Tuesday, February 13, 2018

First Soviet Politician of a Western Type Wasn’t Gorbachev

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 12 – Most analysts in Moscow and the West view Mikhail Gorbachev as the first Soviet politician of a more or less Western type; but that is wrong. In fact, Pyatr Masherav (or via the Russian, Petr Masherov), CPSU party secretary in Belarus from 1965 to 1980, preceded him by at least two decades.

            Indeed, he was recognized as that not only by the population who genuinely revered him and continues to remember him even up to the present – today is the centennial of his birth – but was viewed that way by other communist leaders. Leonid Brezhnev supposedly called him “a populist” (charter97.org/ru/news/2018/2/13/279416/).

            And it is at least possible that his success in dealing with the population were viewed as a threat and lay behind the automobile crash in which he was killed and that some believe to this day was orchestrated by the KGB on orders from the Politburo whose members may have viewed Masherav as a threat.

            Serhei Naumchik, a Belarusian politician and journalist, says there are three reasons why Masherav remains “a phenomenon” in Belarusian life: He was a serious partisan leader who legitimately won his Hero of the Soviet Union star, he was a talented leader who reached out to people, and he died tragically (svaboda.org/a/29027599.html).

            Masherav’s qualities, he continues, made many of the party officials around him uncomfortable and even angry because in their view he was guilty of “playing with the people.” But it was precisely that which the Belarusians valued. His career of course depended on those above him in the party, but he always acted like it depended on the population.

            “In this sense,” Naumchik says, Masherav “to a certain degree was a politician of the Western type. If there had been real elecitons then, he would have had great chances to win, but because Moscow or the Central Committee said so but because he was a political leader with a definite charisma.”

            The Belarusian media this week has been filled with numerous reminiscences about Masherav and his time in Minsk – see, for example, news.tut.by/society/580177.html  and charter97.org/ru/news/2018/2/13/279430/ -- but the present author would like to end this encomium on a personal note.

            I was drawn into the study of Soviet nationalities in the 1970s largely because of the dismissive attitude many American specialists on the USSR then had about Belarusians. Masherav was in office then, and his actions made it clear to me that any nation that could produce someone like that within the Soviet context should not be denigrated or ignored. 

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