‘Everything is rotten. It has to be changed’
Back in the summer holidays of 1990, not yet 13 years old, I sat down to write a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev. He was then still General Secretary and head of state, and beloved of Time and Newsweek, which came regularly to my school reading room.
I wrote about myself and my family, that we liked the movies shown at the Soviet Cultural Centre, that my brother attended the Botvinnik Chess Academy, that we read Progress Publishers books. A sheaf of pages in, I still hadn’t done what I had started out to — to thank the General Secretary for being a good man, for giving proof that the world could be a better place today than it was yesterday, for never looking like he wanted all the credit. I was not sure enough of myself to say what I felt. So I never sent the letter.
Foolish, childish, romantic? No, not very. In the newest issue of Foreign Policy journal there is a terrific essay titled “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong”. It is by Leon Aron, who works at an American conservative think tank. Aron points out that in the early 1980s, not long before the Soviet Union collapsed, nobody seriously expected it to. Economic indicators were not robust, but nor were they dangerously weak. Dissidents were quiet, geopolitics were relatively stable. The loosening of control in the USSR began, says Aron, not by popular demand but from the very top, from Gorbachev and his close colleagues.
“[T]hough economic betterment was their banner,” he writes, “Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be?”
He quotes Gorbachev’s prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov: “[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this — from top to bottom and from bottom to top.” He quotes the foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze: “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.” He quotes Gorbachev: democratisation is “not a slogan but the essence of perestroika“.
Ideas, Aron says, brought the Soviet state down, but only because openness from the top enabled openness at the bottom. The “merciless moral scrutiny” of their history by Soviet leaders and citizens “within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991” — 20 years ago this year.
That is to skip a step, however. Between opening and crumbling, as Aron says, was this popular realisation: “Enough! We cannot live like this any longer!” Not coincidentally, “Dignity before bread!” was a recent Tunisian protest slogan. Egyptians in Tahrir Square said they felt humiliated by Hosni Mubarak’s government. It’s not economics, says Aron, but people awakening to the idea of dignity that makes authoritarian governments weak.
I got into an argument about Anna Hazare with my father, who reads a lot of history. You never know, he said, his fast might trigger popular anger and appetite for rapid change. Rubbish, I said, this is small potatoes. But now, having read Leon Aron and remembered my own childish but intuitive reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev, I wonder.