The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

PART 1
The Roots of Perestroika

If Soviet and Western observers alike largely failed to anticipate the inauguration by the Soviet leadership of radical reform from above, a substantial body of writings had nonetheless captured the mounting problems and pressures that ultimately triggered it. Other analysts added their voices once the reform was in progress. These writings reveal important divisions over several issues that relate to the roots of perestroika.

The first involves differing assessments of the condition of the Soviet Union on the eve of the Gorbachev era. One school argues that the protracted failure of the Soviet leadership to come to grips with major festering issues in a changing society—be they a lag in technological innovation or the explosive spread of corruption, an erosion of ideological commitment or a sluggish economy—amounted to a time bomb, and that the system was on the threshold of major crisis that only the succession of a new, activist generation of leaders, aware of the urgency of the problems facing the Soviet Union, could seriously attempt to address.

Others maintain that, whatever its many problems, the country that Brezhnev ruled from 1964 to 1982 was basically stable; that living conditions were improving, if slowly; and that the emphasis of the new leadership on the urgency of change to avert a crisis exaggerated the reality in order to rationalize its own efforts. In this view the destabilization of the system—ideological, political, and economic—was the product of the policies of the Gorbachev regime themselves.

A second controversy surrounds the sources of pressures for reform. Although these perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, some analysts focus on the decisive role of international aspirations, arguing that the costs of playing a superpower role, including the overextension of the Soviet military sector and defense industry (driven partly by Western behavior) as well as the "costs of empire" placed an unsustainable burden on the domestic economy and compelled reforms designed initially to preserve the Soviet Union's superpower status. More recent work has stressed not only the pressures of the international system but also its facilitating role in providing a benign environment conducive to the pursuit of reforms.

Others, on the contrary, emphasize the primacy of domestic concerns in Soviet policymaking, arguing that economic stagnation and bureaucratic immobility contributed to an unraveling of the social contract, a loss of political legitimacy, and the danger of growing popular discontent—factors that, in a "Polish-type" crisis, precipitated a cleavage within the political elite.

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