Part III: The Politburo
The Politburo had traditionally met in a sombre, marbled room, sitting six to a side along a massive table. Mikhail felt that this arrangement wasn’t conducive to increased productivity and efficiency, so had done away with the heavy table and got everybody to sit in a circle on the ground, on cushions lovingly sewn in one of the more obscure Central Asian republics. The older Politburo members weren’t entirely happy about this arrangement, and still grumbled about it when they thought themselves unobserved. However, the younger men (for there were no female members of this most exclusive club) seemed to like the arrangement, and at the moment it was these men – Vorotnikov, Egor Ligachev, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Chebrikov, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Gorbachev himself – who called the shots.
Everyone is in their seats by 2pm sharp, and Mikhail opens the meeting by pinning a big sheet of paper to the wall and asking for agenda items. Ligachev, who has charge of the minutes of the previous meeting, reminds everyone that the Geneva summit and the forthcoming grain harvest are matters that weren’t finalised at the last meeting. New agenda items include progress on the BAM rerouting, another increase in funds for technical intelligence, and the colour scheme for the Politburo’s new Zil limousines.
The meeting opens with a sharing session, wherein each member lets the others know how they’re feeling, so their private, personal problems won’t fester unacknowledged beneath the surface of the meeting. Nikolai Tikhonov announces that he has never felt better; Chebrikov winks at Gorbachev. Andrei Gromyko, who has become slightly deaf, queries why anyone would want to feel butter. Shevardnadze, newly appointed Foreign Minister, reveals he’s had an exciting day broadening his knowledge of geography, and now knows where Africa and Australia are. Someone whistles a derisory bar or two of “Georgia On My Mind”. Generally, everyone has had a good day, although Vorotnikov claims Gorbachev has obstructed him on a couple of key points -then must hasten to explain he is talking about the lunchtime squash game rather than matters of state.
The Geneva summit (where Mikhail plans to try for a propaganda coup by challenging Reagan to see who can stay on a horse the longest), BAM, a 25% increase in funds for purchase of Western microcomputers and microengineers, and the grain harvest (about which there was general agreement that having one would be a Good Idea) are all sorted out quite simply. As everyone fears, the big clash between Gorbachev’s new guard and the remaining old-timers comes over the Zils’ paintwork.
The matter had first surfaced under Gorbachev’s predecessor Konstantin Chernenko, and in keeping with the dour Siberian’s approach the normal black colour scheme had been approved. However, Geidar Aliyev had felt even at the time that something more dynamic was called for, and was now proposing a trendy metallic red with racing stripes down the sides. A reliable source who did not wish to be named claimed that Aliyev was originally planning to include mag wheels and furry dice in the package, but decided this might lessen Politburo members’ dignity in the eyes of the Russian people.
After Aliyev has put his proposal, there is an uneasy silence in the room. When Gorbachev, who is facilitating the meeting, asks if there is any disagreement, President Andrei Gromyko rises to his feet.
“For 25 years, I was the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union. For all that time, Soviet representatives maintained the most punctilious dignity and reserve. The western imperialists seek to portray us as barbarians, but we have shown that we are the true standard-bearers of civilisation. Our sober black Zil limousines have been an important part of our image as serious, responsible world leaders. I could never agree to such a proposal.”
“Does that means you’d be prepared to block consensus on it, Andrei?”
“Yes, Mikhail, I would.”
“Well, does anyone want to try to change Andrei’s mind?”
Ligachev, who has a reputation for over-enthusiasm, rises to his feet.
“Listen, Andrei, we’re living in the 1980s now, not the 1950s. We’re talking marketing, we’re talking positioning, we’re talking selling ourselves in the marketplace. Today’s Politburo needs to project a positive, up-market image, inspiring confidence amongst our customers. Professor Lysenko over at the Soviet Institute of Psychodemographics tells me their latest survey indicates that more Great Russians in the 16-25 cohort know that Wham! recently played China than are aware that the Central Committee recently approved the latest five-year plan. Our collective name-recognition factor, with the understandable exception of Comrade Gorbachev, is less than that of Elton John’s percussionist. The citizens of Ust-Kut have recently petitioned to have the name of their main street changed from Lenin Prospekt to Lennon Prospekt! When this sort of thing is happening in Ust-Kut, need I say more?”
(The citizens of Ust-Kut, a small but bustling city in the progressive Lake Baikal region, would doubtless have protested at this implied slur on their modernity, but as it has not until now been revealed, they went about their business in happy ignorance.)
“Egor, interesting as all this is, I don’t see why it means we have to have red Zils with racing stripes down the sides.”
“Because they’re new! They’re modern! They’re positive! They project the go-ahead image we need. Personally, I’d be prepared to compromise on the racing stripes, but after all, Comrade Gromyko, red is the colour of our Union’s flag. Are you suggesting we should change it?”
Mikhail senses that tempers are rising. A good facilitator must be able to strike a balance between non-interference when a meeting is flowing smoothly, and appropriate intervention when things are going off the rails. Now is a time for the latter.
“It’s obvious we have considerable disagreement on this issue, and I don’t think we can reach a consensus at this meeting. What I suggest is that a few people who’ve got strong feelings on the issue get together and see if they can work out a compromise proposal, or a new and better one, to present to the next meeting. I won’t join that group myself, but stepping outside my role as facilitator I’d like to suggest a dual fleet, one in black for the more ceremonial occasions and one in red, with or without stripes, for trips to the movies and so forth. Are there any volunteers for the working party?”
Aliyev, Ligachev, Vorotnikov and, after some prompting, Gromyko, agree to meet soon to come up with a solution which can be presented to the next Politburo meeting. The present meeting closes with an evaluation; everyone (even Gromyko) agrees it has gone well. Under Brezhnev and Chernenko, everyone would have headed off for a few vodkas at this point, but the fate of Grigory Romanov and other victims of Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholism drive persuades them all to settle, in the public interim, for tea, coffee and Milo. After the last cup has been smashed in the fireplace, there’s just enough time for Mikhail to pick up his dufflebag from the office before heading home to cook tea.
“Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev” was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported.
You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported