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

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

GOODBYE TO AN OLD SOVIET DREAM: CATCHING UP TO THE WEST APRIL 1986

All societies are founded on myth and legend, and all must have goals
toward which to strive. This snapshot captures the disintegration of one of
the Soviet Union's most cherished myths (the superiority of its economic
system) and the abandonment of one of its most important goals (surpassing
the West). As later snapshots reveal, the absence of such myths and goals,
and the subsequent drop in morale, proved to be a major obstacle to suc-
cessful reform.

The recent NBC movie Peter the Great," although marred by historical inaccuracy, did give those viewers unfamiliar with Russian history some insight into a crucial aspect of Russian cultural psychology: the historical obsession with catching up the West.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they pledged to bring the Soviet Union in line with the West--something the Russian czars had failed to do. Before World War II, Stalin promised the 18th Communist Party Congress that the USSR would eventually match the West's per capita productivity. After World War II, the United States continued to provide the model for performance in nearly all areas of Soviet life.

Of all the Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev was most bedeviled by the idea of advancing the Soviet Union to the position of the West, and particularly the United States. It is nearly impossible to find a speech by Khrushchev in which he did not compare Soviet and American economic data, and in which he did not vow that the Soviet Union would soon surpass the economy of the greatest capitalist country in the world.

The idea of outperforming America so possessed Khrushchev that, defying both prudence and reason, he included it as the main economic task in the party program adopted in 1961 by the 22nd Party Congress, which he controlled. He even predicted the exact year--1980--when this goal would be achieved, and by which the USSR "will have left the USA far behind."

The stagnation of the Soviet economy during the 1970s, as well as the growing technological gap between the USSR and the West, have significantly changed the role of the United States in the Soviet mentality--a development that has yet to draw the attention of Sovietologists.

The firm belief that the Soviet Union would eventually surpass the United

____________________
This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on April 8, 1986.

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