Western reaction to the 27th Soviet Party Congress has been mixed. On the one hand, those who had forecast revelations or a shift of direction on the dramatic scale of the 20th Party Congress—when Khrushchev delivered his secret speech attacking Stalin—were disappointed. On the other hand, those who expected little in the way of new ideas or policy changes to emerge from the congress found what they expected to see.

If the expectations of the former group were too high, the ingrained skepticism of the latter group may have led them to underplay what was new. If this year’s congress was not the earth-shattering event that all party congresses are made out to be in the Soviet Union, it was, nevertheless, the most interesting and significant such occasion since the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, when Khrushchev extended and made fully public his criticism of Stalin and many aspects of the Stalin period.

No Soviet leader in his first year of office has presided over such sweeping changes in the composition of the highest party and state organs as Mikhail Gorbachev. The scale of the turnover, especially in key domestic and foreign policy posts, raises the possibility of policy innovations worthy of the name. So, too, do the failures of the Brezhnev years—in the Soviet economy and in international relations—which left his successors with severe and unresolved problems. Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko reached the top job too infirm and with too little time to take the difficult decisions, though Andropov at least made a significant start by facing up to the seriousness of the failures and encouraging some fresh ideas and fresh faces. Before looking at the extent to which new policies are indeed being promoted under Gorbachev—and the evidence for this at the 27th Party Congress—and examining the scope for and limitations on further policy innovation, we turn first to the changes in the party and state leadership.


It is worth underlining both the sheer importance of those offices now held by new people and the remarkable extent of the personnel changes in the highest echelons of Soviet political life. The most powerful positions in the Soviet Union are the party general secretary, the senior secretaries of the Central Committee (those who hold a secretaryship in conjunction with membership of the Politburo), the chairman of the Council of Ministers and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

Immediately prior to Chernenko’s death on March 10, 1985, only Gorbachev, among present incumbents, held any one of these positions—he was a senior secretary. When he succeeded Chernenko as general secretary, other changes were soon set in motion. The following month, Yegor Ligachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov, who had been brought into the top leadership team only under Andropov, became senior secretaries; and in October 1985 Ryzhkov succeeded Nikolai Tikhonov in the no less responsible post of chairman of the Council of Ministers. In July 1985 the only senior secretary who was a holdover from pre-Gorbachev days, Grigory Romanov, the former leader of the Leningrad party, was unceremoniously fired, and in the same month Andrei Gromyko was much more subtly moved out of the Foreign Ministry and into the post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (thus reducing his impact on the content of Soviet foreign policy). More recently, gaps in the ranks of the senior secretaries have been filled with the completion of the meteoric rise of Lev Zaikov, who moved from Leningrad to join the Central Committee Secretariat no longer ago than July 1985 and was elected a full member of the Politburo at the party congress. Like Romanov before him, he supervises the Soviet military and the defense industry.

The 27th Party Congress saw also the completion of extensive changes under Gorbachev in the composition of the top foreign policy makers in the Soviet Union. New heads were appointed to the two departments of the Central Committee with the most important international responsibilities—the International Department, which deals with non-communist countries and with non-ruling communist parties, and the Department for Liaison with Communist and Workers’ Parties of Socialist Countries, which is responsible for relations with the communist world. In 1985 Gorbachev lost no time in showing that his was going to be the most important single voice in the making of Soviet foreign policy and that he was going to conduct a much more active diplomacy than either Andropov or Chernenko (or Brezhnev in his last years) had been able to pursue. His frequent foreign policy pronouncements in 1986 confirm this.

The selection of key colleagues also bears his stamp. The days of "Ivanov’s turn" in Soviet politics are over. No longer can the first deputy head of a ministry, state committee or Central Committee department wait in confident expectation of filling his master’s shoes.

