«People Got Ready to Move…»
No. 2 2005 April/June

“People got ready to move…” This phrase by Sergei Solovyov, a Russian historian of the 19th century describes the social, political and spiritual background of the historic changes in Russia at the end of the 17th century. He believed that the country had recognized the necessity of change and was living in anticipation of a reformist leader, a role finally taken on by Peter the Great. Solovyov was one of many Russian scholars to address the specifics of historical changes in Russia, but he was certainly the first to have had so much insight and shrewdness.

Ever since, there has been a continued debate on whether such a phenomenon as ‘reforms a la Russe’ exists and, if so, what makes it so unique? The discussion is centered on some penetrating questions: Do the reforms have an organic link with “the entire course of past development”? Where and how is the critical mass of factors compelling the authorities to launch dramatic changes formed? Why does it so happen that the most ardent proponents of change emerge among the “happy” members of society – the upper class, while the mass seems to prefer the passive role of sheep? How can one explain the unavoidable gap between the reformers’ projects and the results they gain, which are typically paid by huge sacrifices? In what cases do those changes, which have been initiated at the top, result in revolutions in the depths of society?

All attempts to provide mathematically precise answers to these questions inevitably fail. And yet it is possible to approach an understanding of the essence of ‘reforms in Russia.’ Solovyov probably offered the best approach – he attached special significance to the personality of the reform leader.

Although Solovyov acknowledged objective social laws, he indicated that the people’s willingness to ‘get moving’ does not necessarily guarantee a forward movement. “The people waited for someone. A chief commander,” Solovyov says. He maintains, however, that this is not enough. Changes can be successful only if they are steered by a great personality who has a profound understanding of the popular consciousness and an ability to curb the energy of the masses in certain situations, while heeding it at other times. The leader must also have a clear understanding of the final objective and skillfully manage the available resources. If handled by mediocre people, any reform can easily result in catastrophe.

‘A man at the helm of power’ is one of the most intriguing themes of russian history. How does this individual set into motion the highly diversified social organism and what forces does he himself obey? Why does fate protect one leader while grinding to pieces another? Where does the realm of rational and explicable factors end and the play of chance, be it devilish or simple luck, begin? Who has been the most unhappy – Russia with its rulers, or the rulers with Russia?

Marxists claim that when the need for a great personality exists in society, life immediately offers such a personality and makes him or her act according to what the objective laws of the situation dictate. This wonderful hypothesis has been proven many times in history, but does it always work?

Presently, as Russia is marking the 20th anniversary since the launch of perestroika, it seems a relevant time to consider this phenomenon.


The idea that the radical reforms of the 1980s were inescapable has become one of the indisputable truths of contemporary history. Internal and external conditions had allegedly ripened for them. The voguish clichй of the perestroika period that “there is no alternative for us” initially forwarded the irreversibility of change, but soon acquired a belligerent revolutionary character which overwhelmed even the moderates who usually take the time, at least, to look before leaping. A complicated combination of objective and subjective circumstances produced the sweeping conviction among Soviet intellectuals and politicians that reforming the established system was not possible in principle; it could only be dismantled and replaced by something new. This ideological triumph was achieved due to the potent and extremely destructive energy that arose from various corporate groups which possessed the crushing power of social aggression. Without going into the details of this problem, I will mention the Soviet intelligentsia’s naive and righteous ambition which gave birth to idealists and romantics with good intentions who later fell victim to post-perestroika. The demand for their lofty ideas about the nation’s future and for them personally was rather short-lived.

