The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

62 Conclusion

GAIL W. LAPIDUS

ALEXANDER DALLIN

Mikhail Gorbachev's years in the Kremlin—from March 1985 to December 1991— witnessed one of the most astounding developments of this century: an effort to reform the Soviet system that culminated in its collapse. If there is general agreement on its importance, there is considerable debate over how to explain it, how to appraise it, how to compare it with other instances of contemporary transitions from authoritarianism, and how to assess what it portends for the future.


PERESTROIKA—SUCCESS OR FAILURE?

Whether we view the whole experience of perestroika as a success or a failure depends very much on the criteria we apply. In terms of Gorbachev's objectives—as a strategy for in-system reform, and as an all-Union project—it clearly failed: It resulted in the destruction of the communist system and in the break-up of the Soviet Union.

If, however, perestroika is judged as a vehicle for the transition, albeit unintended, from a communist regime to a noncommunist one; for the gradual opening up of a closed society and for integrating the Soviet Union and its peoples into the global community; for the achievement of self-determination for the constituent nations of the Soviet Union and for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe ; then the course of events that we witnessed under Gorbachev—however halting and zigzagging—was essentially the only way these transformations could have been achieved peacefully. Any scenario other than gradual liberalization from above, initiated and sponsored by the ruling Party's leadership and intended as an effort to improve the system, would surely have provoked bloody repression or civil war. Gorbachev's special skills lay in forging the coalition that was necessary to launch the process and then sustaining it for some years. Ironically, it was precisely the formidable power of the general secretary, the rules of Party discipline, and the habits of obedience inculcated over generations that served to inhibit, for several years, serious challenges to his policies.

Whether or not the whole process could have occurred more gradually, over a more extended period of time, thereby creating more favorable economic and political conditions for the post-Soviet evolution of the region, does of course remain a matter of bitter contention. Inevitably, so radical and rapid a transformation came at a high price. The sudden and unexpected unraveling of the Soviet system left in its wake a mass of problems and conflicts, with often tragic conse

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