Builder and Destroyer: Thoughts on Gorbachev's Soviet Revolutions, 1985-1991

Article excerpt

Abstract: Twenty years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader. In his dramatic six years at helm, he aimed at accomplishing a transformation of Soviet domestic life and a revolutionary transformation of USSR foreign policy. This article reviews his record as a leader, taking account of the specifics of the Soviet institutional context in which he began to exercise choices no previous Soviet leader had, and examines specifically: (1) political-institutional reforms aimed at weakening the CPSU apparatus and building up state structures; (2) economic reform (perestroika), its objectives and ultimate failure; (3) Gorbachev's grappling with two varieties of nationalism--those of the East European "bloc" peoples, to whose aspirations he readily conceded, and those of secessionist and independence-oriented peoples of the USSR itself, to which he counterposed the project of a reformed "Union state" that proved unattainable; and (4) his critical role in the high politics that brought the cold war to a peaceful end--but proved insufficient to save his own political career.

Key words: foreign policy, Gorbachev, perestroika

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The of twenty years generally suffices to justify reexamination of statesmen's legacies--hence, Mikhail Gorbachev is due those that are now emerging, including the contributions in this issue. More specifically, it is roughly fourteen years since the Soviet collapse, and the extraordinary events and developments of 1985-91 are receding. Among them, one of the most extraordinary was the way Gorbachev exercised leadership. In the Soviet system, the degree of insulation of the top leadership from outside pressures was extraordinary, and that of the top leader, the General Secretary, even more pronounced. The Gorbachev drama, with its mix of successes and ultimate failure, involves a leader who went beyond that insulation, and chose to act in ways, and in pursuit of objectives, that radically distinguished him from his predecessor and most of his colleagues.

The many accounts that trace his thoughts and political moves, and the unfolding developments of 1985-91 indicate that Gorbachev, over time, became more convinced that Soviet economic and political structures required radical surgery. Initially, he wanted to reform a Soviet socialism that he saw, in some sense, as an historic "choice" made in some manner by "the Soviet people." He would use formulations like this, somewhat confusingly, late into a political game that had seen him continually redefining what socialism actually meant--rhetoric would lag behind reality.

His general mindset, initially, was not one much attuned to the coercive (the October coup, the civil war) elements of that choice. Lenin remained the iconic founder, and the performance of the system and the people in World War II was confirmation of the historical "correctness" of the choice under the sternest of tests. Again, there is the continuing thread of discrepancy between the language Gorbachev used, including its ideological tint, and the content and tendency of his actions. To a degree, this was tactical--he could not show his hand to the party. But it also highlights the deficiency of the political vocabulary available to him in the mid-1980s, which made it difficult for him to express how far he was willing to go, or perhaps even to understand it, before the fact, himself.

At first, he was not that dissimilar from the Dubcek of 1968, who had worked on the smaller canvas of Czechoslovakia. On the domestic scene, Gorbachev reduced censorship, reformed the one-party system's operations to broaden the scope of political discussion and bargaining, opened elements of the system to new talent and, a bit later, introduced some market elements into the socialist economy. All of this may not look like much now. But for a Soviet leader, it was extraordinary. No predecessor had gone this far. None of his Politburo colleagues gave any indication that they might have done the same. …