Taken together, Gorbachev’s appointments show imagination and indicate his desire to bring fresh minds to bear on problems and to break up cozy relationships in Moscow. Thus, the highly capable Georgian, Eduard Shevardnadze, had no particular reason ever to step inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until he was appointed to head it, with a full seat in the Politburo; the equally skilled (and, in foreign affairs, vastly more experienced) Anatoly Dobrynin had not served a day in the party apparatus before he became a secretary of the Central Committee and head of its International Department. The men they replaced, Gromyko and Boris Ponomarev, were powerful figures within the foreign policy realm and, at least in Gromyko’s case, enormously competent. But given their ages (Gromyko will be 77 in July and Ponomarev was 81 in January) and the fact that Gromyko had headed his ministry for 28 years and Ponomarev his department for over 30 years, it would have been more than a little surprising if they had been receptive to new ideas and to a new style of conduct of Soviet foreign policy.

The turnover at the top of the key foreign policy making institutions was completed with the retirement of the 76-year-old Konstantin Rusakov as a secretary of the Central Committee and as head of the Central Committee department responsible for relations with communist countries. His replacement, Vadim Medvedev, is 20 years younger and has moved over from heading the Department of Science and Education. His previous, rather varied career included teaching economics in technical institutes, a short spell in the apparatus of the Leningrad party organization, eight years as a deputy head of the Department of Propaganda of the Central Committee and five years as rector of the Academy of Social Sciences attached to the Central Committee. The last-named post (which he held from 1978 to 1983) would have brought him into contact with some of the rising stars in the East European firmament.

Also of consequence is Leonid Zamyatin’s departure from the leadership of the Central Committee International Information Department to become Soviet ambassador to Britain. Accompanied as it was by the promotion of Aleksander Yakovlev to a secretaryship of the Central Committee, it may signify an extension of Yakovlev’s authority over international as well as domestic propaganda.

Coming at the end of a year of significant changes in the top leadership, it is noteworthy that as many promotions as five new secretaries of the Central Committee (including the first woman in the team for a quarter of a century), one new full member of the Politburo (Zaikov) and two new candidate members were made at the Central Committee plenum in March 1986. This means that at the end of Gorbachev’s first year, no fewer than 12 people out of the top leadership team of 27 are complete newcomers and only seven out of the 27 hold both the same rank and the same responsibilities they held before Gorbachev took over.

Just one rung farther down the political hierarchy, at the still very important Central Committee level, the changes that emerged at the party congress were a far cry from the turnovers of Brezhnev’s time, though less spectacular than the change at the very top. It has, indeed, been a characteristic of personnel movement under Gorbachev that the higher the political echelon, the greater the extent of the change. In some ways this makes innovation in foreign policy easier to introduce and implement than in domestic policy, for the opportunities for people lower in the political hierarchy to undermine leadership decisions are greater in the latter than in the former case.

Given that the Central Committee is composed of people who, in most cases, possess important executive functions, it is of some consequence that the proportion of new Central Committee members increased markedly as compared with the turnover characteristic of the Brezhnev years. The contrast between the 26th and 27th Party Congresses is quite striking. Whereas new members accounted for approximately 28 percent of Brezhnev’s Central Committee elected in 1981, they made up 44 percent of those elected at the recent congress.

Neither at the Politburo nor Central Committee level did the changes amount to a clean sweep for Gorbachev and his allies. Shortly before the congress, Gorbachev succeeded in removing a senior conservative opponent, Viktor Grishin, from the Moscow party first secretaryship and the Politburo. But he still has in the Politburo two archetypal Brezhnev clients in the shape of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the Kazakhstan first secretary, and Vladimir Shcherbitsky, who heads the Ukrainian party organization. That their survival caused some raised eyebrows is a measure of the speed with which Gorbachev has moved and the expectations he has aroused. Kunayev and Shcherbitsky are now, after all, the only survivors of Brezhnev’s Politburo apart from Gromyko and Gorbachev himself. Perhaps more surprising is the retention in the Central Committee of a number of venerable party figures of conservative disposition who had lost their executive posts—among them former Premier Tikhonov, the former chief of Gosplan Nikolai Baibakov and longtime head of the International Department Ponomarev. This may reflect the undoubted fact that substantial support for the views they represent is still to be found in the party, or it may be a way of distinguishing their honorable retirement from the distinctly less honorable retirement of a Romanov or a Grishin.

