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

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

THE UNFAMILIAR SIDE OF MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: THE DISSIDENT AT THE TOP DECEMBER 1986

Again we see the two sides of Gorbachev's character--the outspoken cham-
pion of democracy and the iron-fisted totalitarian leader. Unfortunately for
Gorbachev, however, the Soviet people saw this split not as a realistic reaction
to a complex situation but as, at best, a sign of weakness, and as, at worst,
a sign of duplicity. In trying to please both sides, Gorbachev ended up
pleasing neither.

In recent nationwide polls conducted by the Moscow Sociological Institute, two-thirds of the respondents reported seeing no significant changes in the country compared to conditions under Leonid Brezhnev. Given that these findings came from official surveys--which use loaded questions that prompt people to choose alternatives favorable to the current leadership--they suggest that an overwhelming majority of the Soviet population are highly pessimistic about Gorbachev's reforms.

Various sources in the Soviet Union also suggest that Gorbachev, who regularly appears on Soviet TV, is perceived by increasing numbers of Soviet people as perhaps even more verbose than the garrulous Nikita Khrushchev.

This perception, combined with the widespread belief that Gorbachev has failed to bring about any significant changes in Soviet life, suggests an overall picture of a leader who is all talk and no action. But just how accurate is this assessment? There is no doubt that Gorbachev does talk a lot, and about things rarely discussed in the past. Gorbachev is the first Soviet leader to publicly discuss the deeply ingrained defects of the Soviet system. He insists that Soviet society, which Soviet propaganda once touted as a model for the entire world, requires nothing less than a "real revolution" in all its spheres. Indeed, Gorbachev's critique often exceeds that of Soviet dissidents who have paid for their views with prison and exile.

Soviet ideologues and Western leftist thinkers often mock bourgeois democracy as "a play in pluralism" with no significance to the masses. This is definitely not Gorbachev's view. Speaking last summer in the Far East, he almost openly linked Brezhnev-era stagnation with the absence of legal political opposition and demanded that this lack of opposition be replaced with "openness"--that is, with systematic public criticism of officials. Gorbachev himself has set the tone for such criticism--Gorbachev's comments

____________________
This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on December 18, 1986.

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