Gorbachev Analysis Of Three Books About Gorbachev

Gorbachev: Analysis Of Three Books About Gorbachev Essay, Research Paper Gorbachev: Analysis of Three Books About Gorbachev The history of the Soviet Union is complicated and fascinating. In the course

Gorbachev: Analysis Of Three Books About Gorbachev Essay, Research Paper

Gorbachev: Analysis of Three Books About Gorbachev

The history of the Soviet Union is complicated and fascinating. In the course

of only seventy years this country has seen the development of the totally new

system of state, economic growth, the growth of hopes for the “brighter future”,

and then the sudden and expected by no one collapse of the whole system leading

to chaos, wars, and confusion. One period is especially important in order to

realize how did things finally started to change after the seventy years of

blindly pursuing the dream of communism which left the Soviet Union in a very

bad economical and moral state, and this period is called perestroika, Russian

for restructuring. The main figure behind this process which began in 1985 is

Mikhail S. Gorbachev who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the

Soviet Union Central Committee in March 1985. The three books that concentrate

on the “Gorbachev phenomenon” were all unfortunately written before perestroika

was finished, so they do not analyze the consequences that it had for the Soviet

Union as well as for the whole world . On the other hand, all three of these

books do a good job in explaining the changes that took place in the course of

the first three years after Gorbachev came to power and why were these changes

necessary.

The first book “Gorbachev” was written by Zhores A. Medvedev in 1986 and hence

the author is concentrating on the first year of the new course in Soviet

history. The book itself basically consists of two parts: the first part where

the author describes the “making of a General Secretary”, and the second part

entitled “Gorbachev in power” which describes Gorbachev’s first year in the

office. The first part of the book gives a lot of background information which

allows the reader to see the stages in development of the Soviet leader from

childhood and youth to second-in-command. One thing I found to be particularly

interesting in Medvedev’s description of Gorbachev’s youth and that is the

theory that living with a Czech intellectual for five years changed the future

Soviet leader in such a way that he became more “westernized” which “indirectly

provided the Soviet Union with a new style leader”. Medvedev says that during

the time from 1950 to 1955 when young Gorbachev attended the Moscow State

University and had to share the room with a Czech student Zdenek Mlynar he was

“profoundly influenced” by the “culture and attitudes of a traditionally Western

nation”. This influence lasted for years and the fact that Gorbachev has become

“westernized” in his appearance, manners, dress and the “image he projects of

tolerance and cordial behavior, all the small signs which mark him as different

from the usual Komsomol and Party boss”, is according to Medvedev due to a great

extent to the fact that Mlynar was Gorbachev’s roommate (Medvedev, 1986, p. 43).

Although the first part of the book is certainly interesting and important I

would like to concentrate on the second part of the book since it is directly

deals with the subject that interests me most, that is the years when Gorbachev

was in power and the development of the new course in the Soviet life called

perestroika. From just reading the first paragraph it is obvious that the

author approves of the new leader. Medvedev writes: “For the first time in

Soviet history, the leadership succession has meant more than the arrival of a

new leader and the possibility of the implementation of the new policies. The

Gorbachev succession marks the appearance of a new political generation which

differs from the old guard in style, knowledge and historical

vision….Gorbachev represents a younger post-war political generation, a

generation which started its professional Party or state career during the more

liberal Krushchev era” (p. 165). Medvedev quotes some of the very enthusiastic

Western newspaper comments which called Gorbachev a “bright, incisive, brisk-

mannered man”, with “high intelligence, considerable organizational abilities,

political acumen”. According to the author no previous Soviet leader had

received so much immediate publicity and such an enthusiastic welcome from the

general public. “Gorbachev’s popularity was closely linked to his energetic,

charismatic, competent and obviously intelligent personality”, says Medvedev

which led to this immediate acceptance of Gorbachev as leader (p. 183). Inspite

the fact that Gorbachev’s new style was popular, some of his methods found less

favor. A lot of his actions were purely administrative, imposed from above

without any discussion and seemed coercive and disciplinarian to some people,

especially to intellectuals who expected liberalism. Medvedev seems to justify

Gorbachev’s first decrees since they were “not designed to impress intellectuals,

but rather aimed at improving a sick economy” (p. 184).

It was very interesting to read about the “battle against the bottle” which

Gorbachev started immediately. For him vodka was a “public enemy number one”,

the cause of increasing crime, poor productivity, an increasing number of

problem children of alcoholic parents, reduced life expectancy and alcohol-

related health problems, all of which created a heavy burden on the national

economy. Some of the measures that were taken by the government were increasing

the drinking age from 18 to 21, alcohol could no longer be sold in ordinary food

stores, special wine shops would not be permitted to sell any alcohol before 2

PM, stiff sentences were introduced for private stills. But the anti-alcohol

campaign quickly has became unpopular and “has created a degree of social

tension” which led to the canceling of the whole campaign by the government (p.

