From Socialist Utopia Toward True Democracy

Nina Khrushcheva is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

I am often asked what my grandfather would have thought about the current situation in Russia--about the chaos of the market place, the absence of law. Would he consider all that progress?

Considering that I was just 8 years old when my grandfather died in 1971, I can't offer informed recollections; our conversations to that point were on subjects appropriate to the nursery. But I am curious: What would he think? As a student of recent Russian political history and as someone who read "Khrushchev Remembers" thinking of my own childhood observations of Nikita Khrushchev in his retirement years, I try to imagine what he might say. Perhaps something like this:

Eighty years have passed since a relatively small group of young revolutionaries overthrew what seemed the most powerful monarchy in the largest empire in the world. They declared a new free order with new democratic values. They called them socialist-democratic values: the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to hold public assemblies and many other freedoms as well, all in line with the democratic ideology.

"Socialist" stood for one freedom that was intentionally omitted--the freedom to run a market economy free from state intervention. Instead, the fathers of Russian socialism offered ideological enthusiasm as a replacement for the usual material reward, money, in making people interested in their work. They also had to implant the fear of losing basic personal freedoms in case people insisted on receiving more substantial compensation for their labor.

Although I was a good son of the revolution, I have to admit I never agreed with this fear concept. True, it prevented the populace from engaging in uprisings for economic reasons; however, it also prevented the development of the promised democratic values. Forty years later, when I came to power, I first tried to free people of fear, and then to make sure that the values of socialist democracy would finally start to be observed. And I would have succeeded, if ... Honestly, I didn't understand then that the global communist goal of making all of humanity happy (which can perhaps be achieved by pure enthusiasm) stands in conflict with the happiness of individuals, which somehow cannot be achieved without these individuals being fed and clothed.

I did try to make people happy by broadening the borders of what I now understand to have been quite rigid socialist ideology, both geographically (people began to travel abroad for cultural and professional, though not yet personal reasons--Mikhail Gorbachev would complete this process), politically (meetings between Western leaders and Soviet officials became possible, though not habitual, as was to happen in the late '80s) or informationally (the media were given some access to previously forbidden topics, including actual reporting on the Politburo debates; the leader's health and private life would be added later), or even familially (with Nina Khrushchev, the world saw the Soviet first lady for the first time; later, Raisa Gorbachev was constantly on the scene).

However, I failed to do one thing--to open the borders economically, to liberate the inflexible socialist market. Therefore while the fears of losing personal freedoms were gone, the reforms in our society still could not be completed: I still relied on the same enthusiasm to make people work, without understanding one simple thing: that when citizens no longer fear for their lives, they begin to be eager to make these lives better.

Years later, Gorbachev was able to finish what I had started. But he had been trained by us, the romantics, enthusiastic sons of the revolution. Thus, he hoped that the Soviet Union would be spared the evils of capitalism. For him, a communist, enthusiasm was not an empty concept. And although the reforms of the 1980s did take into account the existence of material values, Gorbachev's first steps toward privatization--welcoming nongovernmental enterprises, deregulation and other features of the market economy--were uncertain, uneasy, timid and stumbling.

In the '90s, when the rules of democracy were finally established and communist ideology ceased to exist, Russia needed a leader who would begin to recognize the material interests of its citizens. And even if most of Boris Yeltsin's policies cannot be termed fully democratic (for instance, his dealings with regional conflicts and with the political opposition), Russia's market economy has at least started to look more like a market economy and less like a mafiosi black market.

It all makes me feel hopeful, but the difficulties of the development process cannot not sadden me. It took us almost 80 years to recognize that socialist utopia was not a true democracy. How many years might it take to build up a reasonable economic structure?

Revolution did seem easier; back when we relied on people's enthusiasm, the leader always had a ready answer of what was better for them and what kind of rules they had to follow to build a bright future for humanity. Now the slogans of democratic ideology might have finally reached their practical embodiment, but Russia's political agenda bears a most complicated task--the need to establish new laws that are necessary to maintain a free market society. Unlike 1917, a revolution is not the answer; now we need evolution.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°