*The New York Times Book Review
Even from afar, the transformation in the Soviet Union held a special fascination for all of us, and not only because it affected our destiny, our survival, even the changing nature of our own society. What happened there riveted our interest for a deeper reason: It was a modern enactment of one of the archetypal stories of human existence, that of the struggle from darkness to light, from poverty toward prosperity, from dictatorship toward democracy. It represented an affirmation of the relentless human struggle to break free from the bonds of hierarchy and dogma, to strive for a better life, for stronger, richer values. It was an affirmation of the human capacity for change, growth, renewal.
The New Russians is about how that story of change began and what this change meant for the Russian people—and for the rest of the world.
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AFTER THE WALL GAME DOWN
When I left Russia and the Russians in December 1974, after three years as Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, I thought that vast country and its people would never really change. As a people, they were so Russian, so different from people in the West.
Having lived since 1971 under the oppressive orthodoxy of Communist party leader Leonid Brezhnev, and having endured numerous personal scrapes with the chill and arrogance of Soviet officialdom, I had come to see authoritarian rule as something firmly embedded in Russian society and ingrained in the Russian psyche. A solid wall separated the rulers and the ruled. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had eased the raw despotism of Stalin, but he had left intact the granite citadel of power that was the self-perpetuating hierarchy of the Communist Party.
Five long centuries of absolutism—from Ivan the Terrible to the Soviet seventies—had left the Russian masses submissive. In their personal lives, I found them ingenious in beating the numbing inefficiency of the state economy. Their black market was so vast that it operated as a countereconomy, even to the extent of producing underground millionaires. But in the sphere of political action, grass-roots initiative was moribund.
In Russian history, tiny shoots of democracy had sprung up briefly from time to time, but none had taken root. Except for a handful of dissidents, most of the intellectuals I encountered in the seventies were politically passive: Fear had taught them to save cynical jokes for private company. Ordinary people might grumble about shortages or injustices, but they never took action. As I was told time and time again, Russians would choose stability over chaos, order over freedom.
The Chinese are known as a nation of traders and businessmen, but I learned firsthand that the Russians had little entrepreneurial know-how. Underground centers of illicit private enterprise were in the non-Russian republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, or in the more Western-oriented Baltic regions of Latvia or Lithuania. In places like Moscow or Leningrad, Jews or transplanted Georgians or Armenians showed more of a knack for commerce than most Russians did. The vast majority of Soviet people expected the state to take care of them—especially of their economic needs, however poorly—and to tell them what to do. For despite its revolutionary conceits, the Soviet Union was a profoundly conservative society. Most Russians were not driven by Western appetites for the new and trendy; they were held back by the dual weights of inertia and dogma.
I did know some intellectuals who were desperate for a bit of fresh air, some room to breathe, for a modest “thaw” such as the one initiated by Khrushchev in the late 1950s. But it seemed to me that even a modest reform would be long in coming. Like others who had lived among the Russians, sent children to their schools, studied their history and their institutions, come to know their ways and their mentality, I left Russia sixteen years ago thinking that fundamental change was impossible. And I wrote that in my book The Russians.
The decline and stagnation that sank into place for the next decade, into the mid-eighties, seemed to confirm this judgment. Soviet politics appeared as frozen as the Siberian tundra.
As it turned out, of course, I was wrong.
Never had I imagined that the Soviet Union would undergo the kind of seismic transformation that became apparent a couple of years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985.
In the name of reforms that would modernize, humanize, and ultimately save Soviet socialism, Gorbachev cracked open the wall between the rulers and the ruled and let loose massive popular discontent; he shook the very foundations of the system that Stalin had imposed from above. He provoked the Soviet people to begin taking their destinies in their own hands. He summoned a democratic spirit that aroused the slumbering giant of Russia and then swept across Eastern Europe, toppling Communist governments like a row of helpless toy soldiers—Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania. When these puppet governments looked to the Kremlin for protection, they got none. Gorbachev let the tidal wave roll on, until it swept over the Berlin Wall and carried the Iron Curtain out to sea.
He called this vast undertaking perestroika. But like any shrewd political leader who is improvising strategy as he goes along, Gorbachev has kept manipulating the definition of that word to suit his purposes. In his hands, it is a slogan for the general urge for reform, and also a label for whatever measures he chooses to implement. Sometimes, when Gorbachev is on the offensive, his perestroika rings with what he loves to call “revolutionary” change; it harbors gossamer promises of democracy, of private enterprise—and it smacks of heresy to the Soviet power establishment. At other times, when Gorbachev is on the defensive, the term has more limited, cautious connotations—of modernization, of readapting Soviet socialism without dismantling the system founded by Lenin. Then, Gorbachev uses the term perestroika in ways that include protection of the establishment.
