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Reviewed by:
  • Subverting the System: Gorbachev’s Reform of the Party’s Apparat, 1986–1991
  • Graeme Gill
Jonathan Harris , Subverting the System: Gorbachev’s Reform of the Party’s Apparat, 1986–1991. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. x 1 179 pp.

The collapse of the Soviet Union remains a matter both of great interest and of continuing research. Crucial to that collapse was the disintegration of the Communist Party, a process that is the focus of the book under review. Jonathan Harris seeks to explain the differing views among party functionaries about the course and desirability of reform of the party apparatus and its role. This question is central to the collapse of the party and of the regime more generally. Harris's account consists of a close analysis of the speeches and writings of party officials during the perestroika period, supplemented by some of the memoir material that has emerged since 1991. The story he outlines is one of the increasing radicalization of Gorbachev's reform proposals during most of this period and the continuous growth of opposition to those proposals from within the party apparatus. The heart of this account is the attempt to change the relationship that existed between what Harris sees as the "inner party" and the "outer party"—that is, the members of the party apparatus and party members working in the state structure. Normally this issue is seen simply in terms of party-state relations, but Harris's formulation of the problem highlights the way this issue concerned the exercise of power and shows how the working lives of large numbers of party members were turned upside down. His focus on the actual words of the participants, as reflected in their speeches, articles, and reports, enables him to bring out not just the clash of views, but also the inability of the top leaders during most of this period to [End Page 197] agree on a coherent view of how they wanted the system to work. The elite's inability to remain united around a common vision was a major factor leading to the collapse of the system.

Harris's methodology is both a strength and a weakness. His reliance on a close reading of the documents, often allowing them to talk for themselves, is a strength because it enables us to get a flavor of the arguments and a feel for the different positions that individuals adopted at various times. However, it is also a weakness. The book is not easy reading because of the stilted language of much of the original documentation and because many of the arguments are expressed in less than straightforward ways. More important, Harris's decision to focus almost entirely on the positions of the protagonists means that he provides little actual explanation of the course of developments. Two examples illustrate the importance of this shortcoming. The book does not explain why Mikhail Gorbachev chose to pursue the particular changes he did. Although a book of this sort does not need to explain why perestroika as a program of reform was introduced in the first place, some discussion of the project of economic reform and the associated rollback of the state from economic affairs is essential if we are to understand the significance of the attempted alteration of officials' roles. Gorbachev's economic reforms provided the context for the discussion about officials' roles, but Harris devotes little attention to it. Nor does he ever really explain why Gorbachev's position changed from time to time. Harris attributes such changes overwhelmingly to the opposition Gorbachev encountered from within the apparat, but this sort of explanation is the natural product of a methodology that counterposes competing positions. In some cases, this sort of explanation is the correct one. However, Gorbachev's position changed not only because of the strength of his opponents; but also because Gorbachev did not have a clear sense of what he was trying to achieve. The ambiguity and reverses in the process demonstrated that Gorbachev and his supporters were uncertain about how far and how fast they wanted and were able to push reform. The sense of uncertainty was widespread within the elite, not just restricted to...