The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

8 The Pioneers of Perestroika:
Back to the Intellectual
Roots of Soviet Reforms

DAVID REMNICK

Fifteen years ago, at a remote academic institute in central Siberia, a young economist named Abel Agenbegyan began his evening meals with a toast: "We shall outlive them!" At times, when he was even less sure that the Kremlin's aged leaders would ever step aside, he lifted his glass and said to his liberal young colleagues, "Comrades! To our noble and hopeless work!"

Agenbegyan, a rotund scholar whose bookshelves bulge with the works of Vladimir Lenin and Milton Friedman, is representative of the generation of intellectuals and party reformers who were inspired by the brief liberalizing "thaw" of the Nikita Khrushchev era of the late 1950s. They are now the leaders of both the intelligentsia and the liberal, reformist wing of the Communist Party—the "perestroika army."

Suddenly, the dreams of Agenbegyan and the small core of progressives within the Communist Party are taking shape. The party, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, took its most dramatic step last month, abandoning its monopoly on power in hopes of restoring its own credibility in an increasingly pluralistic political system.

Gorbachev's decision was the result of outside pressure—the start of multi‐ party systems in Eastern Europe, the rise of popular independent political groups in the Soviet Union—and the evolution and evident triumph of the liberal wing of the party.

The intellectual roots of last month's drama go back decades. Scholars such as Agenbegyan and party officials such as Gorbachev survived the post-Khrushchev era of "stagnation" under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s and early '80s by leading double lives, working quietly on their plans and dreams, always hoping that a period of reform would come.

Couching some of their best ideas in the vague language of Aesop fables and leaving other ideas for another day, they never took the risks of dissidents. Some compromised themselves completely and, according to journalist Len Karpinsky "lost their souls forever."

Gorbachev, who spent nearly a quarter-century as a party official in the provincial city of Stavropol, was one of the few party officials who were intellectually and morally receptive to ideas that contradicted the dogmas of Stalinism.

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