Courtesy Reuters

After the Summit: The Soviet Pretense

Since the Bolshevik Revolution the ideology of Russian communism has had a haunting power outside Russia’s borders, even at times when the country was desperately poor and backward. The central proposition of Marxism-Leninism—that a struggle between "socialism" and "imperialism" is inevitable and will inevitably result in the triumph of socialism—has long baffled and alarmed the West.

Inside the Soviet Union the same oft-repeated faith in the inherent superiority of socialism has been a fundamental aspect of Soviet life. By its repetition, the country’s leaders have sought to assure their people that hardships and sacrifices were worthwhile, even noble, because they all marched toward such a glorious end.

Official confidence in the superiority of the Soviet system and in the certain victory of socialism over capitalism might be called the Soviet Pretense. It has been a crucial ingredient of the Soviet Union’s national character, and an important tool for all of its leaders, from Lenin through Chernenko. But in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Pretense is collapsing. This is a momentous change.

Kremlinologists rightly debate the ultimate significance of Gorbachev’s efforts to "accelerate" and "restructure" the Soviet economy. His first 18 months in office produced no dramatic results, as he himself has acknowledged. We will have to wait many years to fully assess a reform effort that is just taking shape.

But it is not too soon to acknowledge the substantial qualitative change that Gorbachev has brought to Soviet political discourse and, by implication, to the Soviet self-image. Mr. Gorbachev has abandoned the rhetorical style on which he himself and all his countrymen were reared. The traditional Soviet approach was to minimize bad news while repeating again and again how great is Soviet power, how glorious its many victories, how brilliant its future. Instead, Gorbachev emphasizes the bad news—the country’s stagnation—and dwells on the radical changes in individual citizens’ attitudes necessary to put things right.

Initially, this change was refreshing. It won

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