The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

5 Politics Before Gorbachev:
De-Stalinization and the
Roots of Reform

PETER HAUSLOHNER

From the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev's rule, Western specialists have been deeply divided about the prospects of state-led change in the Soviet Union. Part of this debate has centered on the scope and ambition of Gorbachev's own objectives, although many of these doubts dissipated in the wake of the General Secretary's extraordinary demands for political and economic reform at the January and June 1987 Plenums of the Communist Party Central Committee. 1 On the other hand, most of the disagreement has always had more to do with judgments about the ability of any Party leader, however skilled or well intentioned he or she might be, to carry through so dramatic a transformation of the Soviet system. Just prior to the June Plenum, Peter Reddaway suggested that Gorbachev would eventually have to curb his radicalism or else up the ante and "risk being removed from office à la Khrushchev." Yet, should Gorbachev "persist in his radicalism, and also fail to produce a steady improvement in the standard of living," Reddaway wrote, "then it is hard to see how he could survive for many more years." Although it was at least conceivable that Gorbachev's reforms might lead to "unprecedented changes," the Soviet system still seemed no more "susceptible of transformation today than it was thirty years ago." 2

But what is the Soviet system that so desperately needs to be transformed? To understand the enterprise that Gorbachev has now embarked on, let alone to gauge its chances, we need a clear sense of the system he inherited. Surely the most popular view among specialists is that reflected in the remarks just quoted, which sees the "essence" of the Soviet political-economic system as largely unchanged from what Iosif Stalin left his successors when he died in March 1953. To be sure, proponents of this position do not maintain that everything is as it was in Stalin's time. On the contrary, virtually everyone agrees that the three decades following the dictator's death witnessed major changes that extended throughout society and often resulted in substantial improvements in the quality of ordinary people's lives. Most striking were the changes in state policy: an end to terror and the curtailment of unbridled police powers; the erection of a genuine, although austere, welfare state; and the shift to a foreign policy of "peaceful coexistence," which reduced the severe isolation of the Soviet public from the outside world. Specialists also acknowledge important changes in the manner in which policies

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