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Red Letter Day

How an unknown teacher from Leningrad took on Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev—and ultimately won.

· 12 min read
Red Letter Day

It was March 1988 in Moscow, and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had been General Secretary of the Soviet Union for just three years. Faced with a moribund economy, a spiralling arms race, and widespread bribery, alcoholism, and corruption, he had famously declared, “We can’t go on like this.” So, Gorbachev and his liberal wing-man Aleksandr Yakovlev had set about a full-scale perestroika (restructuring) of Soviet life. They’d taken steps towards opening up the Soviet economy to market forces and reducing Party influence in most areas of citizens’ lives. Political prisoners had been released and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist, had been brought home from exile in Gorky. In an attempt to defrost relations with Cold War opponents and halt a catastrophically costly arms race, Gorbachev was also meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and discussing radical cuts in nuclear weapons.

Just as importantly, following his second policy of glasnost (openness), Gorbachev had also relaxed the State’s grip on the Soviet arts and media. Control had been handed back to writers, editors, and filmmakers, enabling them to release content that 10 years before might have seen them jailed. Newspaper editors hoarily subservient to the Kremlin had been pensioned off and replaced by more progressive types. Film archives, in which banned productions had sat gathering several years’ worth of Soviet dust on grey steel shelves, were now being opened up and reviewed, and over 200 titles were finally being released. Soon, among other previously banned books, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago—a bitter, roiling expose of the prison-camp system under Josif Stalin—would be published too, and the dissident allowed to return home following a long banishment abroad.

Everything, it seemed, even the air people breathed, was different. “Are we really same people?” demanded playwright Alexander Gelman in 1986. “the same people who yesterday were silent about things we refuse to keep silent about today? The same people who yesterday quivered before people of whom we have no fear today? … Yes, it’s us, the same people.”

Until now, those people had remained silent for over 20 years about the repressions under Stalin, who had died in 1953. Not since liberalising leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinize the country in the late ’50s (one of the things that led to his ouster in 1964) had people spoken openly about the monstrous quarter-century of the tyrant’s rule. Now though, writers of all kinds had started to re-examine the period. Newspapers were printing statistics on the Gulags, estimating the numbers of Soviet citizens sent to execution, and breaking down the Terror of the 1930s. Books like Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (1987), a study of the Stalinist terror among a small group of friends in Moscow, and films like Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (1984), a hard-hitting allegory about Stalinism in Georgia, were suddenly available to the public. All this had been done with Gorbachev’s approval. “The truth must be complete,” he told a gathering of journalists at the Kremlin. “History must be seen for what it is.”

Unfortunately for Gorbachev, one of those who strongly disagreed with him was his own deputy, the 68-year-old Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev. Ligachev was Old School—an austere, non-drinking, non-smoking Party boss from Siberia who had swallowed the Party rulebook whole and returned for a second helping. He was a devout believer in communist dogma—his speech, as British historian Angus Roxburgh points out, was a stodgy morass of Marxist cliches—and in the supremacy of Soviet state power. Watching the sustained attack on Stalinism and its legacy in Soviet society, Ligachev found himself depressed and disgusted. While Gorbachev pressed ahead with his reforms, Ligachev’s memoirs would describe the USSR falling victim at the time to “beasts of prey, tearing our society to shreds … spitting on such sacred concepts as patriotism, and discrediting the feeling of pride in our Motherland.”

But how much support did Ligachev actually have in the country? Quite a lot, it seemed. Plenty had much to lose from Gorbachev’s reforms, noted Roxburgh, including “the Communist ruling class, the Party and state bureaucracy, the barons of centralised industry and farming, the KGB, the military, and the military-industrial complex. All stood to lose their jobs, their power, and their influence.” And yet Gorbachev’s changes were happening with such momentum that the opposition were thrown into confusion. What they needed was some kind of banner—a manifesto around which to rally. It arrived, unexpectedly, in the form of a totally unknown 50-year-old chemistry teacher from Leningrad: a stern, bovine, raven-haired, CP member of some two decades’ standing called Nina Alexandrovna Andreeva.

