The news from the Soviet Union is enthralling—nothing so interesting or exciting as Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms has happened in Russia in modern times. The world is rightly transfixed by the spectacle of Russians telling the truth about their past and their present, encouraging private enterprise, urging a diminished role for the Communist Party and generally committing mayhem against Marxism-Leninism.

But there is a paradoxical aspect to perestroika that deserves more attention. The rhetoric of Soviet reform emphasizes renewal and progress, but the facts that made reform necessary describe failure—the failure of the Soviet system. For the foreseeable future, the fact of that failure is likely to be more important for the world than Gorbachev’s efforts to overcome it.

That is because the failure is a fact, while the reforms—at least the practical ones affecting the economic life of the country—remain just a hope. It is likely to remain a forlorn hope for years to come.

The failure of the Soviet system—Joseph Stalin’s system, which organized Soviet life for more than half a century—is a larger event than many have yet acknowledged. It signals more than the collapse of Stalin’s dream of a centrally planned economic powerhouse that might someday dominate the world. We are also witnessing the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. The fear of Soviet conquest and hegemony that dominated world politics for more than a generation should now dissipate. We have passed the high-water mark of Soviet power and influence in the world.


The crisis in the communist world has provoked radical changes from Beijing to Warsaw, and all of them contain a common ingredient: liberalization. Milovan Djilas describes what is going on as the inevitable consequence of the realization that the Stalinist model does not work in the present age. Its rigid, centralized institutions have proven incapable of producing modern, efficient economies; to fight their rigidity, communist regimes must turn to decentralization and liberalization.

Djilas is convinced that liberalization in the communist world will continue—probably in fits and starts—because the crisis of the old order will continue. "Liberalization, crisis, they are the same thing," Djilas has said. In other words, the only available antidote to the backwardness and stagnation that afflict communist countries is decentralization, loosening of controls—liberalization. It is a shrewd argument, not easy to dispute in light of the evidence from so many different communist countries.

Gorbachev clearly sees the world in similar terms. He speaks repeatedly of the need to democratize his country to make it work better. Economic reform, he has concluded, is impossible without political reform, so he has proposed astounding changes to remove the Communist Party apparat from day-to-day administration of the economy and society, to replace it with new, elected bodies. He proposes to make the Soviet Union into a society ruled by law, not party, and to assure personal freedoms and the right to privacy. All of this is deliberate—to improve the economy, raise the standard of living and restore the Soviet Union to the front rank of nations.

Similar tactics to achieve similar objectives have been adopted in China, Poland, Yugoslavia and Hungary, and they are surely to come throughout the communist world. Even Vietnam is toying with such changes to modernize its failing economy.

Declaring or even initiating a plan to reform is a far cry from achieving its objectives, however. The Chinese have made great but uneven progress; the Poles have made negative progress; the Soviets have made none. In the years ahead, Gorbachev and his allies—or their successors—will discover just how difficult a task they have undertaken.

The Stalinist system has done profound damage to Russia—so much damage that a decade or two of reform is most unlikely to put things right. Of all the communist countries, Russia will have the most difficulty finding a new path to real progress, because the foundation on which the Soviet leaders must build is so rotten. No other communist system is even half a century old; the Soviet model has had three or four generations to reach its present, dismal condition. The new openness of the Gorbachev era has illuminated that condition—made it painfully vivid and undeniable.

That is the most significant contribution of glasnost. In the West we are fascinated by Soviet truth-telling about historical figures like Bukharin and Trotsky, or revelations about Stalin’s crimes in the 1930s and 1940s, but the truly devastating revelations are about contemporary reality. If Gorbachev were ousted by more conservative comrades tomorrow, and they moved at once to shut off glasnost and restore Brezhnevite orthodoxy (something like that could happen—the road to liberalization will not be a straight one), the new leaders could not remove the damning facts that have now been spread across the official record.

Admissions of the failure of the system are now published so often that they are routine. And they are found in much more august forums than the pages of newspapers. Last summer’s Communist Party conference, convened as a solemn event of great national significance, was filled with vivid confessions of past sins. Until Gorbachev came to power, such events were usually devoted to rosy propaganda.

The new tone was set in Gorbachev’s own report to the conference: "It must be said frankly, comrades—we underestimated the depth and gravity of the distortions and stagnation of the past. There was a lot we just didn’t know, and are seeing only now. It turned out that neglect was more serious than we thought."

