What is needed, Silyunin argued, if tough reforms are really going to get off the ground, is the formation of a new government that has the confidence of the people. He called it a "government of national trust."
Watching the chaos here as more and more ethnic groups, republics, elected city councils and new social groups turn a deaf ear to Gorbachev's politicial pleas, it appears that Silyunin is indeed on to something. After all, the reason the Poles have been willing to swallow bitter economic reform medicine is that they still have confidence in the pledges of Solidarity leaders that present pain will lead to future economic gain.
A few years ago a credibility gap between the national Soviet government and the people wouldn't have mattered. Most of the population knew the communist government lied but couldn't do a thing about it. But today, under the new system that Gorbachev himself has created, the lack of public confidence in his Communist Party and his programs has become critical. Without public support his chances of holding the union together during a painful transition to some new, as yet undefined system, are slim.
In a poll taken for Moscow News in April only 16 percent expressed full trust in the Soviet Communist Party. And there is a strong sense here that Gorbachev and his prime minister, Nickolai Ryzhkov, don't have the foggiest idea how to get out of the worsening economic mess.
When I visited Silyunin at his home, an apartment on the edge of Moscow crammed with glassed-in bookcases with a photograph of the late Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov prominently displayed, his wife apologized for being unable to serve me a meal because there was no food in the stores.
"There is no chance for this Soviet government to claim the trust of the people," the intense, gray-haired economist told me emphatically. The key problem, he argued, is that to regain popular trust, Gorbachev would have to come to the people and "tell them that his party led the country to deadlock in 72 years. He would have to admit he made mistakes in perestroika . . . but that the people would still have to go through inflation and unemployment."
Instead, says Silyunin, Gorbachev's team is fearfully clinging to the old, failed ideas of central planning, partly because they don't understand the market concept, but also because they are terrified that more dramatic reforms would lead to even greater social unrest.
But even if the Gorbachev team adopted a more radical stance, Silyunin doesn't believe it would have the credibiliity to get the public to accept it. ''It would be easier for another government to do it, (one) which isn't responsible for 72 years of communist rule."
Silyunin doesn't believe that a government of national trust can be created at the top, at the level of the whole Soviet Union, where Gorbachev is scheduled to stay in power as unelected president for five years.
The key to change must lie at lower levels of government like legislatures of republics or city councils, where newly elected officials, including many noncommunists and ethnic nationalists, still have the public trust. He hopes that there will be cooperation between them, in putting forth new formulas for the economy, and replacing the Soviet empire with a new federation of republics that resembles the common market.
In his vision, the leaders of the Baltics, the dynamic new democratic mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, and most importantly the new president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, would all link up into some sort of united democratic movement. Ultimately, they would hasten the passing of the communists from national power.
In fact, something of the sort is already beginning to happen. The Leningrad city council, for example, is protesting Gorbachev's economic blockade of Lithuania, and Yeltsin, in his first full day in office, flouted Gorbachev by promising to establish close ties between the Russian republic and the Baltics.
The key to the realization of Silyunin's dream will be the performance of Yeltsin. As the head of the largest Soviet republic, and a populist, anti- establishmentarian who is riding high with ordinary people of all political hues, Yeltsin has the standing to suggest dramatic reforms from which Gorbachev would shy away. Whether he will do this is another matter; his first statements on economic reform seemed much more conservative than the ideas of Silyunin, who is one of his economic advisers.
But to get a sense of how fast things are moving, I need only recall my conversation with Silyunin, which took place Sunday, just after Yeltsin had been narrowly defeated on two ballots in his attempt to head the Russian government. Silyunin was in despair. "We lost our chance for a government of national trust," he said. "If Yeltsin had been elected, the government of Russia could have been more important than the government of the whole Soviet Union."
Two days later, Yeltsin made it on his third try. Now he has the chance to show whether he can establish, and effectively run, a government that holds the people's trust, whether he can succeed where Gorbachev has failed.