Gorbachev's "Perestroika" - Twenty Years After (April-1985-April 2005)

Posted in Other | 06-Jun-05 | Author: Dmitry Shlapentokh

Michael Gorbachev and his wife Raissa applauding the crowd.
Michael Gorbachev and his wife Raissa applauding the crowd.
One could not understand the present-day U.S.A.’s relationship with the other parts of the globe unless one would outline the major frameworks of American foreign policy and define its limitations. And this requires a short historical sketch that would demonstrate how present day conditions have emerged. One needs to start this analysis with the last years of the Cold War and define the framework of this era and how it was applied in foreign policy. And here, one, of course, should focus on the collapse of the USSR, which in many ways conditioned the global events of the last 14/15 years. The social scientists have had a legitimate penchant for finding the deeper-seated reasons for such a major event as the collapse of the USSR, which had provided the U.S.A. such an extraordinary chance for imperial expansion. Consequently, the pundits have tried to find out the specific reason for the end of the regime and empire. Still—and this is the point of this essay—the collapse of the USSR was not so much the result of the deeper crisis of the regime but actually an incident. It was Gorbachev’s reckless policy that should be credited for the collapse of the regime and empire.

Economic Problems Were Not Dire

Those who had looked back on the last years of the Soviet regime had often seen it in the grip of a variety of crises that preordained its imminent demise. These assertions are far from the truth if one would compare the collapse of the USSR with the end of the tsarist regime which had been started exactly 100 years ago with the beginning of the 1905-1907 Revolution. While the 1905 Revolution was caused—as are many other revolutions—by various reasons; it was economic problems and the misery of the majority of the Russian populace that were the major reasons for the beginning of the revolution in January 1905. The distressed masses in St. Petersburg, the capital, had approached the Winter Palace, the residence of the tsar in St. Petersburg, where they were met with firing squads that killed and wounded hundreds. All of this led to a crisis that Russia had never experienced before. Nationwide strikes had culminated in the December 1905 Uprising in Moscow where Red detachments fought fiercely with Imperial Army troops. The countryside was in the grip of the peasant uprising. There were mutinies in the army and navy and ethnic violence all over the empire. The wave of crime, often quite violent, had overwhelmed the country. Many observers of the events had believed that the regime was on the brink of collapse and legitimately so. Still, the tsarist regime had survived even such pressure, and it required the jolt of WWI to bring it down. While society was openly against tsarist bureaucracy, the opposition had leaders, the officer corps, which led to the final onslaught against the regime. There were numerous and well-organized political parties; quite a few of them were underground. Still, after the beginning of the 1905 Revolution, most of them were legalized and had been elected to the Duma, the Russian parliament. And yet, the tsarist regime had survived.

One might also add in hindsight that similar calamities that had befallen Russia in the post-Soviet era did not lead to the collapse of either Gorbachev’s or Yeltsin’s regimes, despite numerous prophecies in the oppositionist press. All of this testifies to the fact that the state, including authoritarian-totalitarian variations, often had a remarkable level of stability and could withstand the most serious pressure.

While the Russian monarchy had survived the crisis of the 1905-1907 Revolution, it at least had visible problems; the very nature of upheaval clearly indicated this. Nothing of this sort could be seen in the last years of Brezhnev’s regime. With all of its slowdown, the economy continued to function. It was true that the level of life of the majority of Soviet citizens was quite modest by Western standards. Still, there was no starvation, and, in any case, the living standards of Brezhnev’s USSR was much higher not only under Stalin but even under Krushchev. Moreover, quite a few Russians believed that they, even now, after several years of economic growth under Putin and extremely high oil prices that provided Russia with additional billions of dollars, lived worse than under Breshnev’s regime. In addition, one might state that living standards had, in general, improved throughout most of Brezhnev’s regime. But even if one accepts the notion that the Soviet citizens were extremely unhappy with their condition, one could hardly find any serious social upheaval. Certainly there was nothing that could be compared not just with those that had occurred in 1905-1907 or 1917 but even with those—and they were much milder—recorded in Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s eras.