The only common denominator of the chaos of the minds in 1985 was the desire “to have a better life.” In the numerator, there was a whole range of powerful emotions. No one in the Soviet Union would have a problem explaining the meaning of a “better life.” Problems would appear, however, whenever the tools of reaching that goal were mentioned. The vast majority of Soviets never gave the idea much thought and would, by virtue of custom, delegate the right to fateful decisions to the authorities. Except for a meager part of the huge, multi-ethnic Soviet society, few people would think of seeking a “better life” beyond the borders of the Soviet Union or outside the socialist system. Civil initiative did not go farther than signaling to the upper echelons that life was dismal, while, at the same time, giving the government carte blanche for arranging the country’s wellbeing. Throughout Russian history, the people sent their prayers to the powers that be: “Please, think of something! You’re the government, aren’t you?”

The authorities heeded the call – with assistance from intellectual servants and pressure from nascent corporate groups who respectfully called themselves “the elite.” The aspirations of the majority and the plans of the almost indiscernible minority developed a dangerously huge difference of potentials. The tragic irony was that while the majority was still debating on what it really wanted, the minority had already realized the importance of action. Whose interests this activity should suit was a rhetorical question.

First, Russia was told that the previous seven decades of its history were just an unfortunate experiment of translating a Utopia into life. The argument was driven home to the people that the nation “could not live like that any more” and should strive for a capitalist paradise. But there would not be a place, of course, for everyone in this system, they said. Only those who pass successfully through the sieve of natural selection due to their viability, talent and inventiveness – that is, those who can prove that they are worthy members of society – will enjoy this paradise. Inequality, ostensibly inherent in the very nature of things, was actually proclaimed as the supreme law of existence and an embodiment of justice. Ideologists refrained from arguing in favor of humanism, morals or scruples – these values came to be regarded as the “rudiments of a primitive communal society.”

To the public’s great surprise, this all resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical, governmental, social, economic, and cultural system. That collapse opened the floodgates, sending mostly muddy waters raging in all directions, flooding the vast spaces of the entire Soviet Union. The slogan “Every man for himself,” borne out of the reality of life, did not catch unawares just a handful of people who had been smart enough to make arrangements in advance. They built comfortable life rafts which eventually turned into luxury yachts.

The role of international factors in this dramatic episode should be neither overstated nor underestimated. The Soviet Union’s isolation from the rest of the world had always been rather conventional. Glances to the West would give reason for pride, envy, and bitter thoughts. Common sense demanded that the Soviet Union drop its anti-Western nihilism; it would publicly reproach the West and then quietly copy from it. The louder the reprimand, the more willingly it would imitate the West. Comparisons evoked certain conclusions that eventually split the Soviet political and intellectual elite into two camps – the renovationists and radicals.

The renovationists believed that the so-called ‘socialism with a human face’ would be tantamount to a capitalism cleared of all inhumane traits. They did not see any obstacles to successfully fusing together the civilizational achievements of both systems. The problem was in determining which part would receive the emphasis, but compromise solutions seemed possible. In essence, the recipe for such a social change was an old one, which the adepts of the convergence theory had proposed back in the 1960s.

The radicals insisted on dismantling the socialist economic base and Communist political institutions, arguing that they were doomed. This group had the support of certain forces at home and abroad and already sensed victory and the spoils of war; hence, they rejected any compromise. Proponents of ‘shock therapies’ believed that the struggle between two versions of ‘the end of history’ – the Communist and the liberal ones – had been predestined to end in the victory of the latter.
The loss suffered by the socialist reformers at the hands of the triumphant capitalist revolutionaries, coupled with nationwide humiliation, resentment and hopelessness, led many to believe that there had been a “conspiracy against the Soviet Union” (and Russia). This was a natural reaction of a defeated people, who were dumbfounded by the “idiotic” and “unpredictable” finale. A loser reluctant to acknowledge his fault always tries to rationalize it through a search for external causes, as Max Weber would put it. But the validity of this statement does not remove the fact that a well-coordinated and intellectually supported tandem of international and domestic actors was performing the subtle, skillful and cynical work to eliminate “Carthage.”