Within the governmental hierarchy, the increase in the pace of personnel change under Gorbachev has been no less marked. More ministers and chairmen of state committees were replaced during Gorbachev’s first year than in the Andropov and Chernenko periods put together. In addition, in November 1985 five ministries and one state committee were abolished and replaced by a single new state committee (for the agro-industrial complex) with the real loss (as distinct from relabeling in the new institution) of between 40 and 50 percent of the jobs which had existed in those organizations. Gorbachev, an appreciative reader of Parkinson’s Law (as he made clear on his visit to Britain in December 1984), intends to reduce the size of the state bureaucracy as well as to speed up the turnover of those who head it. To do so requires the cooperation and support of the chairman of the Council of Ministers, and it is probably not coincidental that the process of reduction of the number of ministries and of the size of the state bureaucracy got seriously under way only after Ryzhkov had taken Tikhonov’s place at the apex of the ministerial system.


The 27th Party Congress produced important changes of style and substance as compared with the previous three congresses. The tone was far less complacent and reflected that of Gorbachev’s statements ever since he became general secretary. Sycophancy was discouraged—Gorbachev interrupted one delegate to rebuke him for excessive invocation of his name. An important theme of Gorbachev’s first year, that no ministry and no republican or regional party organization should remain beyond criticism, was pointedly reiterated.

At the congress, Ligachev, who has been a close ally of Gorbachev in his efforts to tighten discipline as well as the driving force behind the anti-alcohol campaign, emphasized that "all organizations—whether Moscow, Leningrad, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Stavropol, Tomsk or Sverdlovsk—all of them must be within the zone of criticism and open to party critique." The examples were telling ones, for the Soviet cognoscenti were well aware that Grishin’s Moscow, Romanov’s Leningrad, Shcherbitsky’s Ukraine and Kunayev’s Kazakhstan were beyond "the zone of criticism" in Brezhnev’s time and that Stavropol, Tomsk and Sverdlovsk are the local political bases of Gorbachev, Ligachev himself and Premier Ryzhkov.

Criticism was extended to embrace also institutions which had not been attacked in the pre-congress months. In one of the liveliest and most forthright speeches of the congress, Boris Yeltsin, the new first secretary of the Moscow party and a candidate member of the Politburo, did not spare the Central Committee apparatus. He was critical of the Department of Party-Organizational Work and drew attention to the fact that the departmental structure of the Central Committee apparatus had come gradually to resemble that of the ministerial system, leading to duplication of the work of the State Planning Committee (Gosplan) and of the Council of Ministers. While it seems highly unlikely that Yeltsin would call for reform and restructuring of the Central Committee’s economic departments against the wishes of Gorbachev and Ligachev, it is, perhaps, noteworthy that his closest personal association is with the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Ryzhkov—they worked together in Sverdlovsk; Ryzhkov obviously has a particular interest in the achievement of a clearer division of labor between the Central Committee apparatus and the ministerial system and the granting of more political space to the chairman and Presidium of the Council of Ministers.

Another highly unusual target for criticism was the newspaper, Pravda—this time from Ligachev. While giving a qualified endorsement to the more open criticism found recently in the Soviet mass media, Ligachev indicated that some of them had on occasion overstepped the mark. The example he cited was that of the most authoritative and normally untouchable of all Soviet newspapers. It is likely that he had in mind, in particular, a remarkable collection of readers’ views published in Pravda two weeks before the party congress, in which a party member from Kazan called, in the name of social justice, for an end to the special privileges of party, soviet, trade union, economic and Komsomol leaders and drew attention to the existence of special eating places, shops and hospitals for them. If the bosses had to wait like everyone else, the writer argued, then something might be done sooner about the lines in the shops. In the same issue a Moscow party member since 1919 called for the introduction of a law to establish periodic purges of the party! The Pravda commentary dissented from that suggestion, though it published the allegations of excessive privilege without comment.

