Glasnost, both the term and the concept, has a long and honorable history. It was one of the main demands put forward by 19th-century Russian radicals, figuring prominently in the early issues of Kolokol (“The Bell”), the only free Russian periodical published at the time. “Where there is no glasnost,” Aleksandr Herzen wrote in the late 1850’s, “and no legal right but only the charity of the czar, public opinion has no influence, the intrigues of the anteroom and the alcove prevail.” And again: “Whoever opposes glasnost, whoever is against the liberation of the serfs, he is an enemy of the people, he is our enemy. . . .” In his farewell letter to his friends (“From the Other Shore,” Paris, March 1, 1849), Herzen once again invoked glasnost in explaining his decision not to return to Russia:

The struggle here in Western Europe is public despite the bloodshed and the tears. Woe to the vanquished, but they are not defeated before they had their word. . . . Where the free word has not been killed, the cause is not yet lost. Because of this open struggle, because of free speech and glasnost, I shall remain here.

We also find the term glasnost mentioned some forty times in Lenin’s collected works, mainly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin was not exactly a great believer in the notion, although even in his day lip service to it was never entirely discontinued. Brezhnev, too, referred to glasnost from time to time, and the word appears in the Soviet Constitution of 1977. On the other side of the Soviet divide, glasnost was one of the main demands put forward during those years by dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

In the most recent edition of the Soviet Political Dictionary (1987), glasnost is defined as follows:

One of the most important democratic principles guaranteeing the openness of the work of the organs of government; access, so that society can inform itself about their activities. Glasnost is the most developed form of control by the masses of the population over the organs of government, especially the local ones, of the struggle against bureaucratism. The most important channels of glasnost are the means of mass information, oral propaganda, and visual aids such as displays. Information which contains state and military secrets, industrial production, crime investigation, and medicine is not subject to glasnost. (See also entry on Revolutionary Vigilance.)

This is a fairly accurate definition, even though “oral propaganda” and “visual aids such as displays” look out of place in this context, and it is odd that the inviolability of the doctor-patient relationship should have to be specified. As for the reference to “revolutionary vigilance,” with its special connotations dating back to the days of Stalin, the mere phrase points to the limits of glasnost.

But why should such a lengthy explanation be needed in the first place? Why, too, is it so difficult to find synonyms or an exact translation of glasnost into other languages? The reason is that glasnost is not exactly freedom of speech, or the kind of cultural or political freedom known in the West, but a specifically Russian phenomenon: the attempt to combine a non-democratic or antidemocratic mode of government with a certain degree of cultural freedom, with accountability (especially on the lower levels of the administration), and with “transparency.” Although glasnost can be and has been interpreted as a step toward democracy, in itself it is not the same thing as democracy; if there were democratic freedoms there would be no need for glasnost as a discrete element of the political system.

The way glasnost is used in the Western media has added to the confusion. We are frequently told that Soviet actions in Afghanistan, or toward the Armenians, or in the domestic economy are a “touchstone for the glasnost policy.” In fact, however, glasnost does not refer to the substance of politics but to approach and style. Glasnost is not perestroika (roughly, “restructuring”), though Gorbachev believes it is a precondition of perestroika. (There seem to be differences on this count within the Politburo.) It is not a synonym for the Soviet reform policy in general. In Lenin’s suggestive words, quoted frequently by Gorbachev, glasnost means, rather, “letting the party know everything.”




Be all that as it may, glasnost has opened one of the most fascinating chapters in Russian cultural history and, to a lesser extent, in Soviet society. Under glasnost, complaints about many aspects of Soviet life have been voiced in a way that was unthinkable even a few years ago. Cultural controls and restrictions have been either lifted or loosened; books have been published, plays and movies performed, paintings and sculptures exhibited that had been banned for many years. Informal societies have sprung up outside the party and its satellite organizations, and in them topics once taboo are freely (or almost freely) discussed. It is as if a wave of pent-up energy had suddenly found a release, with a consequence that has been compared to the exhilarating effects of inhaling pure oxygen. There has been no singing and dancing in the streets—as there was after the October manifesto of 1905 in which Russia was promised a constitution—but there has been great excitement, at least among the intelligentsia.

Vasili Shukshin (1929-74), born in Siberia, worker, teacher, subsequently one of the leading film producers and actors of his time as well as a very gifted and enormously popular writer, once asked, “What has become of us?” This question could very well serve as the official slogan of glasnost. True, all the problems of Soviet society had long been identified, and some even articulated. Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear was aware of the state of things. But with glasnost the perspective changed: what had been considered minor blemishes on an overall positive balance-sheet were now recognized as major threats to society.

Nor had the deeper reasons for these evils ever been discussed freely and frankly: according to the official line, they were remnants of Russia’s unfortunate pre-revolutionary past. Now, however, such explanations were set aside in favor of a larger possibility: what if the evils were rooted not in the past but in the present? Finally, even among those who had raised questions little attention was paid to what would later become known as the “human factor,” to issues of morality, to the quality of life. Although there was the occasional newspaper editorial or novel about corruption, embezzlement, and other aspects of the darker side of Soviet society, these were somehow considered “untypical,” describing situations that could be remedied by administrative measures, greater vigilance, stricter controls. With glasnost, the questioning took on scope as well as depth.

The decision to launch the glasnost campaign was a courageous one, as is shown simply by listing a few of the areas touched upon by it. Glasnost, for example, has brought revelations about the state of women in Soviet society. As one woman author wrote, “Our statistics give one the impression of Soviet women as happy, hard-working, well-educated professionals good at sport, dancing, and singing, active in unions and in public life. This is a highly inaccurate picture. . . .” (In some cities, the divorce rate reaches 80 or 90 percent.) Glasnost has also shed light on prostitution, alcoholism, the wide use of drugs. It has exposed the appallingly high crime rate, as well as the serious shortcomings in the administration of justice.

Perhaps most painfully of all, glasnost has brought to the attention of the leadership and the public the condition of the younger Soviet generation. This has had its trivial side, as in the debates over whether rock music should be banned or coopted, whether it produces in its adepts not only moral but also biochemical changes, whether jeans affect the female body for the worse, whether youth culture is a foreign importation sent by the forces of Western imperialism to weaken the national fiber, etc. But important issues have been raised as well: the veshism (materialism) of the younger generation, the importance of money in its scale of values, the attitude of the older generation to youth. In theory, to quote a famous Soviet slogan, children are regarded as “the only privileged class in our society”; in fact, it has turned out, children are widely seen as a nuisance, noisy, ill-behaved, lazy, and in every respect inferior to the generation of their parents.