As we look back today, it is much easier to prove that the downfall of the colossus Soviet Union was much more predetermined than accidental. A rather chaotic avalanche of events in the second half of the 1980s, which theoretically could have had any other continuation, easily fell into an unambiguous logical succession. The biggest question is whether that “irreversible” evolution took place in reality, or in our imperfect consciousness which is always prone to rationalizing past events. Had the Soviet Union survived in any form then, it would have been explained in a kind of deferred wisdom that “there was no alternative.”

Many historians have attempted to tackle this rather metaphysical question without any prospect of getting to the truth. Eric Hobsbaum, for example, came up with a cautious hypothesis (and this is the only possible status for a scenario that never came true) about the possible development of East-West competition from the 1960s through to the 1980s. The implication of his statements is that the struggle between the two systems, which had taken on a universal and Messianic dimension, permitted compromise in superficial factors only; in essence, it was a zero-sum game. This factor formed the backbone of the Cold War logic, which was fuelled by fear, mistrust and the tragic experiences of the past. The situation was further aggravated by the alternating successes of both sides, which inspired hope of a final victory for one of the adversaries and a feeling of revenge for the other. Revengefulness would sometimes manifest itself in nervous asymmetric counter-offensives. The outcome of the competition depended on complex world policies and situations, together with their numerous facets (regional, local, economic, military, technological, political, diplomatic, ideological and cultural).

Hobsbaum believes that the two “marathon runners” were getting exhausted by the beginning of the 1980s, as evidenced by crises on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Thus, the West decided to stake its all and won. But not because it was destined to win – the Kremlin elders failed to produce a sober, intellectual and well-designed response to that bluff. To continue Hobsbaum’s line of thought, the representatives of the Soviet officialdom – partly due to physiological reasons – could not devise a preventive analysis and offer alternative decisions.

This leads to the great question that becomes more and more relevant over time, namely: What did the West gain on the global scale and in the long term? Today, the answer to this question looks rather contentious, together with the conclusions about what exactly Russia lost.


Turning back to the pre-perestroika period and following Hobsbaum logic, let us suggest a hypothetical construct. Let us imagine that the Soviet Union did possess the necessary reserves for its survival as a geopolitical and civilizational entity. Who could have realized them and how? This could have been accomplished only through an order from the top. This is because revolutionary endeavors from below in Russia had always ended in destruction rather than in transformation.

Naturally, by the mid-1980s the situation in the country was rather complicated, especially in the economy. The social temperature reflecting popular discontent was growing. However, this unpleasant symptom of an illness did not testify to the presence of any revolutionary moods or a situation conducive to revolution. The nation continued to live the way it had for decades – without wars, hunger or social shocks. It enjoyed a range of social guarantees, and everyone had developed a habit of taking them for granted. People had faith in a good future and governmental paternalism. They did not bother to think what the benchmarks of popular happiness should be like.

The problems were not at all novel; the country had seen far worse times. Despite today’s desire to find signs of a revolutionary situation at that time, there is no doubt the people had a huge resource of patience. The intellectuals would talk amongst themselves in hushed whispers in the kitchens of their apartments and occasionally read prohibited books; artists would show their impertinence through meaningful hints; the youngsters would revolt by blaring rock music and embarrassing haircuts. The older generations and their children would rebuke each other, while a handful of human rights activists would protest before the cameras of foreign correspondents. The authorities did not let all those things out of the traditional bounds and even encouraged tiny doses of dissidence. They closed their eyes to the harmless sprees of the intellectuals and artists, but nipped in the bud the encroachment of basic values.

These were the manifestations of a sort of conventional norm of life, not the symptoms of an imminent death. Nor did the undeniable crisis in the Soviet economy and within Communist ideology necessarily mean fatality. In general, any crisis is part and parcel of the process of development and renovation, as well as a challenge to the human mentality and will. The inability to respond to a crisis ends in a disaster or revolution (as its variety), although both are elements of historical evolution.
In the race for survival, the West had more luck with subjective rather than objective circumstances. For instance, Western countries found the right people during moments of systemic crisis and foreign policy defaults that often looked fatal. They had a better knowledge of the nature of crises and, more importantly, they knew how to use to their best advantage the constructive factors of critical situations while neutralizing the destructive ones (graphic examples are lessons drawn from the Vietnam war, racial upheavals, student protests and the oil crisis of the 1970s).

