What Gorbachev Gave To the Political Lexicon

You know it to be true: Mikhail Gorbachev's greatest contribution during his seven years at the helm was to the Russian language.


With all the attention focused on those two other words Gorbachev briefly parlayed into everyday usage, let us not forget that the bespeckled one's first buzzword -- uskoreniye ("an increasing of tempo") -- was far more important for the subsequent development of the Soviet Union and Russia.


Uskoreniye was always the most dangerous of the three words, fraught with the unthinkable consequences of adding speed when you don't know where you're going. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!


For all that, and unlike the two Gorbyisms that rose to the top of the charts in the West -- perestroika ("restructuring") and glasnost' ("openness") -- uskoreniye fit perfectly with the Party lingo, which preferred action-packed sounding phrases that were actually devoid of meaning, such as Aktivno deistvovat', ne teryat' vremeni ("Act actively, don't waste time").


Gorbachev launched his speed kick in April 1985, after being named general secretary of the Communist Party. Soon, the country echoed phrases like Uskorit' tempy razvitiya ekonomii ("To speed up the tempo of the development of the economy"), Uskoreniye tempov razvitii -- zabota obshchaya ("Speeding up the tempo of development is a common concern"), Uskoreniye vypolneniya reshenii 28ogo Syezda ("Speeding up the fulfillment of the decisions of the 28th Party Congress").


After that, things happened quickly. The Berlin Wall fell, followed by communism in general; the Soviet economy collapsed, followed by the U.S.S.R. itself. By then, the word uskoreniye had long since dropped out of usage, but that was only because the necessary tempo had long since been reached.


They're still speeding today. They sent tanks to Chechnya to speed up a solution to that conflict, and quickly declared victory to speed up extraction from the ensuing mess.


What about those other words?


Glasnost' began to fade out in 1991 and has almost disappeared from the halls of power in today's Russia, except the largely unread newspaper of the same name. Hardcore cynicism and stonewalling are in; openness is most definitely out.


Perestroika has suffered a similar fate. The last time it was used was in 1992, when the government of Yegor Gaidar realized that it would be easier to repaint the Kremlin hot magenta than to restructure local government. These days, perestroika has gone back to being an architectural term.


Gorbachev is lauded in the West for placing his perestroika and glasnost into non-Russian-language dictionaries, and evidently that's where those words belong.