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

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

THE APOCALYPTIC MOOD OF THE SOVIET PEOPLE JULY 1989

The gloomy mood of the Soviet people, starkly captured in the current
snapshot, continued to be one of the most significant handicaps to real
progress in the Soviet Union. As we have seen, no society can function
without myths, goals, and a sense of purpose. For constructive change to
occur, the leadership needed to find a way to translate the Soviet people's
fading hopes into purposeful, goal-directed action.

Having been absent from Moscow for less than one year, I was stunned during my recent visit by the drastic change in the Soviet people's perceptions of both their current life and, especially, their future. Although I thought I had closely monitored Soviet life via the Soviet TV hookup in my office and the two dozen Soviet periodicals that cross my desk, I was entirely unprepared for the dire mood I encountered. I was equally astonished by the abrupt decline in Gorbachev's prestige, which I had thought would surely increase given the successful meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies in June and Gorbachev's triumphant visit to West Germany in the same month.

In May 1988, when I visited Moscow for the first time since my emigration nine years earlier, the prevailing mood was rather positive, despite continuing economic stagnation. Glasnost, with its freedom of speech and daring publications, still seemed to millions of Soviet people (especially the intelligentsia) to be adequate compensation for the hardships of everyday life.

The current situation, however, is radically different. Continuing revelations regarding Stalin and his reign of terror fail to excite even the liberal intelligentsia, not to mention the masses, who have grown indifferent to such reports. Moreover, further movement in the last year toward the disappearance of fear and the attainment of near-total freedom of speech have failed to impress the Soviet people, who no longer hail Gorbachev for this truly great progress.

Most amazing to me, however, was the Soviet people's reaction to the meetings of the Congress of People's Deputies, during which delegates were free not only to criticize any phenomenon and any institution in the country, but even to argue with Gorbachev himself. I was sure that the majority of

____________________
This article appeared as "Melancholia in Moscow: Soviets Disappointed with Life under Gorbachev" in The Globe & Mail on August 1, 1989, and as Soviet Citizenry Grows Restless: 'Democratization' Has Yet to Show Real Gains in The Los Angeles Times on August 26, 1989.

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