Can the Soviet Union Be Reformed? An Interview with Vladimir Bukovsky

George Urban: Soviet man! This is a hoary topic, but for me it has a continuing fascination because it is the key to the question, “is there such a thing as ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ in the USSR?” You say in your book that the concept of Soviet Man was the starting point for all the illegalities you experienced in your country.

Bukovsky: The idea of Soviet man is so diffuse that any ruler or any KGB officer can interpret it in any way that suits his purpose. Broadly speaking it depicts a non-existing type of human being — one who “builds Communism,” endorses the policies of the party, fights for “peace” and condemns the machinations of “imperialism.” This is the gross propaganda side of the concept. In practical life, however, more subtle use is made of it. You are blackmailed into saying whether you regard yourself to be a Soviet Man, and if you don’t, there is hell to pay.

Urban: As you write in your book: ” ‘You are a Soviet man,’ says the KGB detective, ‘and therefore obliged to help us.’ And what can you say in reply? If you’re not Soviet, what are you: anti-Soviet? That alone is worth seven years in the labor camp and five in exile.”

The strange thing about the idea of Soviet man is that it is not written into the Constitution any more than the role of the Party General Secretary. (What, one may ask, is Mikhail Gorbachev doing in the Kremlin as General Secretary seeing that he is neither president nor Prime Minister?) Soviet man is a purely ideological concept. In law you are a Soviet citizen, but you need not be a Soviet man. One of the achievements of your civil rights group was to have made that distinction and to have educated the legal sense of the citizen to a point where he would demand the enforcement of the letter of Soviet law and the Soviet Constitution.


Bukovsky: Alik Volpin was the father of the idea in our circle that we should insist on a clear distinction being made between ideology and law. We said, yes, there is such a thing, on paper at least, as a “Soviet citizen,” but there is no such thing as “Soviet man.” Despite the totalitarian nature of the system, the comrades could never quite translate ideology into legislation. Hypocrisy and the needs of propaganda always demanded that the penal code and jurisdiction should reflect certain civilized standards that the rest of the world would accept, no matter how consistently they were being violated in daily practice. They looked good to the Webbs and the Feuchtwangers, and that was of great propaganda value to the young dictatorship.

Urban: And the double-talk worked. Harold Laski wrote these lapidary words about Andrei Vishinsky, Stalin’s Public prosecutor, after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1935: “I was disposed to think of him essentially in his capacity as prosecutor. . . .I found him a man whose passion was law reform. . . .He was doing what an ideal Minister of Justice would do if we had such a person in Great Britain . . . ” What you and your group did was to turn Soviet hypocrisy to good account, demanding not only that “sin should be paying tribute to virtue,” but that some of the sinning should cease — a most daring undertaking.

Bukovsky: It was, and for a simple reason: if the Soviet Constitution and Soviet law were to be strictly translated into reality, the system would collapse. Everyone knew that they were not meant to be taken seriously. Popular opinion accepted the farce arid the double-think as the inescapable backdrop to the fiction of “socialism.” We thought otherwise.

Urban: How then does a group of very young dissidents force the mighty totalitarian empire to respect its own laws and the Constitution?

Bukovsky: We did it by stages and (as I said) without any planning. Of course, we could not force the authorities to do what they were determined not to, but bit-by-bit we insinuated our way of legal thinking until it caught on and established itself as the natural method for voicing dissent.

Don’t forget that in 1917 the Bolsheviks abolished legality and independent jurisdiction, ushering in that profound sense of official lawlessness and indeed barbarism that paraded for a long time under the name of “revolutionary justice.” They assaulted the people’s sense of religion and subverted all existing norms of morality. That was the barren land we had to sow on. I am amazed to see, twenty five years after our first efforts, that those little beginnings have by now become the established way of protest. Whoever has a complaint or wants things changed will refer to the existing legal instruments and beat the public drums to draw attention to his demand. In other words, we have induced the authorities at least to talk the language of law, and that is the first step to making them respect the law. In an ideological system that is the only way in which an essentially lawless society can be slowly transformed into something resembling a normal society.

Urban: Isn’t that slow transformation now being boosted by Gorbachev’s own insistence that “socialist legality” must be strictly observed?

