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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebuilding and Renovating Perestroika

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???????????: perestroika

You may have been seeing a number of articles on ??????????? 20 ??? ?????? (Perestroika 20 Years Later) in the news lately. What caught my eye was the various definitions of perestroika in Western periodicals. One defines it as "a series of reforms in the Soviet Union that led to the fall of communism"; another calls it "fundamental economic reform." Since perestroika is now part of the English language, it's in our dictionaries -- but also defined variously: "the political, social and economic changes that happened in the U.S.S.R. during the late 1980s"; "the restructuring of the Soviet economy and bureaucracy that began in the mid-1980s"; "an economic policy adopted in the former Soviet Union; intended to increase automation and labor efficiency, it led eventually to the end of central planning in the Russian economy."

Gosh, folks, we don't seem to have a consensus here. In Russian, the word comes from the verb ??????????? (to rebuild, renovate, restructure) and can be used in a variety of contexts, from the construction industry (??????????? ??????? -- renovation of apartments) to managerial processes (????? ??????????????? ??????????? ????? ???? ????????? ??????? -- any organizational restructuring has a down side.)

That's easy. But when you get to Russian dictionary and scholarly definitions of perestroika in the 1980s, you discover that even here, barely a generation after the events took place, no one seems to agree on what the heck it was. One source states: ?????????-???????????? ????????? ?????????????? ????????-????????????????, ??????????????????? ?????????? ??????? ???? ? ????? ???????? ? ???????????????? ?????????? ? ???????? ?????????. (A theoretical and political program to reform the administrative, bureaucratized social system of the U.S.S.R. and intended to facilitate a move to democratic socialism and a market economy.)

Another states: ???????? ??????????? ???? ? ????, ??????????????? ? 1980-? ?????????? ?.?. ? ????? ???????? ?????? ? ???????????? ? ????????????????? ??????????, ??????????? ??????? ?????????, ????????, ????????? ??????? ?????????. (The policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and U.S.S.R., declared in the 1980s by M.S. Gorbachev, intended to bring the country in line with universal human values and significantly improve the economy, culture and living standards of the population.)

And a third writes: ???? ????????????? ??????????? ? ????? ??? ??????? ? ????? ?????? ... ?? ????? ???????? ??? ?????????????? ??????? ????? ???????? -- ?????????????? ? ??????????????. (If you look at perestroika as a whole, as a breaking point in the country's development ... then you can cite two main functions of that break: destructive and constructive.)

Hmm. The definition of perestroika seems to be in the eye of the beholder. How about in the eye of the initiator, Mikhail Gorbachev? To quote the English translation of his 1987 book, "Perestroika": Perestroika means overcoming the stagnation process. ... Perestroika means mass initiative. ... Perestroika is the all-round intensification of the Soviet economy. ... Perestroika means a resolute shift to scientific methods. ... Perestroika means priority development of the social sphere aimed at ever better satisfaction of the Soviet people's requirements for good living and working conditions. ... Perestroika means the consistent implementation of the principles of social justice. The essence of perestroika lies in the fact that it unites socialism with democracy and revives the Leninist concept of socialist construction both in theory and in practice.

That "Leninist concept" is a bit of a surprise, isn't it? Well, that was 1987, when people were still talking about "socialism with a human face." Alas, English-speaking journalists trying to come up with a concise definition of perestroika are going to have a hard time: The word meant one thing when it appeared, changed in definition over time and now is understood variously by scholars, lexicographers and average Russian citizens.

I say: When in doubt, hold a conference. How about a meeting to define it, attended by representatives of Russian and foreign-language dictionaries and encyclopedias, the main initiators of perestroika and a group of excellent translators?

I'll bring the tea and cookies.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.