Equally depressing have been the revelations concerning the health service, once upon a time the pride and joy of the Soviet leadership. At issue are not just the rise in infant mortality and the decline in life expectancy. A public debate has been launched over the question of continuing free health care altogether. Most patients seem to be in favor, most doctors against. But in many ways the discussion is irrelevant; as one journalist wrote in a leading paper: “No one is ashamed to take money, this is the norm in our medicine. Now we discuss in our press whether or not we should pay for medical care. But this is sheer hypocrisy—medical care has not been free for a long time. In our hospitals, especially those in our capital, there is no room for people with empty pockets.”

Many other aspects of Soviet social life have come under scrutiny: education, low pensions, creeping inflation, hidden and not so hidden poverty. There have been countless complaints over the decline in manners and morals. One writer noted that the last time he heard the phrase “pardon me” was in Leningrad in 1961. Where, another asked, has all the spite and anger come from? What has made people so hard and unfeeling? Could it be the harsh living conditions, the unending queuing, a political system which breeds dissimulation and suspicion?

The very fact that so many look nostalgically backward rather than casting their eyes to the future is evidence of dissatisfaction and lack of confidence. There is the feeling that somehow, some time, Russian history took a wrong turn, and as a result many of the old virtues disappeared. Of course there is a tendency in all this to glorify a past which was in fact far from idyllic, but what counts is the perception of loss, along with the conviction that even a higher standard of living is no substitute for human kindness. For the Russian people to find its soul again—so it is believed—a moral revolution is needed for which the prevailing doctrine, whatever its other merits, cannot serve as a guide or compass.




The impact of glasnost has been felt most palpably in the cultural field. The year 1987 was the annus mirabilis of Soviet literature, witnessing not just a second thaw but a true cultural blossoming, released (or almost released) from the frigid grasp of censorship. It was a time of enormous spiritual ferment and creative openness, of a kind and an extent not known for six decades.

In almost any other country, the fact that literary magazines were suddenly flourishing, after years of almost unrelieved drought, would not be considered a matter of paramount importance. But in Russia, literature has always played an especially powerful role. As Vissarion Belinsky put it 150 years ago, “In literature alone, despite our Tartar censorship, there is life and a forward movement.”

The Gorbachev era in Soviet culture was not ushered in with a bang. It took more than a year into his tenure for glasnost in literature and the cinema to become manifest. But by the second half of 1986 the process was rapidly gathering momentum. The editorship of some leading literary journals changed hands. A prominent “village” writer (not even a party member) named Sergei Zalygin became editor of the magazine Novy Mir. Serge Baruzdin and Grigory Baklanov (Fridman) were made editors of Druzhba Narodov and Znamia respectively; neither had been known as a liberal activist, but both believe in greater freedom of expression and were willing to publish writers dealing with subjects heretofore taboo. Literaturnaya Gazeta and Oktyabr remained nominally in the hand of stalwarts of the old order, but their orientation changed considerably. Sovyetskaya Kultura, previously one of the most tedious publications of all, began to feature interesting essays on a great variety of topics. Ogonyok, once a main bulwark of the neo-Stalinists and conservatives, published political and literary exposés which drove its old supporters into near-apoplexy.

Some of the journals outside of Moscow, such as Neva (in Leningrad) or Don (in Rostov) also began to publish novels and essays that were widely read and discussed. Newspapers and periodicals doubled, tripled, quadrupled their circulation, and even so were sold out within a few minutes of delivery to the kiosk. When journalists at one of the weeklies asked their editor for guidance, he allegedly replied, “You should write as if you wanted them to come take me away.”

Then there were movies. Three years ago the state of the movie industry was particularly bad, with the low quality of the films reflected in the steadily decreasing attendance. Slightly unconventional movies were either heavily censored or altogether banned; leading directors emigrated or were ostracized. Then (at the Fifth Congress of Soviet Film-Makers) there was a sudden revolt, and the old leadership was deposed.

In the theater the revolution was equally sudden and in some respects even more far-reaching. At the 15th congress of the Russian Theater Society, Oleg Efremov, head of the Moscow Art Theater, got up and proposed the establishment of a new organization of theater workers. Such an initiative might seem of no particular significance to Westerners, but in the Soviet context it was a sensation. According to established practice every Soviet theater had its repertoire approved in Moscow, and was thus totally dependent on the decisions of party officials with little or no competence in the field. The theaters were also defenseless against regional party secretaries who for one reason or another might want to ban a play even if it was being performed elsewhere in the Soviet Union. What Efremov was proposing, then, amounted to a declaration of independence.

If, on the other hand, literature has been in the vanguard of the reform movement, music and painting have lagged far in the rear. Both suffered enormously under Stalin, and even after his death the party line did not much change; to this day the infamous Zhdanov decrees of 1946-47, castigating “elitist” music and art and demanding that artists devote their energies to rallying the people around the Communist cause, have not been officially revoked, only amended. The protagonists of “official art” who head the professional organizations and the journalists who decide on exhibitions and musical programs have remained by and large in office. This has resulted in a further deterioration of standards even in fields in which Russian art has traditionally been very good, and in an exodus of younger artists, musicians, and composers who work outside the official frameworks. When, in 1987, the composers’ union transferred its plenary meeting from Moscow to Kemerovo, a coalmining center in the Kuznetsk region, cynics saw it as a symbolic act: getting as far away from the capital, and glasnost, as possible.



In the academic world, an interim balance shows that there has been a great deal of cultural glasnost in some fields and very little in others. Some economists and sociologists have made good use of the new freedom, but official journals like Voprosy Ekonomiki and Planovoe Khosiaistvo show little “new thinking.” The greatest resistance has come from historians and political philosophers; in political philosophy an interesting dichotomy has developed in which the organs of the Central Committee (such as Kommunist) have taken a more liberal line than many professionals in the field, while in Soviet history the version that has emerged in historical novels and plays differs markedly from that based on the old orthodoxy and still espoused by most academics. Whereas the great damage done by Lysenkoism to Soviet science and agriculture has been thoroughly aired, Soviet historiography, a field in which there has been at least as much lying as in genetics, has yet to undergo a house-cleaning. Although the whole editorial board of Voprosy Istorii was fired earlier this year, it would still be unrealistic to expect much change even now; there are simply too few liberals among Soviet historians.

