In the Beginning There Was the Word: Glasnost at Twenty

By
Markian Dobczansky

"Glasnost was a rapturous, furious, pulsating current of freedom that flooded the country," said Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute at a 13 November 2007 Kennan Institute lecture. "It was also an astounding act of spiritual self-liberation on the part of a great nation, a merciless attempt at self-knowledge, national introspection of astounding breadth and intensity, merciless soul-searching, and an attempt at repentance and cleansing," he continued. Drawing on research to be included in his upcoming book Roads to the Temple: Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987–1991, Aron described the cultural factors that he saw as contributing to the successful revolution that brought down the Soviet Union.

According to Aron, many of the leading explanations for the end of the Soviet Union, especially structuralist arguments that stress economic, political, social, and institutional factors, overlook the role played by people and their ideals. He noted that in 1985 the Soviet Union was at the same level of technological and human capital that it had enjoyed ten years earlier. There was no major foreign policy setback similar to those that had triggered previous revolutions, he noted. While the economy was stagnating and growth was slowing down, there was no dramatic economic downturn that could have led to widespread dissatisfaction. In fact, the Soviet Union had survived far more dire situations in its history without the state losing any control over society, he said.

In the absence of major changes in the structural conditions of the country, however, it was major changes in public opinion that led to the erosion of the legitimizing myths and institutions that had previously held the Soviet Union together. This happened in a very short period of time soon after the policy of glasnost was instituted. Aron said he is attempting a systematic examination of the end of the Soviet Union through this prism, based on the reading of the tremendous output of political essaying as well as fiction that appeared during the late 1980s.

Russia's Revolution was the first major revolution to be extensively polled, Aron observed, noting that the polling indicated that seismic shifts had taken place in public opinion on a vast array of issues crucial to the survival of the Soviet Union. Aron ascribed this reorientation of public opinion to the influence of the media, fueled by an insatiable appetite on the part of the public for the truth about the country's past and present. Freedom of the printed word in the Soviet Union resulted in long lines for newspapers, growing waiting lists at libraries, and subscriptions to newspapers and magazines frequently doubling and tripling, he noted. At this time it was not only newspaper and journal articles that became political, but literature as well. For example, Aron stated that the works of Vassily Grossman soared in popularity during the 1980s.

Political writing at this time focused on questions of "Who are we?" "Who is to blame?" and "What is to be done?" It proceeded from the assumption that Soviet society needed to know itself and its history in order to know how to live better. In answer to the first question of "who are we?" Aron said that intellectuals and writers diagnosed the Soviet Union as "a sick society, mortally wounded economically, socially, and spiritually." The reasons for this identified by the intellectuals went back to the founding of the system, and especially to the time of Stalin, he continued. In this respect, the glasnost period went beyond the relative liberalization of the thaw of the 1960s, which Aron described as being focused on the personality of Stalin. If in the 1960s the foundational myths and institutions of the system persevered unscathed, in the 1980s the very pillars of the system collapsed. "The building begins to crumble and we find out how much falsification, lies, and hypocrisy were in the foundation, how flawed was the entire project, the construction materials, and the builders," he said, quoting Alexei Kiva, a prominent author during the glasnost period. At the same time, he said that the samizdat of the 1960s and 1970s had an important effect on the leaders of the outspoken intelligentsia in the 1980s.

The solution for many of the writers was a "re-moralization of the nation," Aron stated. This meant first of all creating a new person to replace the "homo sovieticus" that had grown accustomed to the system. "The ‘citizen' that they were after must be ready and able to take responsibility to make fundamental choices for himself or herself and the country, and without these informed and free choices, Russia's regeneration into a decent society would be impossible," he said. Aron summarized the goals of the revolutionary movement as the re-establishment of the nation based on "personal liberty; private property; democracy; a limited state subjugated to civil society; the demilitarization of the state, society, and the economy; and the end of messianic and imperial foreign policy."

Aron also placed the revolution of 1987–1990 in the context of other revolutionary movements in history. Every successful modern revolution, he said, is led by an "intellectual minority" or "rebellious intelligentsia" that is fervent about ideals and articulates the problems in a society while identifying possible solutions. A movement succeeds as long as the people do not mobilize in defense of the old regime, he asserted. This did not happen in the late 1980s, and as a result the Soviet Union came to an end.

Although the values expressed by the intellectual elite informed the Russian government in the 1990s, Aron observed that a restoration was today taking place. According to him, this happens after many revolutions, because a majority of people become tired and indifferent after experiencing revolutionary fervor. For its part, the intellectual elite, the bearer of the values of the revolution, either loses faith or is physically or spiritually decimated, and resigns itself to the fact that the people rejected them or did not understand them.

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