The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

14 The Quality of
Gorbachev's Leadership

PETER REDDAWAY

George Breslauer's article on Gorbachev's leadership qualities (Breslauer, 1989) is an extremely stimulating, formidably argued matching of theory against practice. Its many fruits deserve a longer response than can be given here. If he had written it in early 1989 rather than so much later in 1990, I would have been impressed and persuaded by almost all his points, rather than by just many of them. As it is, I believe that Gorbachev's vision of the future has increasingly proved uninspiring or off-target to many Soviet people, and, combined with certain apparent mistakes on his part, has led to a crippling and irreversible decline in his authority. This makes impossible, in my view, the kind of continuing success of his leadership that Breslauer thinks plausible. Although disagreement with Breslauer is not the structural focus of this essay, an attempt is made here to marshal selected arguments supporting conclusions which Breslauer's paper tended to deflate.


GORBACHEV IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

If Gorbachev were voluntarily to relinquish the presidency in the near future, he would probably still receive good marks from historians—first for the dazzling skill with which (as Breslauer rightly demonstrates) he has undermined Party rule, the "administrative-command system," and the traditional political culture, without (until things changed in the fall of 1990) provoking a sharp conservative backlash, and second for opening up the system to new political and economic forces. For historians may well judge that conducting a relatively peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy and the market was in itself an impossible task, let alone one which could be achieved from start to finish under a single leader. 3

After all, profound upheavals such as the French revolution of the late 18th century, the Russian revolution of 1917-1921, or the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s, produce, perhaps invariably, a degree of turnover in the revolutionary leadership, especially early on. Thus, even if Gorbachev leaves the stage sometime soon, historians may be impressed by the longevity of his tenure—and attribute it primarily to the leadership skills that Breslauer documents. He has, after all, already survived nearly two years since his "revolution from above" began to slip out of his control, under pressure first from the incipient revolution from below and later from the conservative reaction which both these revolutions provoked.

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