From the San Francisco Chronicle

June 24, 1991

WHY GORBACHEV HAPPENED: His Triumphs and His Failure


Robert G. