In memoriam Tatyana Zaslavskaya, Perestroika's Grande Dame


Adviser to Gorbachev and inspiration behind his economic reforms, Tatyana Zaslavskaya has died in Moscow, aged 86. Zygmunt Dzieciolowski revisits a profile of the eminent sociologist and economist, first published on oDRussia in 2007.  

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
5 September 2013

I met Tatyana Zaslavskaya for the last time a year or two ago at the annual Khodorkvsky readings, a Moscow event which brought together a number of prominent Russian intellectuals willing to discuss the situation in their country. Her advanced age and fragile health did not allow her to speak, but she listened with attention to the speeches of her colleagues. Her presence there had symbolic significance because she was the grande dame of Gorbachev’s attempt to modernize the USSR. She never accepted the authoritarian course of Vladimir Putin and was not afraid to attend an event organized to pay tribute to Putin’s most prominent political prisoner. 

Tatyana Zaslavskaya, outstanding sociologist, economist and democratic activist died at the end of August. Time has no mercy for her generation which lived through war, the final burst of Stalinist excesses, Krushchev’s debunking of the Stalin myth and, finally, decades of the Brezhnev carnival, better remembered as ‘times of stagnation’. Zaslavskaya will without a doubt be remembered as one of those courageous and bright intellectuals who wanted the road to democracy for the Soviet Union and Russia. Standing alongside her were Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Yakovlev, Galina Starovoitova, Anatoly Sobchak, Yegor Gaidar, Yuri Levada. The path each one of them took was their own and they had different views, but they all did their best to energize Russia at the time when it needed strength to emerge from the blind alley of communist ideology and life. 

Six years ago, I wrote a profile of this extraordinary woman. Below is a new, revised version, updated to give readers a better understanding of her personality and achievements. 


Speeches that change the course of history are not only delivered from podiums by political leaders. This is certainly true of the lecture given in August 1983 by the professor of sociology and economics Tatyana Zaslavskaya at the headquarters of the Siberian Centre of the Russian Academy of Science in Akademgorodok, where she worked. In proposing a programme of thorough social, political and economic reforms - which she called perestroika (reconstruction) - neither Zaslavskaya nor her audience could have foreseen that the term she coined was soon to become (along with its handmaiden, glasnost [openness]) the key instrument of Mikhail Gorbachev's epic effort to save the Soviet Union by transforming it from within. 

There was always something unexpected about the fact that it was Tatyana Zaslavskaya who provided the inspiration. She had never been a dissident, nor wanted to be part of the band of radical outsiders and critics of the Soviet system, whose position she regarded as counterproductive. Rather, she wished her research to help the Communist Party (CPSU) and the government to modernise the country. At the same time, the years she had spent researching the Soviet countryside had left her without any illusions: the country was in the deepest possible trouble, and it would need radical reforms to survive. 

A meteor in Moscow

The August 1983 lecture became known as the ‘Novosibirsk manifesto’ (after the nearest large city) and was printed in a strictly limited (and individually numbered) batch of copies. But what she said in those dark times of politburo and KGB dictatorship - a former head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, was head of the Soviet Union at the time – was too revolutionary to be kept secret from the wider public. 


Tatyana Zaslavskaya (far right) speaks with Mikhail Gorbachev during a break of the 1989 Congress of People's Deputies. Photo (c) RIA Novosti / Yuri Abramochkin

The ‘manifesto’ was carried on the winds of change that were already beginning to blow. Soon it was leaked to the Russian service of Voice of America. The regime reacted in its routine way: KGB agents were sent to Zaslavskaya's institute; she was summoned to the regional party committee in Novosibirsk to be mercilessly condemned for her ‘anti-party’ activity; and her fellow sociologists around the country were interrogated by police seeking the source of the leak to an enemy, capitalist radio station. 

She remembered her interrogation with particular vividness. The sour party bureaucrats were seated at a table on a stage above her. They were not interested in her research, her diagnosis or her prescription for the future of the country; instead, they seemed to be competing to see who could fling more dirt at her. 

