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The Last Heir of Lenin Explains His Reform Plans: Perestroika and Glasnost
Mikhail Gorbachev

The collapse of the Soviet Empire, which began in 1989 and culminated in 1991, caught most scholars and policy analysts somewhat by surprise. Many had been predicting its collapse for so long that they failed to notice the rapid unraveling of the system, while others were so ideologically committed to the socialist experiment that they were just as blind to the unraveling. Such an event did not take place overnight, although the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev (b.1931) and his reformist program was certainly the catalyst. There were, however, long-term trends that, in hindsight, were visibly straining the Soviet system: urbanization, higher levels of education and aspirations among the professional classes, economic strains resulting from the Cold War arms race, and resistance to Soviet rule throughout the Soviet bloc. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the economy was in disastrous shape as the Soviet Union had become engaged in another furious round of the arms race prompted by the Reagan administration's military buildup. In addition, Soviet society was wracked with various ills ranging from rampant alcoholism to absenteeism at the workplace. Gorbachev, rejecting the hard-line policies of his predecessors, ushered in an era of reform that included a new openness with the West (glasnost), as well as domestic economic and political changes (perestroika). It seems clear that Gorbachev was not out to destroy the socialist society of the Soviet Union but to correct what he saw as the problems afflicting it. In the end his reforms were too successful for his own good. In 1991, the Soviet Union, of which he was the president, ceased to exist; he now makes a living as a consultant and is very popular on the public lecture circuit. In this selection, excerpted from his Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (published in the United States in 1987), itself an example of glasnost, Gorbachev discusses the need for, and goals of, perestroika.

Questions to Consider
  • How does Gorbachev define this key reform?

  • How could such reforms challenge the system, even to the point of collapse?

Perestroika is an urgent necessity arising from the profound processes of development in our socialist society. This society is ripe for change. It has long been yearning for it. Any delay in beginning perestroika could have led to an exacerbated internal situation in the near future, which, to put it bluntly, would have been fraught with serious social, economic and political crises....

...In the latter half of the seventies--something happened that was at first sight inexplicable. The country began to lose momentum. Economic failures became more frequent. Difficulties began to accumulate and deteriorate, and unresolved problems to multiply. Elements of what we call stagnation and other phenomena alien to socialism began to appear in the life of society. A kind of "braking mechanism" affecting social and economic development formed. And all this happened at a time when scientific and technological revolution opened up new prospects for economic and social progress....

An absurd situation was developing. The Soviet Union, the world's biggest producer of steel, raw materials, fuel and energy, has shortfalls in them due to wasteful or inefficient use. One of the biggest producers of grain for food, it nevertheless has to buy millions of tons of grain a year for fodder. We have the largest number of doctors and hospital beds per thousand of the population and, at the same time, there are glaring shortcomings in our health services. Our rockets can find Halley's comet and fly to Venus with amazing accuracy, but side by side with these scientific and technological triumphs is an obvious lack of efficiency in using scientific achievements for economic needs, and many Soviet household appliances are of poor quality.

This, unfortunately, is not all. A gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people began.

It was obvious to everyone that the growth rates were sharply dropping and that the entire mechanism of quality control was not working properly; there was a lack of receptivity to the advances in science and technology; the improvement in living standards was slowing down and there were difficulties in the supply of foodstuffs, housing, consumer goods and services.

On the ideological plane as well, the braking mechanism brought about ever greater resistance to the attempts to constructively scrutinize the problems that were emerging and to the new ideas. Propaganda of success--real or imagined--was gaining the upper hand. Eulogizing and servility were encouraged; the needs and opinions of ordinary working people, of the public at large, were ignored....

The presentation of a "problem-free" reality backfired: a breach had formed between word and deed, which bred public passivity and disbelief in the slogans being proclaimed. It was only natural that this situation resulted in a credibility gap: everything that was proclaimed from the rostrums and printed in newspapers and textbooks was put in question. Decay began 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; alcoholism, drug addiction and crime were growing; and the penetration of the stereotypes of mass culture alien to us, which bred vulgarity and low tastes and brought about ideological barrenness increased....

An unbiased and honest approach led us to the only logical conclusion that the country was verging on crisis....

I would like to emphasize here that this analysis began a long time before the April Plenary Meeting and that therefore its conclusions were well thought out. It was not something out of the blue, but a balanced judgment. It would be a mistake to think that a month after the Central Committee Plenary Meeting in March 1985, which elected me General Secretary, there suddenly appeared a group of people who understood everything and knew everything, and that these people gave clear-cut answers to all questions. Such miracles do not exist.

The need for change was brewing not only in the material sphere of life but also in public consciousness. People who had practical experience, a sense of justice and commitment to the ideals of Bolshevism criticized the established practice of doing things and noted with anxiety the symptoms of moral degradation and erosion of revolutionary ideals and socialist values....

Perestroika is closely connected with socialism as a system. That side of the matter is being widely discussed, especially abroad, and our talk about perestroika won't be entirely clear if we don't touch upon that aspect.

Does perestroika mean that we are giving up socialism or at least some of its foundations? Some ask this question with hope, others with misgiving.

There are people in the West who would like to tell us that socialism is in a deep crisis and has brought our society to a dead end. That's how they interpret our critical analysis of the situation at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties. We have only one way out, they say: to adopt capitalist methods of economic management and social patterns, to drift toward capitalism.

They tell us that nothing will come of perestroika within the framework of our system. They say we should change this system and borrow from the experience of another socio-political system. To this they add that, if the Soviet Union takes this path and gives up its socialist choice, close links with the West will supposedly become possible. They go so far as to claim that the October 1917 Revolution was a mistake which almost completely cut off our country from world social progress.

To put an end to all the rumors and speculations that abound in the West about this, I would like to point out once again that we are conducting all our reforms in accordance with the socialist choice. We are looking within socialism, rather than outside it, for the answers to all the questions that arise. We assess our successes and errors alike by socialist standards. Those who hope that we shall move away from the socialist path will be greatly disappointed. Every part of our program of perestroika--and the program as a whole, for that matter--is fully based on the principle of more socialism and more democracy....

We will proceed toward better socialism rather than away from it. We are saying this honestly, without trying to fool our own people or the world. Any hopes that we will begin to build a different, nonsocialist society and go over to the other camp are unrealistic and futile. Those in the West who expect us to give up socialism will be disappointed. It is high time they understood this, and, even more importantly, proceeded from that understanding in practical relations with the Soviet Union....

We want more socialism and, therefore, more democracy....

Source: Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).