The crucial test facing writers of Soviet history is of course how they deal with the role of Stalin; the next most critical test is their treatment of Stalin’s chief antagonist, Trotsky. According to virtually all contemporaries Trotsky was not a lovable man. While he was probably more intelligent and better educated than most other Bolshevik leaders, his political judgment was frequently suspect and sometimes utterly wrong. He often quarreled with Lenin, who after 1917 said that Trotsky had been “with us but not of us.” Yet the same Lenin also remarked that since 1917 there had been no better Bolshevik than Comrade Trotsky. And in November 1918 Stalin himself wrote in Pravda that “all the work of practical organization of the insurrection was conducted under the immediate leadership of the president of the Petrograd Soviet, Comrade Trotsky.”

The treatment of Trotsky is a litmus test of glasnost precisely because he has for so long been considered an arch-villain—Satan, Judas, Lucifer, the incarnation of all evil. Half a century after his assassination in Mexico, it ought to be possible to publish the truth about him. The issue is after all no longer topical: in what sense can Trotskyism as a political movement be said to constitute a real danger to Soviet power? Yet it has proved to be impossible. No more than the medieval church could detect merits in the Antichrist can Trotsky be conceded his virtues. Some beliefs are so deeply ingrained that any slight revision can cause an irreparable schism.

For similar reasons there are inbuilt limitations to telling the truth about Stalin. It can be freely admitted that Stalin committed grave mistakes, even crimes. After all, Lenin is always there to replace him as Father of the Revolution and great and good leader, unsullied by mistake or transgression. But at the same time Stalin (and Stalinism) cannot be entirely discarded without fatally undermining the legitimacy of party and state.

By contrast, the case of Nikolai Bukharin is relatively harmless; indeed, he was almost rehabilitated under Khrushchev thirty years earlier. Soviet historians agree that he was a decent man, probably too decent to cope with the difficult tasks of the 1930’s. And so they have conceded that he was not, as Stalin alleged in justifying his execution, a Japanese spy or a poisoner of the wells. No such allowances, however, have been made for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who played a part equal or superior to that of the Bolsheviks in the struggle against czarism. Paradoxically it has proved easier to show forgiveness to some leading right-wing émigrés of 1917-18 who remained Russian patriots even in exile.

There may be another explanation for the reluctance to reexamine Soviet history, namely that the present generation of Soviet leaders knows little about the past of their own party and country. The true facts have been so well hidden that no one but experts has had access to them for decades. In other words, present-day Soviet leaders may genuinely believe what they were taught in their younger days, and this in turn may reinforce their reluctance to open painful debates. It is important to recall that the transition from Stalin to the present generation of leaders was a gradual one, and it never involved a fundamental break with the mentality and the institutions of the Stalin period. As not a few of them see it, Stalin was in many ways a great man, even though his system is now outdated. Since the past cannot be altered in any case, why risk a radical reexamination of his legacy, an undertaking which could cause great political damage? Why not trust in the healing power of time?




This brings us to the question of the limits of glasnost.

First among them is the indifference of wide sectors of the population. It is not at all certain how much spontaneous interest there is in glasnost outside a few big cities. It could well be that the majority of the population is far more concerned with better food supplies and housing and in a general improvement of living conditions than in discussions of Stalin and Stalinism. Repentance, Tengiz Abuladze’s now-famous movie about the Stalin period, has been seen by two million residents of Moscow but by only another six million outside the capital; truly popular Soviet films are watched by eighty million or more. “We have survived zastoi [stagnation],” it is said, “we shall also survive glasnost. . . .”

Then there is the active opposition to glasnost, which derives not just from minor party secretaries in remote corners of the Soviet Union or conservative writers fearful for their reputations and royalties. Some of the leading figures of the regime have also openly acted as “brakers,” and few invoke the term glasnost anywhere nearly so often as does the General Secretary. As such people see it, criticism of negative phenomena is all well and good, but it has to be matched with constant praise for the achievements of socialism in the Soviet Union, it has to be constructive, and it has to be optimistic. If too much emphasis is placed on the negative side of things, if the great gains achieved under the leadership of the party are ignored, how can one educate young people in the spirit of Communism and patriotism? Yegor Ligachev, the number-two man in the Kremlin under Gorbachev, is not alone in believing that glasnost has thrown up too much froth and filth.

Someone, it is said, is needed to supervise glasnost, to ensure that it is not abused by sections of the Soviet population infected by the “virus of nationalism,” and also by the intelligentsia. Without such supervision—so reasons Viktor Chebrikov, head of the KGB—the opponents of the Soviet system will “push individual representatives of the artistic intelligentsia into positions of carping, demagoguery, nihilism, and the blackening of certain stages of Soviet history—in short, the abandonment of the main purpose of Communist culture.” To Chebrikov, the task of maintaining the “organic combination of socialist democracy and discipline” can, of course, only be fulfilled by the organs of state security—that is, the KGB.

Yet the concerns of those in state security are not the only factor in drawing narrow limits to the spread of glasnost. There are in the Soviet Union some 18 million bosses of one kind or another, and many more bureaucrats. They assume, not without reason, that governing the country under glasnost will be much more difficult than before. This is not to say there is total unanimity in their ranks, or that some bureaucrats are not more liberal in their approach than others. (Indeed, it can even be argued that the recent wholesale indiscriminate attacks against the bureaucracy contain a demagogic element, an attempt to sidestep the crucial issues and to divert criticism from where it really belongs; thus, some conservative spokesmen now claim that most of the blame for the “excesses of Stalinism” should go to the bureaucracy, of which Stalin was to a large extent a supposed prisoner.) But it is true that the bureaucracy as a whole is afraid of reform, in which many stand to lose their jobs and privileges. Since glasnost is an essential part of reform, they oppose it, too. Psychologically they are as unprepared to cope as the czarist bureaucracy was when a constitution was introduced in 1905.