In speeches that followed, others spelled out many particulars. For example:

Evgeny Chazov, the minister of health, spoke bluntly on subjects once considered taboo in public discourse: "In the past . . . we kept quiet about the fact that we were in 50th place in the world for infant mortality, after Mauritius and Barbados. . . . We kept quiet about the fact that our life expectancy ranks 32nd in the world." And he revealed one reason for this situation, listing the per capita expenditure on health care in a number of Soviet republics—from 70 rubles a year in Latvia down to 42 in Tadzhikistan. (A ruble is worth about $1.50 at the official rate, or about $.35 when freely traded. So the government is paying somewhere between $25 and $105 per year for health care in Latvia, apparently the highest amount for any republic in the country. In the United States per capita health care expenditure last year was just under $2,000.) "The malaise, after all, is not in medicine alone," Chazov told the conference. "It is a malaise of our whole society, and we have to acknowledge this."

G. A. Yagodin, chairman of the state committee on public education, told the conference that half the schools in the Soviet Union "do not have central heating, running water or a sewerage system." He said a quarter of all students attend school in split shifts. He quoted statistics from the Ministry of Health showing that 53 percent of all schoolchildren are not in good health, and "during their education, the number of healthy children drops by a factor of three or four. This is a calamity."

D. K. Motorniy, chairman of a collective farm in Kherson Oblast, acknowledged that in his rural area, the authorities had failed "to resolve the three most important tasks: providing heat, constructing roads and providing running water and sewerage." As a result, he said, "people are simply leaving for the cities."

One of the most interesting speeches to the conference was delivered by A. A. Logunov, rector of Moscow State University and a man not considered a particularly enthusiastic Gorbachev ally. Logunov must have startled many in the hall with his blunt evaluation of Soviet science. "The situation," he said, "is altogether unfavorable. . . . Essentially, science has been a hollow word in our country. We have talked about it a great deal, we have allegedly done everything scientifically, but we have done very little for its development. . . . It is simply amazing that in a number of fields, especially theoretical fields, we can still keep up." This of the society that launched Sputnik!

Lest the conference delegates got the impression that these shortcomings had some external or easily curable cause, the editor of Izvestia, Ivan D. Laptev, put the blame squarely on the people in the hall—the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Soviet system, he said, "created an astonishing, unique situation: the person who makes the decisions [i.e., an official of the Communist Party] bears no legal or material responsibility for its consequences, and the person who bears that responsibility [e.g., a factory director, a school administrator or the like] does not make the decisions."

Perestroika—economic restructuring and reform—is the only way out, the delegates were told. "Either the country is doomed to further stagnation, or we gain strength and forge ahead to progress. That is how the question stands. We have no third course." Those were not Gorbachev’s words; they were spoken by Yegor Ligachev, the leading Politburo conservative and Gorbachev rival, whom Gorbachev bumped from the ideology portfolio into new responsibilities for agriculture in his dramatic personnel reshuffle in early October 1988.


We in the West have little firsthand experience with societies that are structurally unsound. We tend to take for granted the remarkable adaptability of democratic, capitalist nations. Much of the current Western commentary on Gorbachev’s prospects implicitly presumes that Soviet society is similarly adaptable—so that, for example, Gorbachev may pull off a successful reform that actually makes the Soviet Union a more formidable adversary in just a few years. But Soviet society is not flexible or adaptable, and the chances of a truly effective reform in Gorbachev’s lifetime are negligible.

The Russians themselves understand their own inflexibility. The most-discussed shortcoming in the Soviet Union today is the failure of officials at all levels to adapt to the first, easiest steps of perestroika. The very idea of change is a threat to millions of citizens in that most conservative of countries. Yet Gorbachev is pressing for profound, sweeping changes—so sweeping that they would alter every important facet of Soviet life outside the family. As his initial experience has shown, he will meet resistance every step of the way.

Gorbachev is struggling against the consequences of five decades of misrule—and in some of his ambitions, against all of Russian history as well. "Our model failed," one official in Moscow told me last spring. "It took us nowhere." Another prominent intellectual—a well-known member of the avant-garde of glasnost who was a delegate to the party conference—offered an ironic elaboration of that judgment. "We have made one important contribution," he said. "We have taught the world what not to do."

