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Essay/Term paper: Gorbachev and perestroika

Essay, term paper, research paper:  World History

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The history of the Soviet Union is complicated and fascinating. In the course of only seventy
years this country has seen the development of the totally new system of state, economic growth, the
growth of hopes for the "brighter future", and then the sudden and expected by no one collapse of
the whole system leading to chaos, wars, and confusion. One period is especially important in order
to realize how did things finally started to change after the seventy years of blindly pursuing the
dream of communism which left the Soviet Union in a very bad economical and moral state, and this
period is called perestroika, Russian for restructuring. The main figure behind this process which
began in 1985 is Mikhail S. Gorbachev who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of
the Soviet Union Central Committee in March 1985. The three books that concentrate on the
"Gorbachev phenomenon" were all unfortunately written before perestroika was finished, so they do
not analyze the consequences that it had for the Soviet Union as well as for the whole world . On
the other hand, all three of these books do a good job in explaining the changes that took place in
the course of the first three years after Gorbachev came to power and why were these changes
The first book "Gorbachev" was written by Zhores A. Medvedev in 1986 and hence the
author is concentrating on the first year of the new course in Soviet history. The book itself basically
consists of two parts: the first part where the author describes the "making of a General Secretary",
and the second part entitled "Gorbachev in power" which describes Gorbachev's first year in the
office. The first part of the book gives a lot of background information which allows the reader to
see the stages in development of the Soviet leader from childhood and youth to second-in-
command. One thing I found to be particularly interesting in Medvedev's description of Gorbachev's
youth and that is the theory that living with a Czech intellectual for five years changed the future
Soviet leader in such a way that he became more "westernized" which "indirectly provided the Soviet
Union with a new style leader". Medvedev says that during the time from 1950 to 1955 when young
Gorbachev attended the Moscow State University and had to share the room with a Czech student
Zdenek Mlynar he was "profoundly influenced" by the "culture and attitudes of a traditionally
Western nation". This influence lasted for years and the fact that Gorbachev has become
"westernized" in his appearance, manners, dress and the "image he projects of tolerance and cordial
behavior, all the small signs which mark him as different from the usual Komsomol and Party boss",
is according to Medvedev due to a great extent to the fact that Mlynar was Gorbachev's roommate
(Medvedev, 1986, p. 43).
Although the first part of the book is certainly interesting and important I would like to
concentrate on the second part of the book since it is directly deals with the subject that interests me
most, that is the years when Gorbachev was in power and the development of the new course in the
Soviet life called perestroika. From just reading the first paragraph it is obvious that the author
approves of the new leader. Medvedev writes: "For the first time in Soviet history, the leadership
succession has meant more than the arrival of a new leader and the possibility of the implementation
of the new policies. The Gorbachev succession marks the appearance of a new political generation
which differs from the old guard in style, knowledge and historical vision....Gorbachev represents a
younger post-war political generation, a generation which started its professional Party or state
career during the more liberal Krushchev era" (p. 165). Medvedev quotes some of the very
enthusiastic Western newspaper comments which called Gorbachev a "bright, incisive, brisk-
mannered man", with "high intelligence, considerable organizational abilities, political acumen".
According to the author no previous Soviet leader had received so much immediate publicity and
such an enthusiastic welcome from the general public. "Gorbachev's popularity was closely linked to
his energetic, charismatic, competent and obviously intelligent personality", says Medvedev which
led to this immediate acceptance of Gorbachev as leader (p. 183). Inspite the fact that Gorbachev's
new style was popular, some of his methods found less favor. A lot of his actions were purely
administrative, imposed from above without any discussion and seemed coercive and disciplinarian
to some people, especially to intellectuals who expected liberalism. Medvedev seems to justify
Gorbachev's first decrees since they were "not designed to impress intellectuals, but rather aimed at
improving a sick economy" (p. 184).
It was very interesting to read about the "battle against the bottle" which Gorbachev started
immediately. For him vodka was a "public enemy number one", the cause of increasing crime, poor
productivity, an increasing number of problem children of alcoholic parents, reduced life expectancy
and alcohol-related health problems, all of which created a heavy burden on the national economy.
Some of the measures that were taken by the government were increasing the drinking age from 18
to 21, alcohol could no longer be sold in ordinary food stores, special wine shops would not be
permitted to sell any alcohol before 2 PM, stiff sentences were introduced for private stills. But the
anti-alcohol campaign quickly has became unpopular and "has created a degree of social tension"
which led to the canceling of the whole campaign by the government (p. 189).
