On Ligachev's Memoirs: A Review and Comment

Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin – The Memories of Yegor Ligachev; Westview Press: Boulder, Co.;1996; 407 pp.

Review By Roger Perkins

The rejection of Marxism-Leninism by the top Soviet leadership and the subsequent disappearance of the USSR has had and will continue to have catastrophic repercussions for a whole historical period. Would imperialism and its now emboldened New World order have dared attack Yugoslavia if a strong, socialist USSR still existed? So revolutionaries must ask: “What went wrong?” Perhaps the memoirs of Politburo member Yegor Ligachev could shed some light in answering this important and continuing question? Ligachev was second only to Gorbachev in the Soviet leadership and later became known as a “left” opponent of the policies carried out by Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Shevrenadze and Yeltsin.

Unfortunately Ligachev’s murky, self-promoting book is more cover-up than searchlight and proves the old cliché about being part of the problem and not part of the solution. He devotes most of the book to defending himself (more or less convincingly) against charges made against him in the anti-communist, but still “Soviet” press – some of whose editors he himself appointed. It appears that the capitalist roaders used Ligachev as a lightning-rod patsy to divert attention from their own counter-revolutionary plans. He was said to have taken bribes, a not unbelievable accusation, during the terminal stage of Soviet revisionism. While Gorbachev was having tea with Margaret Thatcher, the now-in-charge Ligachev was accused of ordering Soviet troops to attack and kill demonstrators in Soviet Georgia, the so-called Tibilisi Affair. As an alleged closet Stalinist, Ligachev was accused of covering up the existence of a newly discovered mass gravesite on the banks of the Ob River, presumably having its origin during the Stalin period. And astoundingly, during a period of supposedly open, free exchange of opinions (glasnost), Ligachev was accused of allowing the publication of a discussion article on the polemics page of the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya by university lecturer Nina Andreyeva in which she criticized perestroika. Ligachev devotes long chapters to these and other alleged scandals in order to clear his “good name”; But in doing so he uses up most of the book describing how the cookie crumbled but not why.

However some truth does pour out through the cracks of Ligachev’s narrative. This review will focus not on the “scandal” but on important links of inquiry that flow from Ligachev’s story: the role of anti-Stalinism; the question of cadre selection and advancement; democracy in the abstract and concrete; modern revisionism and Gorbachevism; and Ligachev’s proposals for post-Soviet Russia. But first some background on Ligachev.

Although trained as an engineer, Ligachev spent his entire working life as a Party functionary. In 1949 he was First Secretary of the Novosibirsk Province Komsomol (YCL) – a position from which he was removed, being charged with “Trotskyite deviations.” After a period of political limbo a now more cautious and street-wise Ligachev was assigned to the Novosibirsk City Party Committee. But he “did not breathe freely ... until the 20th Party Congress ... exposed the personality cult.” (p.261) During the Khrushchev years Ligachev’s career blossomed and he rose rapidly in the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) administrative apparatus, making it all the way to the Party Centre in Moscow. When Khrushchev was sacked and replaced by Brezhnev, Ligachev found himself shunted back to Siberia. He spent 17 years in the Tomsk provincial Party organization, eventually rising to the highest position of First Secretary.

After the death of Brezhnev and the selection of Andropov as General Secretary of the CPSU Ligachev was again assigned to work at the Party Centre. The decision to transfer Ligachev seems to have been made suddenly. At a meeting of provincial First Secretaries in Moscow Ligachev asked for permission to speak on a non-agenda item of general importance. He proposed that a monument to the victims of Stalin be erected in his home province and encouraged the other provincial First Secretaries to do likewise. After the meeting while he was preparing to return to Siberia, the phone rang in his hotel room. It was Gorbachev informing him that his return flight had been cancelled, that he was not to return home and that he was now a resident of Moscow. Ligachev was to report to the Kremlin the next morning.

