Robert C. Tucker, The Last Leninist NY Times Op-Ed page, 12-29-91
What can explain Mikhail Gorbachev's extraordinary confidence that he could repair the Soviet system: a system his six years of effort and exhortation left basically unchanged? Evidently, he lacked historical insight into the real nature of the system. To Mr. Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was a radically new form of society founded on a socialist choice the people had made by supporting Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks after they seized power in 1917. Actually, the Revolution was followed by a rebirth of imperial Russia even though the state called itself "Soviet" and "socialist”.
When Mr. Gorbachev took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, he knew the country was in serious trouble. Both he and Eduard Shevardnadze, who twice became his Foreign Minister, recalled an earlier conversation in which Mr. Gorbachev said, "We mustn't go on living like this," and Mr. Shevardnadze, agreeing, replied, "All is rotten through and through. They were alluding to the country's condition after Leonid Brezhnev's 18 year reign as a neo-Stalinist conservative. Mr. Brezhnev bequeathed a swollen state and a spent society. Economic and environmental conditions were worsening. The party state bureaucracy was sinking ever deeper into stagnation and corruption. And despite extensive indoctrination ,the people had lost every shred of belief in Communism's vision of a radiant future.
But the outside world was scarcely aware of this quiet crisis. The Soviet media helped see to that. And the small dissident movement, whose leader, Andrei Sakharov, languished in exile in the city of Gorky, was no match for the labor camps and psychiatric prisons.
Given all this, the regime could have continued as it was for many more years had Mr. Gorbachev been so inclined. "If I had not inwardly reached the conclusion that things had to be changed," Mr. Gorbachev said recently, "I would have worked and ruled as they did before me. Like Brezhnev. Ten years of living like an emperor, and what if the grass then stops growing?"
So he set out to be what Russian history had seen before: a reforming czar. He spelled out international "new thinking," which, when acted on, would bring startling arms reductions, the winding down of hostilities in Afghanistan, the liberation of Eastern Europe and an end to the cold war. Domestically, economic tinkering began, Mr. Sakharov was permitted to return to Moscow, the media and cultural life grew exciting, and the media proclaimed watchwords of the new era: perestroika, glasnost and democratization.
By perestroika, Mr. Gorbachev meant reforming the established power structure, especially the state-administered economy. He wanted to preserve, in renewed form, the one-party state Lenin founded. But the existing order proved stubbornly resistant to all but superficial reform. While forces from below in republic capitals and elsewhere took advantage of glasnost and democratization to begin a push for revolutionary changes, the old party state tried to carry on as before. It could not change its hidebound ways. It could only crumble and collapse, especially after the failure of the putsch that heads of key central structures launched in August in ·a last-ditch attempt to shore up their diminishing power. Even then Mr. Gorbachev persisted in appeals to preserve the union. He returned from Crimean house arrest with initial words of loyalty to the party even though some of its highest functionaries had supported the coup attempt. On Dec. 12, after learning that leaders of the three Slavic republics had decided to replace the Soviet state with a Commonwealth of Independent States, he lamented: "We are destroying a state when it needs to be reformed." And in his farewell address he decried "the policy ... of disuniting the state."
His faith in the unitary Soviet state's reformability went along with failure to see it as a revived Russian empire. The reversion to the Russian past began under Lenin, who hated czarism yet acted in ways destined to resuscitate it in another guise. He became the founder of a new dynasty based on ideology rather than blood line. Lenin1s forcible retention of as much as possible of the Russian Empire's multinational territories under centralized control meant the restoration of empire in a state named the Soviet Union. The nationalization of land and resources meant the re-blossoming of statism and traditional Russian bureaucratism.
The revival of earlier patterns proceeded swiftly under Stalin. Unlike Lenin, he saw much to admire in the Russian past and found models in two empire-building czars, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Stalin's violent collectivization of the peasantry restored the serfdom that a reforming Czar, Alexander II, had abolished in 1861. The total centralization of power meant that the proclaimed independent statehood of the republics was constitutional fiction. The ever-expanding world of forced-labor camps, revived in vastly magnified and worse form, the penal labor that existed under the czars. In the great terror of the 1930's, in which much of the old Communist Party perished, Stalin became an autocrat more absolute than any before him.