Bukovsky: Yes it is, even though the pre-Gorbachev history of the enforcement of socialist legality does not give one a lot of hope for the future. Not only that, but look at the slogans Gorbachev is now using to open up Soviet society. Glasnost (openness)! Why, we used to go to jail for demanding it! Our very first demonstration in Pushkin Square in 1965 had one single slogan: glasnost, and now it is the General Secretary of the Communist party pinning it to his mast. The reason? Gorbachev is an intelligent man; he understands what the people want and how to muster support for himself. His interpretation of “openness” is not the one we demanded, but it is a step in the right direction.

Urban: Western historians and students of the Soviet scene have often noted that the sense of law, of individual rights and civic courage are weak in Russian society. Russian history and tradition are blamed for much of this weakness. Going by the amount of per-suasion you have to use on your fellow prisoners to make them understand their legal rights, and the large number of complaints and appeals you wrote on their behalf, it would seem that you had direct experience of both the Soviet sense of legalized lawlessness and ordinary Russian’s isolation from the law. I tend to believe that even the elementary courage of saying, “these are my rights, and I’ll stick to them,” will have to be implanted in the Russian people by some revolution from above, and it may well be that Gorbachev’s reforms will promote that awareness as one of their perhaps unintended consequences.

Bukovsky: You’re touching on a sore point. One question that tormented many of us in the dissident movement in the Soviet Union was the question of our national worth. Why was it that other countries were mature enough to attain and maintain democratic government and the Russians were not? Was there a consciousness of law and responsibility missing from the Russian psyche — a willingness to assert our rights as individuals? What explained our role as the greatest oppressors of nations in the world —our reputation as universal trouble-makers?

Well, as long as I was inside the Soviet Union I found any number of cozy if self-accusatory explanations: the heritage of serfdom, the traditions of Tsarism, the destruction of the law by the Bolsheviks, the mockery of jurisdiction under Stalin, the show trials, and so on. But when I began to live in Western Europe and especially the U.S., my implied sense of guilt and inferiority as a Russian fell away. For what did I experience? I discovered that the ordinary Frenchman’s and German’s sense of law was every bit as tenuous as that of the ordinary Russian, and that in many ways the conformism of the Western citizen was more bovine and depressing than anything I experienced in the Soviet Union. I found conformism, timidity, and sheer ignorance especially sobering in the U.S. Your law-conscious, individualistic, brave, and upright Americans were spectacular by their absence. Like the hedges and lawns around American homes, the average U.S. citizen’s mind too seemed to be cut to a single basic pattern, and woe betide those who failed to conform.

All this induced me to rethink some of the received readings of the Russian character and to come to the conclusion that we would be no worse as citizens of a future liberal democracy than are members of other nations. Indeed, in some respects your Russian is more individualistic because he has a stubborn strain of anarchism in his blood. He hates authority and derives great pleasure from outflanking and defeating it. I doubt whether, in any competition for individualism and non-compliance, your dutiful German or American, with his impeccable record as a taxpayer, could hold his own against a true-blooded Russian.

Urban: Are you saying that a return to some form of Stalinism would prove impossible in the Soviet Union? If the Russians are as anarchistic as you say they are, both Lenin and Stalin might have had a piece of truth on their side when they insisted that “barbarism could only be defeated by barbarism.” Mightn’t, paradoxically, barbarism a la Lenin, Stalin, and, who knows, a la Gorbachev be the first steps towards democracy in the unhappy context of Russian history and society?

Bukovsky: Absolutely not. There can be no return to Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Chekist terror is a thing of the past.

Urban: Even though there are no institutional guarantees against either?

Bukovsky: Yes, despite the lack of institutional guarantees. Even totalitarian systems go through stages of natural development and decline. The Soviet system has aged; it is rapidly declining. It couldn’t muster the self-righteousness and ideological drive to install another reign of terror.

The backdrop to Stalinism was Civil War, two World Wars, and the fierce commitment of a fairly large number of Communists. That combination of factors cannot be repeated. Never again will the Soviet Union have Communist leaders with so profound a sense of ideological drive that they would, or could, terrorize the vast majority of the population.

Urban: Mightn’t the exigencies of a profound economic crisis force even relatively “liberal” leaders of the stamp of Gorbachev to impose order on the Soviet peoples — in the name of “perestroika” and, ironically, “democracy”?

So far we have bailed out the Soviet system every time it found itself in deep trouble. But what if we stopped doing so and said, as we might under present conditions, “your economic weakness is greatly to our advantage. We’ll do nothing to give you another breathing space”? Wouldn’t the Soviet system have to revert back to some form of Stalinism?

