20 Years After a Revolution by Culture

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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.

With inevitable overlaps and intermingling, glasnost went through three distinctive phases. Each of them could be labeled with one of the "cursed" question of Russian literature: Who are we? (from 1987 to 1989); Who is to blame? (from 1989 to 1990) and What is to be done? (from 1990 to 1991). The first two quests have brought about devastating revelations about the country's present and the past: its enormous inequities, unimaginable waste of human and natural resources and its daily indignities -- all increasingly traced to the core attributes of totalitarian socialism.

It is at this stage that the key legitimizing, founding myths of the Soviet state were overwhelmed by facts and meditations so lethal that in the end they left behind only empty, burnt-out shells. The last phase contained the discovery and passionate advocacy of political and economic conditions for a more dignified and prosperous life: personal liberty, private property, human and political rights, democracy, a limited state subjugated to civil society, de-militarization of state, economy and society and the end of an imperial and messianic foreign policy.

Yet, in the end, the most fascinating and daring component of glasnost, the leitmotif that shone through most of its finest oeuvre, was an effort at what might be called re-moralization of the nation. Years later, the man who was perhaps most responsible for implementing glasnost, Alexander Yakovlev, called it "an attempt to end the immorality of the regime." Of course, at the time the glasnost authors could not rise to this level of self-awareness and generalization, but that is in essence what they tried to accomplish.

The restoration of a moral man was recognized as the first -- and most important -- step toward creating a citizen out of the Homo Sovieticus -- a term of contempt invented by glasnost to denote a "serf" who bore no responsibility for himself or the country, a scared conformist and shoddy executor of his master's orders. "We must understand, finally, that only the person who is incapable of being a police informer, of betraying and of lying, no matter in whose or what name, can save us from [the re-emergence] of a totalitarian state," Ogonyok wrote in February 1989.

What the glasnost pamphleteers called the "tragedy" and "catastrophe" of Soviet history were increasingly deduced from the destruction of the sovereign, dignified and, most of all, free individual -- the sole and sovereign owner of his choices and his property, even if this consists solely of one's two working hands, as one of glasnost's finest essayists, Vasily Selyunin, put it. Within a few short years, the radical intelligentsia established and powerfully publicized the connection between liberty and virtue by tracing human dignity to its ultimate foundation in freedom, both political and economic.

Thus the recovery of political and economic liberty became more than just a political condition of national revival. It was found to be a sine qua non of the creation of this moral man from the detritus of a Stalinist state. "The regeneration of the [Soviet] society is possible only on a [new] moral foundation," Andrei Sakharov said in 1989. "There have been tragic deformation of our people because of the terror and the many years of living in lies and hypocrisy. But I believe that morality is always alive in people ... We are talking not so much of a renaissance, but about a moral force that is present in every generation, that is capable of growth and that must be given a chance to develop."

It was the urgency of this task and the call for national awakening needed for its completion that more than any other impulse seemed to inform the spiritual and intellectual revolution -- and inspired and shaped the political one as well.

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