Ligachev was given the task of carrying out a purge of high-level Party functionaries (“Gorbachev assigned me the complex job of replacing the leading cadres in 1983.” – p.49)

Not only were the incompetent and corrupt to be axed but also those whose backgrounds might not be “suitable” for the new path of “Party renewal.” Ligachev claimed that it was difficult for him to fire decent, loyal Communists who no longer fitted in. The norms at that time mandated that those dismissed also lost their pensions. Many were in tears. Nevertheless Ligachev carried out the “renewal” as instructed and was promoted once again. When Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU he chose Ligachev to be his First Deputy, the second most powerful position in the USSR. In Ligachev’s own words:

“Gorbachev moved that I be elected a member of the Politburo. It is not often that a Secretary of the Central Committee was elected directly to the Politburo, passing over the Candidate status. ... Gorbachev invited me to come forward from the hall up to the Presidium, where only Politburo members were seated. I went up to the platform where the Presidium table was and wanted to take a seat near the end. But Gorbachev called out ‘Yegor Kuzmich, come here and sit next to me.’ A free place had been left next to Gorbachev... When I took it, Gorbachev leaned over and ... said in a fairly loud voice, so that those in the hall could hear him: ‘Yegor Kuzmich, give me the floor, I am going up to the Podium.’ With that phrase, the General Secretary essentially designated the no. 2 man in the Politburo.” (pp.81-82)

This reviewer asks the following questions: What qualities did Gorbachev value in Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev? Was it Ligachev’s proof that he was capable of “spilling blood” by loyally carrying out a purge of honest communists who belonged to the Old Guard? Was it Ligachev’s anti-Stalinism? Did Ligachev’s purge of Party personnel show a bias in terminating the careers of real or imagined “Stalinists,” thus giving the green light to the promotion of “anti-Stalinists”? Was an incorrect evaluation of the question of Stalin by the Soviet leadership one important factor leading to the downfall of the Soviet Union?

This unfortunately appears to be the case. Before 1953 Stalin was credited with God-like qualities; he was all-wise and could do no wrong. After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 Stalin suddenly became an evil tyrant on whom everything negative in Soviet history was blamed. Khrushchev’s bombshell speech was not pre-approved or discussed by the CPSU nor were sister parties consulted. It was an individual, semi-anarchist, non-collective irresponsible act out of the blue and had severe repercussions in the international Communist movement.

It did not take long for various anti-communist elements to discover that they now had new living space – a political “Lebensraum.” By hiding behind the fig leaf of “anti-Stalinism” they again became viable seeds and were further nurtured when Khrushchev announced that the dictatorship of the proletariat had been replaced by the “state of the whole people.” An entire generation of opportunists infiltrated the Party and state and became practised in the art of saying one thing while believing another. Their “pro-Soviet” but anti-Stalinist posture was in reality a Trojan Horse housing reactionary views on the inside. Anti-Stalinism became a code word which meant in practice the destruction of Marxism-Leninism.

The accusation of the right-wing, anti-Soviet press that Ligachev was a Stalinist and desired a return to Stalinist times is, of course, nonsense. But Ligachev reacted to this McCarthy-like charge by capitulating to anti-Stalinism: as if to say, “I am not now nor have I ever been a Stalinist!” He proudly flaunted his impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials, including his YCL dismissal: “... In the difficult Stalinist years ... our family suffered harsh persecution and I myself was on the very brink of disaster.” (p.184) Ligachev’s father was expelled from the Party when Ligachev was still a child; his wife’s father, an Army general, was executed for treason in 1937. It is of some significance to realize that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Shevardnadze and many other top leaders of the USSR demolition team came from families that contained members once classified as counter-revolutionary. Ligachev sums up well:

“I never stopped reminding people about the great significance of the 20th Party Congress which exposed Stalin’s personality cult, and about the fact that our main task [emphasis added-RP] was to protect the Soviet people from a repetition of such persecution.” (p.299)

At a time when the Soviet Union, the CPSU, and socialism itself was about to disappear Ligachev thought that the “main task” of the CPSU was to prevent a return to “Stalinism”!!!