Bukovsky: First, I don’t think for a moment that the West would or could exploit the economic crisis of the Soviet system in terms of a well thought-out and coordinated policy. It would probably pay protection money the way innocent and frightened people often do, given a tough enough extortioner. Second, economic hardship would certainly not induce the Kremlin to return to Stalinism. On the contrary, it would force it to move even further and faster towards a market economy than it is already doing. NEP (the New Economic Policy) of the early 1920s was the system’s typical response to the crisis of the economy. It would respond in the same way now, as it is indeed doing.

Urban: We should, then, let the Soviets stew in their own juice and not fear the incalculable reactions of a cornered system?

Bukovsky: That’s right. In order to hasten liberalization in the USSR and cause the Kremlin to take up a more peaceable posture towards the outside world, the pressure has to be kept up. It is already paying dividends. Gorbachev’s spectacular climb- down on INF [Intermediate Range Nuclear Force talks] could not have happened without it.

Urban: But to return to “glasnost” — could that slogan prove dangerous for the cohesion of Soviet society? Could it perhaps prove dangerous for Gorbachev himself?

Bukovsky: It is, in my view, dangerous for the system. It is my deep conviction and that of many of my friends that the Soviet system cannot exist as an open society. You can open it up a bit to let off steam and to assist you in installing a new leadership — but then you have to close it down again or face the consequences. That Gorbachev has hijacked the slogan of glasnost from the dissidents shows that he has a keen sense of what has to be said and what he has to avoid saying in the critical situation he is now facing. But he also knows that “openness” cannot be implemented.

Urban: Hasn’t he gone beyond glasnost though, demanding, in fact, reforms and a thorough reorganization of society —which amount, in the Soviet context, to revolutionary transformation? Gorbachev does, from time to time, use words like “revolutionary transformation,” referring not only to change in the economy but also to radical change in the behavior of people and institutions.

Bukovsky: Gorbachev first spoke exclusively about revolutionary change in the economy. It was only after the Twentieth-seventh Party Congress that he began to widen the term to include other areas of Soviet life too; but his emphasis continues to be on economic reconstruction. It is the Soviet Union’s economic awkwardness that upsets Gorbachev most because he sees it as a great hindrance to putting the Soviet empire on the map as an all-round superpower. One has to be extremely circumspect in using the word “revolution” in a Communist environment.

Urban: I think Gorbachev is aware of that, yet he has not shied away from using the word “revolution” on a great many occasions and in non-economic contexts. Addressing the Khabarovsk party aktiv on July 31, 1986, he said:

The current restructuring embraces not only the economy but all other facets of public life: social relations, the political system, the spiritual and ideological sphere and the style, and the methods of the work of the Party and of all our cadres. Restructuring is a capacious word. I would equate the word restructuring with the word revolution. Our transformations, the reforms mapped out in the decisions of the plenum of the Party’s Central Committee and of the Twenty-seventh Party Congress, are a real revolution in the entire system of social relations, in the hearts and minds of people, in the psychology and understanding of the modern period and, first of all, of the tasks engendered by rapid scientific and technological progress.

Bukovsky: Taking Gorbachev’s various utterances as a whole, though, I would still insist that he is principally concerned with the economy. He is hoping that the reform of the economy can somehow be accomplished without everything else being reformed too, because “everything else” would mean unbuttoning the whole straitjacket of the Soviet system. That he does not want to do. In a subsequent passage of the speech from which you have just quoted, Gorbachev makes it very clear that the “revolution” he advocates must happen “not beyond the boundaries of socialism but within the framework of our system, revealing the potential of the planned economy, socialist democracy, culture and the human factor.”

Urban: But even if Gorbachev did want to confine himself basically to the reform of the economy, he would still be Marxist enough to realize that you cannot do that without affecting the “superstructure” — your political life, your art and letters and so on. But, as I say, Gorbachev has gone far beyond the notion of just economic “restructuring,” and even where he does not use the word “revolution,” it is quite clear from the context that radical change in the economy and beyond the economy is what he has in mind.

For example, talking to workers of the Gagarin Aviation Works in Komsomolsk -on-Amur on July 29, 1986, he said: “I can see that a lot of problems have accumulated here. As I listen to you I become even more convinced that everything we have started is correct. A great deal has been piled up, a great deal, and we need a large bulldozer to sweep it away.” And later, answering complaints about enterprise management, he made some observations to the applause of the workers that are especially unlikely to make him popular with the nomenklatura:

It’s essential that the manager does not take the view that having been appointed to his post he’s now a kind of appanage prince . . . The people must know everything and keep a check on it, because the human factor is the most important one. . .  What kind of socialism is it if things are kept from the people? Is this some private concern of entrepreneurs? . . . We’ve taken the country thoroughly in hand. We have strength enough; we have character enough. No one is going to knock us off the track.