189). During his first year Gorbachev made some big changes in the agricultural

sector of the Soviet Union. The decision was made to allocate annually from one

million to one million two hundred thousand allotments to citizens. Medvedev

sees this decision as “Gorbachev’s second personal initiative which had a real

practical and positive impact on the quality of people’s lives. The garden co-

operatives reduced the pressure slightly on state retail sales of vegetables and

fruit, particularly in small towns” (p. 201).

As for the domestic policy, according to Medvedev, Gorbachev’s first year in

power was marked by “unprecedently large changes in the personnel of the

Politburo and government and the rapid formulation of economic targets and

methods of economic development for the next 15 years. In all other respects,

however, the changes in domestic policy were merely cosmetic” (p. 208). Policies

were better presented, the style was more modern, but there was little in the

contents. Gorbachev has introduced very few social and political changes in his

first year in office. Medvedev argues that this was due to the fact that

Gorbachev, as a professional Party official understood that liberalization or

democratization may turn against him (which is exactly how everything worked out

some five years later, but of course Medvedev did not know this for sure back in

1986). Also Gorbachev’s new team had absolutely no desire to make the system

more liberal. In the last chapter Medvedev talks about Soviet new diplomacy

which was created by Gorbachev in his first year in the office. First of all,

Gorbachev’s charm, sense of humor, prompt responses, attempts to find convincing

arguments “suddenly introduced the human factor into East-West confrontation

which in itself served to reduce tension. Gorbachev clearly did not resemble a

person who was waiting for the opportunity to drop a nuclear bomb on the West”

(p. 228). For Gorbachev two main issues were the problem of the arms race and

Afghanistan, where the war had gone for two long and there was no end in sight.

Gorbachev wanted to accelerate economic development and the main task of his

diplomacy was the reduction of the cost of the foreign policy and that meant

substantial arms reductions. In his book Medvedev makes an assumption that the

Soviet government would not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Gorbachev

will be aiming for a “quick military end to the war” – assumption that proved to

be wrong . On the other hand the author is right when he predicts the gradual

thawing of the Soviet-US relations, thawing that started in Geneva with Reagan-

Gorbachev negotiations and continued throughout Gorbachev’s rule. In his

conclusion Medvedev makes a statement that “it has been abundantly clear that

Gorbachev is neither a liberal nor a bold reformist. He prefers small

modifications, administrative methods and economic adjustments to structural

reform … it is a mistake to expect too much from Gorbachev” (p. 245). This

statement, as we all know, quickly proved to be wrong. The second book titled

“The Gorbachev Phenomenon” was written by Moshe Lewin in 1988, two years after

Medvedev published his work and therefore it gives the reader a better

perspective on what happened while Gorbachev was in power. Lewin’s book is

structured very similar to the first book that I described above. It also

consists of the two parts: one deals with the history of the Soviet Union before

1985, and the second part, entitled “The New Course” discusses the changes that

took place in the country after Gorbachev became the General Secretary. Right

from the start the author says that the Soviet Union is on the “verge of

important changes in the way it conducts its affairs, maybe in the way it is run

… Russia is now entering a crucial new stage and is therefore, in many

respects, just a beginner” (Lewin, 1988, p. 1). Lewin follows Medvedev’s steps

in describing the new Soviet leader and uses all kinds of approving terms such

as “bright”, “intelligent” and “incisive”. But unlike Medvedev Lewin makes an

argument that the main reason for perestroika was not the individualism of

Gorbachev but rather the crisis that had been created by the mechanisms of

economic management that had emerged in the 1930’s and were still powerful. He

also talks about the enormous role of the people who were “placing pressure on

the governing model, insisting that each sphere of action receive the attention

it needed and that new institutions and new methods be created to serve the new

social forms. The system needed to loosen up” (p. 112). The answer to people’s

pressure Gorbachev began his new line which was characterized by an appeal for

frankness. The leaders were ready to face the truth and report to the country

that the system was in a bad shape. This was particularly true about the

economy. As the Party Congress put it : “The production relations that exist

currently, the system of husbanding and managing, emerged, in substance, in

conditions of extensive economic development. Gradually they became obsolete,

lost their stimulating power and turned, in many ways, into a hindrance” (p.

115). This new line did not stop with criticisms of the management of the

economy. Ideology and ideological life were also described as being in shambles.

