Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Research Paper on Gorbachev

The Gorbachev Phenomenon by Moshe Lewin

Within the scope of his book, Moshe Levin presents his views about Gorbachev’s era, Gorbachev as a personality and his influence on the development of domestic and foreign policies in the USSR. The primary sources used for this book by the author include first hand accounts and historical documents as well as numerous documentary materials. The purpose of the book seems to be quite dubious in nature: the author both wants to portray an individual personality and to present his views about Soviet society at large.

There are differing interpretations of Gorbachev’s original objectives. Lewin, in his work “The Gorbachev Phenomenon”, sees him as pragmatic reformer learning as he went along; the author believes that even when he was in office, Gorbachev’s motives were subject to differing interpretations in the West. (Lewin, M, 1998) In 1985-86 he was regarded with some suspicion, as a technocrat who had changed the style but not the substance of the Soviet system. If confirmation of his `New Thinking’ in foreign policy were needed, it came with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. (Lewin, M, 1998)


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According to Lewin, Gorbachev was not a typical Soviet leader. (Lewin, M, 1998) He was young (55 on coming to power when the average age of Politburo members was 70), was not part of the generation which fought in the Second World War, and had visited the West on informal trips in the 1970s, marveling at the higher living standards and relaxed attitudes he encountered. He considered himself a `man of the sixties’, favorably influenced by the 1968 Prague Spring, whose pioneering reforms have been seen as the progenitor of his own. Gorbachev feared that radical political reforms in the beginning would unnerve the communist old guard and, like Khrushchev before him (1964), force his removal.

What is beyond dispute, Lewin contends, is that when Gorbachev came to power change was necessary to save the system even if, in the end, his reforms sowed the seeds of its destruction. (Lewin, M, 1998) The rate of economic growth had fallen to zero, corruption was endemic with the black economy growing, worker productivity was falling, the neglected services sector contributed to a shortage of consumer goods and falling living standards, the social infrastructure was decaying and technological backwardness widened the performance gap with the West. The Soviet bloc as a whole suffered from these problems to a lesser or greater extent.

Gorbachev’s solution, perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness), the main planks of his reforms, unlocked a Pandora’s box. Lewin has suggested that `a different approach by Gorbachev himself could have had significantly different results’. (Lewin, M, 1998) In retrospect, he would have been wiser to have followed the Chinese model of liberating the economy while keeping a tight grip on political change. Instead, the two types of reform got out of kilter: while the economy floundered, political reform took on a life of its own and became unstoppable. Gorbachev soon faced calls for true democracy and religious freedom, while his lessening grip impelled natiolist movements into life. He explains the combination of economic reform and democratisation as rendered necessary by the need to appeal over the heads of the resistant socialist bureaucracy to the population at large.

Glasnost, with its emphasis on the political dimension, “involved allowing criticisms of past and present governments and came to mean a freer press, multi-candidate elections and a commitment to world peace.” (Lewin, M, 1998) Perestroika embraced the reform of the economy, including efforts to stamp out corruption at the management level, more stringent labor discipline, a greater role for the market and more consumer goods. The grandiose goal was the doubling of output by the year 2000, with the emphasis moved from the quantity to the quality and diversity of goods. (Lewin, M, 1998) Humanizing the political system and delivering higher living standards were key objectives.

What seems clear is that, despite Gorbachev’s attempts to prescribe a retrospective rationale to them, there was no overall strategy surrounding the reforms. The fact was there was no road map to follow. There was also the need to deceive the conservatives lest they depose Gorbachev before his agenda took firm enough root. He thus began cautiously: a slogan, `Acceleration’, to revitalise the economy; all anti-alcohol campaign intended to improve worker productivity; new superstructures, like Agroprom, to inject life into the command economy’s over-bureaucratic system.

Lewin believes that more significant reforms only began in 1987 after the early initiatives were deemed to have failed. (Lewin, M, 1998) The anti-vodka campaign, for example, proved a disaster: it served only to fuel the black economy which produced illicit liquor to meet demand and led to Gorbachev being derided as `Lemonade Joe’ and `the Mineral Water Secretary.’ Tile campaign, however, was only abandoned in 1990. Nor were consumer goods becoming more available. In fact they became scarcer and queues at shops lengthened.

