The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

1 The Setting:
An Introduction

ALEXANDER DALLIN

GAIL W. LAPIDUS

Less than seven years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power—first as secretary general of the Communist Party, later also as president of the Soviet Union—the dramatic changes in the Soviet system that he initiated culminated in the unraveling of the East European empire, the dissolution of the Soviet state, and the emergence of fifteen independent states in its former territory. Why the attempt at reform was initiated, how it evolved over time, and why it resulted in the collapse of the Soviet system are among the central questions about this era.


THE MARKERS OF CHANGE

What were the main characteristics of the intervening years of reform? A first and far-reaching transformation was the institution of glasnost—in substance, a freeing up of access to information, the gradual erosion of censorship, and the progressive elimination of taboos on discussion of certain subjects in the mass media. The abandonment of an obligatory "general line" (and its corollary that all other lines were wrong and hence impermissible) opened the door to a degree of free expression unprecedented in Soviet practice since the 1920s. Once it was acknowledged that the Party was not the only repository of truth, it was possible to encourage a new "pluralism" of opinion, a receptivity to new ideas and to the search for new answers, particularly as it became apparent that the old ideology had neither the hold nor the power that its proponents had claimed. Glasnost created major new opportunities for intellectuals (and unavoidably also for charlatans) to challenge old myths and fill the ideological vacuum. Historians could now gather and present the evidence on events that had been off-limits to discussion, such as the purges of the 1930s, and debate the relationship of Stalin to Lenin or the inevitability of the October Revolution; plays that had long been banned could now be performed; forbidden books could be reprinted; foreign broadcasts were no longer jammed; and a rich array of newspapers and journals representing a broad spectrum of political, ideological, and other concerns made their appearance.

This general erosion of inhibitions and fears under the impact of glasnost was accompanied by political democratization, an opening of the political system to diversity, and a growing degree of responsiveness to rank-and-file grievances and

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