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Russia March 25, 2005
 
Perestroika-20: The Great De-Build-ing
By Kirill Pankratov Browse author
 
 

The incongruous word in the article's title is a mangled answer to the old Russian joke "What's the English word for perestroika? Debuilding" (pronounced with the emphasis on the "debil" part). English grammar was incapable of coming up with its own word (the proper translation is "restructuring" or "rebuilding"). This was one of the first remarkable jokes about perestroika, appearing around 1986.

Political jokes-the art developed in Russia to a far higher degree than anywhere else-weren't aimed at perestroika right from the beginning. Initially it wasn't met with the usual sarcasm that Soviet populace greeted various perturbations of the Party Line and the political lineup. There was a great sigh of relief. Things started to return to sanity after many years of plodding idiocy and drunken stupor. At least at the very top there was somebody alive and able to move.

The old Brezhnev clique reached its dead end. Dead in the most literal sense-the burial ritual of the next vegetating Secretary General became a yearly event. Reagan's funeral last year was the closest thing resembling the hollow pomposity of the late Soviet era.

By the time Gorby ascended to power in 1985 it gave rise to a joke of its own. A well-known anchor of the main TV evening news program appears especially solemn and grave-looking, but then, from the first word, descends into uncontrollable chuckles: "You'd think I am kidding you, but Chernenko is gone too!" This reminds me of the current food fight over a certain organic object once known as Terry Schiavo on some hydroponics farm in Florida (why do so many stupid spectacles of American politics happen in Florida? Does it always have to be Bushism?). I see the same solemn-looking anchor declaring: "You'd think I am crazy, but they stuck feeding tubes into her again!"

The twentieth anniversary of perestroika brought much hand-wringing, vague and mostly silly reminiscences, as well as Gorby returning to TV screens after almost total oblivion. He doesn't seem to have changed much in the last twenty years. Perestroika started as a large-scale reform from above, but by early 1989 the government already lost control of events, and was trailing political developments, rather than leading them. The collapse by that time was already inevitable.

There are many conspiracy theories and plain gooey nonsense as to why perestroika happened and why it ended the way it did. One of the theories, accepted almost as evangelical truth by most of the Republican Right, was that Reagan defeated the Soviets with his "Star Wars" project and his overall military buildup.

This is plain nonsense. Had the Soviet government been really scared by Reagan's "Star Wars" fantasy, perestroika wouldn't have happened. When one feels oneself under siege, on the verge of assault by a powerful enemy, the most logical course of action would be completely different-to tighten the bolts, batten the hatches. This is precisely what happened during Andropov's short reign, from late 1982 to early 1984-toughness, tightening up, cranking up military production to the max. Andropov tried to whip the flabby Brezhnev legacy into shape-enhance the work discipline, reduce absenteeism and drunkenness and such. After a brief intermission of the last vestige of fossilized politburo gerontocracy-Chernenko-the first steps by Gorbachev, the youngest Politburo member when he came to power in March 1985, were mostly a continuation of the Andropov's line. There was his famous "anti-alcoholism campaign," his anti-corruption drive, the law against "unearned income"-a futile attempt to close the loopholes and shut down the black market economy, which was pretty much negated just a few months later, when "the law of cooperatives" was adopted and the first private enterprises were allowed.

The fact that a far more radical reform program was implemented so quickly shows that Gorby team wasn't scared of Reagan's "Star Wars." On the contrary, they were under the mistaken impression that there was no imminent threat from America and therefore they could afford a comprehensive, large-scale restructuring of the whole Soviet system, which was not in danger of collapse in the process. The idea that Gorby's Politburo was thinking, "Oh, no, they are going to put lasers into space and shoot down all our missiles! We better give up and declare the end of Communism" is beyond preposterous. This could only occur to somebody completely ignorant of how the Soviet system worked. Since the Washington plutocracy was never short on ignorance, this is not particularly surprising.

The Soviet Union in fact did exhaust itself in the arms race, but it had little to do with Reagan's "Crusade against the Evil Empire." Most of it happened before, in the 1970's. By the late 60's the USSR reached parity in most important categories of strategic weapons, which was more than enough for deterrence. It could have stopped there, concentrating instead on civilian economy and much needed reforms. But the inertia of the command economy and the ossification of the ruling gerontocracy had already gone too far. It was totally crazy, but the huge rusting machine continued to plod along, consuming itself in the process. It kept making 2,000 tanks just because last year it made 1,500 of them; twelve nuclear submarines just because it made ten last year, and so on.

When everybody started to chat about "Star Wars" and a new generation of weapons, there in fact appeared an opportunity to stop this madness, this stupid, exhausting tit-for-tat arms race. Gorby himself said it very clearly in 1987, atypical to his usual 3-hour verbosity: "Our response will be asymmetric." Had he follow through on this thought, and continued Andropov's line instead of radical reforms, the USSR could have gone on for another decade-completely contrary to what the Reaganites say.

Another theory about the perestroika origin is related to oil revenues: how the big drop in oil prices in the second half of the 80's (allegedly engineered by Saudis with US approval) was the main reason behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. This urban legend is quite appealing, in particular, to much of the current ruling clique, providing some justification of why many in the American elite, the Bush clan in particular, are ever so chummy with the Saudi rulers, despite their obvious links with terrorism and Islamic extremism.

This legend does not conform to facts. Indeed, there was a very sharp, short-term drop in prices in early 1986, and perhaps the Saudis did conspire with the Reagan regime to facilitate it. The prices soon rebounded-not to the high level of the early 80's, but to a quite comfortable level, above the average of the previous twenty years. Moreover, a shortfall in oil revenues was more than compensated by a large increase of natural gas exports to Western Europe around this time, as the newly built gas pipeline began pumping at near-full capacity. The Reagan administration tried to block its construction, unsuccessfully.

In any case, oil exports weren't crucial for the Soviet economy. When it was the most dynamic and fast-growing, in the 50's and 60's, oil and other mineral exports were miniscule. The development of the oil and gas industries in the 70's and 80's wasn't critical for the regime's existence, but they allowed it to maintain the pace of its military buildup, eventually suicidal regardless of all the petrodollars.

They used to say that cockroaches were the species most likely to survive an all-out nuclear war. We avoided a hot smoking Armageddon, but what eventually emerged as a ruling class of the only surviving superpower reminds me very much of this much adaptable species. I recall how in the last years of perestroika, in 1989-91, I participated in all the numerous anti-communist demonstrations in Moscow, all the election campaigns, and the exciting cauldron of the emerging political tusovka. With all the dramatic, momentous, bizarre and farcical events that followed, I never questioned my stand or the fall of the communist regime and the Soviet Union. Seeing the hordes of so many delusional idiots around Washington, thumping chests and proclaiming their "victory" ever since, it is tempting to give the whole affair a second thought.

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