The Rise of Gorbachevism

December 27, 1990

When Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power less than six years ago, he believed a little tinkering would be enough to resuscitate the crumbling Soviet system. What was needed was uskorenie (acceleration), he declared. That slogan soon was abandoned in favor of perestroika (restructuring), when it became clear the collapsing communist state needed a more thorough overhaul.

As Mr. Gorbachev now assumes extraordinarily broad executive powers, yet another phase is beginning. The radical reform of the past years seems likely to be replaced by Gorbachevism, a centralized regime tightly controlled by a collective of communist disciplinarians under the president's chairmanship. The designation of an ethnic Russian as the new vice president underscores how the Kremlin is renewing its claim to the Russian empire, which has been disintegrating.

Gennady Yanayev, the new vice-president designate, said as much after his nomination by Mr. Gorbachev: "My main fight will be against a political bacchanalia and vandalism -- but by using democratic means, not by repression." Equally important was another of Mr. Yanayev's declarations: "I am a convinced communist to the depths of my soul," he said. For anyone needing a translation, here is what the new vice president meant -- the time of political pluralism is over. Where no legal basis exists for curtailing dissent, bullying will be used.

How do we know this? Because KGB Chief Vladimir A. Kryuchkov has dutifully detailed in recent weeks the philosophy of the hardline disciplinarians. In a recent Izvestia interview, for example, he was asked how he would go about closing "destructive" newspapers, if those papers had violated no laws. "Laws cannot think of everything," he answered and went on to explain that besides laws, civic norms based on "patriotically and ethically correct upbringing" should determine what is permissible.

It would be tragic if the pluralism of recent times comes to such an end, with an arbitrary system of civic norms overriding the newly promulgated reformist laws. It would mean that the Soviet Union has squandered an opportunity to modernize itself. Such an outcome would be particularly disappointing to the millions of people who have been rooting for Soviet reformers to succeed in their efforts to democratize this long-suffering country.

The fight is not over. Still, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation last week looks more and more like the exit of a man who did not want to lend legitimacy to a retreat from reform -- a retreat he felt was sure to come.

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