Lastly, there are the ideological opponents of glasnost, a curious and uneasy coalition of “Right” and “Left.” On the one side are conservative Russophiles who think that the Revolution of 1917 was a mistake and that the country must find its way back to the old values; they cannot speak quite openly and so they attack Trotsky when they mean Lenin. On the other side are the neo-Stalinists, who although they have no use for religion, Dostoevsky, the old villages, and so on, face the same enemy as the Russophiles and thus have struck what seems like a natural alliance with them.

All these various groups claim to oppose only the abuse of glasnost, not glasnost itself. In this they are at one with Gorbachev. Although he has stressed that openness and self-criticism are not a tactic but a matter of principle, that they have become the “norms of our life,” he has also said that “criticism must always be true to party ideology.” Or, “We are for glasnost without reservations and limitation. But for glasnost in the interest of socialism.” (Socialism, that is, as defined by the Politburo of the CPSU.)

On more than one occasion Gorbachev has reassured overcautious comrades that there is no reason to become panicky in the face of criticism. He is capable of agreeing with the conservatives that glasnost is not a value per se but a means of mass control, thereby contradicting his own often stated views, but he then goes on to argue that to be more effective the media have to be given more leeway. This means fewer exhortations, less hectoring, accepting the fact that there is no need for a party line on every conceivable subject under the sun from the theory of relativity to modern ballet.

None of this means, however, that the taboo zone should be abolished altogether. That zone, as it happens, is large, including virtually all the important spheres of political life and especially those levels on which the crucial decisions are taken. Leninism is no more to be criticized than the Politburo.

Thus, in the final analysis Soviet citizens today do not know much more about the high-level debates and decisions affecting their fate than they knew in the past. And since there is no real glasnost with regard to what happens at the top, this makes it easier for local leaders to argue that they see no cogent reason for changing their habits.




How much freedom, then, has glasnost brought? Compared with the Stalin or Brezhnev era, certainly a great deal. But if prerevolutionary Russia is taken as the yardstick, the balance-sheet so far is less impressive. Russia had a relatively free press after 1905, and a parliament with more than one political party. The Bolsheviks were represented in the Duma and dozens of Bolshevik publications appeared in 1906 and the years after. Even in the 19th century the writings of Marx had been passed by the czarist censor as a “serious contribution to economic thought.” (Nietzsche’s works, on the other hand, could not be published before 1905.) There was an independent legal system in Russia after the 1860’s, and the number of death sentences pronounced by civilian courts was probably smaller than in most European countries. True, the newspapers of 1910 reached only a small portion of the people whereas radio and television today reach virtually the whole population, but the mass media do not go nearly so far as the literary magazines in openness and self-criticism.

All in all, the Soviet media discuss the state of the nation far more freely than before. Still, as the pre-1917 experience shows, even a comparatively large degree of cultural freedom can coexist with an autocratic political system. What is likely to happen once all the banned movies and books have appeared that are going to appear, and all the revelations have come in concerning the state of the health service and agriculture?

As long as there are no legal guarantees, glasnost is not irreversible. What has been given can just as easily be taken away. Glasnost is based on hope, but if the revelations and the debates do not lead to an improvement in the situation, if the promised changes do not materialize, the hopes are bound to fade. And the fact is that reform is not likely to be a full success in the near future. The obstacles are too great, the economic and social problems too deeply structural, the political shortcomings too firmly rooted in the past. Nothing short of a cultural revolution is needed to effect real change. Only rarely in history have such revolutions occurred, and there are no signs that anything of the kind is likely to happen in the Soviet Union now.

Glasnost will be increasingly endangered because all kinds of previously suppressed tensions, national and social, are now coming to the fore. There is bound to be disorder, and this will play into the hands of those who have argued all along that the Soviet people are not ready now, and will not be ready soon, for political freedom. Such people will contend that the authoritarian style which has prevailed throughout virtually all Russian history is the only one befitting it—an enlightened authoritarianism, no doubt, but still not a system based on freedom and broad, voluntary popular participation. To be sure, even in the case of a political setback, some glasnost will no doubt remain in force, but its limits will in general be felt much more palpably than today.

This would seem to be the most likely scenario, but others cannot be ruled out if things threaten to go out of control. Rebellious nationalities, striking workers, unruly intellectuals, a further decline in discipline among the younger generation—all this could bring about the sense of a general crisis, calling for the harsh measures of the past. Even this would not necessarily entail, however, the emergence of a Russian party-military dictatorship, which would divide the country so deeply that it could retain power only by applying extreme measures. Nor does the return of a fully fledged Stalinist regime seem probable; the present authorities appear to have all the instruments they need to impose control.

There is reason to believe, finally, that the glasnost era reached its climax in 1987, and that no substantial further advances should be expected for years to come. With luck, the country will be spared a major retreat and the loss of what has been gained. With luck, ten or twenty years hence, another attempt will be made to push outward the boundaries of freedom. This seems about as far as a realistic assessment can take us.




So much for the history, current status, and future prospects of glasnost. Let us now turn to one of the least-discussed aspects of this phenomenon, which is the light it has shed on the quality of Western studies of the Soviet Union over the last two decades. Thanks to glasnost, an almost unique situation exists in which it is possible to compare Western assessments and judgments of Soviet reality with what we now know actually happened. One would think such an opportunity would be welcomed enthusiastically by Western scholars. But this has not been the case, for a simple reason: in the words of Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton, “The field didn’t do very well.”

Of course, Sovietology can no more predict the future than can any other branch of political science. Nevertheless, in the pre-Gorbachev era books and articles on the Soviet Union were published in the West which can be read now, merely a few years later, only with embarrassment. Or perhaps they should be read as a deterrent, a warning about the infinite capacity of the human mind to be misled.

Three products of the immediate pre-glasnost era may serve as a starting point. The first is an article by an American scholar published in 1986 in a (German) journal specializing in the Soviet economy. The thesis, very briefly, is that notwithstanding some minor blemishes the Soviet economy has been an outstanding success; its monumental achievements include steady increases in income and living standards, state-subsidized rents averaging 3 percent of family income, with no one (“and I mean no one”) lacking a roof over his head, a truly free and comprehensive health service irrespective of social position or income, jobs for everyone, a higher production of steel and sugar than the U.S., an expanding service sector, and, in sum, a rapidly narrowing productivity gap with the United States. The author goes on to accuse other American experts of bias for refusing to credit Soviet economic achievements.