No Serious Military Complications

The events of 1905-1907 had indicated clearly that the tsarist regime was on the brink of collapse. It was marked by crushing defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, which had led to the destruction of the Russian navy and the demoralization of the army and was an important impetus for revolution. Indeed, besides the social upheaval, it was military defeat that had played an important role in derailing the Russian monarchy. One could well assert here that it was actually defeats in the Russian-Japanese War and WWI that had triggered both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. Nothing of this sort could be found in the last years of the Soviet regime. It was true that since 1979 the regime had engaged in the Afghan war that it could well drag on for generations. Still, while this was a nuisance, the war could hardly be a cause for the regime’s end. The Chechen War, for example, has been going on more than ten years and in the loss of human life and wasted national wealth, has been ahead of the Afghan War many times over. Still, it had little implication for either Yeltsin’s or Putin’s regime. As a matter of fact, the war has actually been quite helpful for Putin’s regime. It was the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999 that had helped Putin to become president, and major terrorist attacks in Beslan provided him with an excuse to abolish the election of the governors.

While small local wars could have hardly created major problems for the regime, any major wars with the USSR would be impossible. In sharp contrast with Imperial Russia, the USSR had nuclear weapons. And no state, unless driven by irrational madmen, would launch war against a nuclear state. The hatred of the USSR by the West did not mean much here. Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the USSR "the evil empire” and once even joked on radio that he had ordered the launch of a nuclear strike against the USSR. But, of course, he had not. The USSR would have been safe from American nuclear strike even if its nuclear arsenal would have been much smaller. The case of North Korea could serve here as a good example. The Korean nuclear arsenal, if any, would consist of only a few bombs. Bush’s hatred of North Korea is pervasive, and as viable. Still, the possibility of even a limited nuclear war keeps the American administration from an actual strike. Thus, the assumption that the USSR could have suffered from that type of Russo-Japanese War, which would have weakened the regime to a degree when it was about to collapse, does not compute.

Architects of détente - Michael Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and George Bush sr.
Architects of détente - Michael Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and George Bush sr.
The limited implication of ideological problems

The other popular explanation of the collapse of the USSR connected the end of the USSR with the problems of Soviet ideology. The interest in the ideological roots of the collapse is deeply connected with the spread of post-modernism, a so-called “linguistic turn,“ in the American social sense. The roots of the theory go back to Europe and the particular cultural/political milieu of the 1960s early 1970s. The ideological founder of the trend was the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss who rejected the previous assumption of the majority of anthropologists that it was internal material conditions of the primitive people of Latin America and elsewhere that conditioned their culture and their myths, for example. The point was absolutely different. Strauss suggested that the similarities of the culture of the aborigines and kindred people, the fact that they had a shared myth; was simply indicative of the way which all people think, how thoughts are organized in the human brain. Not only have the ideologies emerged independently from that of material conditions, but also it was material conditions that actually conditioned by the nature of ideological paradigms. The primacy of ideology over life, and the shaping of the nature of social-political arrangements by ideology had been developed by the post-modernists. These post-modernists became quite influential in the turbulent 1960s in Europe and exercised their influence in the U.S.A. And because the U.S.A. had dominated politically, economically and culturally the entire West, the post-modernists paradigms became the currency of the realm. Among all of the post-modernists, Michel Foucault was most influential. In Foucault’s views, the social-political reality was not a shaper of the prevailing ideology of society; rather it was ideology that shaped the social-political reality. As a matter of fact, the very nature of “reality” was discarded. In the views of Foucault, other leading post-modernists and their numerous followers who had insisted on the existence of reality as an entity—an independent form cultural/ideological paradigm—either testifies to his naivete (a sort of intellectual underdevelopment) or hides his desire to dominate society, to hold power over it. And, it was ideology, which Foucault called “discourse episteme,” that defined the nature of power. Consequently, those who controlled discourse controlled power. This idea became quite popular in the West and especially in the U.S.A. where, as a part of “linguistic turn,” Foucault’s ideas had become the currency of the realm.

