Glasnost

John Barber

  • Socialism, Peace and Democracy: Writings, Speeches and Reports by Mikhail Gorbachev
    Zwan, 210 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 1 85305 011 3
  • Gorbachev by Zhores Medvedev
    Blackwell, 314 pp, £5.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 631 15880 4
  • The Sixth Continent: Russia and Mikhail Gorbachov by Mark Frankland
    Hamish Hamilton, 292 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 241 12122 1
  • Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev by Dusko Doder
    Harrap, 349 pp, £12.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 245 54577 8
  • Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine by Angus Roxburgh
    Gollancz, 285 pp, £16.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 575 03734 2
  • Utopia in Power: A History of the USSR from 1917 to the Present by Michel Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich
    Hutchinson, 877 pp, £25.00, August 1987, ISBN 0 09 155620 1

Of the various words which Gorbachev has used to describe his reforms, there can be no doubt which has had the most impact. Though perestroika (‘reconstruction’) conveys the intended transformation of the system, it is a vague concept to which all subscribe in theory but whose practical implications few understand. Economic akseleratsiya and political demokratizatsiya remain worthy but as yet unrealised goals. But glasnost – the policy of openness, frankness, candid discussion – has already produced dramatic and highly controversial results, and has even entered the international political vocabulary.

Yet of all the developments in the USSR since Gorbachev’s election as General Secretary in March 1985, this was the least predicted – by Western commentators, by the Soviet public, probably by the political élite. When the Politburo chose its youngest member as its head, it must have been looking for dynamic leadership, a renewed drive against corruption and indiscipline, and the introduction of economic reforms. But there was no reason to expect this exemplary representative of the Party apparatus to initiate debate about key social, economic and cultural questions on a scale comparable with that of the Khrushchev period, and in some respects going even further. True, Gorbachev from the beginning stressed the importance of glasnost: but this was nothing new. Lenin used the term on numerous occasions, and thereafter it became a standard term. It even figures in the Soviet Constitution enacted under Brezhnev. During Gorbachev’s first year, as under Andropov, it amounted to little more than a willingness to criticise openly the mistakes, mainly in economic policy, of the Brezhnev leadership.

By the 27th Party Congress in February 1986, however, two things had become clear to Gorbachev and his supporters. First, that the economic problems which were, and remain, their most pressing concern had deep roots, social and political, ideological and cultural. Glasnost was now seen as essential if resistance was to be overcome and these problems solved. It would, in addition, have a quicker impact on people’s attitudes and behaviour than economic or political reforms. It takes less time to publish a critical article than to introduce a system of management. The shift in Gorbachev’s strategy is nowhere better reflected than in his recent writings and speeches, now made available to the English reader. Although the incisiveness and even the meaning of the original text is sometimes obscured by woodenly literal translation, the urgency of his call for radical change and his emphasis on glasnost as an essential means to this end are striking. ‘Openness, criticism and democracy are the driving forces of renovation,’ he told the 20th Komsomol Congress, ‘and their absence will again bring us back to stagnation.’

The Soviet media have thus been flooded with news and discussion of subjects previously only raised, if at all, in samizdat. Alcoholism, drug addiction, Aids, rising infant mortality, declining adult life expectancy, have been openly acknowledged. So have youth problems, with reports of teenage gangs, street battles, vigilantes attacking ‘alien elements’, even self-styled Nazi groups. The administration of justice has come under fire, with Literaturnaya Gazeta reporting ‘a torrent of complaints’ against the actions of the militia, the procuracy and the courts. In January, Pravda announced the dismissal of a KGB official for the unlawful arrest of a journalist who had uncovered corruption. Sentencing policy for criminal offences has been debated, with opponents of capital punishment citing cases of the death penalty being passed on innocent people. In discussions of economic reform, market forces have their advocates, as have co-operative (rather than collective) ownership, partial decollectivisation of agriculture, letting unprofitable firms go bankrupt, making the ruble convertible, establishing a stock market, and even allowing some unemployment.

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