Six months after the publication of this article, its author could have read in the Soviet media about stagnation and decline, about a housing shortage caused in large part by low rents, about a health service by no means free, about a shortage of sugar all over the Soviet Union, about 700 million pairs of shoes of no use to anyone because of their inferior quality, about people without roofs over their heads. An article like this one would not now be accepted for publication in a Soviet, let alone a Western, journal; it would be considered a deliberate provocation. As for the American experts whom the author criticized, far from denigrating the achievements of the Soviet economy, it turns out they more frequently erred on the side of over-optimism.



Exhibit two is a book, The Origins of the Great Purges, by J. Arch Getty.1 According to this work, the purges of the party conducted in the late 30’s mainly arose out of disagreements at the top over economic issues. Getty implies that not all that many people perished in the purges, certainly fewer than has been claimed by “cold-war” historians. He rejects most eyewitness accounts: some were too close to the events, others too distant. Nor can Khrushchev and other self-interested parties be relied upon. Getty does concede that “many thousands of innocent people were arrested and executed,” and that Stalin is not altogether to be exonerated, but his main crime was apparently not to pay enough attention to what his underlings were doing.

Together with Getty, a third item should be considered, an article on the purges by Robert W. Thurston in the Slavic Review (“Fear and Belief in the USSR’s Great Terror,” Summer 1986). Thurston, as it happens, relies heavily on firsthand accounts written by survivors, but he too reaches the conclusion that there was no pervasive fear, and that the majority of people were not terrorized. Moreover, with the appointment of Lavrenty Beria as head of state security in 1938, the tortures ceased. After that date the elite was no longer harassed, and criticism from below was encouraged. Thurston, like Getty, believes that the total number of victims was smaller than commonly assumed, if only because the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) was itself much too small to arrest so many people and keep them in camps. In short, after 1938 the Soviet Union was almost back to normal.

These two writings on the great-terror-which-never-was were treated with respect upon their publication and became the subjects of long debates in academic journals. Some reviewers supported their “findings,” albeit with reservations, others disagreed, but most found them stimulating and were grateful for the new data. “A major book with major flaws” is how one reviewer described the Getty volume.

And then came glasnost. I do not know whether Messrs. Getty and Thurston follow the Soviet media; if they do, they cannot be very happy, for virtually every day brings yet another stab in the back to their thesis. Thus, according to one Soviet account there were 16 million inmates in the camps at the time of Stalin’s death; according to another version, Stalin caused the death, directly or indirectly, of 50 million people, half of them in the terror campaign. Perhaps more significantly, an immense number of accounts have been published describing the impact of the arrests, exiles, and executions. There were, of course, some who benefited from the purges, but the general impression now emerging is that not many families in the Soviet Union escaped the loss of at least one member. Nor did the tortures cease with the rise of Beria; they continued, we are now told, throughout the war. Finally, it was not just a matter of the decimation of the elite. A recent article in Izvestia (April 19, 1988) tells the story of one small village near Bobruisk, consisting of sixty families altogether, from which fifteen men were arrested and taken away; only one returned, broken, many years later. Says the author in his summary: the purges were programmed murder, planned from above, designed to affect all regions and all walks of life.

It may be objected that my three exhibits of Western Sovietology are atypical and extreme. Unfortunately, authors more cautious than these were often no less wrong. Thus, one highly respected scholar writing in the pre-glasnost period stated that all groups in Soviet society had a share in the steady improvement of living conditions, and that by and large the Soviet regime had been able to satisfy its people’s expectations. Similarly, an influential American textbook claimed that it had long been perfectly acceptable to appeal for basic changes in the political system, and that vigorous political debates took place in the Soviet Union, with the network of institutions to which citizens could appeal being “larger than in the Western countries.” Again, the author of a highly praised French textbook (which also appeared in the U.S.) asserted that in the Soviet Union the intelligentsia, elsewhere an alienated and contentious element, had been successfully integrated into the system. And leading British academic experts proclaimed themselves greatly impressed by the lot of Soviet workers under Brezhnev, and by the motivation of young people in the Soviet Union. One could go on like this almost indefinitely.

At one time—say, in the early 60’s—such optimism on the part of Western scholars was easier to explain. There was more confidence at that time even inside the Soviet Union, greater belief in the omnipotent power of technology, and also a lower level of popular expectation. But how to account for the profound misjudgments of Soviet reality in so many works written during the late 1960’s, the 70’s, and the early 80’s?

To some extent, no doubt, the cause is simply ideological bias; to a perhaps larger extent, it is the traditional Western inability to understand political and social systems different from our own. Then there is also the inbuilt and habitual academic tendency to rely on facts and figures, which in the case of the Soviet Union meant the official facts and figures.



Historians will be busy for a long time analyzing this fascinating and puzzling phenomenon, but an interpretation of it offered decades ago by Adam Ulam of Harvard is still largely applicable:

We who study Soviet affairs have—why try to conceal it—a skeleton in our filing cabinets. To describe this skeleton let me invoke a fictitious case of two fictitious characters, X and Y. In his attempt to learn as much as possible about the Soviet Union, X, between roughly 1930 and 1950, read nothing but the works of reputable, non-Communist authors. He grounded himself on the writings of the Webbs and Sir John Maynard Keynes. Turning to the American academicians, he followed the studies of the Soviet government, law, and various aspects of Soviet society which might have come from the pen of a professor at Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, or Williams. This serious intellectual fare would be supplemented by the reading of the most objective non-academic experts on Russia, and finally of those few journalists who had no axe to grind, especially the ones who had spent a long time in the Soviet Union.

His friend Y had an equal ambition to learn, but his taste ran to the non-scholarly and melodramatic. Indifferent to objectivity, he would seek the key to Soviet politics in the writings of the avowed enemies of the regime, like the ex-Mensheviks; he would delight in the fictional accounts à la Koestler or Victor Serge. Sinking lower, Y would pursue trashy or sensational stories of the “I Was a Prisoner of the Red Terror” variety. He would infuriate X by insisting that there were aspects of Soviet politics which are more easily understood by studying the struggle between Al Capone and Dan Torrio than the one between Lenin and Martov, or the dispute about “socialism in one country.”

Which of our fictitious characters would have been in a better position to understand the nature of Soviet politics under Stalin?