The 27th Congress adopted a new, revised version of the Party Program, which had remained unaltered since it was endorsed by the 22nd Congress in 1961. Reflecting Khrushchev’s over-optimism, the 1961 program had promised that "a communist society will in the main be built in the U.S.S.R. by 1980" and that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States in per capita production by 1970. As it turned out, it was the Party Program that was overtaken—by events—and the new version of the program (in many respects foreshadowed by Andropov in June 1983) largely eschews futurology and is more realistic and circumspect in its assessment of the tasks ahead.


Before and after the congress, one of the questions most frequently asked is whether there is going to be within the Soviet Union an economic reform that goes significantly beyond the tinkering with the economic mechanism characteristic of the Brezhnev years. The answer is not yet wholly clear; the signals are mixed.

To accept, on the basis of the absence of a comprehensive reform package at the party congress, that there will be no reform would be a mistake. Some Western observers have jumped prematurely to that conclusion because they assumed that if there was going to be a reform, the congress would be the occasion for unveiling it. But several important statements of Gorbachev himself point in the opposite direction. While it could be argued that so far he has not gone beyond rhetoric, personnel changes and some organizational restructuring, it is important to recognize that these were the logical places to start.

In order to change, it is first of all necessary to create a climate of opinion for change, and this is a task to which Gorbachev has addressed himself with great vigor and, it would appear, with some success. To get people "to work in a new way"—a favorite phrase of Gorbachev—it helps to replace those at the top of the various hierarchies who have been working in the "old way" for more years than most of them care to remember. And while organizational change does not in itself amount to economic reform, it may be a necessary precondition for it. A first step toward reducing excessive bureaucratic interference in the activities of industrial associations, enterprises and agriculture (in the last, this has already been recognized and acted upon) is to reduce the functions and size of the bureaucracy whose raison d’être is to interfere.

The evidence available on Gorbachev’s position suggests not only that he takes seriously the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, but also that he does not believe that tinkering with the economic mechanism will be enough. In December 1984 he warned that the unjustified preservation of "obsolete elements in production relations may bring about a deterioration of the economic and social situation." In June 1985 he declared that "the acceleration of scientific and technical progress insistently demands a profound reorganization of the system of planning and management and of the entire economic mechanism." Without this, he told a conference convened by the Central Committee to discuss the acceleration of scientific and technical progress, "everything that we are talking about today may remain just fond hopes."

In his Political Report to the congress in February 1986, a report that carries the authoritative weight of the entire leadership, Gorbachev went further. It is of some significance that when speaking of the economy, Gorbachev not only used the word "reform" for the first time but he even said: "A radical reform is necessary" (italics added). This was not a phrase thrown out in passing. Gorbachev must have known that it would be cited and used by those Soviet specialists in favor of far-reaching economic reform and would provide little comfort for conservative opponents of change. It was used also by Ryzhkov in his speech (which on the whole, however, was less reformist than Gorbachev’s) and was soon reiterated in an editorial in Pravda.

Gorbachev indicated, moreover, that the economic reform process was just beginning. He said: "We are only at the start of the journey. . . . To restructure the economic mechanism in the conditions of our country with its immense, complex economy, requires time and energy." After the congress, Gorbachev returned to this theme. Addressing workers at the Volga Car Works in the town of Togliatti on April 8, 1986, he said: "Can you manage an economy which runs into trillions of rubles from Moscow? It is absurd, comrades. Incidentally, it is in this—in the fact that we have attempted to manage everything from Moscow up until very recently—that our common and main mistake lies."

Gorbachev has also made it clear that there is both covert and overt opposition to economic reform. Covertly, it takes the shape of ministerial encroachment upon the independence even of those industrial enterprises which are part of an economic experiment specifically concerned with enhancing that independence. On several occasions he has publicly criticized this practice. In his April 8 speech in Togliatti, he told his audience that he had learned that "contrary to the resolutions of the Central Committee and the government," the Ministry of Finance had become involved with the Volga motor vehicle works and begun "editing the experiment." Gorbachev added: "I made a note of this, and we shall check why this is happening."

