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

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

SOVIET PRIVATE BUSINESS: BOON OR BLIGHT FOR GORBACHEV'S RUSSIA? AUGUST 1988

By the time this snapshot was taken, Gorbachev had made serious progress
in the democratization and liberalization of Soviet society. As this snapshot
illustrates, however, little progress was being made in the privatization of
the Soviet economy. Gorbachev found himself deadlocked in his battle not
only to change current processes but to counter the effects of decades of
socialist planning.

Many years ago, an old man in Saratov, a typical Russian city, told me that there were three things that can easily be restored in the mind of a Russian-- religion, anti-Semitism, and private business. As it turns out, he was absolutely right about the first two, but surprisingly, very wrong about the third.

Of course, he was not the only one to incorrectly predict Russian attitudes toward private business. The majority of Soviet officials and intellectuals (including both Westernizers and Russophiles) were convinced that the masses possessed a barely suppressed yearning for private property and private initiative.

When Gorbachev declared that privatizing the Soviet economy was a main element of his radical economic reform package, Soviet intellectuals, as well as many Western experts, believed that most Soviet people would greet this revolutionary step with excitement and enthusiasm.

Thus, Gorbachev's supporters were astounded when, in 1986, they saw the first signs of popular discontent towards private business. It took an entire year for them to realize that their cherished liberal myth, like all dogmas before it, had little basis in reality. Now, two years later, it is clear that the majority of Russians are hostile toward private business, especially private cooperatives.

Recent nationwide polls suggest that less than 15 percent of the Soviet people report positive attitudes toward cooperatives. Soviet newspapers are inundated with angry letters blasting private businesses. In fact, the Soviet people's hostility toward private business is so strong that the residents of a village near Moscow recently torched a building rented by a cooperative.

This unexpected animosity toward private business stems, first and foremost, from the low levels of production, the labor demoralization, and the welfare ideology that peaked during the Brezhnev era.

Given the low number and poor quality of the goods they produce, Soviet enterprises can afford only minimal salaries for their workers. By contrast,

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