Did he agree with the old adage, the Soviet prime minister was asked, that each revolution, including perestroika, consumes its children?
“The dinner has already begun,” Nikolai I. Ryzhkov replied without hesitation.
Ryzhkov probably feels that he is on the menu himself this week as the revolution wrought by perestroika, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s program of political and economic restructuring, moves into a crucial new phase--without many of the men who originally launched it.
Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, went last week, denouncing what he called a growing threat of dictatorship from the right and warning Gorbachev that his present alliance with conservatives is endangering the ideals of perestroika.
Others have also fallen victim. Alexander N. Yakovlev, who with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze was one of the original architects of perestroika and perhaps its chief conceptualizer, has been forced into the margins of Soviet politics. Vadim V. Bakatin, the progressive interior minister, was abruptly replaced earlier this month by a tough, law-and-order conservative.
The Presidential Council, established only in March as the cutting edge of perestroika, is about to be dissolved. With it will go Stanislav S. Shatalin, a radical economist who almost persuaded Gorbachev to undertake the development of a market economy here in a fast-paced 500 days, and Vadim A. Medvedev, a Communist Party ideologist who oversaw the party’s abandonment of its long constitutional monopoly on political power.
“Of all who started the struggle for perestroika in 1985, after Shevardnadze’s resignation I am the only one who remains at the president’s side now,” Ryzhkov said.
And that may not be for long. Under constitutional amendments expected to be adopted this week, the Council of Ministers that Ryzhkov heads will be replaced by a smaller cabinet. Georgy Shakhnazarov, a Gorbachev adviser, said last week that Ryzhkov was unlikely to be appointed prime minister.
“The thing is that every politician has some definite term, and new people should come now,” he said of Ryzhkov, who himself predicted the dissolution of the team he has led for more than five years.
Shakhnazarov portrayed the changes as a renewal of the Soviet leadership for what is likely to be the most difficult year yet for perestroika, and another Gorbachev aide attributed it to “the toll exacted by the sheer fatigue” of the whole political transformation here.
“People are worn out,” the aide commented in the wake of Shevardnadze’s resignation on Thursday. “The struggle, the tension, the work have been unending, and the pressure is relentless. . . . It is only natural for some people to go now.”
But Soviet political analysts, most of them liberals, see a “counterrevolution” gathering strength on the right, forcing Gorbachev to retreat from the more radical reformers on his team and their proposals and to consolidate his position as he battles to preserve perestroika.
“The president did not protect him,” Leonid I. Abalkin, a deputy prime minister, said of the unremitting right-wing attacks on Shevardnadze, and Yakovlev called the foreign minister a “victim of a vengeful and merciless conservative wave.”
Alexei M. Yemelyanov, an economist at Moscow State University, said that Shevardnadze’s resignation and other recent changes were “a victory for right-wing forces, the reactionaries, all those who want no real changes in our society.”
“Apart from Gorbachev, there were two men in the top leadership who were capable of thinking about how the reform process should develop, and these were Shevardnadze and Yakovlev,” Yemelyanov said. “Now, they are both gone in a struggle in which the reactionaries are, ironically, able to use the democratic reforms against those who created the changes. To be sure, more of the founders of perestroika will go as this struggle runs its course. . . .
“Who will stay with Mikhail Gorbachev now?” Yemelyanov continued. “There are no strong personalities around him. This is his guilt, his mistake and maybe his tragedy. He has never tolerated strong men around him.”
Ryzhkov, speaking last week to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet Parliament, described the political struggle now under way as “an undeclared war” on the government by both the radicals and the far right.
“Today, this war is not limited to fierce opposition to the president, the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies, just as it was not limited to attempts to topple the government in May,” Ryzhkov said. “The ultimate goal of this warfare is to direct a mighty blow at the state and the social and political system in order to destroy them, once and for all.”
While the struggle between reformers and conservatives is now at a new intensity and is focused on the future of the Soviet Union, it has raged since Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985, and immediately set about restructuring the whole of Soviet society.
Up to now, however, most of the political casualties have been conservatives, including a number in the Soviet leadership who supported Gorbachev’s initial reforms and then were overtaken and pushed aside as he moved ahead.
Today, the reformers are being pushed aside in a process that political analysts here tend to assess in dialectical terms. The reformers had won consistently over the past five years and appeared to have consolidated their position at the Communist Party’s congress last summer, but the country’s deepening crises, economic and ethnic as well as political, have opened a path of return for the conservatives.
“Politics is push, shove, push, shove, push, shove,” a senior Soviet newspaper editor commented Monday, himself a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. “That is to say, there are ebbs and flows. You might have an equilibrium, but nothing is static. . . .
“At this point, those who launched the reform and forged ahead are meeting a counterforce. I would not call it a ‘counterrevolution'--that has a specific meaning for us--but certainly the people who began the process are now falling victim to some of the political forces they unleashed. This is the nature of revolutions.”
Others recalled, as did Ryzhkov, the observation of the 19th-Century German socialist playwright Georg Buchner, who--writing about the rise, fall and execution of the French revolutionary Georges Jacques Danton--observed, “The revolution is like Saturn--it eats its own children.”
“The Gorbachev group has lost the initiative in the democratization process that it triggered,” political scientist Andranik Migranyan commented. “The center has lost all possibility to influence these new political structures that have arisen and now threaten to loom even larger than it.”
Nikolai D. Tutov, an army lieutenant, member of Parliament and a founder of the Social Democratic Assn., said the power of the right has grown enormously, as can be seen by the dismissal of Bakatin and the resignation of Shevardnadze. “Who will be next?” Tutov asked. “I don’t rule out that the initiator of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, himself will be next. Yet, he sits there with an imperturbable face, not even trying to intervene.”
Another perspective on the political changes came from Ryzhkov, who acknowledged that the goals of perestroika and the process of change have in some ways overtaken those who began the transformation.
“Perestroika in its original form, and I emphasize its original form, has failed,” he told the Congress last week. “Being one of its authors, I accept some of the responsibility for this.”
The original aim of perestroika, Ryzhkov said, was “the renovation of socialism and overcoming of the existing deformations” in the country’s political and economic system, but this goal was quickly supplanted by the struggle of radicals to end socialism and transform all of Soviet society and the conservatives’ opposition to any change. In the process, he said, the country’s “silent majority” had lost faith in the leadership.
“We have failed to show the model of the future, to cite the social price that will have to be paid for the implementation of this model and to determine who will pay this price and how those who suffer from this process will be compensated for their losses,” Ryzhkov said.
“Revolution promises society not to allow a vacuum, to replace old structures with new ones. What actually happened? Perestroika destroyed many established structures, both party and governmental. But we have not yet created operational and effective mechanisms to replace them. . . . This is the root of our main problems, which have resulted in acutely negative phenomena in the economy, law, ethnic relations and public morals.”