Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

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

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

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

Article excerpt

The lapse 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.

Leaders before Gorbachev kept a firm grip at home. Khrushchev was no liberator, although he introduced a post-Stalin era that saw no return to Stalinist terror. But those leaders sat atop not only the USSR, but the "external empire" of the Soviet bloc as well. They did tolerate some "variations" within the bloc. Since 1956, Poland had effectively mixed a New Economic Policy (NEP)-like modification of Soviet economics model with a consciously resistant society and the omnipresence of the Catholic Church. Long before the Solidarity years of 1980-81, Poland was a deviant case, endured by the Soviet leaders after Khrushchev because they, like he, found the prospect of dealing with Poland too daunting. In Hungary, a quiet moderation of the harshest methods had gotten underway earlier in the 1960s, and since 1968, it had operated with the most effective in-system reform-the "New Economic Mechanism"- of any satellite country. Mostly, the Kremlin had left Hungarians alone, just as they themselves downplayed the broader consequences at home, and implications abroad, of economic liberalization.

But in the end, if the Kremlin deemed it necessary to intervene forcefully, prior examples (Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968) indicated that they would, and that the West would live with it. …

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