These are, to my mind, pretty radical sentiments in an ossified Marxist-Leninist environment even if they do not herald the institutional reform of the system. They must be anathema to a great many people in the Establishment.

Bukovsky: What is so fascinating about the drama we can now observe unfolding under Gorbachev is that he and his supporters understand the crisis of the Soviet system in exclusively Marxist terms.

The Soviets have been building their society since 1917 according to the books, and the books have produced a diseased Marxist system. Now they are being forced to apply to it the critical apparatus of Marxism. This is ironic because traditionally Marxism was harnessed to the understanding and then the destruction of slave-owing, feudal, and bourgeois societies in the hope of preparing the way for the consummation of history in a socialist and then communist world society. Marx did not say what precisely would happen under a socialist system nor did he say whether or how his theory would apply under “socialism.” All he said was that he was no “Marxist” and that it would be absurd to build a political party on Marxism. The rest was left open. Now that the world’s first truly “scientific” Marxist society is in deep trouble, it remains to be seen how the tools of Marxism can help it to attain a measure of health.

Urban: Whether Gorbachev is trying to do it exclusively by applying Marxism is not self-evident. Many would say that Gorbachev’s and Deng’s rescue operations represent heavy borrowing from the market economy and capitalism, such as their insistence on the profitability of enterprises, competition, wage differentials, ownership by local collectives, and the like.

Bukovsky: Let’s look at the way in which Gorbachev and his supporters define the crisis. They say, in true Marxist fashion, that a conflict has developed between “social relations” and “productive forces.”

Urban: In plain English, that the ruling class has a vested interest in keeping things as they are because upheavals in the economy would threaten their privileges.

Bukovslcy: Yes, that’s the gist of it, but they put it differently, and that’s what intrigues me. Tatyana Zaslayskaya, one of Gorbachev’s principal advisers and gurus, has restated and re- emphasized Marx’s point that a clash between “social relations” and “production forces” leads to trouble, and unless the reorganization of the existing system of productive forces is taken in hand, Soviet society will continue on its downward slide. But, she asks, how can such a reorganization be “entrusted to social groups that occupy rather high positions in the system and that, accordingly, have a vested interest in its maintenance”? Her answer is: never mind the vested interests — do it, because if you don’t the clash will lead to social upheaval, turmoil, and even revolution.

Now this is classical Marxism — suddenly applied to the ills of Soviet society. But she goes further and says that even a so-called “mature” socialist society is not exempt from this rule, and here we come to what I take to be Gorbachev’s so far hidden agenda. Zaslayskaya asks: and what is the essence of a Marxist society? It is the public ownership of the means of production. She does not go much beyond putting the question, but I take it to be a hint heavy with meaning, for what the Gorbachev reformers are really driving at is some change in the ownership of the means of production. But that would be opening up Pandora’s box, because we all know that the form of ownership established in the Soviet Union 70 years ago is the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which in turn means the dictatorship of the “advance guard” of the proletariat, that is to say, of the Communist Party. Hence, in my judgment, the Gorbachev reforms point to a thorough reform of Enemy No. 1 — the Communist Party bureaucracy itself, and they do so, as I say, strictly according to the letter of Marxist analysis.

Urban: We are now talking about prediction, not facts—

Bukovsky: We are, but I flatter myself I can read between the lines. Now what kind of change in ownership do the reformers foresee? They do not, of course, suggest that they would want to return the means of production to private hands or dissolve the Party (although they may mean both in their private thoughts). They simply imply that some change in the Communist ownership of the means of production must be put in train.

Remember that the Marxist definition of ownership (based on Roman law) is: owning, using, and managing. What do the reformers say? They say that Soviet society does not require that all three functions should be united in the hands of the Party — it is enough that the Party should have one or two, leaving the rest in the hands of the “public.” This is truly amazing for it foreshadows a wish to “restructure” Soviet society right from the bottom. The question is: can an ossified, unfree society be made to be flexible and free? According to the Marxist tenets it can. Gorbachev’s people argue that in ancient societies slave labor was abolished when it ceased to be competitive. By a similar token the present methods of “socialist” production are inefficient and must give way to more cost-effective ways of production. And if vested interests (“social relations”) stand in the way, it’s too bad for the vested interests.