It is, however, part of the logic of the administered economy that the higher administrative units, which are ultimately held responsible for the results of the lower units, try to control the activity of the latter. In the absence of a greater degree of self-regulation within the economy and of concessions to the market, this is likely to continue. That Gorbachev is against "market socialism" is not to say that he believes that the Soviet economy can dispense entirely with the market. A number of his pronouncements on agriculture suggest otherwise. If, as reported recently in this journal, he believes that Yugoslavia (in particular) and China are examples of countries that have bowed too far to the dictates of the market, he may still hold that the Soviet Union has not yet gone far enough in achieving the optimal balance between central strategic economic decision-making and market forces.

That he has been pushing to go further than some of his colleagues want to go—that there is overt as well as more disguised opposition to taking Soviet economic reform further—was made plain by Gorbachev in his Political Report to the party congress. He spoke about a "widespread" attitude whereby "any change in the economic mechanism" is seen as "a virtual departure from socialist principles." His reply to this ideological criticism was a pragmatic one: "It is the socioeconomic acceleration, the strengthening of socialism in practice, that should be one of the highest criteria of perfecting management as well as the entire system of socialist production relations."

Some of the most clear-cut innovation has been in agricultural policy. Gorbachev has long favored giving much greater autonomy to groups of farmers within the large collective and state farms, including family-based groups, and has wished to protect the farms themselves from excessive administrative interference. The fact that when he was the Central Committee secretary responsible for agriculture such changes were not instituted on a wide scale is sometimes cited as evidence of a lack of reforming zeal on Gorbachev’s part. It should be more correctly interpreted as a reflection of the strength of political and administrative resistance, which Gorbachev was in a position to overcome only when he had the resources of the general secretaryship at his disposal. The significance of the creation of the new State Committee for the Agro-Industrial Complex last November lies not only in its streamlining of the agricultural administrative machinery but also in the fact that its chairman is Vsevolod Murakhovsky. He succeeded Gorbachev as first secretary of the Stavropol regional party organization in 1978, and his obviously good relations with Gorbachev stretch over 30 years.

With a reliable ally in charge of the new body overseeing agriculture, and the weight of the general secretaryship behind that body, Gorbachev’s policy initiatives in this sphere should have a much better chance of reaching the stage of implementation. Among these priorities are encouragement for family and other groups of workers to enter into a contract with their collective or state farm, which gives them a large measure of financial and organizational autonomy, and in which the material incentives are closely linked to what they produce; the right for the farms themselves to sell products in excess of planned quotas to the state or on the local market to the financial benefit of the farms; and (in Murakhovsky’s words) "a flexible policy of price formation and provision of credits for enterprises in the agro-industrial complex."

The last point touches on a key issue. Pricing reform and a greater price flexibility will be necessary components of any far-reaching economic reform, and it will be of great interest to see if they emerge in the more comprehensive reform package. It already seems clear that there will be reform at least to the extent of a further administrative streamlining—including a reduction in the number of Central Committee departments and of ministries—but whether something more radical will in due course be adopted remains an open question. In any case, the risk of dilution of proposed reforms exists at every step.

Some contradictory signals are still to be found in Soviet economic pronouncements—even in the speeches of leaders. Thus, a stress on the need for superior quality of production (which Gorbachev is attempting to make a matter of patriotic pride) makes a strange bedfellow with favorable references to the Stakhanovite movement (of the 1930s) in which quality was sacrificed to quantity and record-breaking output was frequently achieved under highly artificial conditions. Though Gorbachev has spoken of "the notorious stress on volume of production," a very great emphasis is, nevertheless, still placed on speeding up the rate of growth in quantitative terms.

In agriculture, of course, such quantitative improvement would be particularly beneficial to the Soviet economy. The sharp drop in the international oil price in recent months has made considerable inroads into the Soviet Union’s foreign earnings and provided yet another incentive to reduce or eliminate the need to spend hard currency on grain imports. Since this is the area in which a more pragmatic approach to economic problems has made the greatest strides under Gorbachev, perhaps a more surprising obstacle to the sale of American grain to the U.S.S.R. than the deterioration of superpower relations may yet emerge—a significant improvement in Soviet agricultural performance.

