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

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

SOVIET EMPIRE CONTINUES ITS MOVE TOWARD DECENTRALIZATION AUGUST 1988

As several snapshots have already suggested, many of Gorbachev's economic
and political initiatives were interrelated, such that implementing one pro-
gram in isolation often caused more problems than it solved. In this snapshot,
decentralization without democratization increases the likelihood of despotic
rule. The interrelatedness of problems and solutions often proved demor-
alizing to the Soviet people, because it suggested that, to be successful, all
problems needed to be addressed and solved simultaneously--an obvious
impossibility.

These days, "democratization" has joined "glasnost" and "perestroika" as one of the most popular words in the Soviet political lexicon. Even conservatives who hate Gorbachev's program feel they must present themselves as advocates of democratization. Only a few political figures have dared ignore democratization, as, for example, did Ligachev in his eloquent homily in favor of neo-Stalinism at the last party conference in Moscow. Gorbachev, by contrast, used the word "democracy" nine times in his final speech.

Of course, Soviet leaders and the Soviet mass media use the word "democracy" very broadly, and often to characterize developments that actually have little, if anything, to do with democracy. Thus, the popularity of the term creates an inaccurate perception of the processes transpiring in the USSR. The Soviet Union's current political and economic decentralization provides an excellent example.

Although it seems strange, contemporary decentralization is simply the continuation of a tendency that, having started almost immediately after Stalin's death, gained momentum under Brezhnev. By the time Brezhnev died, Soviet society resembled the German empire during the Middle Ages. Like the German princes, regional party secretaries were free to make any decision within their fiefdom, and they totally controlled the courts and the police. We now know that their underlings (like Adilov, a local boss in Uzbekistan) were even allowed to build private prisons for the purpose of jailing whomever they wanted.

Of course, like the German feudals, regional Soviet leaders were not allowed to interfere in national foreign policy, and they had to pay tribute to the greatness of the Moscow potentate, in part by sending expensive gifts to him and his family. Recent revelations show how Brezhnev's family, courtiers (such as Minister of Internal Affairs Shchelokov), and even technical secretaries collected donations from their vassals, bestowing upon them, in exchange, unlimited power in their bailiwicks.

-78-

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