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

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

COMPETENCE: A SOVIET RESOURCE IN SHORT SUPPLY SEPTEMBER 1990

Here the camera focuses directly and closely on Gorbachev. Like many
close-ups, this one is unflattering. In contrast to the masterful politician
captured in other snapshots, Gorbachev appears incompetent--unable to
steer his country through the rough seas he has chosen to travel.

How Mikhail Gorbachev must wish that his historic transformation of Soviet society had followed a smoother road. It would not be so bad if economic conditions and ethnic relations had remained unchanged between 1985 and 1990. But they have changed--for the worse.

Conditions in Moscow are now far different than they were when Gorbachev took office. In 1985, shelves in state stores offered at least a limited variety of food. Although there was no cornucopia, there was enough to ensure that even lower-income families could eat well (all that was needed was a few types of sausages and cheeses, a good selection of vodka, wine, and cigarettes, and a bounty of tomatoes and apples). In 1985, refrigerators, TV sets, and other durable goods (with the exception of VCRs and PCs) eagerly awaited buyers. Now, all of this has changed.

In 1985, the Caucasian region was relatively calm. Despite some minor mutual distrust, Armenians and Azerbaidjanis were interacting and even intermarrying, confident that the bloody conflicts between them belonged to the prerevolutionary era. In the Baltic republics, Central Asia, Moldavia, Ukraine, and Bielorussia, local party committees and the KGB were undisturbed by serious ethnic conflicts, and no one heard even murmured calls for autonomy, much less clamoring demands for independence. This, too, has changed.

To what extent is Gorbachev responsible for the country's economic crisis or for the ethnic conflicts now engulfing the Soviet Union? Given the enormous power he wielded in 1985, could Gorbachev have steered the country from its treacherous course? What role have Gorbachev's advisors played? In general, what role has Gorbachev's personal competence played in shaping the state of affairs in the Soviet Union?

Predictably, conservatives, Stalinists, and Russophiles unanimously ascribe the country's economic and ethnic catastrophes to Gorbachev and his liberal ideas. Speakers at both the June and August 1990 sessions of the Congress of the Russian Communist Party declared Gorbachev fully responsible for the chaos now gripping the country.

Gorbachev's conservative and Stalinist detractors are joined by several

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