Beginning with the leadership succession after Brezhnev, first Andropov's spurt of new policy initiatives, then an interregnum of drift under Chernenko, and finally the emergence of the vigorous and relatively youthful leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the future of the Soviet political system has been thrust once again into wide public attention. It promises to remain there for some time, maybe several years, as the new General Secretary tries to push through major reforms and to engage the West to support him in his undertaking.
To keep our bearings in the flood of Gorbachev's novel rhetoric and its amplification through the Western media, it would be useful to put the issue into a context more historically grounded than the turmoil of current events and fashions. To do that, we need to ask at least two questions. First, what features of the Soviet historical legacy constrain and direct change in the USSR? Second, against this legacy, can we recognize the practical dilemmas any would-be reformer must face? In light of the answers, it is possible to reduce our surprise about the way the present reform efforts eventually turn out.
The Historical Legacy
It is commonplace to speak of continuities in Russian history, to observe that authoritarianism has deep roots in Russia and that much of the present Soviet system is a historical legacy. It is also commonplace to observe that autocratic systems in other parts of the world have evolved into liberal systems and that one should not rule out liberalization in the Soviet Union a priori simply because of its long tradition of authoritarianism.