Ligachev’s description of how the CPSU operated is very revealing. The vibrant party of Lenin had been ossified into a hierarchy of conformity and corruption. The style of work had been infused with commandism. Some in positions of power lorded it over – even enjoyed the humiliation of – subordinates while at the same time grovelling before and boot-licking those above. An example given by Ligachev was the Party bureaucrat Bogolyubov, who was abusive towards his staff, but when the special Kremlin phone rang (it had a different cuckcoo sound) Bogolyubov would leap to his feet, answer the phone himself, and stand at military attention while listening and agreeing with every word spoken on the other end.

Each higher level of the Party had its own perks. When Ligachev was promoted from the provinces to the Centre he was not permitted to bring his familiar and trustworthy Volga automobile with him. In his new position he must accept the larger, very ostentatious Chaika. He was told that riding in a Volga would not only lower his own prestige but all others of similar rank. Faced with career-ending implications, Ligachev quickly conformed.

According to Ligachev, nepotism was common. The leader of the Uzbek Party is said to have placed 14 of his relatives on the payroll of the Uzbekistan Central Committee apparatus.

But it is Ligachev’s description of Party democracy (or lack thereof) that is most shocking. The CPSU was no longer a party of proletarian democracy. “Democracy” became a lip service ritual – something to ornament and decorate speeches. The dialectical relationship between leadership and rank and file – its unity, interaction and interpenetration – had been transformed into a top-down mechanical, commandism. The bottom-up dynamic which should characterize a developed socialist society, was in practice little better than the boss’s suggestion box found in Western capitalist countries.

A strange perversion of democratic centralism took place inside the Party. Instead of unity being achieved through discussion, argument, ideological struggle and ultimately via practice, “unity” was achieved by administrative methods and pretence. For example, if – in spite of careful personnel selection – a Politburo member were to state: “I totally disagree with perestroika and glasnost; it will lead to the restoration of capitalism!” Gorbachev would have had this person removed. The replacement would be a true believer or someone who pretended to be. The concept of a minority position or opposition to a particular policy was not permitted. If after discussion one found oneself in a minority position, perhaps being near the top of the speakers’ list and misjudging the direction of the ideological wind, one was expected to backtrack with ritual apologies: “When I first read the document I was interrupted by several phone calls and lost my train of thought. Upon second reading I now find myself in total agreement.” Or “I must have flipped three pages at once and missed the core argument. I now see that the position adopted is correct.” At first one could express a difference by putting it in the form of a question: “And on what scientific basis and precedent does your recommendation rest?” But near the end Gorbachev would not even answer questions. He would just shuffle his papers and say, “Let us move on to the next part of the agenda.” Ligachev sums up: “ ... political struggle inside the Party was a thing of the past ...” (p.366)

Thus all members of the Gorbachev team had to be team players of the same mind-set. One might differ on details or speed of implementation but not on direction. If one had doubts about direction and wanted to remain part of the leadership, then one had to keep quiet and fake agreement – an ideal environment for opportunists and careerists. This weeding-out process resulted in the absence of genuine Marxist-Leninists at the highest levels of the Party.

Ligachev, a true believer in perestroika and glasnost, did argue for a slower pace and this was permissible until the Yakovlev-Gorbachev line of full-speed-ahead-to-a-capitalist-market-economy-with-white-flags-flapping was decreed without ever being discussed in the Politburo. At that time the question of pace itself became no longer debatable. But Ligachev, not a closet Stalinist but a closet maverick, persisted in his view that, although going down the capitalist road was correct, the journey should be made under the Red Flag, and that excessive speed was going to cause a crash. At the late date of 1990 Ligachev wrote several official letters to the General Secretary and Politburo. “This was an automatic right as a Party member,” he notes. Ligachev warned that “our socialist Motherland is in danger,” and “I believe it is necessary to convene an extended Central Committee plenum, including Party activists of the country ...”. Nothing happened. Ligachev comments:

“Something so unbelievable and astounding happened that I still cannot grasp it. For all the increasingly raucous proclamations about pluralism, glasnost, and democratization of the Party, the situation in its top echelons seemed in actual fact to be reverting to the dark years of the past: In violation of the Party Charter ... my letters were shelved. Politburo members did not see them.” (p.179)

Ligachev further states:

“Under Stalin, you would have lost your head for a letter like that. Under Khrushchev you would have been fired. Under Brezhnev you would have been made an ambassador to Africa. And under Gorbachev you were simply ignored.”

