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Special Supplement: The Genesis of Gorbachev's World
Seweryn Bialer is Director of the Research Institute on International Change and Ruggles Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Joan Afferica is Professor of History at Smith College.See more by Seweryn BialerSee more by Joan Afferica
Mikhail Gorbachev addressed a closed party audience: "What is at stake today is the ability of the Soviet Union to enter the new millennium in a manner worthy of a great and prosperous power. . . . Without the hard work and complete dedication of each and every one it is not even possible to preserve what has been achieved." This speech, only a part of which has been published, continued: "There has been a failure to perceive properly the need for change in some aspects of production relations," to perceive the need to overcome "the stagnant conservatism of Soviet production relations."
In Marxist-Leninist terms this kind of statement is as critical on economic matters as was Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" in 1956 on political matters. Will the words of Gorbachev that so solemnly toll the gravity of the crisis inherited by the new leadership be followed by deeds that fundamentally reverse the decline of this great superpower?
Great expectations preceded the new general secretary into office. The enduring succession of a resolute and capable leader was heralded as a decisive event that would shape Soviet policies into the 21st century. Predictions were made of radical responses to grievous structural weaknesses of the Soviet economy and polity. After the long paralysis of Leonid Brezhnev's last years and the fleeting passage of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, a kind of hunger for dramatic change seized members of the Soviet elite as well as Western statesmen, analysts and journalists. Attributed to the new leader, by Soviet and Western observers alike, were personality traits and policy preferences that seemed logically to suggest and even to foretell a fundamental transformation of Soviet life.
But how realistic are these expectations? If leaders can better the fate of nations, they can also fall victim to the confining conditions of their social, political and economic environment. Even rulers to whom the centralized Soviet system offers such great potential for power are ultimately constrained by the substance of their legacies, by the ideological formulas on which their regime's legitimacy rests, and by the human material with which they must work. On the eve of the 27th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on February 25, sufficient time has passed to evaluate the unfolding world of Mikhail Gorbachev.