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

Uninhibited opportunism of the sort demonstrated repeatedly by the intra-party reform group, however, would not have been possible if the group had possessed a clear idea of exactly where it was heading.  Maneuverings of the sort used by Kuusinen, Andropov, Arbatov, and the others to maintain and improve their positions tell us more about the character of their thought than about the individuals themselves.  If the perestroikists had had a concrete goal, a vision of the society they were striving to create, a principle on which to base their projected improvement of Soviet society, there would have come a point around which they were unwilling to maneuver, a principle which they could not sacrifice.  Yet in the event, their maneuverings do not seem to have been in the least limited by any concrete value, and their nebulous ideas allowed them to perform whatever contortions their survival seemed to require.  Indeed, it might seem that the one goal that was clear in their minds was gaining power.

In 1982, all this paid off and Andropov returned to the CC Secretariat.  Soon the death of Brezhnev offered him the chance for supreme power.

Andropov out-maneuvered Brezhnev's chosen successor, Konstantin Chernenko, and took the party leadership.  He immediately offered Burlatsky the post of political observer for Literaturnaya Gazeta, the journal which he now edits.  Andropov began a series of cautious reforms in an attempt to revitalize the now crippled Soviet economy.  He continued the anti-corruption campaign he had begun as chairman of the KGB, and called for the increased application of new technology in industry, better use of robotics and applied chemistry, and a general speeding-up of the economic mechanism.  Such calls were not new--Khrushchev first made them in the 1950s--but they were a sharp break from the conservative stagnation of the Brezhnev era.  It is hard to know exactly where Andropov's reforms would have gone.  His announcements were cautious and ambiguous, and his actions even more so.  After a little more than a year he fell ill, never to recover.

Just as the debilitated Lenin had done, Andropov hid his illness as best he could and tried to rule from his sickbed.  His strongest and most loyal ally at this time was Mikhail Gorbachev.  They had met in the late 1970s, and Andropov had been deeply impressed by him.  He told Arbatov, "There is a brilliant man working in Stavropol."(16)  According to one of Gorbachev's biographers, "There can be no doubt that even before [Andropov's] brief time as General Secretary, Andropov was one of Gorbachev's patrons....It seems likely...that in the prolonged and thorough preparations for his own accession, Andropov included Gorbachev in his plans as his principle organizer and `crown prince.' "(17)  During Andropov's final illness, Gorbachev served as his confidant and assistant, visiting his bedside daily.(18)

The ailing Andropov, however, was not able to place his "brilliant man" on the throne; Brezhnev's heir, Chernenko, was selected instead.  He represented the old guard which still had considerable influence throughout the country, though he himself was not expected to make any important policy decisions during his expected short tenure.  It seems possible that Gorbachev and Andropov's other allies compromised with the Brezhnevites and agreed to place the aged Chernenko on the throne with the proviso that Gorbachev would be his successor.  However that may be, Chernenko died in 1985 and Gorbachev came to power.

The Wages of Opportunism

The proximate cause of the collapse of the Soviet economy was clear--the "stagnation" of the Brezhnev years had destroyed the incentive structure of Soviet society.  Whereas Stalin had made the economy perform through fear of the blood purge and Khrushchev had achieved his goals through the administrative purge, Brezhnev introduced the concept of "stability of cadres," assuring all party apparatchiks that neither their lives nor their jobs were in danger, however incompetent they might be.  The predictable result of over fifteen years of this policy was to set the Soviet economy on the downward spiral along which it is continuing to spin.

Gorbachev attempted to turn to the traditional Soviet remedy for a problem such as this--the purge.  Unwilling to use physical force to achieve his aims, he sought to develop new allies--the intelligentsia and popular opinion--in his struggle against entrenched and inefficient party bureaucrats through the policy of glasnost.  Gorbachev expected that Soviet intellectuals, allowed to speak their minds for the first time in twenty years, would point out both the deficiencies in the system and those mid-level bureaucrats who were to blame for the deficiencies.  Gorbachev could then remove these culprits through a combination of administrative fiat and the force of popular indignation.