But an aging Ligachev shortly thereafter was forcibly retired. This reviewer asks: If a Politburo member was not permitted to officially communicate with fellow Politburo members, how much workers’ democracy was left?

While concrete democracy inside the Party had been snuffed out, abstract, formal democracy outside the Party had run amok – including free speech for fascists. But this explosion of “democracy” was a shaped charge, blasting in one direction only – to the right – while actually curtailing the left. Most of the Soviet media had been taken over by capitalist roaders who glorified everything Western and hated Russia’s “Stalinist” (read: communist) past. When a letter to the editor by University lecturer Nina Andreyeva appeared on the polemics and discussion page of the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya, all hell broke loose. Andreyeva’s contribution, “I Cannot Forsake My Principles,” was an attack on perestroika. Gorbachev immediately called an unscheduled, emergency Politburo meeting to investigate how such a mistake could occur. (Compare Gorbachev’s quick action in this matter and his inaction in response to Ligachev’s call for a special meeting because “our socialist Motherland is in danger.”) Thousands of right-wing articles in the Soviet press, some even pro-fascist, were not considered a problem, but one left-wing letter to the editor necessitated the calling of a special Politburo meeting with only one item on the agenda – Andreyeva’s letter. Ligachev comments:

“This unusual Politburo session lasted not one day but two. In all the years of perestroika this was the only Politburo session at which an article published in the press was discussed.” (p.307)

Yakovlev and others launched an attack on Ligachev.

“They wanted to turn Andreyeva into the symbol of Stalinist excesses, and then tie Ligachev to her and announce him to be the chief advocate of a return to the times of the Personality Cult.” (p.306)

But some members were conciliatory – after all it was only an unofficial letter to the editor. The Western press tolerated such letters, but according to Ligachev, Gorbachev literally broke those who failed to condemn Nina Andreyeva’s letter sufficiently. They (most likely including Ligachev himself)

“were forced to change their point of view during the course of the discussion under the pretext that they had initially read Andreyeva’s letter without sufficient care. Upon subsequent reading they discovered there was something in it that was in opposition to perestroika.” (p.307)

The Politburo ordered the press to launch an anti-Andreyeva campaign. Sovetskaya Rossiya was categorically forbidden to publish letters in support of Andreyeva and ordered to print only condemnatory letters. (The actual letters received were running in favour of Andreyeva at a 5-to-1 ratio). This was the operation of the so-called “free press” under glasnost.

In summing up Ligachev’s subjective opposition to – but objective support for – the destruction of the USSR, it must be pointed out that Ligachev was a loyal Gorbachevite almost until the very end. In his introduction to Ligachev’s Memoirs the American bourgeois liberal Kremlinologist Stephen F. Cohen points out that Ligachev and Gorbachev were conjoint twins – each essential to the other. Ligachev was handpicked by Gorbachev for advancement, but according to Cohen, Gorbachev would not have come to power without Ligachev’s support – the Old Guard would have continued and the USSR would still exist today. Ligachev and Gorbachev started perestroika together and marched together until Gorbachev chose Yakovlev’s quick march to capitalism over Ligachev’s go-slow approach.

Ligachev was necessary to Gorbachev during Stage One of a hidden agenda – the destruction of the CPSU as vanguard and the eradication of any residual vestiges of Marxism-Leninism. During Stage Two, the beginning of the process of transition to capitalism, Ligachev, whose career had been consumed with domestic party work, was no longer essential, and Gorbachev turned to Yakovlev (former Ambassador to Canada) who had many CIA and capitalist connections in the West. In Stage Three, Gorbachev, whose popularity had plunged to single digits, was himself no longer essential and gave way to Yeltsin, who proceeded to set up a semi-dictatorial comprador-criminal puppet state for imperialist plunder. Stage Four – the dismemberment of the once mighty USSR into smaller and yet-again smaller political units is still in progress.

