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Soviet Privileged Class Is Under Fire : Perks of Party Elite Confront Gorbachev With Dilemma

<i> Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer</i>

There was a time when a lot of people really believed that whatever its faults the Soviet Union was on the way to creating a society free of exploitaton and class distinctions. Everybody knows better now.

Almost 30 years have passed since Milovan Djilas, one-time Tito intimate and veteran Yugoslav Communist, shocked the world by writing a book, “The New Class,” in which he charged that a new feudalism had arisen in communist countries. The new ruling class, he said, was a self-aggrandizing oligarchy made up of the communist political and managerial elite.

The disillusioned Djilas’ premise, though big news at the time, is generally accepted nowadays inside and outside the Soviet Union. Everybody knows that--despite all their talk of creating an egalitarian, classless society--communists are no different from other people when it comes to feathering their own nests. Them that has get.

However, the existence of an organized system of privilege was not openly discussed in the Soviet Union until it broke into the open at the recent congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

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Formally, disparities in pay are very narrow. Politburo members collect paychecks that are not much larger than those for skilled workers. But, in fact , party leaders and functionaries--as well as leading writers, artists and technocrats--enjoy perks and privileges beyond the wildest dreams of the average Ivan.

Members of the so-called nomenklatura , numbering perhaps a million, have special holiday retreats, access to special medical facilities and--most resented by ordinary Russians--access to special stores that sell imported and Soviet-made goods that are simply not available in the regular stores. Many also have cars and chauffeurs.

As a practical matter, the privileges are hereditary, since children of the elite have an inside track on admission to the top universities--graduation from which guarantees them good jobs and a place on the nomenklatura list.

The first hint that change just might be in the air came in December, when poet Evgenii Evtushenko made a speech to the Writers Congress denouncing the coupons for special shops “that every delegate to this congress has in his pocket, as I do in mine.” This portion of his remarks, however, was not published in the Soviet Union.

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Then, just a few days before the party congress opened, Pravda published letters complaining about special privileges for party officials. The most notable letter was signed by one N. Nikolaev, identified as a party member since 1940.

“We can no longer close our eyes,” he said, “to the fact that party, government, trade-union and managerial . . . officials sometimes deepen existing inequalities through their use of special canteens, special shops and special hospitals.”

Nikolaev said that he had no objection to high salaries for people in responsible jobs. But, in his words, “Let the boss go with everybody else to an ordinary store, and stand in line like everyone else. And then perhaps those lines that we’re all sick and tired of will be eliminated more quickly.”

Since Pravda is the official voice of the Kremlin, it was fair to assume that the newspaper was delivering a message from party leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Subsequent events, however, were puzzling.

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Politburo member Geidar Aliev denied in a news conference that members of the party elite enjoyed special advantages. But in the next breath he said that the question of whether such privileges should be eliminated “is still under discussion.”

Gorbachev didn’t address the issue in his speech to the congress. But Igor Ligachev, the party’s chief ideological guardian, stuck a knife squarely between the shoulder blades of Pravda editor Victor Afanasiev.

In Ligachev’s words, “In the period up to the congress, the press and the media have stepped up the struggle against everything that is unfit to the Soviet way of life. Unfortunately some newspapers, including the Pravda editorial board, fell by the wayside.” Plainly Afanasiev was being chastised, in a virtually unprecedented manner for a Pravda editor, for publication of the Nikolaev letter.

Last Monday, four days after the congress closed, a senior Central Committee member denied that party officials of any rank have special privileges. “Certainly we do not have any special shops,” he said. “I shop. I stand in line. We stand together.”

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That is nonsense, and your average Soviet citizen knows it. But the backing and filling reflects the extreme sensitivity of the subject, and suggests that the Gorbachev Kremlin is not of one mind on how to deal with it.

The KGB security police are perfectly capable of dealing with squeaking wheels on this or any other subject. But the question of elitist privilege is inescapably bound up with the idea of economic revitalization.

Gorbachev’s notion of economic reform is modest. But it does include the notion of higher prices for food, housing and other necessities, as well as streamlining of the labor force.

Theoretically, unemployment has not existed in the Soviet Union since 1930. But in November Gorbachev put thousands of bureaucrats out of work by collapsing five agro-industrial ministries into one. An estimated 20 million Soviet workers will be displaced in the next 15 years as new and more efficient technology is introduced.

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In other words, the “radical transformation” of the economy that Gorbachev talks about will mean real hardship for a lot of Soviet citizens. The transformation is supposed to include availability of more consumer goods, but that will be small comfort to those who don’t have jobs or do not qualify for incentive bonuses.

In a country where cradle-to-the-grave security has been offered as a substitute for individual freedom and opportunity, that is bound to cause resentment. Such resentment may be rubbed raw if those big black limousines continue to pull up in front of the special stores.

It is these very privileges, however, that attracted most Communist functionaries to party work in the first place. Any serious curtailment of the perks will be stoutly resisted by members of the Communist ruling class--conceivably to the point of supporting a move to oust Gorbachev, just as Nikita S. Khrushchev was ousted for much less fundamental tinkering with the power structure.

Yet Gorbachev’s pretension to be a new and different kind of Soviet leader will soon lose its credibility, with negative consequences for his drive to get the Soviet economy moving again, unless he is willing and able to curb the privileges of the Communist aristocracy that Djilas identified so eloquently almost 30 years ago.

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