Leon Aron: 20 Years after Glasnost

Roundup: Talking About History

[Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006."]

Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev initiated glasnost, it is clear that, like every fateful "tipping point" in human history, the change has furnished enough material for scholars to plumb for many years. It may be too early to appreciate what glasnost has contributed, its depth, its passions and, yes, even its significance. But we can try.
Glasnost, or openness, goes at least as far back as 1841, when Russia's first great liberal reformer, Count Mikhail Speransky, invoked this word among his recommendations for the "governing of Siberia" in an article published two years after his death.

What was this phenomenon -- entirely nonviolent but so deadly for the Soviet regime -- all about in 1987? Lines around the block for newspapers and magazines? People signing up on waiting lists in libraries for books and article reprints? The printouts and subscriptions to the most daring publications -- Moskovskiye Novosti, Ogonyok, Literaturnaya Gazeta, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Argumenty i Fakty -- doubling, quadrupling and doubling again? The country literally coming to a standstill as an estimated 70 percent of the adult population watched the Congress of People's Deputies sessions in June 1989, the first uncensored and public political debate in 72 years?

Yet glasnost was more than the exhilarating ability to read, write, tell and listen to the truth. It was an astounding act of the spiritual self-liberation of a great nation. It was also a merciless national introspection of astounding breadth and intensity, an attempt at the self-awareness, repentance and cleansing necessary to create a better, more honorable and moral individual and nation.

In slightly more than four years, glasnost forced the country to re-apprise some of the deepest, most fundamental aspects of its political and economic system, its relations between civil society and state, and its behavior in the world. It was, as poet Andrei Voznesensky wrote in 1987, not a cultural revolution but a revolution by culture.

What were the troubadours of glasnost seeking? What ideas moved them, what ideals inspired them?

First came the diagnosis: a deeply, perhaps mortally, wounded society in need of most urgent political, economic and, most important, spiritual regeneration. Mikhail Antonov, in an article published in the August 1987 issue of Oktyabr and titled "So What is Happening to Us?" wrote, "Today we must save the people -- not from external dangers, but most of all from itself, from the consequences of those demoralizing processes that kill the noblest human qualities."

Then came the realization that a morally healthy society is impossible without the truth about itself. To become suitable for the job of citizenship, Russians can no longer be poisoned by the moral cancer of Stalinism and the unacknowledged horrors it visited on society. They must be recognized in shame and remorse, shuddered and wailed over, forever and unequivocally condemned and, finally, expiated by the creation of a state and society that would never again allow the country to be ruled by repression and mass murder. Hence, the preoccupation with Stalinism during the first two years of glasnost, which quickly led to a much broader recovery of the country's real history. "We must understand how we have become nonfree," wrote Ogonyok in the winter of 1988....

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2007

Partial problem with the truth in Russia now, originated about 15 years, is that the number of lies
has grown exponentially, while the truth, though implicitly complex and contravercial, remains in solitary confinement.

James W Loewen - 12/4/2007

"A morally healthy society is impossible without the truth about itself." How true. For us, too. Surely that is the reason for good history!