as much to eat as I could find before." So that is very threatening to his position inside the Soviet Union.

Outside, from our point of view of course, it's a great success. He dismantled the empire. I mean, who would have believed? In the book, I make the confident forecast that Germany will never be reunited. My crystal ball was clouded by the assumption that the Soviet Union would never abdicate its position in Central Europe. I thought that they would have to be negotiated out, that this was a matter of mutual troop withdrawals, of structure change, and that the Russians would never yield on the reconstruction of a united Germany. Gorbachev simply walked away. He's abdicated the Soviet position in Central Europe.

I have a French friend who says that the man will go down in Russian history as a disaster, that he not only undid Stalin's empire, acquired by 20 million Soviet lives or thereabout, but he is now in the course of dismantling, or presiding over the dismantlement of the Czarist empire, acquired over a century and a half or more. He has recreated a united Germany in Central Europe, which effectively is a more powerful society than the Soviet Union itself. They'll say this man is a destroyer, a disaster. Well, I don't think he's a disaster. I'm very happy with what he has done. But events may not be kind to him in the years to come.

One of the things that Gorbachev has sought is admission to what he calls the "European house." What about that problem? In constructing a new Europe, what should be the terms upon which the Soviet Union is admitted?

This is a part of the other motivation for what has gone on in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev is the product of an intellectual generation, of an intelligentsia that in part, thanks to détente, experienced the external world. It's an educated political intelligentsia. The Soviet Union was ruled through the Brezhnev era by men who began their lives as peasants, as Khrushchev did, or pipe-fitters, as Brezhnev did. Of uneducated men whose experience was totally of the party, who rarely ventured outside the Soviet Union, certainly never went out on other than party matters, who simply didn't know what was going on in the world, who believed their own lies, to some extent, and were prisoners of their own impoverished intellectual world.

But then came a generation of people who, thanks to peace, thanks to détente and so on, did know the world. Gorbachev spent a summer, rented a car, and drove around southern France with his family. The whole generation of diplomatic people, intelligence people, the academics from the institutes in Moscow, they knew that the Soviet Union was a disaster. They knew that they were overtaking and surpassing nobody, that Pakistan was overtaking and surpassing them, that that was the future before them. They also, I think, recognized the moral disaster that Leninism and Stalinism had been. An officer of Soviet Embassy in Paris said three years ago, in an open discussion, that what all of this means is "an attempt to recover the moral roots of our society."

I think you saw that in the films made inside the Soviet Union, coming to grips with it. Slowly they've come to grips with the camps, with the crimes of [the Soviet regime]. So there's been a moral quality in what has gone on too. On the one hand, after eighty years of the human devastation produced by the rule of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, for Soviet society and for Eastern Europe -- and indeed, the bloody swath it cut in the world -- to say now, "Well, it was all a mistake," is so grotesquely inadequate. On the other hand, one has to respect the fact that there are people in the Soviet Union leadership today who are having the courage to say that it was all a ghastly error, and to come to terms with that.

I think this is what they mean by "coming back to Europe." Russia was a society which always had an uneasy relationship with Europe but, nonetheless, it had a relationship with Europe. Russia was a European power, even if a rather strange one. It always had a vacillation between the East and the Byzantine world and the European world. But with Lenin it cut itself off and it then developed in its own terrible way. Now these people are saying, "We want to be part of the civilized world again. We want to deal with people the way other people are dealt with." This is what they want. They're trying to rejoin Europe. This is what's going on now.

Now, on what terms do they come back in? It's impossible to say at the present time. The mechanisms at the purely political level, people talk about the Helsinki Pact mechanism and so on, I don't know how important that is because I think this is more of a cultural phenomenon than a political phenomenon. The political crisis is inside the Soviet Union. If that is surmountable, then finding the mechanisms by which the Soviet Union, or whatever it's called then, rejoins the West or the world of civilized discourse and of civilized politics, that's no problem, we can find them.

Should Europe give aid to the Soviet Union as a way to help it relieve its political crisis? Or is it best something to let the Soviet Union handle on its own?

That's, of course, the much-debated question. I'm not sure that's an important question in that I don't know that there's much we, or the Europeans, can give them to help. The crisis is not a money crisis, it's a crisis of structures inside the Soviet Union. No doubt Western money can buy oranges; consumer goods, no doubt, might help get Gorbachev through another winter or two. But high technology, this is the problem. The high technology that the Soviet Union has, outside the narrow military function, has great problems coping. I saw a story yesterday in one of the British papers that someone was offered a barter deal by the Soviet Union that involved supplying them with pieces of high technology which had previously been given to the Soviet Union in aid two or three years ago which it had not been able to make use of.

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