PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Communism of the Elite

Boris Yeltsin has just been elected president of the Republic of Russia

It turns out that there was no need of the world revolution, maximum labor productivity and universal harmony in order to have reached that ultimate, blissful state as prophesied by Karl Marx. It is perfectly possible to attain it in one particular country--for one particular group of people.

In using the word communism , I am not exaggerating. It is not simply a metaphor for an over-bright communist future: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." And so it is for those at the top of the party pyramid. Their needs are so great that so far it has been possible to create real communism for only a couple of dozen people. Communism is created for them by the 9th Directorate of the KGB, and this all-powerful directorate can do anything. The life of a party leader is beneath its unsleeping, all-seeing eye, and it satisfies his every whim. A dacha behind a high green fence encircling spacious grounds alongside the Moscow River, with a garden, tennis courts and playing fields, a bodyguard under every window, an alarm system.

Even at my level as a candidate member of the Politburo, my domestic staff consisted of three cooks, three waitresses, a housemaid and a gardener--with assistant gardeners.

Surprisingly, all this luxury was incapable of producing either comfort or convenience. It was almost impossible to meet anybody or do anything in the ordinary, normal way. If you wanted to go to the cinema, the theater, a museum, indeed any public place, a whole squad of heavies was sent there in advance. They would check and cordon off the whole place, and only then could you go yourself.

As for medical treatment, the medicines and equipment are all imported, all of them the last word in scientific research and technology. The rooms in the Kremlin hospital are huge suites, also surrounded by luxury: porcelain, crystal, carpets and chandeliers. Afraid of taking responsibility, an individual physician never makes an independent decision, and diagnoses and treatments are invariably agreed upon by a group of five to 10 doctors, sometimes including the most qualified specialists.

I regarded those faceless groups of consultants with great suspicion. When you are a member of the Politburo, your personal physician is obliged to examine you every day, but a lack of professional and personal freedom hangs over him like the sword of Damocles.

The Kremlin ration, a special allocation of normally unobtainable products, is paid for by the top echelon at half its normal price, and it consists of the highest-quality foods. In Moscow, about 40,000 people enjoy the privilege of these special rations in various categories of quantity and quality. There are whole sections of GUM--the huge department store that faces the Kremlin across Red Square--closed to the public and reserved for the highest of the elite, while for officials a rung or two lower on the ladder there are other special shops. And so on down the scale, all organized by rank. All are called "special": special workshops, special dry cleaners, special polyclinics, special hospitals, special houses, special services. What a cynical use of the word!

The joke is that none of these riches belong to those who enjoy the special privileges. All of these marvelous things--dachas, rations, a stretch of seaside fenced off from everyone else--belong to the system. And just as the system has given them, so can it take them away. It is an idea of pure genius.

Times have changed, but the essence of the system remains the same. As before, a wide selection of perks is being handed out to the position that a person occupies, but each "gift"--from a soft armchair with its numbered metal tag on up to the bottle of normally unavailable medicine stamped "safe" by the 4th Directorate of the KGB--bears the seal of the system. This is so the individual who will never forget to whom all this really belongs.

And who pays for all this? The KGB. It would be interesting to know, by the way, how all this expenditure is accounted for and under what heading of the KGB's budget. Combating spies? Subversion of foreigners by bribery? Or perhaps a more romantic heading, such as satellite intelligence in space.

It may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I do believe that perestroika would not have ground to a halt, despite the tactical mistakes that have been made, if only Gorbachev had been able to get rid of his reluctance to deal with the question of the leadership's privileges--if he himself had renounced all those completely useless, though pleasant, customary perquisites; if he had not built a new house for himself on the Lenin Hills and a new dacha outside Moscow; if he had not had his dacha at Pitsunda rebuilt and then an ultramodern one put up at Thorosin in the Crimea. And then, to cap it all, at the Congress of People's Deputies, he announced with pathos that he has no personal dacha. Doesn't he realize how hypocritical that sounded?

Boris Yeltsin has just been elected president of the Republic of Russia. This article was excerpted from his book, "Against the Grain," (Summit Books, 1990).

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