Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, and: Russia and the Idea of the West, and: Epokha Eltsina: Ocherki politicheskoi istorii (review)
- Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History
- Slavica Publishers
- Volume 6, Number 1, Winter 2005 (New Series)
- pp. 241-252
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.1 (2005) 241-252
[Access article in PDF]
The words "civilization" (tsivilizatsiia) and "normality" (normal´nost´) had pride of place in the political vocabularies of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and their entourages. Yeltsin liked to evoke these terms even more than Gorbachev. To hear Yeltsin, his ghostwriter, speechwriters, and aides tell it, he and his "team" were engaged in an epochal struggle to transform Russia into a "normal" country and to bring it into the "civilized" world. To be sure, discourse about civilization has long been a staple of political rhetoric the world over, and it has become all the more ubiquitous since 11 September 2001. But in the Soviet context, "civilization" had a specific history as a code word employed by those who questioned the validity of Marxist-Leninist economic reductionism.1 The quest for "normality" likewise found a peculiar context in the waning years of the Soviet Union, which, as Stephen Kotkin likes to emphasize, was a consciously constructed alternative to capitalist modernity (6). Thus, over the tumultuous years of their time in the Kremlin, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and their supporters employed the words "civilization" and "normality" as powerful rhetorical weapons, respectively, to reform and destroy communist ideology and the Soviet Union.
The books under consideration in this review all offer perspectives on this struggle to transform the Soviet and post-Soviet space between 1985 and [End Page 241] 2000, a time when Gorbachev and Yeltsin commanded center stage in the world's attention. For all their differences and inconsistencies, these two politicians shared an ardent desire to lead Russia from what they both agreed were tormenting legacies of Stalinism. In a related turn, the books under review, even as they undertake to shed light on the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period, all take the legacy of Stalin and his time as a key reference point.
In Russia and the Idea of the West, Robert English has produced the definitive account on the origins of "New Thinking," the intellectual, ideological, and emotional foundation for Gorbachev's glasnost´ and perestroika. English's book examines the preconditions that made it possible for within-system reformers who emphasized the value of engaging and learning from the outside world to come to the fore in Soviet society in the late 1980s. English calls them "New Thinkers." These were a diverse group of intellectuals (mainly scientists, economists, journalists, policy analysts, philosophers, sociologists, and writers) of various degrees of privilege within Soviet society. Some of them called themselves "Westernizers" (zapadniki). The New Thinkers might disagree with one another; what united them was a common enemy—the legacy of Stalinism in the form of the more numerous and powerful "Old Thinkers," neo-Stalinists set in their ways who dominated much of Soviet society. Broadly speaking, the New Thinkers believed in socialism and the Soviet state, but they resented the limitations on creativity and the intolerant xenophobia of neo-Stalinism. Fortunately for the New Thinkers, Gorbachev was one of them; he shared their outlook, encouraged their activism, turned to many of them for advice, and employed many of their ideas. English takes pains to demonstrate that the late 1980s victory of the New Thinkers over the Old Thinkers was by no means inevitable. Just as Gorbachev's ascent to the post of general secretary in March 1985 was not preordained, so the New Thinkers had to overcome...