The leaders admitted that Soviet people did not believe official statements and

ideological dogma was a powerful obstacle to the country’s development. This

was the beginning of the new page in the history of the Soviet Union which

became known all over the world as glasnost.

Together with the appeal for glasnost – a slogan but also a pledge to ease

censorship and facilitate the access to information – there was a call for

uskorenie, a “speeding up of the pace of economic development, especially

technological progress”. Lewin can not comprehend how some Western observers

can still claim that nothing really happens, that “there is no well-defined

program, notably for economic reforms”. Such statements are “sheer obstinacy”,

according to the author since ideas for change are being debated, implemented,

and tested. And the fact that no comprehensive program has been announced seems

rather as a good sign to Lewin, since “for what single program could fill the

bill?” (p. 116-117).

As against Medvedev, Lewin does not spend much time describing “the battle

against the bottle”. He sums everything up in one sentence instead of two

chapters and has a different view of the successfulness of this initiative:

“Although many predicted failure, the government stuck to its guns, gained

public support for its aims and the anti-drinking campaign has achieved some

success. This was clever and promising opening” (p. 116).

Lewin’s conclusions about the changes in the agricultural sector and foreign

policy are very similar to that of Medvedev. The author talks about how the

center would ease its control, how government would give more freedom in the

choices that people involved in producing the agricultural goods can have.

Lewin underlined the importance of Gorbachev’s decision to allocate allotments

which led to the bigger interest of the Soviet people in working the land which

ultimately led to the increase in agricultural production. Lewin also mentions

the better Russian-American relations which was due to the fact that Gorbachev

was ready for discussions with the American president and has chosen such

international policy that led to the slowing down of the arms race and the

reduction of the accumulation of arms.

As for the domestic policy Lewin has a different position than Medvedev, this is

due to a large extent to the fact that Lewin is writing his work two years after

Medvedev. “Glasnost, democratization, self-government in the workplace,

orientation to the social sphere, social justice, human rights, and respect for

human individuality” – reforms in these areas took place after three years of

Gorbachev in power and influenced domestic policy a lot according to Lewin (p.

119). At the very end of the book Lewin makes a statement that proved to be so

true after the couple of years since this work was published. “The old system

is still in place and its supporters, deeply disturbed by the perestroika, will

certainly resist change. The reformers are not assured of victory: they will

have to fight hard for it, go for bold new moves. Their failure would be

terribly costly for the USSR and could well produce negative repercussions

worldwide. The world is now watching Moscow attentively and with good reason”

(p. 153). It is hard to believe that these words were written eight years

ago….

The third book is probably the most important one since it is the work of the

man who is directly responsible for the changes that took place in the Soviet

Union and who is also responsible, although indirectly, for the changes that

took place in the whole Eastern Europe. Gorbachev wrote a book entitled

“Perestroika. New Thinking for Our Country and the World” back in 1987, two

years after he became the new Soviet leader. In this book the author tries to

answer the question of what is perestroika? Why does the Soviet society need it?

What are its substance and objectives? What does it reject and what does it

create? How is it proceeding and what might be its consequences for the Soviet

Union and the world community? In other words, all the questions that were

raised and discussed by Medvedev and Lewin but answered by the originator.

Perestroika, according to Gorbachev, is an “urgent necessity arising from the

profound processes of development in our socialist society. This society is

ripe for change. It has been long yearning for it” (Gorbachev, 1987, p. 17).

Perestroika was caused by all sorts of problems that the Soviet Union had

accumulated over the seventy years. First factor was a slowing economic growth

which caused “a country that was once quickly closing on the world’s advanced

nations began to lose one position after another”. At the same time the gap in

the efficiency of production, quality of products, scientific and technological

development … began to widen, and not to our advantage”. All this eventually

led to an economic deadlock and stagnation that paralyzed Soviet society.

Declining rates of growth affected other aspects of the Soviet life, for

instance the social sphere, which began to lag behind other spheres in terms of

technological development, personnel, know-how and quality of work. Gorbachev

also mentions a gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of Soviet

people as another argument for the need of restructuring. People did not

believe in the government because of the many promises that it made and never

accomplished; because the needs and opinions of ordinary working people, of the

public at large, were ignored. There was a process of decay 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” (p. 21-22). Gorbachev also talks

