by Dmitri N. Shalin

January 1, 1990

Tatiana Zaslavskaya first attracted attention in the West seven years ago with her unusually frank report on the dour state of the Soviet economy. Recently, she visited the Russian Research Center at Harvard University and helped dispel some mysteries surrounding this pioneering study. The talk Zaslavskaya gave to the packed audience of local Kremlin watchers also highlighted the growing role social scientists play in Soviet reform.

The report, widely credited as the inspiration for Gorbachev, was compiled in 1983, though Zaslavskaya is quick to point out that the critical ideas it engendered were in the air since the late 70’s. It wasn’t commissioned by the Communist Party, as some thought, but was prepared for a scholarly seminar in Novosibirsk, where Zaslavskaya worked at the time. Only after one copy, unbeknownst to the author, surfaced in the West did the Party sound the alarm.

The incident nearly ended a promising career. Local party apparatchiks tried to make scapegoats out of Zaslavskaya and her liberal boss, Abel Aganbegyan. What saved Zaslavskaya from further aggravations (she got off with a party reprimand) was that she had to check into a hospital: “The whole affair has worsened my heart conditions,” she said.

Today, Tatiana Zaslavskaya is a member of the Congress of People's Deputies, head of the National Public Opinion Center, and president of the Soviet Sociological Association. This unusual mix of public personae is indicative of the prominent place social scientists occupy in the Soviet Union today.

In Zaslavskaya's words, “sociology is becoming a tool of perestroika.” Indeed, some of the most visible Soviet reformers – Popov, Bunich, Zypko, Starovoitova, Laurestin, Sheinis, to name just a few – are social scientists.

By the same token, the spirit of glasnost permeates Soviet social science, which increasingly shuns its traditional dogmatism and ideological orthodoxy.

This fusion of scholarship and advocacy makes a good deal of sense. Science in general and social science in particular can thrive only in a free society. Conversely, democratic institutions presuppose free inquiry, without which society grows oppressive, impervious to change. The fact that so many academicians now serve in the Parliament and hold ministerial positions is one more proof that Soviet society is bent on reforming itself.

Although Zaslavskaya's Center for Public Opinion is chiefly an academic institution, its findings are widely used by politicians. President Mikhail Gorbachev regularly receives survey data from the Center, as does Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. The Soviet Parliament has commissioned special surveys to gauge public opinion on such matters as private property, ethnic strife and the republics' right to self-determination. These surveys offered new, sometimes startling, insights into the nation's mood.

Earlier this year, polls detected a shift in public opinion toward the free market. 70% of respondents now favor the transfer of industrial property to workers; 60% support land ownership by farmers; 30% endorse cooperatives, and about as many say they wouldn't mind starting their own business. This trend, timely revealed by the polls, is believed to be a factor behind Gorbachev's decision to speed up economic reforms.

Another recent development is the growing mistrust of public institutions. The Supreme Soviet tops the list with some 60% approval rating, but its popularity has slipped in the last few months, as the gap between legislative activism and law enforcement has grown wider. The Communist Party lags far behind with 34%, followed by the Young Communist League with the 10% approval rating.

One more startling revelation is the growing popularity of ultranationalist groups. A recent survey yielded a 19% approval rating for an openly anti-Semitic organization “Pamiat,” a nearly four-fold jump from the last year. A worrisome figure, even though it could be an aberration (some respondents might have confused the liberal “Memorial” with the right-wing “Pamiat,” both meaning “memory” in Russian).

Zaslavskaya describes the overall state of Soviet public opinion as volatile, polarized and negative. Two-thirds of the public think that perestroika could fail and expect things to get worse. People are less interested in constructive solutions than in passing the blame around, with the Communist Party being everybody’s favorite target (94% blame the Party for the current impasse). An unsettling number of respondents – 8 percent or 16 million people – would like to emigrate, if given the chance.

On a more cheerful note, Zaslavskaya notices the public’s growing commitment to a multi-party system and a trend toward the consolidation of democratic forces. She also hails the rise to prominence of younger leaders and pins much hope on a new generation of social scientists joining the reform process.

Zaslavskaya’s enthusiasm about a social science committed to reform is understandable, yet it does raise some questions. For the moment, the social scientists’ agenda coincides with that of the Party reformers. But what happens if Gorbachev (or his successor) realigns himself with the conservative forces? Will sociologists stand fast for critical inquiry or place themselves at the disposal of the new powers?

Zaslavskaya didn’t give a direct answer to this query, though she made it clear that if the spirit of glasnost leaves social science, perestroika has run its course.

* International Biography and History of Russian Sociology Projects feature interviews and autobiographical materials collected from scholars who participated in the intellectual movements spurred by the Nikita Khrushchev's liberalization campaign. The materials are posted as they become available, in the language of the original, with the translations planned for the future. Dr. Boris Doktorov (bdoktorov@inbox.ru) and Dmitri Shalin (shalin@unlv.nevada.edu) are editing the projects.