Ligachev either does not, or pretends not to, understand these events – “If only Gorbachev had followed my advice and proceeded slower with perestroika!” Ligachev seemed obsessed with Gorbachev like a spurned but still love-struck admirer. The original title of his book in Russian is The Gorbachev Enigma. Even today he still believes that “only Gorbachev was worthy of occupying the highest post of General Secretary ...” (p.56) Ligachev is oriented toward the personage of Gorbachev and not the Soviet working class:

“As someone who until July 1990 pinned his hopes on the inner top Party leadership ... I have turned the events of 1989 and 1990 over in my mind many times. Why did Gorbachev take such a strange position?” (pp.250-151)

A befuddled Ligachev concludes that Gorbachev must have fallen into some sort of “trap.”

Today genuine communists in the former USSR do not look to Ligachev for leadership because Ligachev is still a Gorbachevite without Gorbachev and is best viewed as “right centrist.” He supported Gorbachev too much and too long and was insufficiently militant with his late opposition. Ligachev did not participate in any last minute attempts under way in the Party to remove Gorbachev, nor did he support the failed pseudo-coup of August 1991. Nor did Ligachev oppose Gorbachev’s revisionist “convergence of the two systems” theory or his non-class “universal human rights” concept.

Ligachev continues to hold many revisionist illusions about capitalism in the West. In his Preface to American Workers he notes that “The entire world is following the path of integration” which will result in “the coming economic harmony of the twenty-first century.” Not only does he believe that “in Western countries ... the army helps farmers with the potato harvest,” (p.64) he also opines that “the state system of social protection for working people created in the USSR” is “now used all over the world.” (p.316) On page 328 Ligachev claims that he is still “convinced that socialism also has equal rights as one of the roads of humanity towards progress.” One must ask the question: does Ligachev believe that present-day capitalism is also “one of the roads of humanity towards progress”? Is he so naive as to think that post-Soviet, new-world-order imperialism would voluntarily allow socialism to have “equal rights”?

A further concern of this reviewer is what Ligachev chooses not to tell us in his memoirs. Did he or did he not oppose the sellout of the German Democratic Republic and its sacrifice to imperialist Anschluss. How did he vote in the Politburo when the decision was taken to severely cut back on aid to socialist Cuba? On these and many other questions Ligachev is silent.

Ligachev’s book is an attempt not only to clear his “good name” from scandal but also to cover up the blame due him for the overthrow of the Soviet Union. His don’t-blame-me-blame-them attitude is more self-aggrandizement than self-criticism. The closest Ligachev comes to self-criticism is on page 235:

“When I was in the political leadership of the Party I restrained myself from talking about differences. Was I correct in doing so? I don’t know. It may have been a mistake.”

A mistake indeed, along with thousands of others, including recommending to Gorbachev that Yeltsin be promoted to the Politburo.

In an Afterword written four years later Ligachev systematizes his outlook and gives us a few of the whys. He is indeed correct when he states,

“What happened in our country is primarily the result of the debilitation and eventual elimination of the Communist Party’s leading role in society ... its ideological and organizational unravelling ...”

But, of course, Ligachev’s sins of commission and omission contributed to the process. He is also right when he observes that the “final victory in building socialism in the Soviet Union was declared prematurely, and that led to complacency.” (p.361) But Ligachev then launches into a tirade against “state socialism” which he claims puts “too much ... property in the hands of the state with respect to the means of production,” which held back “initiative” and “excluded competition.” He staunchly defends perestroika, one aim of which was “... the development of money-exchange relationships” which “create the necessary economic conditions for self-sufficiency and self-financing of enterprises...” Ligachev says that “state socialism” had “exhausted itself and was a brake on forward movement.”

From the viewpoint of the apparatchik-nomenklatura strata of terminal revisionism only two choices appeared to be possible: continuing some form of top-down state socialism or its replacement by capitalist market forces. From the viewpoint of a communist worker neither of these are “choices” but deviations from Marxism-Leninism. What was needed was a new, revitalized, planned, state-owned and collectively run economy with a very large bottom-up component. Such a choice – worker’s control and the creation of a genuine workers’ state – was unimaginable to Ligachev and his colleagues who ran the Soviet Union. Instead of worker’s power they choose market power.

