Sanford S. Elberg Lecture: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Alexander Yakovlev:
The Future of Democracy in Russia: The Lessons of Perestroika and the Question of the Communist Party; Elberg Lecture in International Studies, 2/22/93

See the biographical sketch of Alexander Yakovlev.

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What was Perestroika?

Thank you very much for coming to my address. First of all, I would like to express my great gratitude for the invitation to deliver this lecture. I am not sure about my English since I don't use it every day. I ask my friend Nikolai Kosolapov to help me because I think that what I want to express would be more exact if expressed in Russian. Therefore, I would like to ask for your patience.

I'm going to speak on the lessons of perestroika the way I see them. First of all, should we really ask ourselves this question? There is no longer the country in which perestroika was started. There is no longer the political system which perestroika was about to transform. There are no social forces which would make it the goal to revive the policy of perestroika. What would they have to restructure today? Of course perestroika remains, and will remain for a long time, a source of interest for all those who are interested in history or in scientific investigation. Yet, the lessons of perestroika are not so much of an analysis as they are some sort of practical conclusions, so to whom will we make those conclusions and with respect to what? In order to answer this question we have to recollect what perestroika was and what it has become. What it was subjectively, in the ideas and intentions of those who originated it, and what it has become as a certain set of results.

What was perestroika? Several answers are commonly given in my country these days. One answer is that perestroika was a conspiracy organized by the CIA, and by the West in general, a conspiracy which aimed at military/political subversion of the USSR and of communism in general. A conspiracy with very active participation by world Zionism and a conspiracy which was 100 percent successful. Going somewhat ahead of what I am about to say, I should mention that this sort of explanation stems from understanding the world as being bipolar with respect to the past, but this approach also projects this bipolar vision of the world into the future. The rightist leaders back in my country state openly that they are about to take revenge by force for what has happened, and it is going to be a revenge both within the country and outside of it.

The second answer is that perestroika was a betrayal, a betrayal either intended as such from the very beginning and quite conscious, or a betrayal that just happened to occur, the result of the course of events, a betrayal with respect to one's country, to one's class, and to one's people. But it is a betrayal which is understood not as much from the historical point of view, from the point of view of relations between the two systems, as from the social/economic point of view -- a betrayal towards one's system, the system that existed in the country.

The third explanation of perestroika is that it was a stupidity, probably caused by good intentions, which resulted in an absolute lack of responsibility. Those who adhere to this explanation would state that the "perestroika people" did not know the real situation that existed in the country; they were unable to find those factors and those mechanisms that drive real life in the country, and their short-sightedness resulted in political reckless driving.

Still another explanation is that perestroika was a beginning of historical significance, definitely noble in its goals, courses, and extensions, but that the true significance, true scope, and true consequences of perestroika will become clear only a long time from now. Therefore one should not hurry to suggest various affiliations and various marks which are to be assigned not by contemporaries but by history.

And to make this picture complete, I would like to mention still another response which is probably the most broadly shared in the country these days. This is to refrain from any kind of evaluation of perestroika whatsoever, and as a matter of fact, to keep one's mouth shut with respect to this phenomenon of reformation in the country. What is interesting in this case is that perestroika is written off into the past together with communism. Any kind of evaluation satisfies this response, whether perestroika was an uprising of noble intentions or whether it was just a betrayal or something similar. What is important to those who share this position is that perestroika took place and originated within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, hence, it has to be thrown out together with communism. What one senses here is some sort of latent nostalgia for the all-sweeping revolution instead of a reformation movement. What has been established by this kind of approach is a new brand of lack of historical memory in the nation. This has been done either by people who call themselves democratic or by those people who, under the slogans of anti-perestroika, are trying to solve an eternal question of personal power.

Next page: The End of Communism and the Emergence of Democracy

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