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

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

FEWER RUBLES UNDER THE TABLE JUNE 1986

This snapshot perfectly captures the short-sighted and quixotic nature of
many of Gorbachev's initiatives. Although eliminating the second economy
was a noble goal, Gorbachev's advisors appear unable to look beyond the
nobility to see the reality of the situation. This optimism--or naiveté--will
return to haunt Gorbachev in snapshots to come.

Gorbachev's declaration of war against illegal income in the Soviet Union is far more than a simple ritualistic exercise. Gorbachev intends to destroy all means of income not controlled and sanctioned by the state, and, judging by the seriousness of his previous crusade--last year's anti-alcoholism campaign--it seems clear that he means business.

Gorbachev's attack on illegal income, however, will affect many more people than did his anti-alcoholism campaign, because the new initiative attacks the well-being of millions of Soviet people whose lives are intertwined in the vast second economy, which involves legal and semi-legal activities.

Of course, many Soviet people--particularly those with low incomes, no connections to the second economy, and who are consumed with envy and hatred of the apparatchiks and wheeler-dealers--support Gorbachev's initiative. In time, however, even they will be disappointed, because Gorbachev's plan will surely fail to make good on its promises.

First, it is clear that Gorbachev's decree will do nothing to improve the availability of consumer goods or the quality of most services. Despite its drawbacks, the second economy provides a way around rigid wage and price structures, allowing people to get what they need (whether oranges from Soviet Georgia or prompt repair of their bathroom) as long as they are able to pay often exorbitant prices.

A second and more serious problem with the new decree is that it directly contradicts another element of Gorbachev's strategy: the acceleration of economic growth. While curbing corruption and pilfering, the war on illegal income will also likely stifle private initiative, which has begun to grow and which Gorbachev himself has vowed to encourage for the benefit of the economy and the people (his support of the family farm is just one example). Not only does the measure not encourage legal private initiative, but some sections, such as that on "individual labor activity," are filled with prohibitions and threats.

____________________
This article originally appeared in the New York Times on June 18, 1986.

-23-

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