This experience left her feeling sick and humiliated for several months. The Novosibirsk party apparatchiks had no respect for what Tatyana Zaslavskaya most cherished: her dignity. Then, her luck turned. In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected general-secretary of the CPSU, and soon - as if he had been an avid reader of her lecture - began to proclaim the merits of glasnost and perestroika. After more than twenty years of work in Siberia, Zaslavskaya's life changed. She was elected to the congress of people's deputies and (together with Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Afanasyev and Anatoly Sobchak) became a leading member of the democratic inter-regional group of deputies. Her professional career broadened as she was elected president of the Soviet Sociological Association and pioneered public-opinion research as director of the first institute of this kind in the country, the All-Union Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). 

Tatyana and Vladimir

One of my encounters with Tatyana Zaslavskaya took place in the summer of 2007 just before her 80th birthday. It was a landmark day for her because she had managed to meet the deadline for the new three-volume edition of her selected works (one volume included her articles from perestroika days). As she edited them, she was surprised to find that writings dating from a period of white-hot political debate and conflict could also be serious academic works, not mere journalism. ‘The standard was high and some of the conclusions remain valid’, she remarked. She remained proud of the work she did during Soviet times. 

When I called her, she invited me to her apartment in the south Moscow district of Noviye Cheryomushki. I knew this area well, as I had other academic friends who had lived there. It is full of typical high-rise concrete apartment-blocks, but this time when I left the subway station I was impressed to see signs of change. The chaos of small groceries, fast-food, flower, or domestic-appliances shops and kiosks was gone; replaced by two modern shopping-malls with a variety of different shops. The parking lot in front of the new Planet Sushi restaurant was full of expensive cars - BMW, Subaru and Lexus. In this middle-class Moscow district, Vladimir Putin's Russia, archaic and dramatically poor in some remote regions, was making a show of the new economic prosperity fuelled by the high oil and gas prices. 

It is no secret that for Russian intellectuals of Tatyana Zaslavskaya's type and generation, Putin's Russia has turned away from the democratic ideals and values which motivated the reformers of the perestroika times. She did not question the recent economic progress, even though in her opinion there was still much to be done. But she was upset by the growing social inequalities and by the Kremlin's contempt for human rights and civil society. 

‘In Soviet times we criticised the party elite for its isolation from the masses, its life behind three-metre high fences. Now they are even higher.’ Driving to her suburban dacha, she couldn’t even see the roofs of the villas owned by the Russian nouveaux riches, which were hidden among trees, behind electronic bullet-proof gates and safety installations. In Zaslavskaya's view, the new Russian elite's separation from the people is even stronger than that of the communist nomenklatura - and is a dangerous potential source of social tension. 

While we talked, her little dog and cat played together. She scolded them only when they jumped high into the air. Even close to 80 she was doing very well: she was not afraid to drive a car in the crazy Moscow traffic, she had mastered computer skills late in life and was very well informed on current Russian political life. 

She was not fond of Vladimir Putin, whom she called a ‘secretive Chekist’. Zaslavskaya was especially critical of the ‘successor’ concept, whereby Russia and indeed the whole world waited impatiently for Vladimir Putin to name the chosen one. ‘Russia is not a kingdom. We do not need any crown princes or successors who can win power only with the blessing of their predecessor.’ 

Yet, unlike many Putin critics, she did not have a very high opinion of the achievements of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, when Russia lacked stability during the 1990s ‘times of chaos’. ‘We were in a high-risk situation. In conditions of social and political chaos, populist and authoritarian politicians and parties or criminal elements find it easier to manipulate public life, while politicians, social activists, human-rights campaigners and intellectuals see their influence and authority vanish. Lack of stability is dangerous. However, that doesn't mean military discipline is the most efficient way to fight it.’ 

In Zaslavskaya's opinion, Putin's regime didn’t understand that, even for the sake of its own safety and survival, it needed public dialogue. The present Russian Duma (parliament) she simply regarded as a ‘voting machine’. ‘We do not need deputies who only vote according to instructions from the top. We need deputies who have brains, who think, who are able to make their own judgment.’ 

