- Perestroika and New Thinking:A Retrospective
More than three and a half decades have passed since the start of the process of change in the Soviet Union known throughout the world as perestroika. The debate about its meaning and its legacy continues with undiminished intensity.
All these years, perestroika has been in my thoughts. I have been trying to find answers to the questions put to me by scholars, journalists and ordinary people in the letters that I receive. They want to understand perestroika—and that means it has not been relegated to the past. The experience and the lessons of perestroika remain relevant today, both for Russia and for the world.
Perestroika went through various stages. We were searching, we had our illusions, we made mistakes, and we had our achievements. If given a chance to start anew, I would have done many things differently, but I am confident that historically perestroika was a just cause. This means two things: first, perestroika was necessary, and second, we were moving in the right direction.
The initiators of perestroika have had to face multiple accusations and reproaches. It is said that they did not have a clear plan, that they were naïve, that they betrayed socialism. Some go so far as to say that there was no need for perestroika. Of such people, I can say only that they have very short memories. They either have forgotten or do not want to remember what kind of moral and psychological atmosphere dominated Soviet society on the eve of 1985.
People demanded change. Everyone—leaders and ordinary citizens alike—was acutely aware of the country's malaise. Our country was sinking ever more deeply into stagnation. The economy was, for all intents and purposes, at a standstill. Ideological dogma kept intellectual and cultural activity in a straitjacket. The bureaucratic machine sought total control of society's life while being unable to satisfy people's basic needs, with the stores virtually empty of consumer goods. The social situation was rapidly deteriorating amid general discontent. The absolute majority of the people believed that "we cannot go on living like this." I did not invent that phrase; it was axiomatic. [End Page 211]
The legacy we inherited weighed down on us. We knew that changes of great magnitude and depth were necessary and that such changes always carry risks, but leaving things as they were was not an option. That was the unanimous opinion of the Soviet leadership.
It would have been strange if from the very start we had a ready-made program of reforms, the kind of "clear plan" that the critics of perestroika say we failed to produce. Where would it have come from after two decades of stagnation? It was clear to us that identifying the path forward would be a tough challenge, and we never claimed that we had some kind of "train schedule" or "game plan." That, however, does not mean we lacked a clear goal or a vision of where we wanted to go.
From the very beginning, perestroika had an overarching theme, a guiding idea that defined it at every stage and provided the framework for our thinking. Perestroika was meant for the people. Its goal was to emancipate the human being, to give people ownership of their lives and of their country.
The system that we inherited was based on the Communist Party's total control. After Stalin's death, the regime he created renounced massive repressions, but its essence remained unchanged. The system distrusted the people, refusing to believe that they could act independently as makers of history. The leaders of perestroika had a different view: we believed that giving people freedom would unchain their initiative and creative energy.
Were we naïve in our faith in the people, in their creative potential? I can assure you that the members of the country's leadership—the Politburo—were far from naïve. Each of us had a proven record of experience. We had arguments, which later grew into principled differences, but all of us supported the founding concept: perestroika for the people.
Hence, perestroika was a wide-ranging humanist project. It was...