The Secret History of Perestroika

The Secret History of Perestroika

Mini Teaser: Gorbachev has shown that, intentionally or unintentionally, he can destroy the Soviet system comprehensively.  It remains doubtful whether he can replace what he has destroyed.

by Author(s): Frederick Kagan

When Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union in 1985 almost no one in the West suspected that he would embark immediately upon a sweeping reform program, let alone that within three years that reform program would have developed a life of its own beyond his control.  Subsequently, there have been various attempts to explain the appearance of perestroika--in terms of a worsening of the economic crisis, or Gorbachev's character and intentions, or the impact of the Reagan arms build-up--but they all see it as having appeared suddenly and essentially without antecedents.  Indeed, the idea of the Soviet system having the capacity for radical self-reform--self-transformation even--was foreign to Western thinking, which tended to be very impressed by the system's capacity for, and will toward, self-perpetuation.  It was commonly believed that only dissidents--who were, by definition, outside the system--advocated systemic reform of the Soviet Union.

Yet evidence is now accumulating that, independent of the dissidents, a group of party apparatchiks with powerful sponsorship began working to effect reforms from within the system over thirty years ago.  The advent of glasnost and the publication of memoirs and interviews by the people who surround Gorbachev have made it clear that perestroika itself was merely the most dramatic expression of the long-standing desires of the intra-party reform group, or perestroikists, and that the chaos that has followed is, in part, their legacy.

The most important of the new documents to appear are the memoirs of Fyodor Burlatsky, now editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, and a set of interviews given by Ivan Frolov, the editor-in-chief of Pravda, and Georgi Arbatov, head of the prestigious Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada.  Their testimony shows that Gorbachev is in fact the heir of Yuri Andropov, former chairman of the KGB, general secretary of the CPSU, and leader of the intra-party reform movement.  As Frolov told the Italian newspaper La Republica in April 1989:

The section [of the Central Committee Secretariat for relations with fraternal socialist countries] headed by Andropov was [a] training school for future Gorbachevites, and it was Andropov himself, many years later, who introduced Gorbachev--newly arrived in Moscow from Stavropol--to some of those later to become his close aides, including Shakhnazarov, Bovin, and Arbatov.(1)

Burlatsky supplies a more detailed account of Andropov's long sponsorship of and participation in the intra-party reform movement.  The recently published Voices of Glasnost by Stephen Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel, for example, quotes Burlatsky as follows:

Andropov was absolutely a reform-minded person.  He was a man of the Twentieth Party Congress.  I remember the first speech he gave after Khrushchev was removed.  He said, "Now we shall move more firmly and consistently along the road charted by the Twentieth Congress."  It turned out that he was wrong.  But that was his hope.  Even back in the mid-1960s Andropov expressed in his speeches and articles reformist ideas about modernizing the economy and changing the way the party and state functioned.  He understood the need for major reforms as well as his group of young advisers, which I headed.  But unlike us, he knew even then how hard it would be to carry out such reforms.  When he finally became general secretary in 1982 it was too late.  His health failed him.  Even so, look at how much he began in that short time. (2)

Similarly glowing descriptions of Andropov and his importance in guiding the movement which was to spawn perestroika are provided elsewhere by Alexander Bovin, a political commentator for Izvestia, by Arbatov, who worked with Andropov in the Secretariat, and by Vladimir Kryuchkov, who assisted Andropov for twenty-nine years in various posts.(3)

These new documents--particularly Burlatsky's memoir, After Stalin, which appeared in 1988 in Novy Mir--make clear that perestroika is the fruit of a much older movement, born of the Khrushchev "thaw" and the de-Stalinization of the late 1950s.  Burlatsky reveals for the first time the whole story of the birth of the intra-party reform movement in the Soviet Union.

Leninist, Stalinist, Reformer

The story really goes back much further than Andropov.  It begins as early as 1881 when Otto Wille Kuusinen was born in a small village in the Autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire.  Kuusinen grew up during the reigns of Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II and passed the early part of his life in the peaceful, western land of Finland.  He received an excellent education culminating in 1905 with a degree in history and philology from the University of Helsinki.  He read Adam Smith and Rousseau, among other Western philosophers, but he became particularly enamored of Hegel.  He saw in Marxism the appropriate development of Hegel and joined the Finnish Social Democratic Party, part of the All-Russian Communist Party, or Bolsheviks, in 1905 (some say 1904).  By 1907 he headed The Worker, the Finnish Communist Party's official organ, and in 1908 he was elected to the Finnish Diet as a deputy for the Social Democrats.

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