about alcoholism, drug addiction and culture alien to Soviet people, which “bred

vulgarity and low tastes and brought about ideological bareness”. This

statement about “alien to us” culture reminded me of how this fight against

“degeneration” which American movies and other media brings was carried out -

how people were hiding the fact that they have the VCR, how it would be almost

impossible to get a videotape with an American movie but people would still

manage to get it “through a friend of a friend” and then watch it, which as

Gorbachev puts it “bred vulgarity and low tastes”. Considering all the problems

the government made “the only logical conclusion” that the country was verging

on crisis. This conclusion was announced at the April 1985 Plenary Meeting of

the Central Committee, “which inaugurated the new strategy of perestroika and

formulated its basic principles” (p. 24). Gorbachev gives a plan of perestroika,

its component parts which include: overcoming the stagnation process, breaking

down the braking mechanism. It means mass initiative. “It is the comprehensive

development of democracy, socialist self-government, encouragement of initiative,

improved order and discipline, more glasnost, criticism in all spheres of the

society; respect for the individual”. Perestroika is also the intensification of

the Soviet economy, development of the principles of democratic centralism and

encouragement of socialist enterprise. It also means “the elimination from

society of the distortions of socialist ethics, implementation of the principles

of social justice. It means the unity of words and deeds, rights and duties”.

But Gorbachev does not forget to include Lenin and says that “the essence of

perestroika lies in the fact that it unites socialism with democracy and revives

the Leninist concept of socialist construction both in theory and in practice”

(p.34-35).

Gorbachev also gives his evaluation of perestroika. He is writing this book two

and a half years after the new line was launched and his assessment is as

follows: “perestroika is just getting of the ground. So far we have only been

shaping the mechanisms of acceleration” (p. 64). The real work for him is still

ahead and the main task is to get the whole society involved in the process of

restructuring.

In conclusion Gorbachev spends a lot of time talking about “new political

thinking”, new Soviet foreign policy which should benefit international

relations, especially Soviet-American relations and provide for “nuclear-free,

non-violent world”. The main task of the Soviet foreign policy is to move “from

suspicion and hostility to confidence, from a balance of fear to a balance of

reason and goodwill, from narrow nationalist egoism to cooperation” (p. 254).

Gorbachev feels that the not only the Soviet Union but the whole world needs

restructuring, a fundamental change – this, of course, does not come as a

surprise, if we remember that since 1917 first Bolsheviks and than communists

wanted to make this “fundamental change”.

The three books that were discussed above were all written by different authors

and in different times but still basically they all have the same approach.

Medvedev and Lewin both approve the new leader of the Soviet Union and give all

kinds of good adjectives to describe him such as “bright” and “intelligent”.

They both are optimistic about the future of the country although make it clear

that this is only a beginning of the story to follow and since the perestroika

just started at the time they were writing their works they can only speculate

about what would happen to the country. As for Gorbachev he is probably the

most optimistic about the new line which is not surprising since he is the

leader and leaders should radiate with confidence. He is also the best source

for finding out what perestroika is all about, its goals and its origins. Of

course now in 1996 many of his statements sound unfounded, even funny but when

we read his work we have to keep in mind that back in 1985 Gorbachev’s ideas

sounded new and revolutionary, destined to change the Soviet Union and even the

whole world – which did in fact happen.

The question whether Gorbachev’s perestroika was a failure or a success does not

have an easy immediate answer. Some scholars argue that the reforms that lasted

from 1985 to 1990 caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the country

on the verge of crisis, with economy in chaos and no certain future. Joan E.

Spero, the author of the book “The Politics Of International Economic Relations”,

is the supporter of this point of view. In the chapter entitled “The Failure

of Perestroika” she shows by using different examples, such as economical

progress, stability of the country and so on, that Gorbachev failed to achive

the objectives of perestroika (Spero, 1996, p336). Although I agree that

Gorbachev did not achieve some of the goals stated in his book “Perestroika”, I

believe that perestroka was a success to a certain extent. First of all, he did

achieve some of the objectives. For instance, after the reforms the society did

become more open thanks to glasnost. People for the first time since 1917 could

say what they really thought and not what was “good for the party”. People also

gained access to all sorts of information which was previously denied to them.

Children in schools and students in colleges could finally learn the history as

it was and not as it was seen by the Communist party. Another major success of

perestroika was the increasing openness of the country to the West which led to

a considerable improvements in East-West relations. This also led to the

gradual reduction of arms and considerable decline in defense spending in the

Soviet Union as well as in the United States. Considering these and other

positive results of perestroika I would have to disagree with those people who

say that it was a complete failure. The restructuring that took place in the

Soviet Union has many dimensions – some are positive, some are negative. One-

sided view which Joan E. Spero and other scholars advocate is not correct, since

it concentrates only on the adverse effects of perestroika, completely ignoring

all the positive effects that it had.

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