The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

10 Political Change
in the Soviet Union

ARCHIE BROWN

A new Soviet political system is being created from day to day. At the moment, the new sits uneasily alongside the old, and the old is not giving way without a fight. The changes call into question a great deal that has been taken for granted throughout much of Soviet history, and it has become more difficult than ever before to predict what the system will look like a decade from now. But even those who as recently as 1987 were arguing—wrongly—that nothing of consequence had changed in the Soviet Union must now recognize that dramatic and fundamentally important change is taking place. 1

Political reform is, of course, proceeding much faster and more successfully than economic reform. So long as material shortages get worse rather than better and there is no improvement in the standard of living of the average Soviet citizen, the continuation of political reform cannot be taken for granted. But many Western commentators, even once they belatedly accepted that Gorbachev was serious about radical reform, have underestimated his staying power and the prospects for perestroika moving forward. It has been argued, for example, that the opposition of the party and state apparatus represents an insurmountable obstacle, or that conservative forces are able to draw strength from popular grievances and disappointed expectations. 2

The combination of freedom to criticize and lack of economic progress is undoubtedly an important factor in the Soviet political equation. But so far, while it has reduced Gorbachev's popularity at home as compared with the early days of his leadership in 1985, it has not undermined his power. 3 On the contrary, Gorbachev has skillfully used both old and new institutions—on the one hand, the powers of the party general secretaryship and, on the other, the outcome of the elections to the Congress of People's Deputies and the first meeting of that legislative body—to reduce the numerical weight and political influence of conservative Communists in the highest echelons of the party and state apparatus.

The energetic part being played by radically reformist journalists, social scientists, and writers has helped to create a political climate in which it is far from easy for conservative party and state bureaucrats to exploit domestic economic and social problems to their advantage. There are many differences between the present period of Soviet history and Khrushchev's time of attempted reform. One, of course, is the greater political insight and subtlety of Gorbachev, but no less important is the far greater sophistication of the political analyses appearing now in

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