In 1987 Gorbachev embarked on a series of visits to the capitals of the outer empire to try to persuade other communist leaders that his path was the right one. In his memoirs he explains the tolerance of change in the Soviet bloc in terms of conforming to overall policy objectives: since he was trying to reform his own country, he could hardly object to changes elsewhere. Gorbachev met with a mixed reception, enjoying most success in Poland and Hungary, already well on the reformist road since 1968 and the New Economic Mechanism, lip service from Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, and the least accommodation from hardline East Germany and Romania. Gorbachev described East Germany as akin to an `overheated boiler with the lid tightly closed’. (Lewin, M, 1998) At the heart of the Cold War confrontation, the Berlin Wall alone served to keep the restless east German population separated from the envied Federal Republic of Germany.

A combination of reasons ultimately persuaded the Soviet leadership to allow Eastern Europe to break free. They included: the enormous economic cost revolved in continuing to sustain unpopular regimes; the impossibility of competing with the United States in a renewed arms race which now included `Star Wars’ technology unavailable to the Soviets; and the need to attract Western investment and high-tech equipment. For decades the strategic imperative of dominating Eastern Europe, with its corollary of sustaining undemocratic communist regimes in power, had persuaded the USSR to make available its vast natural resources (especially oil) at knock-down prices and to accept substandard manufactured goods from their ramshackle command economies. Previous attempts by East European countries to break free had been ruthlessly crushed by military means. (Lewin, M, 1998) The stationing of Soviet forces in strategic parts of the bloc served as a visible reminder of what happened to malcontents.

In foreign policy, Gorbachev can be seen as revolutionary. His capacity to spring surprises became legendary. At the November 1985 superpower summit in Geneva he staged an impromptu press conference. In May 1986 he delivered a secret speech to the staff of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which he criticised the prevailing foreign policy doctrine of viewing Europe `through the prism of its relations with the United States of America’. (Lewin, M, 1998) Gorbachev established warm relations with western European leaders -- Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl -- and talked of `a common European home’. His genial relationship with President Reagan also bore fruit in arms reduction treaties. In short, the old Cold War confrontation gave way to a new detente.

According to Lewin, underlying all the reform initiatives was the continuing and worsening internal economic crisis in the USSR. The falling world price of oil and gas did not help matters, and western leaders correctly perceived that Gorbachev’s radical proposals for arms reductions largely stemmed from his economic difficulties. While Eisenhower had spoken of a `military-industrial complex’ in the United States, this was even more true of the USSR, where the lion’s share of resources was devoted to defense purposes. (Lewin, M, 1998)

Gorbachev was convinced that disarmament would free enormous resources which could then be devoted to the civilian economy to provide consumer goods. Yet in the short term this proved impossible. The war in Afghanistan (the USSR’s `Vietnam’) continued until a belated pullout (completed in early 1989) and the nuclear confrontation with the West never reached a `zero option’ stage. (Lewin, M, 1998) Rising consumer prices -- as subsidies were cut and hidden inflation emerged -- together with growing shortages of basic commodities reflected the continued imbalance in resource allocation, deepening the growing unpopularity of the regime.

“In many ways, Gorbachev became the victim of his own reforms as they spiraled out of control.” (Lewin, M, 1998) What had held Soviet communism together for so long was its portrayal of the West as the decadent enemy and the crushing of internal dissent. Under Gorbachev, these two main pillars of the system crumbled away. Friendship with the West blossomed, increasing the receptiveness to western culture (stopping the jamming of western radio broadcasts helped) and its affluent lifestyles. The positive welcoming of debate at home with no punitive consequences marked a fundamental break with the past. Sooner or later the edifice was doomed to collapse.

Gorbachev’s reforms failed lamentably in their objective of saving communism and instead brought an eastern version of freedom and democracy, pallid imitations of the western variant. Today’s Russia has been equated with the gangster era of Al Capone. His fall from grace sprang from a variety of sources, including the detested anti-vodka campaign, his attempted suppression of nationalism in the Baltic (when many died horribly from poison gas or the use of sapper shovels) and Kazakhstan, and especially his refusal to expose himself to a popular mandate for the new presidency in March 1990, relying instead (on the communist-dominated Congress of People’s Deputies to secure his position, thereby making a mockery of his alleged, support for democracy No doubt he will continue to generate controversy and debate for years to come.
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