During his first year Gorbachev made some big changes in the agricultural sector of the
Soviet Union. The decision was made to allocate annually from one million to one million two
hundred thousand allotments to citizens. Medvedev sees this decision as "Gorbachev's second
personal initiative which had a real practical and positive impact on the quality of people's lives. The
garden co-operatives reduced the pressure slightly on state retail sales of vegetables and fruit,
particularly in small towns" (p. 201).
As for the domestic policy, according to Medvedev, Gorbachev's first year in power was
marked by "unprecedently large changes in the personnel of the Politburo and government and the
rapid formulation of economic targets and methods of economic development for the next 15 years.
In all other respects, however, the changes in domestic policy were merely cosmetic" (p. 208).
Policies were better presented, the style was more modern, but there was little in the contents.
Gorbachev has introduced very few social and political changes in his first year in office. Medvedev
argues that this was due to the fact that Gorbachev, as a professional Party official understood that
liberalization or democratization may turn against him (which is exactly how everything worked out
some five years later, but of course Medvedev did not know this for sure back in 1986). Also
Gorbachev's new team had absolutely no desire to make the system more liberal.
In the last chapter Medvedev talks about Soviet new diplomacy which was created by
Gorbachev in his first year in the office. First of all, Gorbachev's charm, sense of humor, prompt
responses, attempts to find convincing arguments "suddenly introduced the human factor into East-
West confrontation which in itself served to reduce tension. Gorbachev clearly did not resemble a
person who was waiting for the opportunity to drop a nuclear bomb on the West" (p. 228). For
Gorbachev two main issues were the problem of the arms race and Afghanistan, where the war had
gone for two long and there was no end in sight. Gorbachev wanted to accelerate economic
development and the main task of his diplomacy was the reduction of the cost of the foreign policy
and that meant substantial arms reductions. In his book Medvedev makes an assumption that the
Soviet government would not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Gorbachev will be aiming
for a "quick military end to the war" - assumption that proved to be wrong . On the other hand the
author is right when he predicts the gradual thawing of the Soviet-US relations, thawing that started
in Geneva with Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations and continued throughout Gorbachev's rule.
In his conclusion Medvedev makes a statement that "it has been abundantly clear that
Gorbachev is neither a liberal nor a bold reformist. He prefers small modifications, administrative
methods and economic adjustments to structural reform ... it is a mistake to expect too much from
Gorbachev" (p. 245). This statement, as we all know, quickly proved to be wrong.
The second book titled "The Gorbachev Phenomenon" was written by Moshe Lewin in
1988, two years after Medvedev published his work and therefore it gives the reader a better
perspective on what happened while Gorbachev was in power. Lewin's book is structured very
similar to the first book that I described above. It also consists of the two parts: one deals with the
history of the Soviet Union before 1985, and the second part, entitled "The New Course" discusses
the changes that took place in the country after Gorbachev became the General Secretary.
Right from the start the author says that the Soviet Union is on the "verge of important
changes in the way it conducts its affairs, maybe in the way it is run ... Russia is now entering a
crucial new stage and is therefore, in many respects, just a beginner" (Lewin, 1988, p. 1). Lewin
follows Medvedev's steps in describing the new Soviet leader and uses all kinds of approving terms
such as "bright", "intelligent" and "incisive". But unlike Medvedev Lewin makes an argument that the
main reason for perestroika was not the individualism of Gorbachev but rather the crisis that had
been created by the mechanisms of economic management that had emerged in the 1930's and were
still powerful. He also talks about the enormous role of the people who were "placing pressure on
the governing model, insisting that each sphere of action receive the attention it needed and that new
institutions and new methods be created to serve the new social forms. The system needed to
loosen up" (p. 112). The answer to people's pressure Gorbachev began his new line which was
characterized by an appeal for frankness. The leaders were ready to face the truth and report to the
country that the system was in a bad shape. This was particularly true about the economy. As the
Party Congress put it : "The production relations that exist currently, the system of husbanding and
managing, emerged, in substance, in conditions of extensive economic development. Gradually they
became obsolete, lost their stimulating power and turned, in many ways, into a hindrance" (p. 115).
This new line did not stop with criticisms of the management of the economy. Ideology and
ideological life were also described as being in shambles. The leaders admitted that Soviet people
did not believe official statements and ideological dogma was a powerful obstacle to the country's
development. This was the beginning of the new page in the history of the Soviet Union which
became known all over the world as glasnost.
