It is hard to think of any other volume that provides as much information and insight into the nature of the Soviet system and its collapse as this book. Focusing on glasnost, (the opening up of public discourse by Mikhail Gorbachev about the failings and past history of the Soviet Union), Leon Aron presents a richly documented and riveting portrait of every aspect of the Soviet system based exclusively on Soviet-Russian sources, most of them probably unfamiliar even to American experts on Soviet affairs who read Russian. (Listing the source materials takes 159 pages.) There is certainly no comparable Western study of glasnost, let alone one that makes so clear why the Soviet system was profoundly flawed and strikingly different from its legitimating myths, some of them swallowed by Western public opinion and numerous Western intellectuals.
The main thrust of the volume is to show why the Soviet system unexpectedly collapsed and the part played by ideas in the collapse and especially by the growing public thirst for moral rejuvenation expressed both by ordinary people and members of the intelligentsia. A central argument of the book is — unlike the assessment of many Western commentators — the collapse was not primarily a result of economic malfunctioning and mismanagement (though both played a part) but of a widespread and deepening moral rejection and crisis (“the disintegration of souls”) that became increasingly apparent as glasnost unfolded.
Mr. Aron agrees with Isaiah Berlin that “great movements [for change] begin with ideas in peoples’ heads [with] beliefs about how life should be led.” He emphasizes (like Berlin) that people’s perceptions of their situation is often a more important determinant of their attitudes and actions than the so-called “objective factors.” Mr. Aron rightly argues that “the ‘objective’ deterioration of Soviet economy became relevant only after and because of a fundamental shift in the ways in which regime’s performance was perceived and the criteria by which it was evaluated.”
Glasnost was inseparable from the collapse of the credibility of the official ideology and the intensified public awareness of the enormous gulf between theory and practice, official propaganda and daily realities. Being lied to endlessly and tirelessly by the authorities led, somewhat unexpectedly, to a new, impassioned search for dignity and truth. It is noteworthy that the major response to the massive official misrepresentations of reality and cradle-to-grave indoctrination was a reawakened and insistent commitment to truth-telling rather than a cynical moral relativism or a postmodernist sensibility similar to that which has prevailed in Western intellectual circles in the past few decades.
The moral devastation inflicted by the Soviet systems is illuminated by the concept of “de-individualization” defined by a Soviet social psychologist “as a ‘hypertrophied sense of one’s powerlessness’ and ‘social apathy.’” As the author explains it, “the most obvious cause of ‘de-individualization was thought to be the daily indignities of Soviet life. The daily struggle for their ‘elementary biological needs.’” He further designates the two root causes of de-individualization as “the relentless expansion of the state’s control over society” and the official doctrine that “there were no ‘eternal ethical principles,’ no ‘universal morality.’”
Responding to the moral devastation the Soviet system left behind, members of the intelligentsia the author calls “the troubadours of glasnost” sought a thoroughgoing moral revolution. They “contemplated no less than ‘a new vision of the world,’ motivated by an ‘uncompromising selfless search for truth.’” Mr. Aron emphasizes that “preceding and inspiring the radical reforms was a powerful quest for self-knowledge, dignity and moral renewal. The revelation of appalling moral failings in the regimes’s past led to the questioning and then rejection of some of the key legitimizing myths and public values.” These myths included the claim (often swallowed by Western observers) that the system excelled in providing food, housing, medical care, stability, security, and equality and collective pride. In three separate chapters, the author closely examines and demolishes these claims.
This exceptionally enlightening and well-written book raises an important and puzzling question regarding the circumstances that account for the seamless transition from the idealistic era of glasnost to the rise of Vladimir Putin and the new authoritarianism it has entailed. Readers may wonder why and how the gains of glasnost came to be wiped out so rapidly and replaced by another fraudulent and corrupt system seemingly supported by a majority of Russians, given the far-reaching and comprehensive nature of glasnost and the apparent determination of so many citizens to create an open, democratic and honest society. While it was not the objective of this study to answer this question, in the epilogue, Mr. Aron offers some answers.
In the first place, “no great revolution has ever fully lived up to the ideals on its banners and Russia’s was hardly the first revolution to be followed by restoration.” Moreover, “if Russia’s regress has been among the severest, it is because it had so much more to overcome.” He further argues that “imperial nostalgia” alongside “the moral devastation” left behind help to explain “the Putin restoration.” But “the most powerful cause” of these developments, he believes, has been “the still largely unexpurgated and unatoned national sins of Stalinism,” the absence of repentance preventing “moral rebirth.”
It’s sad to say the commitment to moral rebirth evident during the years of glasnost failed to prevent the rise of Mr. Putin and all that he stands for. One hopes in his next study, Mr. Aron will shed further light on these matters, including the contradictory cultural and political currents of Russian life, as well as the prospects for the full realization of the values of glasnost he so eloquently and informatively documents in this volume.
Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. His books include “Political Will and Personal Belief: The Decline and Fall of Soviet Communism” (Yale University Press, 1999).