In talking with Gorbachev’s colleagues and following his course closely, I have come to see Gorbachev not as a theorist with a pure vision of the future, but as a pragmatist, who pursues what works and is ready to junk what does not. Perestroika is a process, not a fixed and finite objective. Literally, it means “reconstruction” or “restructuring.” But on a deeper level, it is the Reformation. Think of Gorbachev, then, as a kind of Martin Luther, setting out to cleanse, purify, and renew a corrupt and failing Socialist Church, but instead forever changing its nature and its destiny.
Because, in fact, perestroika, in its essence, represents a sweeping and profound change, far more extensive than a specific program of reforms. It is the catalyst for a wholesale societal transformation, analogous to the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1854, or Bismarck’s forging of the modern German state in the nineteenth century. It has parallels with Kemal Atatürk’s disciplined drive to modernize the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and thrust Turkey into the twentieth century, and with Mahatma Gandhi’s sounding the death knell of British colonialism with his nonviolent campaign to free India from Imperial England. These were not passing trends that flashed brightly for a few years and then disappeared. They were major bend points in the path of history. So, too, is Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Initially, of course, many in the West were skeptical. For several years, people wondered: Was Gorbachev a Communist charlatan, a masterful media politician whose changes were cosmetic, but not cosmic, not real, whose “new thinking” was transitory, not fundamental? At first, both President Reagan and then President Bush were cautious, and careful not to embrace Gorbachev too hastily. But with the stunning collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe in the latter half of 1989, it became clear to almost everyone that the long, painful period of the Cold War was ending, and that the world was crossing an important historical divide.
Overnight, it seemed, the world order was transformed and our global agenda reshaped. The old structure based on East-West confrontation became obsolete. German reunification replaced the Cold War as the number one concern of the major powers. Subtly at first, but then very dramatically, the world was shifting from an era in which international affairs were driven by the arms race and the threat of a nuclear apocaplyse, to a new epoch in which the principal driving force of global affairs was economic competition.
In the American psyche, the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles was replaced by anxiety over the economic challenge from Japan and the fear that the United States could not compete well enough in the global marketplace. Gorbachev’s perestroika did not create these trends, but it accelerated them. It vaulted us all into a new era.
What was so striking about Gorbachev’s approach, when I finally had a chance to see it up close, was that he was daring to trust the people; and he was daring to disassemble the pyramid of power in the Soviet Union. His strategy represented a reversal of much of twentieth-century history, for this has been the century of totalitarian governments, epitomized by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Dictators, parties, ideological movements, have single-mindedly set about accumulating power, concentrating power—total power—in their own hands. Yet now, near the century’s end, both Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping in China have tried to head in the opposite direction. Each has attempted the controlled dispersal of power, but when those attempts got out of control, as they were bound to, Deng pulled back; Gorbachev has kept going.
Once Gorbachev lifted the threat that Soviet tanks would roll out to suppress the democratic spirit in Eastern Europe, the pent-up rage of masses of people who took to the streets shattered dictatorships and converted the Berlin Wall from the world’s ugliest barricade into a bandstand for the celebration of freedom.
In a less visible way, Gorbachev is responding to popular pressures at home. The sullen discontent and stubborn lethargy of millions of Soviet workers and a cynical, disenchanted Soviet intelligentsia have forced Gorbachev to embark on reform—to try to energize his people and revitalize his country. At each stage, when he has hesitated, popular pressures have impelled him forward. In his fifth year, for example, he was provoked to do what Khrushchev could not or would not do, and what he himself had hesitated to do—attack the Communist Party’s lock on power.
In December 1989, he admonished the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov for demanding a multiparty system, but within two months, after political uprisings in Lithuania and Azerbaijan that showed the Party’s loss of authority, Gorbachev reversed his course. He summoned the Party bosses in early February 1990 and told them that the Party would have to change or it would perish; that it would have to give up its constitutionally guaranteed monopoly on power and prove itself in the competition of a multiparty system. On the eve of that Party session, in the largest spontaneous gathering in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution, nearly two hundred thousand people massed outside the Kremlin to demand that the party apparatchiki yield to popular will. Perestroika had come full circle. Gorbachev was being propelled forward by the very forces he had unleashed.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hedrick Smith, a long-time journalist of Washington and foreign affairs, has articulated the pre and post Cold War story of Russia's people like nobody could. Smith goes beyond the political headlines and conveys dozens of individuals' stories and how they were impacted. Followers of Russian affairs are well aware of the historic strife in places like Nagorno-Karabakh, but Smith, after grazing over the elementary roots of the conflicts history, talks to teachers and business people, Christians and Muslims, young folks and old, and trumpets their stories, their hardship, their hopes and their fears. Smith's eloquent use of language only bolsters his Pulitizer Prize ability to tell consistently intriguing stories. This is unquestionably a recommended work that is an educational joy ride.