Springtime for Civic Virtue : Gorbachev Restores Russian Esteem for ‘Decent Persons’

<i> Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of politics at Princeton University who writes a column on Soviet affairs for the Nation. </i>

Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s campaign to bring about “fundamental changes” in the Soviet system raises an important question about his chances of success and about American perceptions.

Having launched a nationwide crusade against “all kinds of time servers, careerists and bureaucrats” in the Soviet Establishment, Gorbachev and his allies are calling for the support of “honorable, conscientious, decent” members of the various elites. But do such people exist inside the party and state bureaucracies that administer the system, or among the other elites whose officially sanctioned careers have brought them status and privilege?

Evidently, most American commentators think that they do not. For many years, media coverage of the Soviet Union has attributed virtuous qualities almost only to dissidents, emigres and would-be emigres, leaving the impression that the entire Soviet Establishment is conformist, cynical, corrupt or worse. Even otherwise discriminating commentators regularly dismiss all Soviet political officials as “thugs” or “stooges,” Soviet journalists as “cops” and accepted Soviet writers as “whores.”

To be both a successful and a “decent person"--a poryadochnyi chelovek , as the Russians say admiringly--is exceedingly difficult in the Soviet Union. In a system where there are no effective democratic obstacles to abuses of power; where local authorities often are capricious and it can be risky to protest even petty wrongs; where decades of scarcity have created zealously guarded privileges; and where there are almost no alternatives to state-approved careers--in such a system, a great many people eventually conform for universal human reasons. Often, they become indifferent to or accomplices in corruption, injustices and cover-ups.


And yet, many members of the various Soviet elites do retain their ideals and their “civic courage,” as it has long been called in Russia. How could it be otherwise in a nation where the word “conscience” has profound meaning, where the official ideology still professes lofty values and where 19 million adults belong to the Communist Party? Such people are neither dissidents nor abject conformists. They are ambitious, love their country and believe in the Soviet system. But they want it to conform to their own clear sense of right and wrong, and within their limited possibilities, they behave accordingly.

Frequent travelers to the Soviet Union know of many examples of admirable conduct by people of authority and official status. More important, their exemplary behavior is a recurrent theme in the best Soviet literature since the 1950s and even in dissident writings. It ranges from party officials who argue for more enlightened policies to economic managers who ignore central directives in order to make the system more productive; from journalists and editors who challenge censorship to educators who defy orthodoxy in order to enrich their students; from exalted academicians and celebrated writers who try to help victimized colleagues to young professionals who refuse to become informers in return for a promotion.

Political space for doing good deeds inside the system was considerably greater during Nikita S. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies than during Leonid I. Brezhnev’s conservative reign. Now Gorbachev is appealing to the ideals of poryadochnyi officials and raising their hopes.

Suddenly, “civic courage” has become a slogan of the leadership. Boris Yeltsin, a candidate Politburo member and Gorbachev protege, told the recent party congress that he had not criticized political ills at the previous congress because “I clearly lacked sufficient courage.” Other high-ranking officials are making similar public admissions.


Meanwhile, a mini-thaw, or relaxation, of cultural censorship is unfolding. Its main themes, according to Soviet newspapers, are “conscience and decency.”

None of this means that a reformation will occur in Soviet officialdom. Gorbachev’s call for official candor is a political weapon in his struggle against opposition to his power and policies; outside his personal circle, no one knows his real values and aspirations. Moreover, civic courage is hard to arouse in the Soviet system where, as Gorbachev and his supporters have openly suggested, “toadyism and servility” are rampant and most officials seem to be “virtuosos at playing it safe.”

But Americans may wish to ask if the level of civic courage is so much higher in their own system, where the price is so much cheaper. The White House budget director juggles figures to please his superiors. Astronauts keep silent about safety concerns so as not to lose flight assignments. Senators will not speak out against Administration foreign policies because they worry about being reelected.

And yet, many Americans insist that to be an admirable political official or cultural person in the Soviet Union, one must break openly with the system, abandoning all hope of a career and risking martyrdom. Rarely, if ever, do we ask so much of ourselves.