The Father of Perestroika

15. 3. 2017

At the end of December 1985, Alexander Yakovlev wrote on his own initiative a lengthy memorandum for Gorbachev containing some of the salient political and economic recommendations of what came to be known as perestroika.

Yakovlev was convinced that unless drastic measures were taken to reform it, his country faced major upheavals. These measures entailed, above all, a break with the Communist Party’s totalitarian power. “It was my profound belief,” he would write in 2003, “that, apart from civil war, there was only one way to prevent the crisis prior to the advent of its acute, perhaps bloody phase, and that was the path of an evolutionary break with totalitarianism—through the totalitarian party, by employing its principles of centralism and discipline and, at the same time, leaning on its critical-reformist wing.”

One of the reasons for his concern, although rarely mentioned, was the precipitous decline in world petroleum prices—petroleum being the Soviet Union’s main source of hard currency. In 1986, a year after Gorbachev had come to power, the price of a barrel of petroleum fell from $35, which it had fetched in 1980, to less than $10.

At the end of December 1985, Yakovlev wrote on his own initiative a lengthy memorandum for Gorbachev containing some of the salient political and economic recommendations of what came to be known as perestroika, or “restructuring.” Like everything he wrote, the memorandum is verbose and disorganized. Ideas tumble pell-mell in a stream of consciousness, important ones alongside subordinate ones. Lenin is frequently cited in support of the author’s arguments.

The whole memorandum could have been written in a fraction of the space. Yet the ideas they propound are most significant, for they outline the principal elements of perestroika.

Its main arguments are the following:

  • Soviet society is disaffected and sometimes looks to “bourgeois” countries for a solution of its problems.
  • The principal problems that the USSR faces derive from neglecting the individual citizen, who should be treated as master.
  • The country’s difficulties are embedded in political failures. The party should cede much of its power to the state: “The leading role of the party [should consist] not in substituting for the state and economic apparatuses but in constructive control.”
  • Elections should offer genuine choices by providing at a minimum two candidates.
  • Judicial institutions should become truly independent and protect human rights, including the right to property.
  • “There should be a law about human rights and their guarantees, a law about the inviolability of persons, property, and residence, about the privacy of correspondence, telephone conversation, private life […] the right to demonstrate, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement.”
  • The country should have an elected president, to be nominated from candidates presented by the two parties into which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should be divided—conservative and reformist— and serve for ten years. The state ought to be administered by an elected general secretary.

It was, indeed, a revolutionary document: nothing like it had been proposed by a high official since November 1917. Most radical was the recommendation that the Communist Party be split, giving Russia a two-party system. But Gorbachev’s reaction was curt and negative: he dismissed it as “premature.” The new General Secretary believed that what the regime needed was not radical reform but “acceleration,” a fresh impulse. It took him some two years to realize that the regime was incapable of changing and to take steps to implement some of Yakovlev’s recommendations—steps that ultimately led to the collapse of the regime and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yakovlev conceded that originally he too had a “romantic” view of the country’s predicament:

“At that time I believed in reforming socialism. It seemed to me that it was enough to remove from the machine of repression, resting on fear and renowned for its arbitrary decisions, accumulated filth; to cleanse, to remove the obvious absurdities, to move onto democratic rails, to create a parliamentary republic in which the Communist Party would, along with other parties, struggle for power, to attain the right to the diversity of economic activity, the triumph of law—and all would go well.

I began my activity in the higher echelon of power with a principally erroneous evaluation of the historical situation. I still had a genuine faith in the possibility of doing something rational in the framework of the socialist structure. For a long time I cherished the myth that His Excellency Common Sense would, in the end, gain the upper hand over mindlessness and foolishness, that all this evil derived from the folly and the greed of the nomenklatura. From this emerged the concept of the “renovation” of socialism.”

According to Yakovlev, the critical moment leading to a revaluation of his thinking occurred on January 27–28, 1987, when at the Plenum of the Central Committee Gorbachev proposed that political posts be made elective, a proposal the nomenklatura rejected out of hand, knowing it would not be reelected. As Yakovlev told a Western historian: “That was when it became clear to me that the system could not be reformed. It had to be broken […]. At first I thought we could achieve what we wanted to achieve by eliminating the stupidities associated with the Brezhnev version of socialism and allowing people to display some initiative. But it turned out that the system would not permit this. The system is based on fear and the absence of individual responsibility. Any attempt by an individual to use his initiative was bound to shake the system to its foundations.”

Richard Pipes

Baird Professor Emeritus of History at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous publications, including Communism. A History and the Russian Revolution.

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