On the prospects for economic reform more generally, all that can safely be concluded is that some reform will take place and that more far-reaching reform is at least on the political agenda. A very wide range of views is appearing in Soviet publications, and it seems highly likely that this debate has its less public counterpart within the major party and state institutions.

Gorbachev was not only on the reform wing of the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko Politburos, but would appear to be also on the reform wing of his own Politburo. There is nothing strange about this, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon. Though Brezhnev was by temperament a conservative and by choice a centrist within his own Politburo (and even Stalin began by pretending to be a centrist), Khrushchev and Andropov both took the lead on reform. Khrushchev’s reformism, however, suffered from impulsiveness as well as inconsistency and Andropov’s was undermined by his rapidly failing health. Gorbachev would appear to have the advantage over Khrushchev of a calmer temperament and over Andropov of health and vigor. Having, as compared with Khrushchev, 20 more years of sobering experience to contemplate and having, unlike Andropov, a possible 15 years or more ahead of him as Soviet leader, Gorbachev has no reason to rush into an ill-prepared economic reform. He may also wish to see what results can be achieved by the measures adopted and foreshadowed thus far—personnel change, tightened discipline, organizational restructuring and some devolution of responsibility—before embarking on more drastic measures.

It is evident that Gorbachev is dedicated to transforming Soviet economic performance. If minor reforms do not achieve that, my reading of his character is that he possesses the self-confidence, pragmatism and political will to go further.


That the links between Soviet economic and foreign policy are closer than ever is a point that has been frequently reiterated by Gorbachev himself. An increase in international tension and an accelerating rate of military expenditure would exacerbate the difficulties of economic reform and diminish the prospects for significantly enhancing Soviet economic performance. A concern for the consumer has been a recurring theme in the post-Stalin years. But Gorbachev has raised expectations more than Brezhnev did. This may be of benefit in the short term inasmuch as people may be coaxed into working harder, but it could turn into a disadvantage if they feel their efforts have gone unrewarded.

It therefore made sense for Gorbachev to reassess Soviet foreign policy to see what innovation might be required in this area, too, to complement his ambitious domestic programs. In his report to the congress he observed that "continuity in foreign policy has nothing in common with the simple repetition of what has gone before, especially in the approach to problems that have accumulated." He pointed to a number of unilateral steps that the Soviet Union had taken—notably, the moratorium on the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, the reduction in the number of them, and the suspension of nuclear weapons testing.

The coming to power of any new top leader in the Soviet Union changes, to a greater or lesser extent, the correlation of forces among the various institutional interests, opinion groupings and issue networks which exist within both the domestic and foreign policy making realms. Under Gorbachev it must be said that thus far the military has been kept in a very subordinate position, as is reflected not only in its relatively modest representation in the highest echelon of the party (unlike his two immediate predecessors as minister of defense, Marshals Andrei Grechko and Dmitri Ustinov, the current incumbent, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, remains only a candidate rather than a full member of the Politburo), but also in the tenor of Gorbachev’s and Shevardnadze’s speeches. The latter include Gorbachev’s reference to Afghanistan as a "bleeding wound" (albeit turned into one "by counter-revolution and imperialism"); an expressed willingness to compromise in arms control and public acceptance of monitoring and verification (on the principle that "disarmament without monitoring is impossible, but also monitoring without disarmament is meaningless"); the argument that security in relations between the superpowers can only be on the basis of mutual security; and the public use of the language of "national interest."

While the notion of national interest has long been an implicit part of Soviet leaders’ way of looking at the world, Gorbachev’s public espousal of it must have been displeasing to the Marxist-Leninist fundamentalists. At the Geneva press conference following the 1985 summit, Gorbachev recalled that in Britain a year earlier he had quoted approvingly to Mrs. Thatcher Lord Palmerston’s dictum that "England does not have eternal friends and eternal enemies, only eternal interests," while at the party congress he brought the term into somewhat closer correspondence with traditional Soviet theory (albeit flexibly interpreted) when he said that "we understand very well that the interests and goals of the military-industrial complex are not at all the same as the interests and goals of the American people and the real national interests of that great country."

