Courtesy Reuters

Change in the Soviet Union

Western reaction to the 27th Soviet Party Congress has been mixed. On the one hand, those who had forecast revelations or a shift of direction on the dramatic scale of the 20th Party Congress—when Khrushchev delivered his secret speech attacking Stalin—were disappointed. On the other hand, those who expected little in the way of new ideas or policy changes to emerge from the congress found what they expected to see.

If the expectations of the former group were too high, the ingrained skepticism of the latter group may have led them to underplay what was new. If this year’s congress was not the earth-shattering event that all party congresses are made out to be in the Soviet Union, it was, nevertheless, the most interesting and significant such occasion since the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, when Khrushchev extended and made fully public his criticism of Stalin and many aspects of the Stalin period.

No Soviet leader in his first year of office has presided over such sweeping changes in the composition of the highest party and state organs as Mikhail Gorbachev. The scale of the turnover, especially in key domestic and foreign policy posts, raises the possibility of policy innovations worthy of the name. So, too, do the failures of the Brezhnev years—in the Soviet economy and in international relations—which left his successors with severe and unresolved problems. Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko reached the top job too infirm and with too little time to take the difficult decisions, though Andropov at least made a significant start by facing up to the seriousness of the failures and encouraging some fresh ideas and fresh faces. Before looking at the extent to which new policies are indeed being promoted under Gorbachev—and the evidence for this at the 27th Party Congress—and examining the scope for and limitations on further policy innovation, we turn first to the changes in the party and state leadership.

II

It is worth underlining

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