The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
THE ROAD TO REVOLUTION

In the first half of the 1980s, the succession of aging and infirm leaders who governed the Soviet Union—first Brezhnev (1964–1982), then Andropov (1982–1984), followed by Konstantin Chernenko (1984–1985)—came to an end with the succession of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991). When a radio journalist called to ask an American scholar what he thought of the new, younger general secretary, he replied that it was “good that the Soviets finally have a leader that can think on his feet. Indeed, it is good that they have one that can stand on his feet!” Even enthusiastic supporters of Gorbachev, already known to harbor ideas of political and economic reforms, could not have predicted how radical, and simultaneously liberating and destructive, those reforms would be. In just over six years, Gorbachev eliminated censorship and allowed a free press, devolved power to elected legislatures, ended the Communist party's monopoly of power, brought the Cold War to an end, and presided over the disintegration of the state he had hoped to preserve. In fact he carried out a revolution that brought new, popular figures like his rival Boris Yeltsin to power and rendered himself superfluous.

Gorbachev began his reforms cautiously, attempting in the Andropov manner to make the system more efficient without fundamental changes. The watchwords were acceleration, discipline, and a fight against corruption and drunkenness. In his first year, he gathered around him men upon whom he thought he could depend: the moderate reformer Egor Ligachev, who became his second in command; the radical Aleksandr Iakovlev, put in charge of propaganda; the impetuous Boris Yeltsin, made head of the Moscow party committee; the able manager Nikolai Ryzhkov as prime minister, and his friend Eduard Shevardnadze as his new foreign minister. But much of the party and state apparatus dragged its feet, and even replacing thousands of officials could not make the lumbering economic machine move. By 1986, Gorbachev spoke of the “restructuring” of the system (perestroika) and “transparency” (glasnost'), allowing open criticism of faults and failings. In December, Gorbachev placed a famous phone call to Sakharov, then in exile in a Volga city, inviting him to return to Moscow. This was a signal to all intellectuals that they were free to think more boldly and write more critically. By this time, Gorbachev had concluded that the problem with reform was the system of power itself, the heavy-handed control from above and the lack of initiative from below. Jack Matlock, the American ambassador (1987–1991), remembers Gorbachev saying,

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