Soviet Backlash

December 05, 1990

Mikhail S. Gorbachev is getting desperate.

As radical reformers and traditional communists continue to squabble amid the ruins of the paralyzed Soviet system, his centrist position has eroded. Nothing appears to work. Shortages are only getting worse. What is Misha to do?

President Gorbachev has done two things which look like reversals of the liberal policies that guided his first five years in power. Last weekend, he first ordered the creation of "worker" vigilantes to monitor the food industry (and punish those involved in theft and speculation) and then dumped his interior minister for an official more palatable to hard-liners. The new man in that powerful post is Boris Pugo. His deputy is a former commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Boris Pugo may not be a household name in America, but in the Soviet Union his name is certain to send a message. He is the orphan of an old Latvian Bolshevik, who was adopted by a Brezhnev era Politburo member and chairman of a powerful Communist Party personnel and disciplinary body. Little wonder that the young man got such a good communist schooling he soon turned up in Latvia as a KGB general, wasting no time in launching a harsh crackdown against dissidents and nationalists of his own ethnic background.

The intended Pugo message, therefore, is that Mr. Gorbachev views the Soviet crisis as having reached such an acute stage that the time for concession talks with ethnic nationalists throughout the country is over.

An even more alarming development is the creation of the vigilante committees to be coordinated and supervised by the KGB. To anyone with a memory of history, they recall the arbitrary and unruly enforcement groups first set up by Lenin after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover and then continued in various forms under Stalin. Those groups were above the law, settling old scores and enmities by designating "enemies of the people" and shooting them.

The Gorbachev vigilantes, along with the KGB, are to combat economic sabotage and supervise food relief deliveries from abroad. Through them, Mr. Gorbachev hopes to halt the chaos which is causing food shortages in a nation which only a few months ago reaped an all-time record harvest. He also wants to placate his hardline communist critics who have been castigating him for weakness in dealing with ethnic separatists.

If history is any guide, these extralegal squads are likely to turn against various forms of free enterprise permitted during the past few years. Thus the end result may be that after having painstakingly tried to re-establish the rule of law in the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev has provided an opening for a retreat from high principle.

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