Foucault and his immediate followers were not as much concerned with the USSR as with the modern capitalist West. In their view, the hegemonistic discourse” of the white middle class elite had dominated the West and in the external display of liberties one could find the dreadful “Great Panopticum”—the society as a circular prison where resident inmates are controlled and manipulated by the elite. Since the roots of the oppression was in wrong "discourse,” Foucault and his numerous followers had assumed that the “oppressive” discourse of the middle-class elite should be destroyed and the alternative discourse of the oppressed should be established. For Foucault, these oppressed were not the traditional Western proletariat of Marx but rather the other groups: the criminals, the racial minorities, etc.

While being quite popular in Europe in the 1960s, the leftist post-modernism had actually reached American academia only in the late 1970s when the major works of Foucault and others of the French left had finally been translated into English, so even those who did not read French were able to enjoy the post-modernists’ sophisticated intellectual pranks. It was to take approximately another ten years or so before post-modernism, now in an English version, could spread among the American academia fully enough, and substantiated by theoretical arguments, policies especially important for the American academic left—and they dominated the scene—Affirmative Action, Women, Gay and Lesbian studies, etc. By that time, the USSR was in the process of disintegration and finally collapsed. This event had invigorated the conservative pundits conservative, and the not-so-conservative intellectuals had turned to post-modernism to explain the unexpected collapse of the USSR for while used mostly by the left, it was still the most fashionable, intellectually sexy paradigm. And, while applying the post-modernist paradigm to the USSR, it was discovered that the “evil empire” collapsed because of the problems with ideology. The official Soviet ideology, according to the paradigm, had lost its vitality and appeal to the masses. The “discourse” had lost its grip, and this was the source of the problem. For those on the left—and they continued to appeal to the old Trotskyists’ legacy and the more modern theory of “socialism with a human face.” The regime had broken its old promise to the people. The Bolshevik revolution had promised grassroots democracy but created a regime of terror and bureaucratic ossification. Those on the right—mostly with the help of the Soviet dissidents of all political hues—blasted regimes for the absence of the political liberties, “the human rights” which were absolutely essential for any individual. Those with a religious bent—similar to that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the seminal Russian writer and political thinker and Noble prizewinner—the crime and failure of the regime was in many ways rooted in the regime, A blend of millennium dreams with sheer immortality, the Orthodox religion, which had been a spiritual framework for the existence of the Russian people for generations, had been discarded. Finally, all of them—Solzhenitsyn on the Russian side and his supporters in the West blasted the Communist leaders for their fruitless attempt to an earthly paradise—the Utopia of Communist society. It was this striving for Utopia that led the Bolsheviks to the unthinkable crime of killing millions. And, finally, all of them blasted the Soviet regime for its Orwellian duplicity, the difference between words and deeds. The regime did not “walk the walk and talk the talk.” As a result, the regime had lots its hold over the populace. The Western media and intellectuals had opened the populace’s eyes; and, consequently, the mirage of the Soviet “discourse” disappeared without a trace and the regime collapsed. This theory of the collapse of the Soviet regime as the result of inevitable ideological/spiritual degeneration might be quite pleasing to a score of intellectuals. It emphasized the role of ideas and of these intellectuals as the people who created and spread the ideas shaping the seminal events in global history. Still, the assumption that it was a deeper ideological crisis that led to the demise of the Soviet regime did not work.