Today the issue is no longer Stalin and the Mensheviks. The “I-escaped-from-the-clutches-of-the-Cheka” literature has long disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by the reports of Soviet émigrés or others who for a variety of reasons—we are told—cannot be relied upon. It might therefore seem reasonable to suppose that the scholarly approach, as practiced for instance by a J. Arch Getty, would have issued in an assessment far closer to Soviet reality. But it did not. The ironic result is that, thanks to glasnost, it is now safer to trust Soviet sources on the pre-glasnost situation than to rely on the work of some “major” Western scholars.




A true and full post-mortem on the last two decades of Western Sovietology still remains to be performed—a painful business, no doubt, but a necessary one, for the mistakes of the past have a tendency to recur unless laid to rest. In the meantime, however, a number of books about the new era in the Soviet Union have appeared in the West, and it is not too soon to take their measure.

Two collections of essays prepared early on, before a clear picture of glasnost and perestroika had emerged, nevertheless make important contributions to our knowledge. Maurice Friedberg and Heyward Isham’s Soviet Society Under Gorbachev2 concentrates mainly on the social-cultural field, Martin McCauley’s The Soviet Union Under Gorbachev3 on the economic field. Michel Tatu, a seasoned observer of the Soviet political scene, has written (in French) a political biography of Gorbachev; while he tries to keep an open mind about the Soviet leader’s prospects, he clearly believes that the difficulties facing him are so formidable that the chances for success are less than brilliant.4 Meanwhile, a number of German books take a more optimistic line, going so far in at least one case as to compare Gorbachev’s reforms in political importance with the revolution of 1917.5

Some of the authors of new studies are well-known specialists: in addition to Tatu, the American scholar Jerry Hough has written on the political side of things in Russia and the West: Gorbachev and the Politics of Reform,6 while Moshe Lewin in The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A Historical Interpretation7 concentrates on social history and in particular on the history of Soviet agriculture. Worthy of mention too are Marshall I. Goldman, Gorbachev’s Challenge;8 Alexander Yanov, The Russian Challenge and the Year 2000;9 and Mark Frankland, The Sixth Continent-Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.10



To Jerry Hough, who teaches at Duke University, belongs the merit of being probably the first person in the United States to have predicted, in early 1983, the emergence of Gorbachev as the top leader.11 (The very first to do so was an Englishman named Archie Brown at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, who wrote in 1982 that although Gorbachev had attracted little or no attention as a possible successor to Brezhnev, he was in a number of respects the most obvious choice.) Hough’s prescience was weakened by his admission that the political meaning of Gorbachev’s rise was “not totally clear,” which was another way of saying that it was not clear at all. But such are the inherent debilities of Kremlinology: in fact, no one knew at the time the meaning of Gorbachev; a Soviet leader has to keep his views vague until he has reached the very pinnacle of his political career.

Hough’s attitude toward Brezhnev had been extremely positive—so much so that his enthusiasm for Gorbachev was a little bewildering: what need for perestroika if the situation was so good? Such bewilderment is bound to grow with Russia and the West. Here, Hough proposes that his readers conceive of the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 as the Khomeini revolution in Russian history—in other words, a right-wing, xenophobic uprising that precipitated a break with the natural course of Russian history. Gorbachev’s role, as Hough sees it, is to undo the damage perpetrated seventy years ago by opening up the country to the West and restoring Russia to “that which is normal for it.” Gorbachev’s reforms embody large elements of Reaganism-Thatcherism, his main support comes from the bureaucracy, his main opposition from the intellectuals. As for the workers, they will have to shape up; under Brezhnev, economic growth was sacrificed to social welfare, and this coddling must be stopped.

It is hard to know whether Hough is always serious; he clearly likes the role of gadfly, which he plays to the hilt in his frequent appearances on American talk shows. The comparison with Khomeini is provocative, but this does not make it correct. Nor is it true that the bureaucracy is Gorbachev’s chief ally. Since a substantial number of the millions of bureaucrats in the Soviet Union will lose their jobs if Gorbachev has his way, it would be an act of superhuman altruism if they were to cooperate in their own liquidation. And, of course, Hough is wrong about the intellectuals, who are among Gorbachev’s main supporters, not among his opponents.

As for the lot of the workers under Brezhnev, he managed to bring about a relative decline in their standard of living and partly to dismantle the Soviet welfare state. But at least Hough cannot be accused of sentimentalizing labor: although, he says, the situation of the workers will not be brilliant in the years to come, they will have their rock music to comfort them.

What should the response of the United States be to Gorbachev? Hough suggests we follow the dictum of Calvin Coolidge: “The business of America is business.” Since we have already won the cold war, we should be ready at long last to jettison our anti-Sovietism, the driving force of our foreign policy.

Here Hough is a little behind the curve. What vestiges of anti-Sovietism remain in Washington’s thinking seem now pretty pallid. Shortly before Gorbachev’s visit to Washington last year, President Reagan declared on national television that the Soviet leader had given up the idea of Communist world domination, was committed to nuclear disarmament, and was not responsible for the war in Afghanistan. Since then Reagan has added approvingly that Gorbachev has reverted to the teachings of Lenin—“programs that he called new economics and things of that kind”—and (before the most recent Moscow summit) even praised Gorbachev’s human-rights record. It is not clear how much further Hough wants to go; if he wishes Gorbachev well, he must know that too fervent an embrace will not help him.

Hough does make a number of sensible points in this book, in particular that the United States probably does not have at its command a great deal of leverage over Soviet policy. If the Soviet Union is determined to “reintegrate in the West” (Hough’s words), it is very unlikely that we could block the process, even assuming we would want to. And we are likely to be even less effectual if there is no such intention.12



Of the books published so far on Gorbachev, the one by Moshe Lewin is the most interesting, the best written, the most closely reasoned, and, I believe, the most misleading. Like Hough, Lewin has a bee in his bonnet. In Hough’s case, it is the Khomeini-like character of the Bolshevik Revolution. For Lewin, it is the shameful neglect by Western scholars of Soviet society (as distinct from Soviet politics) and social history. Many Western analysts, Lewin writes indignantly, have ignored the vast changes that have taken place in the Soviet system—urbanization, industrialization, the growth of the professional and industrial classes—and on the basis of a distorted political reading have wrongly diagnosed a society in stagnation and decline.