But Ligachev does ask an important question: “... why didn’t the counterrevolution meet with resistance on the part of the workers?” (p.366) Ligachev doesn’t have a clue other than that they were “deceived.” True enough, but didn’t Ligachev himself play a major role in the deception? Could it be that Soviet workers saw little difference between Gorbachev/Ligachev and Yakovlev/Yeltsin and wanted neither? When faced with these two pseudo-alternatives, inaction was inevitable. The experience of the Soviet Union proves the necessity of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, both before and after the revolution. But the CPSU had been destroyed by modern revisionism while a new Communist Party existed in potential embryo form only. The non-anarchist Soviet working class, lacking its vanguard party, would not spontaneously rise up when the agenda had been set within the framework of the old and the agenda of the new was not yet formulated.

Ligachev is saddened by the destruction of the USSR and is opposed to Yeltsin’s Russia. But he does not call for the restoration of the old Soviet Union. He might be right; a river having flowed past the bridge is never the same again. But what sort of “new Soviet Union” does he propose? Ligachev, earlier in his career, said: “I am definitely opposed to ... opening even a crack of any kind, for the introduction of private property in our socialist society.” (quoted p.382) But Ligachev, whose extremely malleable ideological opportunism experienced the slippery side through perestroika to post-Soviet Russia, now advocates the building of a mixed economy where “various forms and methods of economic activity take place” (p.375) The “Communist” social democrat Ligachev proposes a limited “socialist” sector, the “commanding heights of the economy” as the old post-World-War-II British Labour Party called it, with most of everything else privatized – all the service sector and most of the manufacturing sector. An exception is land ownership. “As for land, there should be no private property.” (p.383); “land should be assigned to those who work it – for family farms, garden plots ... And they should have the right to pass it on as inheritance.” Ligachev’s agrarian policy is totally compatible with capitalism.

As for Russia’s new capitalist class, Ligachev says, leave them alone. His “logic” proceeds as follows: We now have a powerful private sector, but Yeltsin’s Russia has a collapsing economy and is a country that can no longer feed itself. Moreover millions of people are employed in the private sector. Therefore, to return to the workers that which had been stolen “would lead to mass starvation, even more unemployment and economic ruin.” (p.382) In other words: capitalism is good, but Yeltsin screwed things up; a return to socialism would make things even worse! He advocates that the left should confine itself to fighting the criminal bourgeoisie while giving support to the national bourgeoisie and “if we introduce sensible taxes, then we will acquire quite a few supporters among those property owners.” (p.382) Foreign investors also need not worry in Ligachev’s new Russia: “I take it upon myself to state that the national patriotic forces ... will guarantee the safety of investments.” (p.384)

But it is not “socialism” that drives Ligachev; socialism is just a popular demand to which lip-service must be paid. The inner tension that propels Ligachev is Russian great-nation chauvinism. In hindsight he believes “the fatal error of perestroika” was not the danger of capitalist restoration but “leniency toward nationalist movements.” (p.171) He now identifies with the “national patriotic forces,” the so-called red-brown coalition, whose goal is to restore Russia to the status of a great power. Accompanying this transformation is a gender change. What, during Soviet times, was called the “socialist Motherland,” (p.179) has, in Ligachev’s Afterword become the Russian Fatherland (p.368).

By using extensive quotes from Ligachev himself, this lengthy review has attempted to show the massive extent of Soviet revisionism. It further hopes to convince those still harbouring illusions about perestroika and Gorbachevism to rethink their positions. Clarity on this issue is necessary for the Communist movement to go forward.

As for Ligachev, it would be wrong to classify him as “no different” from the rest. But nevertheless, the best of a bad lot is still bad.

In conclusion, let it be noted that many of the negative features of late Soviet society had their origins in earlier periods of Soviet history, including some from the Stalin period. We must scientifically and with searing communist criticism analyze these phenomena so that they will never be copied or allowed to happen again.

Spark! #13-14, pp. 53-63