Indeed, if one would apply the same theory to the Western capitalist democracies, they should have collapsed a long time ago because the “discourse” here has also failed to win over the considerable part of the population. The major premise of the Western capitalist democracy, at least in its American reading, is the notion of “government for the people and by the people.” Still, even in the U.S.A., with its long democratic tradition, at least half the population does not bother to vote in its national elections. And quite a few of these individuals would be extremely critical of the entire policy lies of the government, assuming that all these discussions about the power of the people is sham; the wheel of the state machinery is moved by the few members of the elite. Some would also point to Orwellian differences between slogans and deeds. And those who came to the U.S.A. from other countries would point to the Orwellian differences between the external politeness and cordiality of the average American and his/her actual disregard for the lives of fellow human beings. But does that mean that the U.S.A. is likely to undergo a revolution in the near future? Of course not. The point here is that for some people the ideological premises of the system are still viable, and they could point to the real or imaginary achievement of American political and social-economic systems. The same as the Soviets. It would be wrong to assume that all Soviet people and official ideologists of the regime were on a collision course in all aspects of life. The most important common ground between regime and the populace was the idea of Russian nationalism.

Michael and Raissa Gorbachev with Pope John Paul II - another protagonist of "glasnost" and
Michael and Raissa Gorbachev with Pope John Paul II - another protagonist of "glasnost" and "perestroika"
The pride in the might of the Soviet state, legitimately regarded as the heir of the centuries-old Russian empire, was shared not only by the members of the Slavic core of the USSR—Russians, Belorussians and, mostly, Russified Eastern Ukrainians—but even by some non-Slavic people such as the Georgians. The latter also identified themselves with empire, especially because of Stalin’s ethnicity. The belief in the greatness of the Soviet state had been shared even by quite a few of its enemies—dissidents. Indeed they believed that they fought not against the ordinary state but against a global, almost cosmic, monster.

Both authorities and most Russians had agreed that the Soviet people were morally much better than the people of the West, due not only to the Soviet social-economic traditions but also because of Russian cultural/historical traditions, which went back centuries before the rise of the regime. Both populace and the authorities also agreed that the Soviet people had been spiritualized and interested in intellectual pursuits more than Westerners, and that, in general, they despised money. This common ground of ordinary citizens with the authorities, of course, could coincide with animosity and despise, which was manifested in numerous anti-Soviet jokes. Still there was no absolute alienation, and the authorities could be easily reconnected with the populace, as was the case with Yuri Andropov who was a KGB chief before becoming General and was quite popular among many ordinary Russians.

On the eve of Gorbachev’s ascension to power, exactly 20 years ago, there was, thus, no sign of the system’s imminent collapse, nor even more so of an incurable disease which should have led to collapse in the near future. The system could have been reformed, as the experience of China demonstrated clearly. Gorbachev, thus, was not the person who just delivered the coup de grace, the final blow, to an agonizing system. He actually slaughtered, of course without wishing this, a basically healthy and viable system. And why it happens is the subject of another article.

Gorbachev Legacy

What is the legacy of Gorbachev’s reforms? The question answer, of course, would be different depending on the view of the observers. Most Western pundits would, of course, state that Gorbachev’s reforms and the collapse of the communist system and the USSR had demonstrated that the surge in the desire for freedom was unstoppable and that Gorbachev was an agent for the inevitable collapse of the tyrannical rule and empire. In their view, Gorbachev also shows that people who enjoy liberty are much happier than those who suffer under tyranny. In fact, for these pundits, it is nothing but a self-evident truth. Yet, it is not true.

To start with, as I try to prove in my essay, the rise of Gorbachev was in no way inevitable. The example of Red China, as well as many other countries of the world run by despotic regimes, shows clearly that there was nothing inevitable in Gorbachev's rise. It was in many ways an accident and his rise indicates that political predictions could not just be based on the study of the interplay of political/social forces.

The second and the possibly most important legacy of Gorbachev is the clear message that liberty in itself has no value unless it is buttressed by the improvement in living conditions of the masses. Indeed, most Russians, impoverished by the collapse of the communist regime and humiliated by the collapse of the USSR, see Gorbachev not as a hero—as is the case with most Western observers—but as a villain, traitor or plainly an idiot. Certainly, neither contemporary Russians nor Western pundits have the final say on Gorbachev’s legacy, and it will change as time progresses.