The model failed, but it also distorted the life of a huge nation, creating an inefficient, backward society riddled with bad habits, many of them now ingrained over two generations or more. Glasnost has finally allowed thoughtful Soviet analysts to address the distortions of Soviet life directly. Nikolai Shmelyev, an economist, took advantage of the new opportunity to speak bluntly in an article published last spring in Novy Mir.

"It is important that we all recognize the degree to which we have gotten out of the habit of doing everything that is economically normal and healthy, and into the habit of doing everything that is economically abnormal and unhealthy," Shmelyev wrote. "We are now like a seriously ill man who, after a long time in bed, takes his first step with the greatest difficulty and finds, to his horror, that he has almost forgotten how to walk."

This notion of forgotten skills runs through much Soviet discussion of the obstacles to reform, as well it should. Millions of Soviet workers have no idea of the difference between careful, high-quality work and what has traditionally been acceptable in their country. Soviet citizens now have an utterly contemptuous view of Soviet workmanship. "It’s ours, it’s bad," a working man in Moscow told me, as though the two adjectives were synonyms.

This is more than a generalized complaint; it has real consequences. Machinery that can only be produced under conditions of stringent quality control is simply not made. Thus, there are no mass-produced Soviet personal computers, and no mass-produced copying machines. Sixty percent of all apartment fires in Moscow are caused by mass-produced Soviet television sets, which have a tendency to explode. What might be called the Soviet industrial culture has no tradition of quality control, cleanliness, attention to detail and the like. Only in special military plants have the Soviets regularly been able to produce high-quality, complicated machinery—and the costs of production in those enterprises are apparently enormous, because the principal method of assuring quality is simply to reject a large percentage of what is made.

In industry, the traditional solution to all problems is forced production to meet arbitrary plan targets. This means wild days and nights of around-the-clock production (Russians call this the shturm, or storm) to meet monthly, quarterly and annual targets, followed by long periods of lackadaisical production to recover from the extra effort expended in the shturm. Quality inevitably loses all significance in a system built around mandatory quantitative deliveries. And because all production targets—and all plans for the delivery of raw materials and machinery—are set by bureaucrats outside the factory, there is no real opportunity for significant innovation in product design, production methodology, etc. This is what Shmelyev meant when he accused his countrymen of doing "everything that is economically abnormal and unhealthy." Sweeping though that accusation is, it is fully justified.

Soviet economists make no attempt to disguise the severity of the problems the country faces. One could scour the institutes in Moscow and not find an economist who thinks that perestroika or any other imaginable reform will give the Soviet Union a world-class industrial capability in this century, or in the next generation. Structural shortcomings are compounded by technological ones. The Soviet Union did not keep up with the rapid technological change of the last generation—it has missed out almost entirely on the computer revolution—and has no infrastructure to enable it to catch up now. For example, the primitive telephone system, which still only riches a fraction of the population, is incapable of transmitting computer data. There is no reason to expect that at any time in the foreseeable future the Russians will be able to match the industrial culture of the Taiwanese, let alone the Japanese or the Germans.


Agriculture is often cited—by Soviets and outsiders—as a sector in which speedy improvements could be made with reforms that could be relatively easily put into effect. Gorbachev has apparently adopted this hope himself, and recently has emphasized solution of the national food problem as his first priority.

At first blush there seems a certain logic here; farmers have been tied to a hopelessly inefficient structure of state and collective farms, forced to fulfill orders from far-off bureaucrats who know nothing of farming, while managing, almost as a hobby, to produce more than a quarter of the nation’s food on their tiny, legal private plots. Give that private initiative freer reign, it is argued, and the food problem can be solved.

We will see soon enough if this optimism is justified. The available evidence challenges it. Again, the ineradicable consequences of a half-century of misrule have created obstacles to rational progress that may be insurmountable.

The biggest of those is the absence of rural residents with the inclination or the ability to manage a big piece of land for an extended period of time. The official policy now encourages long-term rental agreements with families or other small units—edging toward a new form of individual enterprise. But the official policy has changed so often, and so dramatically, in the half-century of collectivized agriculture that by many accounts farmers have no confidence that this latest change will last. Others complain that renters are a far cry from owners, and cannot be expected to act like owners.

