In June 1986 I was a foreign observer at the Eighth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow. I had visited the Soviet Union several times before, mostly to lecture on behalf of the U.S. State Department, and when the invitation came, I was of two minds about accepting it. My experience of Soviet functions had ranged from boring to terminally depressing: officials making self-congratulatory speeches, “voting” unanimously to elect hand-picked candidates, and a general feeling for the foreigner of being watched all the time. What persuaded me to go was that I was turning over in my mind the possibility of writing what turned out to be my novel Chernobyl, and it seemed a good chance to do some preliminary research.
The first day of the congress was just as predictable and lackluster as I had expected. The second day, though, was different. One after another, Soviet writers got up and spoke out on such questions as censorship, the refusal to publish writers like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, the ways in which state projects were destroying the environment, corruption, and fraud in union elections—saying all the things that, now and then, a few Soviet citizens might have dared to whisper in private, behind their hands, but were now saying out loud and in public. I had never encountered anything like it. My translator had been urging me to leave early to attend an opera performance at the Bolshoi, but I couldn’t tear myself away—nor, it turned out after a while, could she, because she was as astonished at what was going on as I was. The whole congress came to a head when it was time to elect the new officers of the union. Then, for almost the first time in any union congress in the USSR, the election became a real contest, and when the votes were counted, the writers had deposed many of the old bureaucrats and replaced them with reformers.
I had never heard the words perestroika and glasnost until then, and this was one of the first times that either concept was put into practice. They both have gone much farther since, but that was where, for many people, they began.