The intellectuals did not disappoint.  Slowly at first, then with increasing frequency and force, the Soviet intelligentsia began to speak out against the recalcitrant bureaucracy.  Many of the members of the intra-party reform group were well prepared to assist in this endeavor.  Ivan Frolov was made editor first of Kommunist, an important ideological journal, and then of Pravda, where he remains today.  Burlatsky was appointed to the Soviet Union's Committee on Human Rights and, somewhat later, made editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, from whose tribune he continues to speak forcefully and frankly in defense of reform.  Alexander Bovin remained in his post as political commentator for Izvestia, and both Georgi Arbatov and his son, Aleksei, have led the charge from the USA-Canada Institute.

The purge, however, did not occur.  Partly because the bureaucracy was extremely well entrenched and partly because the intellectuals failed to direct enough of their energy to uprooting corruption, wasting it instead on petty squabbles, by 1988 it had become clear that Gorbachev had not succeeded in bending the party to his will.  He embarked, therefore, upon a series of rapid, ad hoc attempts to induce change in the Soviet system.  He tore down the old administrative structure, changed the number of ministries and their duties, and moved as many people as he could to positions from which they could less easily resist him.  Only after Gorbachev began increasingly radical reforms did such moderate reformers as Viktor Chebrikov and Yegor Ligachev, who had supported the initial drive for perestroika, desert to join with the hardliners in opposing further reform.

Two factors then conspired to create the chaos which now reigns in the Soviet Union.  The first was that as hardline opposition grew, more and more radical reforms became necessary to oppose it, which drove more and more moderates out of the reform movement and into the hardline camp.  The second was that by inviting the intelligentsia and popular opinion to play a novel role in government, Gorbachev empowered many groups he did not intend to empower.  The rise of nationalist movements within the Soviet Empire, for example, though an obvious result of loosening the reins of a multinational state, came as a rude surprise to Gorbachev, who had other goals in mind when he created the pre-conditions for these movements.  The overall consequence is that Soviet society has become highly polarized and all authority has been brought into question.

Gorbachev's failures--the inability to formulate even a systematic description of the ills of the Soviet system, let alone give an account of their causes; the absence of clearly formulated goals; the opportunism and evasiveness; the vacillation between timidity and recklessness--are not merely personal failings but reflect the character of the intra-party reform group from which he came.  Indeed, the very choice of Gorbachev as the group's candidate for leadership establishes the connection between the two.

From Kuusinen's obshchenarodnoye state through Andropov's timid and uncertain tinkering with the system to Gorbachev's bold but poorly thought-out and increasingly frantic efforts, the need for reform has been clearly felt, but the program of reform has been practically non-existent.  Gorbachev has shown that, intentionally or unintentionally, he can destroy the Soviet system comprehensively.  It remains doubtful whether, given the intellectual barrenness of the intra-party reform group, he can replace what he has destroyed.

Frederick Kagan is a senior at Yale University majoring in Soviet and East European Studies.

1.  Reported in FBIS-SOV-89-74: April 19, 1989, p. 83.

2. Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989), pp. 182-3.

3. For Bovin see Voices of Glasnost, p. 214; for Arbatov see his interview in Nedelya, March 23, 1988, as reported in FBIS-SOV-88-73: April 15, 1988, p. 19; for Kryuchkov see FBIS-SOV-89-201: October 19, 1989, p. 45.

4. Voices of Glasnost, pp. 308-9.

5. See footnote 3.

6. Posle Stalina, in Novy Mir, October 1988, p. 168.

7. Burlatsky had published a much criticized article calling for the further development of "socialist" or "soviet" democracy.

8. Posle Stalina, p. 170.

9. Voices of Glasnost, p. 176.

10. New York Times, August 16, 1983, p. A4.

11. Novy Mir, October 1988, p. 183.

12. Voices of Glasnost, p. 214.

13. Ibid., p. 183.

14. Ibid., p. 217.

15. Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 547, note 39.

16. Voices of Glasnost, p. 312.

17. Christian Schmidt-Hauer, Gorbachev, The Path to Power (London: I.B. Tauris, 1986), p. 64.

Essay Types: Essay