Together with the appeal for glasnost - a slogan but also a pledge to ease censorship and
facilitate the access to information - there was a call for uskorenie, a "speeding up of the pace of
economic development, especially technological progress". Lewin can not comprehend how some
Western observers can still claim that nothing really happens, that "there is no well-defined program,
notably for economic reforms". Such statements are "sheer obstinacy", according to the author since
ideas for change are being debated, implemented, and tested. And the fact that no comprehensive
program has been announced seems rather as a good sign to Lewin, since "for what single program
could fill the bill?" (p. 116-117).
As against Medvedev, Lewin does not spend much time describing "the battle against the
bottle". He sums everything up in one sentence instead of two chapters and has a different view of
the successfulness of this initiative: "Although many predicted failure, the government stuck to its
guns, gained public support for its aims and the anti-drinking campaign has achieved some success.
This was clever and promising opening" (p. 116).
Lewin's conclusions about the changes in the agricultural sector and foreign policy are very
similar to that of Medvedev. The author talks about how the center would ease its control, how
government would give more freedom in the choices that people involved in producing the
agricultural goods can have. Lewin underlined the importance of Gorbachev's decision to allocate
allotments which led to the bigger interest of the Soviet people in working the land which ultimately
led to the increase in agricultural production. Lewin also mentions the better Russian-American
relations which was due to the fact that Gorbachev was ready for discussions with the American
president and has chosen such international policy that led to the slowing down of the arms race and
the reduction of the accumulation of arms.
As for the domestic policy Lewin has a different position than Medvedev, this is due to a
large extent to the fact that Lewin is writing his work two years after Medvedev. "Glasnost,
democratization, self-government in the workplace, orientation to the social sphere, social justice,
human rights, and respect for human individuality" - reforms in these areas took place after three
years of Gorbachev in power and influenced domestic policy a lot according to Lewin (p. 119).
At the very end of the book Lewin makes a statement that proved to be so true after the
couple of years since this work was published. "The old system is still in place and its supporters,
deeply disturbed by the perestroika, will certainly resist change. The reformers are not assured of
victory: they will have to fight hard for it, go for bold new moves. Their failure would be terribly
costly for the USSR and could well produce negative repercussions worldwide. The world is now
watching Moscow attentively and with good reason" (p. 153). It is hard to believe that these words
were written eight years ago....
The third book is probably the most important one since it is the work of the man who is
directly responsible for the changes that took place in the Soviet Union and who is also responsible,
although indirectly, for the changes that took place in the whole Eastern Europe. Gorbachev wrote a
book entitled "Perestroika. New Thinking for Our Country and the World" back in 1987, two years
after he became the new Soviet leader. In this book the author tries to answer the question of what
is perestroika? Why does the Soviet society need it? What are its substance and objectives? What
does it reject and what does it create? How is it proceeding and what might be its consequences for
the Soviet Union and the world community? In other words, all the questions that were raised and
discussed by Medvedev and Lewin but answered by the originator.
Perestroika, according to Gorbachev, is an "urgent necessity arising from the profound
processes of development in our socialist society. This society is ripe for change. It has been long
yearning for it" (Gorbachev, 1987, p. 17). Perestroika was caused by all sorts of problems that the
Soviet Union had accumulated over the seventy years. First factor was a slowing economic growth
which caused "a country that was once quickly closing on the world's advanced nations began to
lose one position after another". At the same time the gap in the efficiency of production, quality of
products, scientific and technological development ... began to widen, and not to our advantage".
All this eventually led to an economic deadlock and stagnation that paralyzed Soviet society.
Declining rates of growth affected other aspects of the Soviet life, for instance the social sphere,
which began to lag behind other spheres in terms of technological development, personnel, know-
how and quality of work. Gorbachev also mentions a gradual erosion of the ideological and moral
values of Soviet people as another argument for the need of restructuring. People did not believe in
the government because of the many promises that it made and never accomplished; because the
needs and opinions of ordinary working people, of the public at large, were ignored. There was a
process of decay in public morals; "the great feeling of solidarity with each other that was forged
during the heroic times of the Revolution, the first five-year plans, the Great Patriotic War and
postwar rehabilitation was weakening" (p. 21-22). Gorbachev also talks about alcoholism, drug
addiction and culture alien to Soviet people, which "bred vulgarity and low tastes and brought about
ideological bareness". This statement about "alien to us" culture reminded me of how this fight
against "degeneration" which American movies and other media brings was carried out - how people
were hiding the fact that they have the VCR, how it would be almost impossible to get a videotape
with an American movie but people would still manage to get it "through a friend of a friend" and
then watch it, which as Gorbachev puts it "bred vulgarity and low tastes". Considering all the
problems the government made "the only logical conclusion" that the country was verging on crisis.
