Profile : Meet the Kremlin’s Mr. Conservative : To reformers, Yegor Ligachev’s name is almost a curse. But talk to this tough Siberian peasant-turned-politician, and he’ll tell you a few things about revolution and realism.
He is the foremost conservative within the Soviet Union’s ruling Politburo and knows that to the country’s radical reformers he is a political ogre.
He is caricatured mercilessly in the unofficial news media, mocked openly on the Moscow stage, featured as a horned devil on political badges, called an “ignoramus” in Parliament and attacked with such ferocity at opposition rallies that his name is almost a curse in today’s highly charged vocabulary.
But Yegor K. Ligachev is unmoved by these passions and undeterred in what he regards as his mission--the forthright assertion of traditional socialist values as the Soviet Union proceeds with perestroika, the restructuring of the country’s whole political, economic and social system.
“I know what they say about Ligachev, that he’s conservative and hidebound, an obstacle to everything progressive,” he commented, more bemused than outraged by the radicals’ many allegations. “But I belong to the realists, I stick to common sense.”
Ligachev, who now oversees agriculture, nevertheless is deeply concerned that the Soviet Union remain socialist even as it goes through a profound transformation affecting the daily life of every citizen.
The goals of the Bolsheviks in the 1917 Russian Revolution have not fundamentally changed, Ligachev contended during an extensive interview with The Times, but new ways must be found to achieve them.
“I am far from thinking we are in a crisis of socialism, a crisis of the Communist Party,” Ligachev said. “We face the result of problems accumulated over a long time, problems that stem essentially from the deformation of socialism.”
Despite its achievement, he said, “the party is influenced negatively by the extremely destructive consequences of Stalinism and its arbitrariness, its mass repressions, its lawlessness.” Moral and ideological decay undermine its authority and influence in society, he said.
As to his conservatism, Ligachev quickly summed it up with a Russian proverb: “Before entering a room, think how you will get out.”
“In politics, before taking a decision, you must think of the consequences,” he explained. “This we have not always done in perestroika, and we are suffering from our errors as a result. That is the extent of my conservatism. I wholeheartedly support the socialist transformation of our society through perestroika and the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.”
As the Soviet Union attempts to broaden and accelerate its much-troubled reforms, Ligachev’s political authority is growing, for his support is sought to ensure that the measures win acceptance from like-minded party officials who retain considerable influence throughout the country.
If Ligachev has become the emblematic conservative of perestroika, he is also among the most enigmatic of the present Soviet leaders, to many a faceless apparatchik with a 45-year career in the party bureaucracy.
And that Ligachev does regret, for in the Soviet Union’s new era of competitive politics, those many years as a willing instrument of party policy place him at a disadvantage.
His passionate advocacy of socialism as well as the pungency of his criticism of the radicals is lost in the gray pages of Pravda, the party newspaper. Boris N. Yeltsin, the radical populist, whom Ligachev originally brought to Moscow but who now campaigns for Ligachev’s ouster from the Politburo, scores his points and escapes unscathed by any rebuttal. And Ligachev is finding it difficult to turn the mass support he believes he has among ordinary workers and farmers into political leverage at the center.
The charge, so frequent among radicals, that he became a party official in the times of dictator Josef Stalin and remains a Stalinist today rankles more than any other accusation. “People in my family were executed under Stalin, people in my family were expelled from the party by Stalin and exiled by Stalin,” Ligachev said. “I know from life, not from books, what Stalinism was and what it did to people and why we must never allow it again.”
Trained as an aeronautical engineer during World War II, Ligachev turned to political work, first in the Communist Youth League and then in the party and government. While still in his 30s, he oversaw the establishment of Akademgorodok, the Siberian science city outside Novosibirsk, from which many of Gorbachev’s advisers have come; he ran the Siberian region of Tomsk, a key industrial center, as the party leader there for 18 years, and he was brought to Moscow in 1983 by the late Yuri Andropov to oversee the rejuvenation of the apparat, the party machine, as a man who was free of the cronyism and corruption of the years of Leonid I. Brezhnev.
As the party secretary for internal organizational matters, Ligachev was in a key position at the death in 1985 of Konstantin Chernenko, Andropov’s successor, and he unhesitatingly swung all the support he could to Gorbachev and a program of reform. “We could have made quite different decisions,” he reflected several years later, “and sometimes I think what would have happened to the country.”
Born into a Siberian peasant family, Ligachev proudly remains a Siberian. He speaks with the deep, rounded vowels of Siberia, he remains direct, frank and undevious and he values the freedom characteristic of Siberia.
“My motherland is Siberia,” he said. “People there are special-- open, friendly, courageous, resourceful, self-reliant, honest, morally upright and just. They have been shaped by life on the frontier, by the need to develop huge resources, by a very rigorous climate, by being very far from the center and its political intrigue.”
Ligachev’s chief pleasures are his family--his wife, Zinaida, a retired foreign language teacher; his mathematician son, Alexander; his daughter-in-law, Yelena, who is also a scientist, and a grandson, Alexei, a student at a military institute.
Ligachev is a reader--virtually all the Russian classics, which are re-read over and over, and most of the contemporary Soviet writers-- and a music lover who is seen frequently at symphony concerts and operas in Moscow. He is a skier and a bicycle rider. His intellectual and physical vigor are those of a much younger man.
Amid all the controversy around him, Ligachev has remained primarily a party man, and Gorbachev’s defense of him against radical critics more than two years ago still stands.
“He would lay down his life for it,” Gorbachev said of Ligachev’s devotion to the party. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s an open, militant, emotional man--but with great political experience.”
Name: Yegor K. Ligachev
Title: One of 13 full members of the Soviet Politburo
Nationality: Russian (born in Siberia)
Education: Graduated in 1943 from the Ordzhonikidze Institute for Aircraft Construction in Moscow with a technical engineering degree.
Family: Wife, Zinaida, plus son and grandson.
Quote: “In politics, before taking a decision, you must think of the consequences. This we have not always done in perestroika, and we are suffering from our errors as a result.”