Nina Andreeva, helped along by her equally stolid husband, sent a long letter to a conservative state newspaper, and it came as an answered prayer. “It was as if God had created Andreeva,” recalled a worker there. “Valery Chikin [the paper’s editor] understood immediately that this is what we needed.” The letter was to become notorious and epoch-defining, such was its eloquence about the fatal split now developing among Soviet citizens. That schism had arguably existed in Russia at least since the battles between the Slavophiles and Westernisers in the 19th century, but it was now given renewed attention in a Cold War setting.

Published on March 13th, 1988, just as Gorbachev was about to leave the country for an official visit to Yugoslavia, Andreeva’s letter was advertised on the front cover of Sovetskaya Rossiya and occupied all of page three. There, readers found a sustained, nearly 5,000-word attack on Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy, by a writer whose fundamentalist Marxist beliefs were totally impervious to perestroika. Describing herself as a chemist and lecturer at Leningrad’s Lensovet Technology Institute, Andreeva went on to complain about the new problems she and her fellow teachers were encountering with the country’s young. For the first time, she complained, students encouraged “by Western radio voices or by those of our compatriots who are shaky in their conceptions of the essence of socialism” were raising matters like a “multiparty system, freedom of religious propaganda, the right to emigrate abroad or the need to decentralize the leadership of culture.” All, needless to say, forbidden topics until just yesterday.

This had poisoned her relationship with her students, she wrote, as it wasn’t just chemistry they discussed, but also politics. Indeed, Andreeva felt a direct responsibility for her students’ beliefs—she saw it as her job to shape such things. “We do argue!” she wrote, before adding the following unintentionally revealing sentences: “I think to myself how important it is to help them discover the truth … and how to give them a correct perception of our history, both distant and recent.”

A “correct perception of our history” naturally meant a Marxist perception, and despite Andreeva’s much-vaunted “arguments” with her students, there was little room for meaningful debate here. As she saw it, it was her job to prescribe readings of history—indeed, to supply “the truth”—and for students to fall into line behind her. But now, an unacceptable pluralism was taking over, and her students, newly liberated by Gorbachev’s glasnost, were answering back and asking awkward questions. “Nihilistic sentiments” were multiplying among her charges, she wrote, along with “ideological confusion, loss of political bearings, and even ideological omnivorousness.”

How could anyone, Andreeva demanded, be surprised? In February of that year, Gorbachev had urged that students be educated “fully in line with the tenets of Marxist-Leninism,” adding: “Principles, comrades, must not be compromised on any pretext whatsoever.” But now, on his watch, and with his apparent encouragement, demoralizing phrases were being bandied around about the past: “political slavery,” “universal fear,” and “dominance by thugs in power.” And of course, Andreeva knew what everyone was talking about. They were talking about Stalin. About the repressions and executions. About the decades of living under the Terror.

Nina Andreeva was having none of it. There was, she wrote, too much “abstract moralizing” by those who had never lived through that time and had no experience of the people “who worked in such a fashion as to still be an inspiring example for us today.” The Stalin era, she added, was also full of “unprecedented feats—industrialization, collectivization, and cultural revolution.” Didn’t even Winston Churchill describe Stalin in 1959 as the man who “‘took over a Russia still using the wooden plough, and left it equipped with atomic weapons’?” (Actually, no—the phrase came from Stalin biographer Isaac Deutscher’s entry in the 1956 Encyclopaedia Britannica, but Andreeva was on a roll.)

The writers and artists of the Gorbachev era, Andreeva continued, “try to make us believe that the country’s past was nothing but mistakes and crimes,” and smear those who merely made “actual and alleged mistakes and errors when solving the most complex of problems of historical trailblazing.” Reminding Gorbachev of his February speech—“Principles, comrades…!”—she ended her letter: “This is what we stand for now, and this is what we will continue to stand for. Principles were not given to us as a gift, we have fought for them at crucial turning points in the Fatherland’s history.”

When her letter—titled “I Cannot Forsake My Principles”—was printed in Sovetskaya Rossiya on March 13th, pandemonium broke out. It was, one commentator remarked, like an “anti-perestroika manifesto,” and obviously had clearance from someone in the Kremlin. Sovetskaya Rossiya’s managing editor Vladimir Pankov felt that Chikin had raced ahead without his authorisation, and he was incensed: “I understood that it was a torpedo which would explode and wreck perestroika. It was a signal for attack, that was clear to me.” Pro-glasnost novelist Daniil Granin felt as if he were “on a train that suddenly came to a halt and then began moving backwards.”