This is not true, however; most Western experts have been perfectly aware of urbanization and industrialization. How far one can go in drawing political conclusions on the basis of these trends is another question altogether. Lewin, for one, goes very far indeed. His thesis is that irreversible structural changes have taken place in the Soviet Union. The house that Stalin built was the product of a rural country steeped in the authoritarian tradition. Today, well-educated urbanites are the largest demographic group. A “civil society” has come into being, irreverent toward censorship, police controls, and the nomenklatura. A massive public is ready to listen to different, controversial voices. Among the voices are those of an increasing number of scholars and specialists who meet privately to work out solutions to the endless imbalances of society; in this way the Soviet social sciences are in the process of formulating what amounts to a new ideology. Even if the ideas and suggestions of the social scientists are not accepted, in any case they engage the “good, creative, ambitious dreams of a country just awakening from long slumber.”

According to Lewin, Soviet society cries out for a state that can match its own complexity. The time is now ripe (or ripening) for the system to reclaim some of the hopes of its idealists. A tremendous amount of spontaneous energy is waiting only to be unleashed. There is no danger of an authoritarian, conservative backlash. The conservatives, nationalists, and neo-Stalinists have had their chances and failed. Today the Soviet leadership seems to be counting on the new freedoms to release the pent-up social creativity within the party. It was these hidden forces that produced Gorbachev, and “now he must continue to mine that vein.”

True, from time to time Lewin issues warnings: we do not really know much about the character of the Soviet working class, or about the bureaucracy, or about the new evolving urban elite; in fact we do not know enough about Soviet society in general. But then, within a few sentences the noble dreams he has spun take over again, and we hear once more about rising social energies and about sociologists as the new philosopher-kings:

Through numerous channels, some visible, some slow, insidious, and imperceptible, Soviet urban society is affecting individuals, groups, institutions, and the state. Civil society is talking, gossiping, demanding, sulking, expressing its interests in many ways and thereby creating moods, ideologies, and public opinion.



Lewin is not the only scholar to stress the concept of the “civil society.”13 If the Soviet Union has indeed developed complex social bodies and a social system with classes and public cultures and countercultures, then the state and the party obviously have to take into account the mood and the aspirations of the people to a far greater extent than in the past. But they always had to do so to some extent. Mussolini’s idea that in a totalitarian system there would be no social activity outside the state was a chimera from the beginning. Even under Stalin, even under Hitler, there was such a thing as public opinion, however inchoate. (Hitler, to give one insignificant example, was prevented by public opinion from imposing a ban on smoking in public places, despite the fact that he hated the practice.) No one would deny that in the Soviet Union public opinion has become more outspoken in recent years (and also more polarized), or that it is very difficult if not impossible for any Soviet government to push through manifestly unpopular policies. Hence, the withdrawal from Afghanistan; hence, the decision not to go ahead with the schemes for rerouting the rivers of Siberia. But this was also true under Brezhnev—which is in fact why all his attempts at reform led only to further stagnation.

Millions of people read Novy Mir and Ogonyok, want more freedom and a more democratic society. But they are still only a minority, while the forces confronting them are much stronger. Lewin points to certain social trends but exaggerates their political implications and all too often sees only one side of the new realities. One reads a great deal about urbanization in his book, and about the old saw that city air makes for freedom. The movement from village to city is a demographic fact, but it is also true that contemporary urban life in the Soviet Union is the source not so much of freedom as of many social discontents. The new Russian Right has made all this a central item in its political agenda, a fact which may have escaped Lewin’s attention.

Finally, take the idea of sociologists as the new gurus of Soviet society. We are witnessing now the beginnings of sociology in the Soviet Union; thirty years ago, there was none. Its practitioners carry out small-scale public-opinion polls; some write speeches for Gorbachev and even provide ideas for him. But the belief that sociologists somehow hold the keys (or the levers) to profound change in Soviet social and political life is wishful thinking—and not just because the basic tenets of Soviet Communism cannot possibly be the subject of a critical sociological study. A leading Western scholar of these matters has recently observed that sociology in the Soviet Union is expected not only to propose specific measures within the general framework of the reform policy but to find ways and means of overcoming social apathy.14 Even if one ignores the fact that social apathy is rooted deep in the structure of the system, these unrealistic assignments go far beyond what any sociology can do.

The factual basis on which Lewin’s predictions rest is minute: some reports by the (London) Guardian correspondent in Moscow and a handful of articles in Soviet academic journals. If Lewin were writing about Brazil or Australia, as a rigorous social historian he would have dismissed such evidence as altogether insufficient for far-reaching conclusions. But he is not writing about Australia or Brazil but instead about a land which despite every betrayal over the last seven decades still seems capable of arousing the hopes of people who should know better. Critical faculties are temporarily suspended, and a faith is revealed which is in some ways touching but which is also very likely to lead to fresh disappointments.15




Gorbachev’s policies, to be sure, have not been universally welcomed in the West. Soon after the General Secretary came to power he was called a Stalinist by the prominent émigré intellectual, Vladimir Bukovsky; it would appear Bukovsky has not changed his view since then.16 Although he grants that Gorbachev has introduced certain changes, Bukovsky argues that he had to do so in order to maintain the status of the Soviet Union as a superpower. And herein lies the danger: the West, galvanized by the spectacle of glasnost, is now ever more eager to do business with a Soviet Union which is still far from having given up its goal of building Communism at home and spreading its deadly doctrine and practice around the world. In Bukovsky’s perspective, the main result of glasnost has thus been paradoxically not to weaken but to strengthen the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the West.

A not dissimilar point of view has been expressed by the French scholar Alain Besançon in a series of articles in L’Express and in the American publications the National Interest (“What’s Happening in Moscow?: A Symposium,” Summer 1987) and COMMENTARY (“Gorbachev Without Illusions,” April 1988). Glasnost, as Besançon sees it, is not freedom of information but a technique to implant in people’s minds the belief that things are really changing, to inspire confidence in the regime, to make people forget its duplicities. It thus means informing on others, “organized squealing”—a formulation which inevitably recalls the words of Lenin (frequently invoked, as I have noted, by Gorbachev), “letting the party know everything.” Besançon reports that many thousands of employees have been arrested or have absconded for fear of arrest, and that charges were brought against another 130,000 individuals in the campaign against alcoholism. Yet another function of glasnost in Besançon’s view is to turn the Western media into an instrument of Soviet propaganda at home where that propaganda is by and large not believed.

