- Perestroika as a Humanist Project
It is very rare for a major world leader to look back 30 years later at a transformation he brought about and be in a clear enough mind to analyze it critically and without self-aggrandizement. We are fortunate to have Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev himself reflect on perestroika—its achievements, its mistakes, and its continuing relevance—in this essay written specially for Demokratizatsiya. He states that he wants this essay to be his "contribution to dialogue between the past and the present" (p. 238). In addition to analyzing the past, he offers some important insights for the future.
This essay is his most distilled and concise analysis of his creation—perestroika. Students of international affairs and politicians would be well advised to hear this reformer, who just turned 90, and revisit the magical years when the world went through a most dramatic, hopeful and peaceful transformation. His words of wisdom are addressed to those who share the ideals he still believes in: a world free of nuclear weapons, where disputes are resolved by negotiations and states exhibit restraint and consideration of each other's interests, where international relations are based on shared norms and common human values. In domestic politics, his vision is grounded in pluralist democracy and a non-violent political process. He reexamines three main areas—the economy, nationalism, and foreign affairs—to identify missed opportunities and things he could have done differently.
The most authoritative scholarship published in the last thirty years on the Soviet reforms, by such authors as Archie Brown, William Taubman, Robert English, and Jack Matlock,1 as well as documentary [End Page 259] evidence declassified in Russia and the United States, generally supports Gorbachev's narrative as well as his criticisms of perestroika's "mistakes and failings" (p. 229). This narrative also rings true for someone who lived through the events discussed in the essay. I was a student at Moscow State University and then a graduate student at IMEMO at the height of perestroika, and these debates and events shaped who I was and determined my career choices. 1989 was a year of miracles—I voted in the first free elections and I watched the Cold War end in front of my eyes. Perestroika gave me freedom.
Gorbachev believes that perestroika and his vision are still relevant to his country and to the world today. He explains his perestroika as a "humanist project" (p. 212) initiated in the name of the people at a time when most people had come to the conclusion that "we cannot go on living like this" (p. 211). He points out that longing for change was widespread in the Soviet leadership and society. One may say that in 1985 everybody, regardless of their political views, saw the realization of their hopes in the person of the young and energetic General Secretary, who was generally seen as a straight shooter and a protégé of Yury Andropov himself.
Many of Gorbachev's critics in Russia accuse him of not having a clear plan of reform. He openly admits this, saying that it would have been strange to have had a plan from the beginning—to have envisioned the enormity of transformation—given the profound crisis that he inherited and the previous decade of stagnation. He certainly did not intend to dismantle the Soviet Union, quite the opposite: he intended to make it stronger and more competitive internationally. As a sincere believer in socialism, he sought to clean up the system and return it to its original ideals, but not embark on political reform.
If those were Gorbachev's initial goals, did he fail as a leader? As the British scholar Archie Brown argues in his book The Gorbachev Factor, it would be wrong to judge Gorbachev's success by how his actions and outcomes in 1989-90 corresponded to the goals he announced in 1985: in that period, his views and goals evolved significantly to include democratic multicandidate elections, a market economy, and a new voluntary confederation to replace the centralized one-party state.2 Gorbachev's perestroika was a genuine revolution—albeit carried out by evolutionary means. And unlike...