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

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

GORBACHEV'S RETREAT:
TACTICAL OR STRATEGIC? JANUARY 1989

This snapshot underscores the difficulty of understanding Gorbachev's be-
havior. As he has from the very first snapshot, Gorbachev appears torn
between conservative and liberal, between reformer and old-schooler. As
we will see in snapshots to come, Gorbachev's ambivalence will prove to
be significant liability.

The cyclical nature of Russian politics has been revealed once again. There is serious reason to believe that the existing liberal phase of Soviet history will, in the not so distant future, be replaced by a more conservative phase. Such a conservative phase will likely involve the elimination of many of the achievements of 1985-1989. Of course, the events unfolding in the Soviet Union are not unique--cyclical political developments are common to many societies. Such developments are particularly likely, however, when authoritarian societies begin shifting toward more liberal or democratic forms of government.

Since the Russian monarchy began its long journey toward establishing a more liberal society, there have been several alternating periods of liberalism and conservatism. In 1801, Alexander I initiated a move toward liberalism, only to return to a more reactionary course, which was continued by Nikolas I (nicknamed Nikolas the Cudgel). The ensuing economic stagnation and demoralization of society eventually led to a great upsurge of liberalism under Alexander II, who first introduced glasnost. Alexander II ultimately returned to a more reactionary course, which was continued in the 1880s and 1890s by Alexander III, who plunged Russia into one of the darkest periods of her history. Alexander's son, Nikolas II, took a more liberal course, but the 1917 revolution and Stalin's terror reversed this process. Khrushchev liberalized and modernized Soviet life, but his changes were largely eliminated under Brezhnev's rule.

Gorbachev's perestroika clearly represents the next rung in Russia's tortuous climb towards becoming a modern civilized society. Within a few years of Gorbachev's ascendancy, Soviet society has not only regained the accomplishments of the Khrushchev era, but has advanced ideologically, politically, and economically. The new regime, with its emphasis on glasnost, has almost totally destroyed Marxist ideology and has promoted common sense as the basis for decision-making, even in such domains as national security, the army, and foreign policy--domains traditionally considered beyond public critique. In less than three years, central planning and social

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