Though the tone of the first part of Gorbachev’s Political Report to the party congress—concerned with laying, as it were, the Marxist-Leninist foundations for what follows—is less conciliatory than the later section on foreign policy, there, too, a fresh approach to the eternal verities is discernible. Gorbachev criticized as "contrary to the spirit and essence of Marxism-Leninism" any attempt to turn "the theory by which we are guided into an assortment of ossified schemes and prescriptions valid everywhere and in all contingencies." This section, for which drafts and proposals were probably submitted from a rather different group of people than those involved in the foreign policy part of the report, is sharper in its criticism of the United States and of imperialism, but even here it is the "right wing of the U.S. monopoly bourgeoisie" (rather than the entire bourgeoisie) that is blamed for building up international tension as a means of justifying military allocations and, ultimately, global supremacy.

Another possible source of innovation in Soviet foreign policy is to be found in the nature of the recent appointments to the top foreign policy making team, not least the bringing together in the Secretariat of Yakovlev and Dobrynin. What makes their joint presence in the Secretariat especially piquant is that they would appear to have different outlooks on the world and, in particular, different attitudes toward the United States. Yakovlev takes a very dim view indeed of the U.S. and has been quite pessimistic about the prospect for better relations. He is rightly seen as a leading spokesman for a more multipolar Soviet foreign policy who regards the prospect for improved relations with Western Europe and Japan as more realistic than that of getting on significantly better terms with the United States.

In contrast, Dobrynin, having spent almost a quarter of a century dealing on a day-by-day basis with every American administration from Kennedy to Reagan, and having earned a reputation as a bridge-builder, presumably not only believes in the possibility of doing business with the United States but also sees the Soviet relationship with the United States as the central one. Apart from bringing into the Secretariat a different outlook from that of Yakovlev (and different again from that of his conservative predecessor, Ponomarev), Dobrynin carries into the inner circle of Soviet foreign policy formation an unrivaled knowledge of what might play in Washington.

There has been evidence already during Gorbachev’s general secretaryship of much more serious Soviet efforts to improve or consolidate relations with a wider range of countries, not excluding informal contacts even with Israel. Gorbachev is scheduled this year to visit Greece, Italy and India as well as (all being well) the United States. It is probable that he sees high-level overtures to important West European and Asian countries not as a substitute for better relations with the United States, but as a complement—and even a stimulus—to them. At the congress, he observed that "one must not in world politics restrict oneself to relations with just one country alone, even if it is a very important one." To do so, "as experience shows," said Gorbachev in a passage which indicated that he thought Soviet policy until the most recent period had been too exclusively bipolar, "only encourages the arrogance of strength." He immediately added: "But, of course, we attach great importance to the state and nature of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States."

Gorbachev may well suppose, and not unreasonably, that if the Dobrynin thesis that the Soviet Union can do business with the United States is posited against the Yakovlev antithesis that this is a forlorn hope and that the leadership would be better occupied directing their political and diplomatic energies elsewhere, the synthesis could be a more conciliatory policy on the part of a United States unwilling to be diplomatically outflanked. If the Soviet Union comes to be perceived in the outside world as an increasingly circumspect superpower, and one more willing than the United States to curb military expenditure, this could indeed be an inducement to a U.S. administration to modify its policies—assuming it was adequately attuned to the international political environment and not only to the domestic one.

That the Soviet Union’s newly widened diplomatic horizons do not mean any downgrading of the superpower relationship was indicated clearly by the format of Gorbachev’s Political Report to the party congress. In a departure from Brezhnev-era congresses, there was no listing of the state of the Soviet Union’s relations with a series of individually named countries in a kind of ranking of political performance of the bourgeois world. Only the United States among non-communist countries was singled out for attention. Yet, equally, the failure to mention others could hardly be taken to indicate their lack of importance in Soviet eyes, for in contrast with the 26th Party Congress the East European countries also were given scant attention, and the centrality of that region to the Soviet leadership’s political and security concerns is not in doubt. Only China, apart from the United States, was the subject of a careful assessment, in which Gorbachev noted with satisfaction "a certain improvement in the Soviet Union’s relations with its great neighbor—socialist China" and observed that "the reserves for cooperation between the Soviet Union and China" were "enormous."