Such interpretations of glasnost are a little incomplete. As Bukovsky is well aware, Gorbachev’s approach is not the only one for coping with the difficulties of the Soviet Union; if it were, there would be no differences in the Politburo. One could argue that in the final analysis these are differences of opinion among Stalinists of one kind or another and therefore of no great importance, but on the basis of such sweeping generalizations it is difficult to make sense of domestic events in today’s Soviet Union. Nor are Bukovsky’s fears that the West will end up paying for Communist expansion fully warranted just now. Trade with the West has in fact sharply declined over the last few years, and the Russians have not been the beneficiaries of massive credits (except for some from West Germany, but these too are quite inadequate considering Soviet needs).

In Besançon’s writings one detects some inconsistencies. In contrast to Lewin, he writes that all groups in Soviet society, “be they social classes, religious denominations, professional societies, organized political groups, or nationalist movements are kept under surveillance, penetrated, and periodically broken up or purged of their most dangerous elements”; but he also concedes that in many places Soviet workers have largely escaped the control of the state (“we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us,” the joke goes). As recent events suggest, moreover, the Soviet authorities have not been so successful in breaking up national movements in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltic region. Just as significantly, the chief advocates of glasnost in the 1960’s and 1970’s—Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Valery Chalidze—were people whom Besançon could hardly accuse of being manipulated, or of desiring to make the masses forget the duplicity of the regime. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in an open letter when he was excluded from the Soviet Writers Union in 1969: “Glasnost, that is the first condition of health in all societies. He who does not wish this openness for his country does not want to purify it of its diseases, but only to drive them inward to fester. . . .”

Of course, as Tolstoy pointed out in a letter to a British editor as long ago as 1895, glasnost can mean one thing to subjects yearning for freedom, another thing to rulers with the power to manipulate. Even so, however, it may not prove so easy to control a process launched with so much vigor from on high. And even if, as Michel Tatu and Alain Besançon assert (and as I would agree), the limits of glasnost may be reached fairly quickly, the effects will not so quickly disappear. In this respect I would place much more emphasis than does Besançon on the workings of glasnost in the realm of culture and ideas as opposed to the political and especially the economic spheres. The latter areas, to put it simply, are easier to control, while the former move in mysterious and often unpredictable ways.



One day it may well appear that glasnost was no more than a short interlude, or more likely, that the revelations made in its name failed to lead to decisive change. But even in the case of a major setback, we would not have heard the last of glasnost as the outward and visible sign of the struggle of ideas and orientations inside the Soviet Union. Over the outcome of this struggle we have no influence, and yet we must not be indifferent to it. For Soviet policy at home and abroad will depend largely on how it is resolved.

That most Soviet leaders want economic reform with a minimum of political and social reform goes without saying. Have they ever claimed anything else? But one should be mindful of a verse of Horace, semel emissum volat irrevocabile verbum, “a word once spoken cannot be revoked.” In the long term this may well be true of glasnost. It has a momentum of its own.



1 Cambridge University Press, 1985.

2 M.E. Sharpe, 1987.

3 St. Martin's Press, 1987.

4 Gorbachev: L'URSS va-t-elle changer? Le Centurion (Paris), 1987.

5 Christian Schmid Haeuer, Gorbachevs zweite Revolution (Berlin, 1987); Uwe Engelbrecht, Glasnost—Neue Offenheit (Cologne, 1987); Klaus Beyme in Margarete Mommsen, Gorbachevs Revolution von Oben (Berlin, 1987). Boris Meissner in Die Sowjetunion im Umbruch (Stuttgart, 1988) takes a more skeptical view with regard to the prospects of perestroika but believes that the quest for greater freedom will continue even if the reforms fail to have the desired effect.

6 Simon & Schuster, 301 pp., $19.95.

7 University of California Press, 176 pp., $16.95.

8 Norton, 256 pp., $16.95.

9 Blackwell, 302 pp., $24.95.

10 Harper & Row, 292 pp., $22.95.

11 Problems of Communism, January/February 1983. Hough called Gorbachev “extremely well-connected,” but the five political friends named by Hough were certainly not the ones who made his rise possible. One died soon after, two (Chernenko and Grishin) were anything but allies, and the last two were of no consequence and soon disappeared from view.

12 In this connection it is difficult to understand the pervasive harping by American commentators on the notion that Gorbachev needs our “help.” According to this line of thought, as articulated by, for example, Joseph Nye, Jr. and Edwin Mroz in the Washington Post (October 4, 1987) and Robert Legvold in the London Times (November 18, 1987), Gorbachev has undertaken the “most far-reaching revamping of the Soviet system in more than half a century” (Nye-Mroz) and on many points the Soviet Union is moving toward Western preferences. Instead of coming to terms with these changes, the West (according to these authors) has adopted a wait-and-see attitude which can only retard the Soviet Union's further adaptation. Wrong as to the response of many in Washington, which if anything has been overeager in its reaction to Gorbachev, this analysis is naive in its assumption that the United States can somehow induce the Soviet Union to act against its own best judgment.

13 See, for example, S. Frederic Starr, “Soviet Union: A Civil Society,” Foreign Policy, Spring 1988. The concept has also been used by some Soviet publicists such as Fyodor Burlatski, who belongs to Gorbachev's brain trust. In his article, Starr corrects Gorbachev with regard to the Soviet domestic situation. He writes: “Where Gorbachev is seriously wrong, and where many Americans err in accepting his view, is his claim that the manifest stagnation in the Communist party and bureaucracy pervaded Soviet society as well.”

14 R. Ahlberg, “Die Aufgaben der Soziologie bei der Umgestaltung der sowjetischen Gesellschaft,” Osteuropa 3, 1988.

15 Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, published a book soon after Stalin's death in which he predicted a return, almost immediately, to the allegedly democratic origins of Leninism, and the dismantling of the Stalinist apparatus as a consequence of objective social factors such as industrialization, urbanization, higher educational levels, etc. Ironically, Deutscher never received any credit in the Soviet Union for his optimism, and in recent months his assessment of Stalin has in fact been criticized in Pravda for being much too positive.

16 The original thesis was developed in an article in Obozrenie. In 1987 Bukovsky commented on the same topic in a discussion, Glasnost: How Open?, Freedom House, 1987. See also his article in COMMENTARY, “Will Gorbachev Reform the Soviet Union?” (September 1986).

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