The threat to sociology

But Zaslavskaya was especially appalled by the authorities' attempts to discipline Russian sociologists. She felt that – having targeted oligarchs, TV journalists, and local governors - the time had now come for this profession, as the Kremlin sought out those who analysed social trends and knew best what people were thinking about social and political issues. 

Sociology was treated as a suspicious, bourgeois pseudo-science in Soviet times. This followed on from decisions which had been taken in the Stalin period. The Communist Party line was that, because people were by definition equal, there was no need to study (for example) the vertical diversification of society. The 1960s and 1970s pioneers of Soviet sociology - Vladimir Shubkin, Yuri Levada, and Vladimir Yadov - risked a lot by attempting to study Soviet reality as it was. Sociologists in Moscow and St Petersburg remember only too well numerous cases of repression aimed at brave researchers who ignored strict party rules. 

These experiences brought back to Tatyana Zaslavskaya another of the most important memories of her own life. In June 1988, almost five years after her breakthrough lecture and subsequent humiliating interrogation, she had the unique opportunity to attend the meeting of the politburo which finally made sociology a ‘normal’ science and removed the stigma it had carried. She never forgot the bored faces of the highest party leaders; even three years into Mikhail Gorbachev's rule, it was apparent that they didn’t listen to anything, didn’t understand and didn’t ask any questions. She was shocked by the intellectual nullity of those who were charged with governing a 300-million strong nuclear superpower. Without Gorbachev's own determination, the resolution in favour of sociology would not have been accepted. 

Indeed, sociology was one of perestroika's favourite academic disciplines. For the first time in Soviet history, sociologists - dizzy with freedom - were allowed to research public opinion. At last it felt as if people's opinions on public matters, politicians' popularity ratings and their chances of election, mattered

The power of hope 

By 2007, almost twenty years later, Putin's Russia seemed not to need independent sociology. The campaign against the discipline began when the Kremlin kicked out Tatyana Zaslavskaya's successor, the late Yuri Levada and his team from VTSiOM (renamed the ‘All-Russian Centre...’ in 1991, the country's most prestigious research institute) and replaced them with its own obedient researchers. At the end of June 2007, the Russian authorities gave generous support to the first congress of the newly founded Union of Russian Sociologists. Those who gathered there expressed their wish to support the process aimed at strengthening the Russian state. It did not matter that two other independent organisations were already recognised by the international sociological community; nor that the most respected Russian sociologists (including Tatyana Zaslavskaya) appealed to the congress organisers to change their plans and not to divide and destroy the professional sociological community.  More recently, Zaslavskaya was appalled when the authorities warned Levada Center, an independent  polling organisation founded by researchers fired from old VTSIOM, that according to the new law it faced the risk of being put on the list of ‘foreign agents’.

In Tatyana Zaslavskaya’s view the people who form Putin’s power elite are afraid of social anger and opposition activities. They are well aware of Russia's political volatility and the possible dangers it created, especially in the runup to parliamentary and presidential  elections. That is why Mr Putin’s Kremlin used heavy-handed tactics fighting the opposition at every turn of the way.

‘In Russia a lot traditionally depends on a person who becomes the Tsar, number one. If Putin really steps down and is replaced by someone else, we will be following the agenda of this new person.’ 

In 2007 that was Tatyana's hope for Russia. However at the Khodorkovsky readings a few years later, when we met for the last time, she was very disappointed and bitter about the achievements of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev. 

But her hope for better Russia was not entirely gone. 

It was a hope rooted in the extraordinary, intoxicating, intellectually fulfilling days of the late 1980s. Before then too, it had seemed that the country was in a mess and there was no way out. But Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader with an unusual mind and gifts, came to power, seized on her ideas and seriously took her advice in order to pursue perestroika, the reconstruction of the Soviet political system. It opened people's minds and empowered them to cast off the burden of over-mighty power. Tatyana Zaslavskaya was entitled to believe that future generations may live to see it happen again. 


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