Urban: We can see why Gorbachev is having a bumpy ride. The question of returning state property to “private” hands is, in fact, now being openly raised in the Soviet Union. The official excuse for raising it is the debate on the new law concerning the future of state enterprises, and more particularly the proposed issue of shares as part of the process of conferring financial autonomy on them. In one television discussion (Moscow TV, March 10, 1987) a viewer’s suggestion that the devolution of control should lead to some form of private ownership was strongly rejected by Evald Figurnov, head of one of the economic departments of the Central Committee. But the manner in which the question had been raised and was turned down is intriguing because it indicates that glasnost is now inducing people to think — and to say — the unthinkable. Figurnov said:

[The question] presupposes that the introduction of complete financial autonomy would lead to a transition from the property of the whole people, I should say, to that of a cooperative, or even of a private person, since everyone would have shares, or bonds, something that would represent one’s persona, private property, wouldn’t it? Well, I should like to emphasize that no such transformation of the property of the whole people into cooperative property and much less, into private property, will take place once the Law on the State Enterprise comes into force. Not at all. That is to say, the property of the whole people, in accordance with the tenets of the economic theory and political economy of socialism, will remain the same property of the whole people . . . there is no going to private property here.

Bukovsky: What fascinates me is the reformers’ almost comical determination to stick to the framework and language of Marxism, never mind what they might really think. The muzhik is being encouraged to rent cattle. Rent cattle! The peasant family is given the option of renting a cow. Why this particular “reform”? Because renting a cow is not ownership; the peasant can exercise some of the ownership functions of having a cow — it can milk her and sell her products, but cannot own her. But even this “radical” innovation has failed to induce enthusiasm among the farmers for better production, and the reason for that brings me to another important point: you cannot reform the Soviet economy in a political vacuum.

Urban: — which Gorbachev seems to be aware of. None of us can teach him public relations and propaganda.

Bukovsky: Personally, he may be aware of it, but the people he has to work with aren’t. It is, you see, not enough to offer to the muzhik the milk of the cow. You cannot inject elements of a market economy into a communist economy with any hope of success if you haven’t obtained some public backing for what you are trying to do. In a command economy you don’t need public confidence — you just command. But the moment you offer the peasant the use of a cow you are asking for his initiative, for good husbandry, efficient marketing and the like and  these he is not going to give you unless he trusts you and your reforms. The renting of cattle has been a failure.

Urban: But private plots are now being made more easily available, and the long term “socialist leasing of land,” as it is now euphemistically called, is about to be introduced for work-teams and even “family units” of not more than two or three people. If we go by the Hungarian examples, couldn’t these reforms help to fill up Soviet shops and markets with some of the items that are in chronically short supply?

Bukovsky: The Soviet peasants’ mentality is different from what you have in Hungary. They don’t take to the private plots or work them the way the Hungarians do. For 70 years neither the Soviet elite nor the farming population or the working class were allowed to have any experience of running anything remotely like a market economy. No one in the USSR knows how a market economy operates. Cost-effectiveness, profitability, marketing, quality-control, and the like are ideas that will have to be acquired through trial and error over a long period of time. Profit was a boo-word in the Communist vocabulary. Can you make it respectable overnight?

Urban: Your diagnosis chimes in perfectly with what Gorbachev’s men themselves now take to be the ills of the Soviet economy. Academician Abel Aganbegyan, talking on Hungarian television, observed (March 4, 1987):

You have got used [in the Soviet State Planning Committee] to issuing direct instructions to the enterprises what they should produce and how much, This method will now disappear and it is said that you should go over to economic regulators. However, in reality you do not even know what they are, you have never come across this method. Thus you might feel that there is no longer firm ground under your feet. After all, you have worked in the accustomed way for decades . . . They [the conservative managers] are afraid of independence, yes, they are afraid of being independent. What is more, if they are given independence, they fail to make use of it. They continue to ask permission to do this or that, even though they do not need permission any more.

What is remarkable about this statement is that Aganbegyan should have been quite so open about the exasperation which Gorbachev’s policies are causing among Soviet managers, and that his critique should be quite so close to the views held by “antagonistic” observers such as yourself. Perhaps there is, after all, life left in the Soviet economy?

Bukovsky: To answer that comment, let me go on telling you how unfamiliarity with the facts of life in a non-command economy, and pussy-footing around piecemeal reform, can defeat the objectives of the reformers.

