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

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

CAN GORBACHEV COPE WITH THE PRIVATIZATION OF SOVIET SOCIETY? MAY 1987

Once again we see Gorbachev struggling for an identity: Is he a repressive
enemy of change or a progressive ally of progress? Although it is becoming
increasingly clear that, for better or for worse, Gorbachev must choose a
single course, we will see that the only steadfast position Gorbachev ever
adopts is his refusal to adopt steadfast positions.

The Soviet government recently adopted a decree, to take effect this month, legalizing many types of private activity in the country. Such activity, referred to by Soviet leaders (for obvious ideological reasons) as "individual" rather than "private," includes the production of clothes, furniture, and toys, the building of apartments and country houses, repair of electrical appliances and cars, tutoring, teaching music, and using privately owned cars for taxi service, among other things.

This decree contrasts sharply with an one adopted in May 1985 attacking the private economy. The 1985 decree led to soaring prices, and spread panic throughout the country. Millions of peasants were barred from shopping in neighboring cities and villages, tenants were evicted by landlords, car owners became afraid to drive people to hospitals even in emergencies, and scholars could not find typists for their manuscripts. "Our private life was in a fever" said Leonid Zhukhovitskii, a prominent Soviet writer, in describing the chaos caused by the earlier decree.

Of course, the 1985 edict and its results were not new to the Soviet people--it was not the Soviet government's first unsuccessful attack on the resilient "second economy." Still, how could Gorbachev, who has harshly criticized Brezhnev's irrational economic policy, make a major decision so clearly doomed to failure and then replace it so quickly with its opposite?

Such a twist is unprecedented, even in Soviet history. Even Nikita Khrushchev did not execute such dazzling pirouettes in his vagarious economic policy. Various hypotheses might help explain Gorbachev's stunning aboutface, including those that cast doubt on his wisdom as a political leader, and those that suggest the existence in the Kremlin of a political force able to impose the 1985 edict on the Gorbachev, probably to discredit him.

It is more likely, however, that the ultimate cause of Gorbachev's oscillation with respect to private activity lies in the process of privatization-- a process with broad ramifications that has drastically changed Soviet society over the past three decades. The process basically involves the gradual withdrawal of human energy and emotional involvement from work per-

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