Even more important, there is no tradition of entrepreneurial farming in the Soviet countryside, and no living farmers who ever practiced it. The successful entrepreneurs of old, who made prerevolutionary Russia an exporter of grain, were wiped out as unwanted kulaks in the ugly first stages of collectivization. A new rural elite then arose—tractor drivers, who had the best jobs and the highest status. The mechanics who cared for the machinery were also better off than the ordinary farm workers. In many areas the bulk of the manual labor on the land is performed by women who fall at the very bottom of the rural pecking order.

But tractor drivers and mechanics know little if anything about managing farm acreage, protecting its vitality from season to season, planting and harvesting to get the most out of it. Even if new regulations make it genuinely attractive to go into business on one’s own, there may be few takers. The traditions that would enable farmers in some areas—for example, in the Baltic states, which were not absorbed into the Soviet Union until 1940—to take advantage of new opportunities for entrepreneurship are so long forgotten in Russia and the Ukraine that they have simply been obliterated.

For many decades the Soviet countryside has been dreary and backward, lacking in the most basic amenities. Roswell Garst, the Iowa corn farmer who befriended Nikita Khrushchev, used to note that there were more miles of paved roads in his county in Iowa than in the entire Ukraine, an area thousands of times larger. Every oblast and republic—indeed, every collective and state farm—is burdened with a bureaucratic class that purports to manage, but actually frustrates, agricultural production. By closing the countryside to foreigners, the Soviets for years hid the truth about it, but Gorbachev, as the product of a successful farm area around Stavropol, knows the truth. That may explain why he has put his rival, Ligachev, at least nominally in charge of agriculture.


When a particular enterprise is unusually successful in producing good-quality products or overfulfilling the targets of the plan, that success is often tied to a single individual—a boss who can make things work. A number of such figures have national reputations in the country—Soviet versions of Lee Iacocca or H. Ross Perot. One of them, V. P. Kabaidze, general director of the Ivanova Machine-Tool Building Association, caused a stir at the party conference last summer by declaring from the podium that he had no need for the Ministry of Machine Building that supervises his plant. "What can the minister give us? Nothing at all!" He ended his address on a gloomy note: "The devil knows what sort of habit we have got into: everybody keeps waiting for some instructions or other . . . [But] now it really depends on us. We must do our thing."

It is that nearly universal tendency in the Soviet Union to wait for instructions that makes an outspoken individualist like Kabaidze so rare. Gorbachev constantly demands more Kabaidzes—more comrades who will take initiative and responsibility for remaking the country—but I found no optimism anywhere in Moscow during a three-week visit last spring that such people will soon be found. Instead, one hears expressions of concern that the reformers in Moscow will summon too many of the good factory directors to the capital to work with them. "If you have to lose a good factory director to get a good minister, that may be a bad trade," one official observed.

The smothering of initiative and responsibility is one of the most discouraging but also most palpable consequences of the Stalinist epoch. Soviet citizens at every level instinctively look upward for guidance and instructions.

Kabaidze’s suggestion that citizens do their own thing is as un-Soviet as cherry pie. Russia’s great writers have bemoaned the sheep-like qualities of their countrymen for centuries. ("Graze on, you peaceful sheep and cattle," Pushkin wrote angrily early in the last century.) Stalin exacerbated these qualities with a vengeance, literally, by imposing horrific penalties on those who defied instructions—and, even more horrifically, on many who did not, chosen almost at random. The result is what a friend in Moscow called "characteristic Soviet fear"—a reflexive instinct to stay out of trouble by staying low to the ground, never speaking up or taking an initiative. Now Gorbachev insists he wants people to speak out, argue with authority and the like, but this doesn’t come easily. "We are trying," said one Moscow scholar, "to squeeze the slave out of us."

The Stalinist system created a presumption of equality among workers that Gorbachev has now discovered is another impediment to rational progress. He assails this as a "leveling mentality"—the idea that everyone should receive about the same rewards, no matter what their contribution. But this instinct, too, runs deep in the national character, in part because it grows from a peasant reflex much older than Bolshevism. Georgi Arbatov, the survivor who is director of the Institute of the United States and Canada, described this peasant outlook: "Okay, maybe I’ll have to go hungry, but just don’t let my neighbor prosper!" Envy of one’s neighbor’s success, still widespread, can frustrate efforts to create a successful class of entrepreneurs, which is the unpopular goal of the new cooperative movement. Socialism, after all, was meant to eliminate the exploiting class, so why should some comrades be dramatically richer than others?