In the mid-1970s Brezhnev wanted to revitalize agriculture in the non-black-soil areas of Central Russia where production had been poor. He came up with the revolutionary idea that people would produce more if they were paid more. Great investments followed; many millions were harnessed to the hope that “more pay will produce better results” — not in itself an irrational proposition in a market economy. But what really happened was that production actually declined in proportion to investment. Why?, you may ask. Because the moment your farm worker was paid higher rates on the collective farm, he began to reduce the work he put into his private plot on the simple principle that there was very little to buy in Soviet shops, hence you could only use a limited amount of money. Once you earned enough to buy what you needed and what was available, you had done enough. What I’m saying is that a basically sound economic idea can misfire if applied in an uncongenial environment. Partial reform is going to prove very difficult in the Soviet system. You’ll have to open up the whole of the economy or face the prospect of repeating the Brezhnev experience, but on a much larger scale.

Urban: Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformism recently involved him in some revealing articulations about the way in which he envisages “democracy” operating in a revamped Soviet society. He suggested on more than one occasion that as the Soviet Union does not cater for opposition parties and thus for a reliable feedback, the party itself would have to provide a wide spectrum of critical opinions. For example, talking to Soviet writers on June 19, 1986, Gorbachev said that the restructuring of society was made more difficult by the absence of a loyal opposition. “We don’t have an opposition. How then can we monitor ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. And most of all through glasnost.” This may strike us as a feeble remedy, especially as Soviet history is replete with enthusiastic calls for criticism and self-criticism, none of which prevented the Soviet economy and the political system from ending up in its present crisis. Nevertheless, the fact that Gorbachev has had the courage of mentioning the need of an “opposition” shows that this entirely Soviet man has a realistic understanding of where the shoe pinches and what sort of footwear he would buy himself if he could start all over again.

Commenting recently to a television audience about the poor quality of Soviet industrial products, he said “Only socialism could have tolerated these for so long; they would have bankrupted capitalism.” That his real meaning was “a market economy would never have permitted the production of such shoddy goods,” cannot have been lost on his listeners.

Bukovsky: Gorbachev has his ear to the ground and picks up a lot of popular wisdom. In the 1960s I travelled extensively in the USSR and used to run into the kind of sentiments Gorbachev is now voicing. “We have no opposition parties and no private ownership — is it any wonder that our state-run industries are mismanaged and public property is pilfered?”, I used to be told. “Of course, under a master (khozyain), under a good owner such things would not happen.” The curious thing was that the people who talked like that had, for the most part, never set eyes on a “master” or “owner.” But they had it handed down from their parents and perhaps knew it in their bones that the “master” of a peasant household was the kind of fellow you could trust. All this is common wisdom in the Soviet Union; people will talk like that at the drop of a hat. The “good master” is what people in the Soviet Union widely feel is lacking in Soviet society, and Gorbachev seems to be sharing that view.

Urban: A heritage from the ancien regime? The Bible?

Bukovsky: It may be a bit of both, but it’s predominantly ordinary peasant wisdom and common sense. You have a very similar phenomenon in England. Council houses will be poorly looked after, but the same council houses sold to the tenants will at once take on a different appearance. Ownership stimulates pride; self-interest demands that you maintain and improve what you’ve got.

I once saw an amazing spectacle in Siberia. A gang of young fellows was planting rotten potatoes. “What are you doing?” I asked, “those potatoes are dead, they will never grow.” They laughed. “We’re not paid to grow them, we’re paid to plant them.” But then they added: “Of course, none of this would be happening under a “master”; he wouldn’t allow it. But now — there is no ownership; nothing belongs to anybody.” That’s the key to the malaise of the Soviet system.


George Robert Urban (1921 – 1997) was a Hungarian writer, best known as a broadcaster for Radio Free Europe (RFE). After studying at Budapest University, Urban left Hungary in 1948, coming to the United Kingdom where he took up further studies at London University. He also began work for the BBC Hungarian service. He was a radio broadcaster for a number of years for the BBC World Service, leaving and joining RFE in 1960, and becoming its director for a period in the 1980s. Urban is known also for his writing for Encounter magazine. His journalism and book writing drew heavily on long dialogues, in effect extended interviews, from his work at RFE, involving major intellectual and political figures who were prepared to engage with the Cold War. He also published a study of the Georgekreis, an early enthusiasm, and continuing shaper of his attitudes.