Ligachev clearly wanted it to move backwards at perilously high-speed, and had almost certainly authorised publication of the article himself. With Gorbachev in Yugoslavia, Ligachev was in the hot seat and he had already had a long tete-à-tete with Chikin a few days before. Now he invited the editors of 12 main newspapers to a meeting at the Kremlin at which he gestured towards Andreeva’s piece. “I read an excellent article yesterday in Sovetskaya Rossiya, a wonderful example of party political writing,” he purred. “I would ask you, comrade editors, to be guided by the ideas of this article in your work.” Other people, he added darkly, agreed with this point of view.

The director of TASS, a Soviet news agency, immediately instructed editors of provincial newspapers to reprint Andreeva’s letter around the country. An enormous number did so, totalling (according later to Andreeva herself) 936 publications. In Gorbachev’s absence, Andreeva-mania had taken hold. When the writer David Remnick visited the lecturer at her Leningrad flat, he found her surrounded by fan mail—7,000 letters, she assured him. It was entirely believable.

On this occasion, perestroika supporters were lucky. Gorbachev returned in a whirl from Yugoslavia on March 18th and quickly called a meeting of the politburo at which Andreeva’s letter was effectively scotched. Those who had supported Ligachev edged away from him under Gorbachev’s tirades, and it was agreed that the Press would play no further part in the Second Secretary’s duties. TASS was instructed not to distribute the piece to any more provincial editors, while a full-page article in Communist flagship newspaper Pravda, written by Gorbachev’s liberal side-man Yakovlev, rebutted—and even ridiculed—the letter point by point. Now people could see for themselves what the official line really was. Perestroika would press ahead.

But Nina Andreeva was unrepentant. Over lunch, Remnick found her to be a formidable Marxist puritan—“like a head nurse, a starched and angry woman of fifty trying, when the occasion demanded, to be nice”—castigating the modern world. Rock music was “half animal, indecent imitations of sex,” and modern Soviet girls tended to “strip themselves down to their God-knows-what and wiggle their backsides.” Given this ex-cathedra prudishness, it comes as no surprise when Remnick tells us that Andreeva had once been ejected from her Party cell—later to be reinstated by the KGB—for snitching on colleagues for their insufficient socialist ardour. Gorbachev’s USSR was anathema to her—“not a state” but “like some anarchistic gathering. A state, above all, means order, order, order.”

Nina Andreeva was hardly likeable—she was every teacher who gave you an F for expressing your own ideas instead of hers; every neighbour who denounced you for listening to banned radio stations; every Marxist matron on a Soviet tram who read you the riot act for making mildly anti-Soviet jokes. Yet one’s reaction to her now is more complicated than it might have been in 1988, when she seemed to be a grotesque vanishing into the sands of history. Books like Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time (2013), which was based on interviews about the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the communist ideology in Eastern Europe, reveal how traumatic the process was for many citizens.

That time was particularly difficult for the lingering Stalinists, brought up to worship the man as a divine omnipresence, only to see him exposed—with all the accompanying cognitive dissonance—as a bloodthirsty, paranoid, psychopathic criminal. To some modern Russians, Andreeva’s letter reads, as one colleague told me, like a “machine-generated text,” illustrative of “how Soviet power destroyed identity.” Nevertheless, disorientation and fear seeps through its confident veneer. It can be read as one citizen’s shrill, obsessive protest as a known world with clear rules collapsed about her, or as the harsh objection of a teacher who had kept order for 30 years with the backing of the state but whose charges were now running riot. Every line of the letter radiates anxiety and fury and the author’s longing for support.

Nor was Andreeva necessarily completely wrong about the need for rules. Over the next two or three chaotic years, Gorbachev was to lose control of—among other things—the Empire’s resurgent republics, the politburo’s hardliners, and of Boris Yeltsin, the upstart Moscow Party Boss who wanted to replace him (and would ultimately do so). As the country’s problems multiplied, Gorbachev came to resemble nothing so much as a progressive schoolteacher frantically unable to keep order himself, as his belated efforts at strictness were laughed off.

