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  • Gorbachev's Non-Violence Revolution
  • Andrei Illarionov (bio)

The further the Gorbachev era (the period from March 1985 to December 1991, during which Mikhail Gorbachev was the supreme leader of the USSR), moves away from us, the more obvious becomes the completely unique nature of this historical phenomenon.

A simple listing of the most important steps taken by Gorbachev in the spheres of Soviet domestic and foreign policy during this six-and-a-half-year period shows how unprecedented was the Gorbachev era in the sweep of Russia's millennium-long history. Indeed, these steps radically and irrevocably changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in three dozen countries around the world.

Gorbachev's Revolution

In what was by any measure an extremely short period of time, changes were made that even the most radical dreamers of the day could not have believed would happen until well into the future. The reforms carried out under the slogans of "acceleration," "glasnost," "perestroika," and "New Thinking" together comprise what can rightly be called Gorbachev's revolution.

The most important of these reforms were: the destruction of the USSR's totalitarian political system, which had been based on the Communist Party's monopoly of power; the release of Andrei Sakharov and other political prisoners; the rehabilitation of citizens and peoples repressed by the communist regime; the radical liberalization of intellectual, social, economic, and political life; the granting of unprecedented civil, economic, and political rights to Soviet citizens; the restoration of religious freedom and renewed celebration of Christmas; the beginning of radical economic reforms, including the legalization of private property and a market economy; the opening of international borders; the integration of the Soviet economy into the global economy; the end of the war in [End Page 265] Afghanistan and the withdrawal of Soviet troops therefrom; the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact Organization and the USSR; the relinquishment of control over Soviet satellites around the world, which led to political revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and Mongolia and the withdrawal of Soviet and then Russian troops from these countries; the recognition of Soviet leaders' responsibility for the massacre of Poles in Katyń; a significant reduction in the arms arsenals of the two nuclear superpowers; the end of the Third World (Cold) War; and the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany.

The listing of these results does not mean, naturally, that Gorbachev did not make many mistakes, including very painful ones. Nevertheless, weighing what Gorbachev accomplished and achieved against his mistakes, failures, and costs leaves an unbiased observer of Russian and world history in general, and of the history of the twentieth century in particular, in a state of boundless amazement: How did this happen at all?

Even a superficial understanding of the scale of what Gorbachev did during his six-and-a-half-year tenure as the head of the state—a period significantly shorter than Boris Yeltsin (a little over eight years), Leonid Brezhnev (18.5 years), or Vladimir Putin (21.5 years at the time of this writing)—raises the question: How and why did Gorbachev manage to do all this?

At first glance, the answer seems completely obvious: because these actions corresponded with Gorbachev's goals, guiding principles, and worldview (which he termed New Thinking).

But we could also break the main question formulated above down into at least two complementary sub-questions:

1. How did Gorbachev—with his New Thinking and unconventional views, approaches, and ideas—find himself at the top of the party and state power in the totalitarian USSR?


2. What are the key features of Gorbachev's worldview? How was Gorbachev able to form his views, approaches, and ideas—to develop his own New Thinking—in the totalitarian USSR?

The following reflections try to formulate a possible answer to the second sub-question.

A convenient starting point for understanding what Mikhail Gorbachev [End Page 266] has done and his own perception thereof is his article "Perestroika and the New Thinking: A Retrospective" in this issue. In it, Gorbachev offers his view of both what he was dealing with and how he reacted to the challenges he faced:

  • • The lack of...


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