It would be easier to instill new attitudes in a population less cynical and demoralized than today’s Soviet citizenry. I asked an old friend who works in a well-known factory in Moscow what the men on the shop floor thought of Gorbachev’s reforms. "They don’t believe in anything," he replied, "and they especially don’t believe that things will get better." Even the rare optimist among the workers would only argue that in forty years or so, things might improve as a result of reform. The Soviets’ incredible drinking problems are vivid evidence of that demoralizaton. It is revealing that Gorbachev’s one clear failure has been his anti-drinking campaign. It has angered the population by making it so difficult to buy legal vodka, but it has also done little to reduce drunkenness, because bootlegging is now so widespread and so profitable. In late October the Central Committee announced that steps would be taken to make available more alcoholic beverages.

Another sign of demoralization is the fact that Gorbachev’s reforms have no ardent support from the young. Logic would suggest otherwise—a modernizer who is obliterating the taboos of a straitlaced dictatorship, opening the country to the outside world and making room for the evolution of a genuinely Soviet youth culture ought to be a hero to young people. But no one in Moscow makes that claim. Teachers and parents both agree that the young people who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s generally have no interest in politics, and are deeply suspicious of politicians’ claims. One senior figure in Moscow called this "a lost generation." It is another symptom of a society that is not well.


Just as Gorbachev must work with the Soviet society and economy that exist, he must also deal with an existing political system and Communist Party apparatus that are resistant to—and ill suited for—the changes he seeks.

Perhaps his single greatest practical problem today is a shortage of like-minded allies within the party on whom he can rely to carry out his reforms. Many comrades simply cannot make the leap to the "new thinking," as Gorbachev calls it; obviously, numerous party officials cannot abandon the prejudices and reflexes of a lifetime. It is doubtful that even a substantial minority of party members personally accept Gorbachev’s indictment of the Soviet past, or can embrace his glum assessment of the present. And even those who may privately agree with him can be reluctant to say so openly. "People are still afraid to reveal themselves" as ardent allies of reform, according to one prominent editor, for fear that the party line will change again next week or next year, leaving them exposed.

This caution is understandable. Since Stalin forcibly purged all the individualists from the Communist Party, it has hardly been a breeding ground for resourceful leaders. One of the miraculous aspects of the present situation is the fact that this scared, bureaucratized political organization produced the likes of Gorbachev, his principal associate Aleksander Yakovlev, and the other leading figures of reform. Much more predictable are the gray men we have come to know only in formal photographs who have filled the Politburo throughout the modern era.

Gorbachev has not found a route around those gray figures. He has them in his Politburo; his prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, theoretically responsible for running the economy, is one of them. When Gorbachev had the idea of a special party conference to be held in 1988, midway between traditional party congresses, he was obviously hoping for a gathering that would support sweeping personnel changes. Sometime last spring that ambition evaporated. After a controversial selection process, delegates were chosen for the conference who—according to numerous senior officials—were more conservative than progressive.

Several delegates to the conference told me that the majority there were at least very nervous about what Gorbachev was up to. This was evident in a number of the speeches, some of them blatantly reactionary and anti-Gorbachev. The most striking was made by Yuri Bondarev, deputy chairman of the writers’ union of the Russian Republic, who asked from the podium of the conference: "Could our perestroika be compared to an airplane that has taken off without knowing if there is a landing strip at its destination?"

In the end the party conference was a chaotic event; no line emerged from its speeches, only a sense of political ferment and uncertainty. The resolutions adopted (but never specifically debated) by the conference gave staunch support to all Gorbachev’s policies, but they were obviously produced in advance and blessed in the traditional Soviet manner—unanimously.

Gorbachev’s continuing reliance on traditional—that is, Stalinist—methods of control is revealing. His enunciated platform is decentralization, democracy and the rule of law, but his actual performance is still dictatorial. This was most vividly evident last October when he strengthened his position in the Politburo with several sudden personnel changes at the top of the party apparatus, including his own installation as titular president of the country. These changes were ratified by meetings of the party Central Committee and the legislative Supreme Soviet on September 30 and October 1; both meetings were over in less than an hour, no debate was heard at either, and the vote was unanimous at both.