If I have been correct in suggesting that Gorbachev has the political will to make significant innovations in both Soviet domestic and foreign policy, the question remains: has he got the political means? While it would be rash indeed to answer with a categorical yes, it would be an even bigger mistake to assume a priori that he can change nothing. Much turns, of course, on the extent of the changes intended.

The general secretary, in the years since Stalin’s death, has not been a dictator. Khrushchev, for all his good intentions, at times veered in that direction, but his fate demonstrated the existence of limits on the top leader’s power. For a general secretary, however, who builds alliances with greater skill than Khrushchev and uses his powers with greater boldness than Brezhnev, the office has enormous potential. Gorbachev—unlike Khrushchev—respects such conventions of collective leadership as the necessity of not making public announcements of policies that have still to be agreed upon by his colleagues. That may be one of the reasons why his reform rhetoric has appeared more radical than the reform measures introduced thus far. Even in the early stages of his general secretaryship, Gorbachev can decide for himself the tone of his speeches and the extent to which he wishes to promote expectations of further change, but concrete changes themselves require consultation with institutional interests and Politburo approval.

Gorbachev’s position is already very strong. He is referred to as "the head" of the Politburo and "the head" of the Central Committee. He is cited in speeches and articles as the ultimate contemporary Soviet political authority, and he would be quoted even more profusely had he not decided that the traditional excessive homage to top leaders was unseemly. He has not only made important personnel changes at unprecedented speed, he has included among them a number of people with fresh ideas. A few worked with him in Stavropol and may be regarded as especially close allies.

Yet, in making his initial appointments, Gorbachev was selecting from a pool of talent that was far from being entirely of his own choosing. The sense of hierarchy in the Soviet Union is such that no one can mount too many rungs of the ladder in one leap. If, therefore, Gorbachev is going to overcome resistance to reform, he may have to use the threat of dismissal of those already appointed and to advance quickly the careers of those who had not reached particularly high positions under Brezhnev. Certainly, using to the full his de facto powers of appointment will constitute one of his most potent weapons in the fight against bureaucratic inertia and overt resistance.

Gorbachev’s authority—which complements and assists his exercise of power—has been established remarkably early in his general secretaryship. The wide publicity given to his speeches and meetings in the mass media enhances his prestige more than similar publicity enhanced Brezhnev’s. That is not just because it took Brezhnev years to establish the command of the media Gorbachev acquired within months, but because Gorbachev, in contrast with Brezhnev (and with his immediate predecessor, Chernenko), is an effective speaker. He benefits similarly from his well-publicized meetings with groups of people from different walks of Soviet life.

Opportunities for publicity do not in themselves guarantee real enhancement of a leader’s authority and support for his power; he has to have the skills to take advantage of them. This is one of Gorbachev’s strengths, for it is harder—in the Soviet Union as elsewhere—to frustrate the will of, or to conspire against, a popular leader than an unpopular one. (Khrushchev by 1964 had lost most of the popularity he had earlier gained.) Gorbachev is sometimes described misleadingly in the West as a technocrat. In reality, he is a politician to his fingertips.

A change of top leader tends to bring about a shift in the relative strength of various institutions and opinion groupings within the Soviet Union. The changes wrought in this respect by Gorbachev’s accession to the general secretaryship appear to be, on the whole, encouraging ones from the standpoint of both the Soviet population and the international community. Though the fate of Gorbachev’s policy innovation will be determined essentially within the Soviet Union itself, it requires something more from the West than the stock response.

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  • Archie Brown, a Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, since 1971, spent the Fall semester 1985 as Visiting Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His most recent book (as editor and co-author) is Political Culture and Communist Studies, 1984.
  • More By Archie Brown