As a result, the West emerged from the epoch of turmoil quite easily and showed its ability for self-renovation while avoiding catastrophe. Its occasional crises, however, played havoc on the Soviet Union. The Kremlin mistook wish for reality and made faulty conclusions from its analysis of the global processes. After making short-term gains on the market situation in the 1970s, the Communist leadership developed a belief that the country’s mineral wealth and stable social system would allow it to prosper; it would continue to make material and moral dividends on the grievances of other nations. Thus, instead of investing in the renovation of the economy, Moscow preferred to increase spending on foreign-policy expansionism, together with the extensive development of defense production, all the while waiting for the third (final) stage of the “general crisis of capitalism.” This is what triggered the crisis of socialism in the mid-1980s.

The crisis was reflected by the deaths of Soviet leaders, including three General Secretaries of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, who passed away almost one after another.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s appearance before the nation in 1985 looked like a good sign. Soviet society, tired from its uncertainty, gave a sigh of relief and seemed to say: “Well, here we are at last!” The relatively young and energetic General Secretary could speak to the people by literally looking them straight in the eye – he could manage without reading from prepared notes. For the first time in Soviet history, a Kremlin leader made public confessions, honestly admitted mistakes and promised ardently to correct them. The country was infected with his confidence and faith in success. He excelled in skillful imitations of decisiveness and charm, and there was not a trace of play-acting because he was driven by a genuine desire of fairness. Enjoying the sense of impending happiness, no one cared too much for the details of his plan of action. For quite some time this lack of knowledge was effectively substituted with general provisions of a “new political mentality.” Against the background of euphoria there was only a narrow circle of intellectuals muttering the skeptical “Let’s wait and see.” Nobody wanted to consider the Chernobyl tragedy, for example, as a token of disaster.

But in the second half of the 1980s, Soviet society began to grow restive as there was little sign of any concrete actions. Instead, the economy was declining, the disorder in the state administration machinery was ripening, and the struggle between reformist projects and group or personal interests was aggravating. As a result, the mass of spectators were beginning to turn into an active force. Radicals, conservatives and moderates, representing the entire spectrum of ideas, interests and social sentiments, began fighting for people’s minds, while the popularity of lofty social ideals plummeted. Those who aired them either had to retreat backstage or to ossify in pragmatic approaches and dealings with their own consciousness. The specter of a major partitioning of power, property and minds in the swing sections of the population was haunting the Soviet land. The embittered lower walks of life were losing faith and, not knowing whom to follow, became convenient objects for manipulation. Social destabilization lubricated ethnic conflicts – another highly explosive phenomenon which threatened the Soviet Union’s very existence.

By the end of the 1980s, a manageable crisis grew over into a structural disintegration. Different political forces, together with the variegated intellectuals they had recruited, increased their pressure and exploited the people’s feelings of disorientation, naivetй, illusion and fear. They did not care to consolidate ranks or draft a national ‘salvation army’ in the face of an approaching catastrophe. Instead, the frantic mobilization of all strata of society “for the last and most resolute fight” was launched. People were lured by totally implausible promises.

The banal truth of history is that the outcome of critical situations is predetermined to a great degree by the personality of the person in charge. Fortunately or unfortunately, the historic scope of this personality does not depend on his morals, virtues or the profoundness of Hamlet’s doubts – it rests on the toughness of his or her pragmatism, the demand for which increases as the situation grows more and more tense.

Another postulation by historian Solovyov comes to mind in this connection: when the chariot of reform is rushing downhill, the reins must be in firm hands, otherwise, a crash is imminent.