Even if we credit Gorbachev with honest intentions someday to fulfill his democratic platform—and many Soviets still do—for now he must rely on traditional centralized control to impose democracy. On its face this seems a problematic undertaking. It is more uncertain in light of the nature of the people on whom he must impose it.

Soviet bureaucrats and party factotums have no experience and no evident interest in a truly democratic system in which popular will is stronger than they are. The local party secretary is used to being the local regent; his word has traditionally had the force of law—in fact, it has exceeded the force of law, since one of his prerogatives has been to tell the courts in his jurisdiction how to behave. The party secretary and a handful of other bureaucrats have had no challengers for power and influence for sixty or seventy years. Now Gorbachev says they must be elected in multi-candidate elections. He says the party organizations must give way to democratic councils or Soviets, local legislatures also chosen by the people in multi-candidate elections.

Are such changes really in the cards? There is room for doubt. One compromise introduced on the eve of the party conference to make the idea of "all power to the Soviets" more palatable was to install as leader of every soviet the existing party secretary in that region. This was a sop to the party, but it scarcely looks like a contribution to real democracy.

Critical to Gorbachev’s vision of a better future is the idea that a new popular will can be formulated and expressed from below. It appears that Gorbachev is banking on this as the ultimate solution to the problem of the reluctant bureaucracy. If he can overwhelm the bureaucrats from above and from below, they will have to go along, or move out of the way.

This beguiling idea can only work if the mass of Soviet citizens makes it work. But can a people with no democratic traditions whatsoever, who by habit or even instinct look to higher authority to organize society and their lives, suddenly become fervid democrats eager to challenge old ways and established leaders? "I am not an optimist," answered a Moscow intellectual now regarded as one of Gorbachev’s key allies. "Processes that took four hundred years, sometimes six hundred years, to develop in West European societies never even began here. . . . The organization of our society is very poor."


Success will not be easy. But without any guarantees of success, dramatic change in Soviet society is continuing—the distinction is an important one. Already in three and a half years, Gorbachev has brought changes to his country that can never be fully undone. The pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union—the Soviet Union of what is now officially called the "era of stagnation"—will not be restored.

What has happened in the past three and a half years was not predicted—could not have been predicted—by anyone. Gorbachev has gone much farther, much faster than his countrymen or outsiders ever dreamed possible. He has gone very far toward completing the demythologizing of Stalin, a process that was begun by Nikita Khrushchev thirty years ago but abandoned in the mid-1960s. He has introduced a degree of freedom of expression in newspapers and journals that has no precedent in the Soviet period. He has shattered taboos that prevailed in his country for generations, permitting debate—and doubt—about some of the most cherished myths of Soviet history. Not even Lenin himself, the icon of the Soviet system, has been spared.

Gorbachev has made change a value in itself. "Our society will change," he promises. He has taken much of the fear out of everyday life for the people who used to feel it most—members of the intelligentsia, who felt most victimized by censorship, controls on travel and the close attention of the KGB. For veterans of earlier periods, the new mood in Moscow is quite incredible. Soviet officials openly make appointments by telephone to see Westerners; journalists brag of the scandals they have caused by exposing official misconduct; editors boast of the historical taboos they have broken in their journals. Soviet television has broadcast suggestions that the country needs a new, multiparty political system. Television has also made room for rock music and Soviet-made rock videos. Citizens gather signatures on petitions to protest the decisions of Communist Party organs. Interest groups form to defend nature against industrial pollution, or to promote anti-Semitic views of Russian history, or to lobby for preservation of historic buildings threatened by official notions of progress.

Travel has suddenly become much easier, so Soviet citizens who never dreamed it would be possible can readily travel to the West. And Soviet emigrés of the last generation, people who left as Jews or political dissidents expecting never to see their homeland again, are now returning for visits in large numbers. All these things are signs of what is clearly most important to many Russians—the creation of a "normal" Soviet Union. The adjective normal, used to describe both what is beginning to happen and what is most sought after, is often heard in Moscow conversations today.