This conclusion was announced at the April 1985 Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee, "which
inaugurated the new strategy of perestroika and formulated its basic principles" (p. 24).
Gorbachev gives a plan of perestroika, its component parts which include: overcoming the
stagnation process, breaking down the braking mechanism. It means mass initiative. "It is the
comprehensive development of democracy, socialist self-government, encouragement of initiative,
improved order and discipline, more glasnost, criticism in all spheres of the society; respect for the
individual". Perestroika is also the intensification of the Soviet economy, development of the
principles of democratic centralism and encouragement of socialist enterprise. It also means "the
elimination from society of the distortions of socialist ethics, implementation of the principles of social
justice. It means the unity of words and deeds, rights and duties". But Gorbachev does not forget
to include Lenin and says that "the essence of perestroika lies in the fact that it unites socialism with
democracy and revives the Leninist concept of socialist construction both in theory and in practice"
Gorbachev also gives his evaluation of perestroika. He is writing this book two and a half
years after the new line was launched and his assessment is as follows: "perestroika is just getting of
the ground. So far we have only been shaping the mechanisms of acceleration" (p. 64). The real
work for him is still ahead and the main task is to get the whole society involved in the process of
In conclusion Gorbachev spends a lot of time talking about "new political thinking", new
Soviet foreign policy which should benefit international relations, especially Soviet-American
relations and provide for "nuclear-free, non-violent world". The main task of the Soviet foreign
policy is to move "from suspicion and hostility to confidence, from a balance of fear to a balance of
reason and goodwill, from narrow nationalist egoism to cooperation" (p. 254). Gorbachev feels that
the not only the Soviet Union but the whole world needs restructuring, a fundamental change - this,
of course, does not come as a surprise, if we remember that since 1917 first Bolsheviks and than
communists wanted to make this "fundamental change".
The three books that were discussed above were all written by different authors and in
different times but still basically they all have the same approach. Medvedev and Lewin both
approve the new leader of the Soviet Union and give all kinds of good adjectives to describe him
such as "bright" and "intelligent". They both are optimistic about the future of the country although
make it clear that this is only a beginning of the story to follow and since the perestroika just started
at the time they were writing their works they can only speculate about what would happen to the
country. As for Gorbachev he is probably the most optimistic about the new line which is not
surprising since he is the leader and leaders should radiate with confidence. He is also the best
source for finding out what perestroika is all about, its goals and its origins. Of course now in 1996
many of his statements sound unfounded, even funny but when we read his work we have to keep in
mind that back in 1985 Gorbachev's ideas sounded new and revolutionary, destined to change the
Soviet Union and even the whole world - which did in fact happen.
The question whether Gorbachev's perestroika was a failure or a success does not have an
easy immediate answer. Some scholars argue that the reforms that lasted from 1985 to 1990
caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the country on the verge of crisis, with economy in
chaos and no certain future. Joan E. Spero, the author of the book "The Politics Of International
Economic Relations", is the supporter of this point of view. In the chapter entitled "The Failure of
Perestroika" she shows by using different examples, such as economical progress, stability of the
country and so on, that Gorbachev failed to achive the objectives of perestroika (Spero, 1996,
p336). Although I agree that Gorbachev did not achieve some of the goals stated in his book
"Perestroika", I believe that perestroka was a success to a certain extent. First of all, he did achieve
some of the objectives. For instance, after the reforms the society did become more open thanks to
glasnost. People for the first time since 1917 could say what they really thought and not what was
"good for the party". People also gained access to all sorts of information which was previously
denied to them. Children in schools and students in colleges could finally learn the history as it was
and not as it was seen by the Communist party. Another major success of perestroika was the
increasing openness of the country to the West which led to a considerable improvements in East-
West relations. This also led to the gradual reduction of arms and considerable decline in defense
spending in the Soviet Union as well as in the United States. Considering these and other positive
results of perestroika I would have to disagree with those people who say that it was a complete
failure. The restructuring that took place in the Soviet Union has many dimensions - some are
positive, some are negative. One-sided view which Joan E. Spero and other scholars advocate is
not correct, since it concentrates only on the adverse effects of perestroika, completely ignoring all
the positive effects that it had.


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