Part 4. Soviet socialism and democracy: A little comparison of the systems
In spite of perestroika and glasnost, in the area of political culture the Soviet people are still deprived of the nourishment that is consumed as a matter of course by every great people accustomed to democracy. The questions that dominate Western public opinion remain unanswered in the U.S.S.R. or, even worse, are not even raised.
For example, what does Gorbachev do in his spare time? When Shevardnadze is at the U.N. who does his wife see? Can Ligachev cook, and what does he like to eat? How does Raisa celebrate her granddaughter’s birthday?
It is left to Western reporters to peek through every imaginable keyhole and find out what “East bloc” politicians do when they’re not exercising power. Eastern-style press, radio and television do not quench this interest. The official biography of a Politburo member usually fails to mention his marriage or the number of his children. It contains nothing but the lean data of a typical functionary’s career. Simply nothing to feed the imagination!
The Soviet people have no choice but to put up with the ignorance forced on them by the Soviet media’s indifference in such matters. Unless they listen to the voice of the CIA, Radio Liberty, and long for the curiosity of democratic peoples, which is fully satisfied by fawning reporters’ inquiries into the private lives of those who rule this world.
But even more serious, highly political questions remain unanswered over there. For example, what coalition brought Gorbachev to power? Can Gromyko maintain his influence? What is Yeltsin plotting against Gorbachev? How many Central Committee secretaries support the new minister of defense?
No Soviet magazine minutely records the trends and political ups and downs of the competition for power, uncovers cabinet discussions, put-up jobs and electoral arrangements for or against candidates for party offices. All this too must be taken care of from abroad by the reporters from “Time,” “Newsweek,” “Der Spiegel” and “L’Express.” No Soviet TV report entertains the public with a “whodunit” about the rivalry between various Politburo candidates. Such highly educational attractions as the political tragedy of Gary Hart are simply unknown to Soviet viewers.
And of course, the Soviet people are thoroughly unacquainted with the most interesting and democratic questions of all: “Will Sakharov and his dissidents make it into the Supreme Soviet?” “How many seats will go to the National Ukrainian Party?” “And how many to the United Islamic Convention?” “Will Gromyko win in his constituency?” “How likely is it for Gorbachev not to be directly re-elected?”
There is no state interest in the U.S.S.R in exploring the problem of how the various figures in the governing elite appeal to the governed people. There is even less interest in conducting a test on this, whose outcome livens up the change of staff in the highest offices. There are no election campaigners who, by loudly proclaiming that they will beat their lousy rivals, arouse voting preferences among the people, and suspense until the first or last computer projection. Voters cannot flatter themselves that they have contributed their millionth to this suspense with their secret ballots. Even the “electoral decision” in the U.S.S.R. — against the ruling Party, of course — must be taken care of by Western democracies, unfortunately only in theory.
Yet the “East bloc” states do have their own democratic institutions such as elections, political culture and political prominence. Westerners are used to condemning the “inhumane regimes” of the East with their “mock elections,” their “rule by incompetent functionaries” and their “personality cult.” But it is worthwhile checking whether political life in the East bloc really comes off this badly in comparison with public opinion and the party system in the free world.