Most amazing for many non-Russian Soviet citizens, the various nationalities have been given extraordinary freedom to organize, to demonstrate and protest. For the multinational Soviet state, nothing could be more exciting (or potentially more threatening) than the manifestations of nationalism seen recently in the Baltic states, in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and elsewhere. The CIA reported in October that it had counted nearly three hundred public disturbances provoked by ethnic issues between early 1987 and late 1988. For decades scholars in the West speculated on what would happen when the ethnic genie got out of its bottle. Now it is out.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Gorbachev’s rule has been the way a little change has thus far invariably produced in him an appetite for more change. A clear trend of increasing radicalism is obvious in Gorbachev’s speeches and interviews. The truly radical political reforms approved at the party conference this June were never even hinted at in Gorbachev’s first years, just as the virulent anti-Stalinism evident during 1988 was avoided by Gorbachev himself as recently as his speech in November 1987. As Gorbachev told the party conference, "there was a lot we just didn’t know" when he took power in March 1985 and launched his reforms. In the first stages Gorbachev declared that conditions were bad; now he and many others show, in painful detail, just how bad they are. And he has placed much of the blame on the past shortcomings of the Communist Party itself.

The Gorbachev period has changed the thoughts in Soviet citizens’ heads. Gorbachev has not yet reformed the economy effectively, but he has enshrined an entirely new set of principles for his countrymen. His most important contribution in this regard may be the destruction of old definitions of "impossible." So much that was once considered impossible is now routine that many thoughtful Soviet citizens have ceased being intimidated by the old taboos. By speaking out with some candor during this period, Gorbachev has accomplished something comparable to the feat of the little boy who shouted out what everyone else knew—that the emperor was naked. It will not be possible for any future, more reactionary Soviet leader simply to announce—as Soviet leaders did for so long—that everything is rosy and wonderful. Gorbachev has eliminated that argument from the usable political vocabulary.

Nor does there appear to be an option of abandoning economic reform and returning to Brezhnevite central controls. Ligachev and his allies have long since acknowledged that the old ways were corrupt and ineffective. Vitaliy Korotich, the editor of Ogonyek, one of the loudest trumpets of glasnost, told me: "Without liberalization, the country would just grind to a halt."

His sentiment is widely shared—so widely that no voice can be heard making the traditional, contrary argument. This is Gorbachev’s biggest advantage: no element in the party has come forward with a plausible solution for the country’s problems that differs from his. Even the traditional bureaucrats most discomfited by what is going on cannot offer a hopeful alternative. So it seems most likely now that Gorbachev’s colleagues will give him more time to try to find successful antidotes to economic stagnation.


Russians are coming to terms with the failure of their system, and so should we. Of course they are eager to put it right; many of them would like to return to the days when both they and the outside world saw the Soviet Union as the only genuine rival to the United States for international preeminence. But the return of that day is at best a long way off. In truth, it is unlikely ever to come again.

Stalin’s goal was to create an empire tied together by communist ideology, fueled by communist efficiency and dominated by Great Russian ambitions. But the ideology has failed, the efficiency has proven illusory, and the ambitions are anachronistic in the modern world. What is left is a brontosaurus empire, one unfit for survival in a new environment—today’s world.

This metaphor was suggested by Lev Kopelev, an extraordinary Russian who was born in Kiev five years before the Bolshevik Revolution, personally participated in many of the most exciting phases of the Soviet experiment, and was driven from his homeland in 1981 because of his own brand of glasnost, then not in favor. He now lives in Cologne, West Germany. In his own lifetime Kopelev has seen the demise of the German, French, British, Austro-Hungarian, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian and Japanese empires—the twentieth century has not been hospitable to such enterprises. This century has been marked by the rise of science, technology and self-knowledge, all of which work against the kind of centralized power needed to maintain an empire or an authoritarian society.

The Russians fought against the times despite setbacks that began long ago, with the defections of Yugoslavia and China, and the rebellions in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. But the fight cannot be waged much longer, because there is no more adhesive to hold the empire together. Even within the borders of the Soviet Union there are signs of grave strain.

Most of the twentieth-century empires collapsed peacefully, but some only fell under the pressure of violence. The French held on too long, at too great a cost; the Russians may do the same. It is hard now to imagine how Gorbachev or any future Soviet leader could gracefully yield to the Poles or the Hungarians—not to mention the Armenians or the Estonians—their independence.

But the entire Gorbachev phenomenon was hard to imagine before it happened. These are amazing times. The most dramatic political experiment of the century is collapsing before our eyes—slowly, but certainly.

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  • Robert G. Kaiser, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, was his newspaper’s Moscow correspondent from 1971 to 1974. He is the author of Russia: The People and the Power. Copyright © 1988 by Robert G. Kaiser.
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