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Tatyana Zaslavskaya’s moment

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
7 September 2007

The speeches that change the course of history are not delivered only from the podiums of political leaders. This is certainly true of the lecture made 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 instruments of Mikhail Gorbachev's epic effort to save the Soviet Union by transforming it from within.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise" (26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance" (15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich's Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

"The Russian politics of vodka"
(7 December 2006)

"How Russia is ruled"
(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

"Boris Yeltsin, history man" (24 April 2007)

"Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)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 part of the band of radical outsiders and critics of the Soviet system, whose position she held to be 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 on researching the Soviet countryside had left her without any illusions: the country was in the deepest possible mess, and it needed radical reforms if it was 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 - too revolutionary to be kept secret from the wider public.

The "manifesto" was carried on 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.

Today, she remembers 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 competed to throw 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

Tatyana Zaslavskaya will be 80 years old on 9 September 2007. It will be a landmark jubilee for her, but only if she manages to meet the deadline for the new three-volume edition of her selected works (one volume includes her articles from perestroika days). As she started editing them, she was surprised that works written in a period of white-hot political debate and conflict could also turn out to be serious academic works and not mere journalistic columns. "Their standard was high and some of their conclusions remain valid", she says.

When I call her, she invites me to her apartment in the southern Moscow district of Noviye Cheryomushki. I know this area well, as some other academic friends live here too. It is full of typical high-rise concrete apartment-blocks, but this time when I leave the subway station I am impressed to see signs of change. The chaos of small groceries, fast-food, flower, or domestic-appliances shops and kiosks is gone; all have been replaced by two modern shopping-malls with a variety of different shops. The parking in front of the new Planet Sushi restaurant is full of expensive BMWs, Subarus and Lexuses. Vladimir Putin's Russia, still archaic and dramatically poor in some remote regions, here in this middle-class Moscow district can boast its new economic prosperity fuelled by the high prices of oil and gas.

There is little secret in the fact that for the Russian intellectuals of Tatyana Zaslavskaya's type and generation, Putin's Russia has made an enemy of the democratic ideals and values which motivated reformers of the perestroika times. She would not question the recent economic progress, even though a lot remains to be done. But she is 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-meter high fences. Now they are even higher." When Tatyana drives to her suburban dacha she can't even see the roofs of the villas owned by the Russian nouveax riches, which remain 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 tensions.

While we talk, her little dog and cat play together. She scolds them only when they jump high into the air. Even close to 80 she is doing very well: she is unafraid to drive a car in the crazy Moscow traffic, she mastered computer skills late in life and is very well informed on current Russian political life.

She is not fond of Vladimir Putin, whom she calls a "secretive Chekist". Zaslavskaya is especially critical of the "successor" concept, whereby Russia and indeed the whole world waits 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 does not overestimate the achievements of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, when Russia lacked stability during the 1990s "times of chaos". "We were confronted with high risks. In conditions of social and political chaos populist and authoritarian politicians and parties or criminal elements find it easier to manipulate public life. On the other hand politicians, social activists, human-rights campaigners, intellectuals see their influence and authority vanish. Lack of stability is dangerous. However, that doesn't mean the most efficient way to fight it would be military discipline."

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

The threat of sociology

But Zaslavskaya is especially appalled by the authorities' recent attempts to discipline Russian sociologists. It seems that - following oligarchs, TV journalists, and local governors - the time has come for this profession, as the Kremlin seeks to target those who analyse social trends and know best what people are thinking about social and political issues.

Decisions taken in the Stalin period meant that sociology was long treated in the Soviet Union as suspicious bourgeois pseudo-science. 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 pioneers of Soviet sociology in the 1960s and 1970s - 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 well numerous cases of repression aimed at brave researchers who ignored strict party rules.

Such experiences remind Tatyana Zaslavskaya of 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 politburo meeting which finally made sociology a "normal" science and removed the stigma it had carried. She can't forget the bored faces of the highest party leaders; even three years into Mikhail Gorbachev's rule, it was apparent that they did not listen to anything, did not understand, did not ask any questions. She was shocked by the intellectual nullity of those who were charged with running 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

Almost twenty years on, Putin's Russia seems 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, and the country's most prestigious research institute) and replaced them with its 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 under its rubric 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.

The new organisation chose as its president the rector of the Russian State Social University, Vassili Zhukov. In his closing speech he promised to unite the Russian sociological community within three years. He also stressed that professional sociologists who are conducting research must remember their responsibility towards the state and people. In contemporary Russia, that means loyalty to the authorities.

For Tatyana Zaslavskaya, veteran of the perestroika­-era struggle for democratic values and institutions, such a definition of sociology cannot be accepted. She explains the Kremlin's position by saying that (notwithstanding Putin's sky-high poll ratings) the people who now rule Russia are afraid of social anger and opposition activities. They are well aware of Russia's political volatility and the possible dangers it creates, especially in a period leading to parliamentary (December 2007) and presidential (March 2008) elections. That is why the Kremlin used such heavy-handed tactics fighting the "marches of dissent" in major Russian cities in spring 2007.

"In Russia a lot traditionally depends on a person who becomes the Czar, number one. If Putin really steps down and he is replaced by someone else, we will be following the agenda of this new person." That is now Tatyana's hope for Russia.

It is 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 mentality 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. Even on the eve of her 80th birthday, Tatyana Zaslavskaya has the right to believe she may live to see it happen again.

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