The Soviet perestroika did not have either firm hands or prophetic minds, not to mention a sense of immense historic responsibility. What it had in excess was predatory instincts underpinned by an ideology of selfishness. Also, there was the sophisticated smartness of the thieves and moral breakdown; a fanatic obsession with clinging to power and a readiness to make others shed blood for it.

As the 1980s were coming to a close, Gorbachev was already unable to close Pandora’s box. Instead, he was tossing about in search for those who would do something, but the August 1991 tragicomedy glaringly showed that such people were non-existent, or else there had been no real effort to find them.

Gorbachev had the last argument of a ruler – bloodshed, a thing especially dangerous for Russia. Gorbachev’s greatness was proven in 1991 when he saved his country from a civil war as a Man won a victory over a Politician inside himself – the same way as a Politician had won a victory over a Man inside himself in 1985 (although that latter victory was never finalized). One can bear a grudge against Gorbachev’s failure to become a great politician at the outset of perestroika, but he definitely deserves praise for his actions six years later when he had rejected a fame that almost certainly would have demanded an exorbitant price.

Meanwhile, right-wing radicals had no doubts about their actions, and that proved to be their trump card. They signed a pact with the young Soviet bourgeoisie in a resolve to go to the end and stop at nothing. Their credo “I need a lot and need it quickly” called for a new leader. It did not take long for this leader to emerge in the limelight. Unlike Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin was more temperamental and persistent in his worship of Power. Moreover, he was far less scrupulous. He was an ideal personality for implementing the historic tasks that our liberals and their Western patrons had set for themselves. Yeltsin became the country’s new idol – he provided clear answers to the questions “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” He symbolized a different project, and while the people were still gauging the essence of the situation, the mechanism of destroying Gorbachev’s socialist Union for the sake of Yeltsin’s capitalist Russia was already set in motion. The glittering summit of Power was worth any sacrifice, including the Soviet Union. Frankly speaking, the Soviet Union would have been saved had Gorbachev ceded power to his opponent. But expecting any sort of altruism from the disciples of the Soviet nomenklatura would mean not understanding the epoch and the milieu they were brought up in. 

The image of “a people that got ready to move” is not quite adequate if applied to the pre-perestroika period. As in many instances in history, the people did not intend to go anywhere. In any case, they did not intend to travel the particular path that had been imposed on them, especially the path that eventually led them to a crisis.
Rather, the people were waiting apprehensively, while the ones who really got moving were their preachers – political and spiritual – whose predestination or restless character traditionally keeps them searching – usually for whatever is the enemy of good. They are constantly ready to advise where to go and what for. The people and their preachers have ended up in different destinations, which on the whole are not bad, and even quite wonderful, for some of the preachers. The reform for everyone has nicely transformed into a reform for the select few. From the viewpoint of the law of the jungle as described by Kipling, all of us – the victors and the defeated, the cheaters and the cheated, the pacified and the rancorous – have what we deserve.

“Messiahs meet the demand of the times,” said a poet. Was the same not said about the leaders of the perestroika and post-perestroika? Did they rise to meet the demands of their time? If they did, what sort of time was it? If they did not, should they be blamed?

Marxist law says that the ruler’s personality corresponds to the moment in history that calls for him. If we accept this law, we have to admit that the time of heroes in history and politics is over, and the demand for great people has vanished.

Whether this will be a blessing or a tragedy for Russia in the future is not clear yet. Let us live until then and see.

*  *  *

Twenty years is not so great a period of time for drawing a bottom line under the events of a “big historic duration,” as Fernand Braudel would say. At this moment in Russia’s history, we know well what we have lost, but have a vague idea of what we have gained. At any rate, we can take comfort in thinking that things might have been still worse. Whatever the curses that Russians hurl at today’s reality, at least they evaded one of the possible scenarios that was much more ominous. The sort of future the year 1985 ushered in can be elucidated only by the future itself.