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Leningrad's Right-Wing Alternative to Gorbachev

By Tom FirestoneTom Firestone is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute. / February 13, 1990



ETHNIC riots. Labor strikes. The collapse of Eastern Europe. Every day Mikhail Gorbachev's job seems more and more precarious, yet somehow he manages to hang on. Explaining this paradox, conventional wisdom points out that Gorbachev's survival is assured by the lack of a viable conservative alternative. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom is rapidly becoming obsolete. In the last two months, the Leningrad Communist Party organization has begun to galvanize conservative opposition. This movement has several advantages that make it potentially more powerful than other right-wing organizations. Its base is within the party, making it more structured and institutionalized than other oppositions. It also has a single leader with a fair amount of leadership ability and charisma. Finally, it has a relatively sophisticated ideology developed in a coherent platform. All of this makes it potentially very strong and therefore worthy of consideration in some detail.

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The origins of the Leningrad opposition movement probably lie in the local party's atrocious showing in the elections to the Congress of People's Deputies last spring. Embarrassment at the failure of its chief to win an uncontested election led to a personnel shake-up and critical reexamination of the party's work.

On Nov. 21, a joint plenum of the Leningrad city and oblast (regional) party committees was called to adopt a new party program. According to Izvestia, the debate on the program was heated and fierce, with conservatives arguing for the reassertion of the party's centrality and rejecting proposals for pluralism.

The passions ignited at this debate spilled over into a mass rally ``in defense of socialism'' held the next day. Speakers at the rally denounced Gorbachev and the CPSU for failing to provide leadership and maintain order. The central party, they claimed, had lost authority among the people and was therefore no longer capable of leading perestroika.

The rally also attacked private enterprise. Cooperative members were derided as ``thieves,'' ``fat cats,'' and ``exploiters.'' Glasnost came in for abuse too, as newspapers and television were denounced as ``tools of media terror.'' One speaker called for the mass media to be returned to ``workers' control.''

The party's electoral disgrace also led to a personnel shake-up, as a result of which Boris Gidaspov, a 56-year-old doctor of chemical sciences, was elected last summer first secretary of the Leningrad Oblast Committee. At the Nov. 21 plenum, Mr. Gidaspov was also made head of the Leningrad city party apparatus.

Gidaspov is an unlikely candidate to wield such power. His political career is barely six months old; most of his life has been spent in scientific research. He is a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, and has won Lenin and State Prizes for his academic work. He worked on the Soviet space program and served as a member of the commission investigating the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Perhaps it was precisely this apolitical background that made him attractive to disillusioned Leningraders.

The ideology of the Leningrad party identifies pretty much the same ills everyone else finds in Soviet society - inflation, shortages, labor and enthic unrest - but places a special emphasis on social rather than economic problems. According to Gidaspov and his supporters the biggest problems in Soviet society are the general disorder, insecurity, and malaise spawned by perestroika.

As Gidaspov said, ``A massive, deliberate erosion of socialist ideals is in progress....that cannot fail to have an impact. Against the background of unrestrained defamation of the party and of our entire past, nihilism, egotism, and spiritual aridity are cultivated.''

What society needs, he argues, is precisely what made the Bolsheviks successful in the first place: a strong party organization characterized by discipline, centralism, and clarity of aims. ``Mikhail Sergeyevich, Respect the Party'' was one slogan bandied about at the November rally.

Despite their call for a reassertion of party power, the Leningrad ideology is not that of the extreme right. Gidaspov argues for a strong party, but also one that is energetic and responsive and based in the party rank and file, not a party that is aloof and ossified, as Brezhnev's was. Accordingly, he calls for more frequent and more direct party elections and the expansion of forums at which the party will be held publicly accountable for its actions.

Gidaspov and his followers also try to draw a middle line in the realm of economics. Gidaspov claims to favor centralization, but not ``hypercentralization.'' He rails against the cooperatives and argues that state planning should be retained in the most important sectors, such as defense, communications, and transport.

Yet he is willing to tolerate autonomy on the part of small enterprises and, when asked about private property, claims, ``I've nothing against private property. If some people are ready for it, let them have it.''

The official platform of the Leningrad Communist Party also reflects this approach, considering state enterprises the ``base form of our economy,'' yet calling for decentralization of management in a variety of areas, including housing, health care, consumer services, and supporting the development of a ``civilized cooperative movement.'' In short, what the Leningraders seem to want is enough decentralization to make the system work, yet not so much as to threaten socialist ideals.