The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

GORBACHEV'S REFORMS: RITUAL OR REALITY? JUNE 1985

This early snapshot, like others taken during the same period, seems blurry.
Its main character, Mikhail Gorbachev, is ill-defined--sometimes looking
like himself, sometimes looking like someone else. As a result, the snapshot
raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps time will bring the people
and events captured in this snapshot into sharper focus.

The day after Leonid Brezhnev died, his successor, Yuri Andropov, declared that Soviet society had finally emerged from a long period of stagnation and was about to enter a bold new era of radical change. When Andropov died and Chernenko took office, however, Andropov's "bold new era," like countless other Soviet programs and policies, seemed destined for the dustbin of history. Then, when Chernenko died after only thirteen months in office, the Soviet people learned that the course set by Andropov would be taken up once again by their new leader--a young, educated, and energetic man named Mikhail Gorbachev.

To hear the Soviet mass media describe it, the Soviet economy is now undergoing radical structural changes, with three main innovations already underway: significant increases in the autonomy granted individual enterprises, teams of workers operating under single contracts, and the creation of regional agricultural associations. One can barely open a copy of Pravda, Izvestiia, or Literaturnaia Gazeta without finding at least one article devoted to these developments. Widespread media coverage notwithstanding, however, it remains unclear whether the Soviet economy has truly entered the period of radical change promised first by Andropov and now by Gorbachev.

When trying to separate Soviet media hype from true change, one must first understand the role of ritual in Soviet society--particularly the ritual of pledging allegiance to values that have little in common with actual behavior. While it is true that all societies have their own rituals, nowhere are they as important as in Soviet society. One well-known Soviet ritual, for example, is that of the "free" election, which comes complete with candidates, speeches, door-to-door canvassing, etc.--everything one might find in an election in the United States--but has nothing to do with which candidates make it into office.

Although ritualistic activities can be found in all spheres of Soviet life, there are radical differences between ritualistic actions involving elections, which are 100 percent theatrical, and those involving the economy--a powerful system that, despite its numerous flaws, produces some of the world's most sophisticated weapons and readily digests technological innovations

-3-

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