Unraveling the Soviet Union: Gorbachev's Change in World View

Article excerpt

When Georgian film director Tengiz Abduladze showed the script of his film Repentance to then Georgian First Party Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze in 1981, the future Soviet foreign minister took on, as a personal mission, the struggle of getting permission for its production and then later for its release. The film, a surreal depiction of the evils of despotism and the moral need to confront the past, was a transparent allegory about Stalin and Stalinism. Shevardnadze's family, like those of many in the apparat, including Mikhail Gorbachev, had been ravaged by the purges, and he wanted to break the silence on this painful part of Soviet history. Shevardnadze pitched the film to Moscow saying that it was about "a moral and ethical problem."(1) Five years later, when he was battling for its release, he recounted the deep unease that pervaded the Politburo. Exhuming the Soviet past and questioning Stalin were perceived as threatening the system itself. This was so because, as Shevardnadze explained in his memoirs, "a public condemnation of the past threatened an inevitable break with its `methods.'"(2)

Indeed, the break with past "methods"--the suffocating party and state controls, which spawned a fearful and browbeaten population; the lies about the past, or what Robert Conquest has aphoristically called "the psychological horrors of mass falsification" that buttressed those controls; and the maintenance of a society and economy in a state of virtual war-preparedness by perpetuating the threat of the enemy and fostering a siege mentality--is precisely what Gorbachev wanted to change. These "methods" were part of the norms and rules that defined Stalinist, and indeed Soviet, political practice. While the party and state controls of the economy and society were well suited for earlier, wartime operations and Stalin's industrialization effort, they had now brought the country to the brink of economic and political disaster, threatening the promise of an "enlightened socialist future." Gorbachev's intention was to eradicate the vestiges of Stalinism and bring the Soviet Union back to its Leninist roots by revitalizing the country economically and politically and breathing new life into the ideals of the Soviet Communist Party. Stalinism was perceived as a corrosive force that could be removed, like barnacles on the hull of a ship. But Gorbachev did not anticipate that in removing the barnacles, he in fact would end up dismantling the ship.

Indeed, the radical nature of Gorbachev's reforms has been obfuscated by his much-vaunted slogan of perestroika. Translated as "restructuring," it was a politically correct term in the Soviet context and accurately reflected the type of reform that was considered necessary in the first two years of Gorbachev's rule. From his first days in power, Gorbachev sought to demilitarize the country. That was his chief objective and one that linked his domestic reforms to the successes of his foreign policy initiatives. The process, however, became progressively more radicalized as he came to understand the deeply embedded nature of Stalinism.

Gorbachev began his process of de-Stalinization by gradually changing the Soviet world view as it was shaped by the language of Marxism-Leninism. This can best be understood by viewing ideology not merely as a reference for political discourse, but as political discourse itself.(3) Ideological concepts and terminology define identities and relationship and constitute the very political practices to which they give expression. Writing that politics is a linguistically constituted activity, William E. Connolly observed that "the language of politics is not a neutral medium that conveys ideas independently formed; it is an institutional structure of meanings that channels political thought and action in certain directions."(4)

Although the impact and role of ideology in the Soviet Union continue to be debated, with some scholars still dismissing it as part of an outdated "traditional approach,"(5) other recent works on the period give greater weight to it. …