In 1991, three years after Nina Andreeva’s Letter, this slide into disorder would culminate in a coup by her core-constituency—for four days, Gorbachev was held hostage in his Crimean holiday home and replaced by a hard-line junta determined to restore the old order. The coup ultimately failed, and its conspirators were either imprisoned or committed suicide. But it still managed to see Gorbachev off for good, ousted by his nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who replaced him as president. Gorbachev left history’s stage at the same time as Soviet communism, ushering in the freewheeling, free speech, free-for-all capitalism of the Yeltsin years.

Yet for all its privations—spiralling inflation, gang warfare, economic crisis—the Yeltsin years were a bold leap into the market economy, not the step backwards that Nina demanded. The real coup against Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost—the one of which Nina Andreeva would have hotly approved—arguably came in 2000, with the rise of Vladimir Putin. Within a breathtakingly short time, Putin had reinstated the Soviet anthem and reintroduced basic military training for university students. He’d taken firm control of previously independent national television channels, imprisoned or exiled his enemies, and cancelled free elections for the region’s governors.

But what would have gratified Nina Andreeva most was Putin’s take on Stalin. School history books were rewritten, sidelining or justifying the repressions and labelling Stalin an “effective manager.” Stalin’s “vertical of power” was talked up by compliant historians as Putin reasserted a similar structure of his own. War Remembrance Day was given hard muscle once again, with tanks and weaponry reintroduced while zealots touted the slogan “1941–1945: We can do it again!” In words that might have come from Nina’s letter, Putin declared Stalin a “complex historical figure,” and said that demonization of the Great Vozhd was merely “a way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia.” You had no right, Putin declared, to tell 150 million people that 70 years of their lives—all their passion, faith, and hard work—had been mere chaff.

But it was in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, that Andreeva’s principles of Empire, anti-pluralism, and vertical power really found their apotheosis. They found it in the ban on “spreading fake news,” a fancy way of saying, with all the finality of a Soviet schoolteacher, “no discussion, no answering back.” They found it in the ban on Instagram and Twitter, and the blocking of numerous other websites. They found it in Putin’s description of his internal opponents as “blackflies” and “traitors,” which the Russian people would “spit out,” and in the need for a “cleansing” of Russian society.

What would Nina Andreeva had made of Putin’s recent “partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists” (a phrase which contains, some reports say, nearly as many lies as it has words) to fight in Ukraine? As the male anti-war protestors on Wednesday night were swiftly arrested, made to sign conscription papers, and carted off to the front, one can imagine Nina Andreeva nodding her approval, just as she would have done over reports that further waves of mobilisation are planned for this year. No ideological confusion here; no pluralism of outlook; the power-vertical in action. As in her letter, whatever his “actual and alleged mistakes and errors,” here is a ruler unquestionably “solving the most complex of problems of historical trailblazing.”

The playwright Alexander Gelman, who had waxed so passionately about changes to the Soviet Empire in 1986, added a fatal caveat at the time to his comments. Yes, the people no longer seemed to be afraid under Gorbachev, and were no longer cowed into silence. But the change was so rapid that it was disconcerting: “Tomorrow,” he warned, “we may again put up with things we don’t put up with today, and we may again be afraid to write in the papers the kind of thing we write today. That, too, will be us, the same people.”

“A state is order, order, order!” Andreeva had declared, and the orders, both for civilian and soldier, have come thick and fast this year. On the battlefields of the Donbass, in conscription offices, in hospitals, and in the bleak, echoing kitchens of Russian and Ukrainian widows, Nina Andreeva and her unforsaken principles are still helping the country’s young to a “correct perception of the truth”—even if that “truth,” like the war which spawns it, has spun wildly out of control. It would seem that the spirit of Nina Andreeva, dead since 2020 and unthought-about for decades, is still very much with us; that her values, temporarily in abeyance, are ascendant once again; and that playwright Alexander Gelman—who now lives in America—was right.

Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and East European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn, and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

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