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Analysis & Opinion
23.03.10 Perestroika Forgotten
Comment by Graham Stack

Twelve days ago, on March 11, this year’s most significant historical anniversary took place, but one wouldn’t have known it by looking at the papers. The 25th anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, which put an end to the Cold War, was met with deafening silence in the global media. The silence was all the more remarkable given the tumultuous celebrations of 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall last November. Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall, let alone the peaceful ending of the Cold War, were both utterly unimaginable in 1985.

Only the reform movement launched in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev upon his coming to power on March 11, 1985 made what had been unthinkable real, so observers of events in those years would often pinch themselves in disbelief, as, to quote Karl Marx, all that had seemed solid dissolved into the air.

The present-day silence about perestroika is also a night-and-day contrast to the mood in the West in those years. Perestroika was simply the global headline story in the second half of the 1980s, in a world defined by the Cold War. I remember picking up a copy of the Independent (it was, were you?) as a schoolboy and seeing the entire front page plastered with photos of Gorbachev giving yet another groundbreaking speech – and thinking that this was nothing very remarkable. The excitement in the West was explainable by one very simple thing: people lived in palpable fear of nuclear war. Even as a boy in Glasgow, the Cold War was eerily close: a (Welsh) history teacher used to taunt us that Glasgow, with the huge U.S. nuclear submarine base at Faslane that we would see when dinghy sailing on the Clyde, was the Soviet Union’s main nuclear target in Britain, and our math teacher during cadet corps lessons explained with creepy enthusiasm that if we didn’t learn to kill the “Russkis,” they would kill us.

Like waking from a nightmare, as soon as it was over the Cold War simply did not feel real any more. Not least because we saw that the Orwellian “evil empire” was in fact a motley band of unimpressive middle or low income countries, trying with little success to become like the West. And like most nightmares, we immediately forgot it.
Some say the forgetting of perestroika is a product of the West’s triumphalism, which claims that “victory” in the Cold War was due to the arms race bringing the Russian Bear to its knees, just as Nazi Germany was defeated by the forces of good from the West. Others say that perestroika is forgotten today because it was simply a project to save communism that luckily went wrong. Gorbachev, critics say, wanted to strengthen the Soviet Union in the Cold War, not to end the Cold War, let alone democratize, let alone dissolve the Eastern Bloc.

The latter is a travesty. While the collapse of the Soviet Union as a country, not as a system, was obviously a defeat for Gorbachev, right from the start he set his sights on ending the Cold War, improving human rights and democratization. In both projects he received mass support from the enormous Soviet middle-class of university-educated professionals, and increasing resistance from entrenched party cadres when they realized where he was going. In both aims Gorbachev showed himself to be the true representative of a new generation: as a 54-year old in 1986, compared to his octogenarian predecessors, he was the first Soviet leader not to have been socialized during the “revolutionary struggle,” but during the murderous brutality of Stalinism and the unimaginable sacrifice of the Second World War. Removing his people from the twin threats of mass terror and total war were his goals from the start, and these goals were shared by a majority of Soviet citizens.

Did it fail? Yes and no. Today the former Soviet Union, while not much richer, is far freer than it was then. A (slim) majority of the 15 former Soviet states are democracies, and three, the Baltic States, are EU members. While there is a chorus of fashionable pessimism about democracy in Russia today, in reality Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev’s Russia is more similar to De Gaulle’s France than anything in Russia’s past, with Medvedev now pursuing more democracy and justice after a phase of state-building under Putin. The second largest former Soviet republic, Ukraine, is a vibrant, if chaotic, democracy, with sights set on EU membership. Democracy has flared recently in countries as diverse as Georgia and Moldova.

There is widespread inequality, corruption, injustice and brutality across the former Soviet space. The root cause of all of these is the state collapse caused by the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. But as much as one may wish for an ideal world, there were only ever two realistic alternative scenarios for the Soviet Union, neither of which was preferable: one was the path taken by Yugoslavia of internecine strife (but on a far larger scale), and the other that was taken by North Korea of paranoid militarization - but a North Korea with lots (and lots) of rockets.

So, like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the silence surrounding the 25th anniversary of perestroika may count as indirect testimony to Gorbachev’s historical success: if we have forgotten the threat of nuclear war, it is thanks to him, and if we have forgotten the Soviet Union, after it slunk off to the garbage dump of history without much fuss, it is also largely thanks to him. But it would be a shame if we had to wait for Gorbachev’s death for his role in history to receive adequate appreciation.
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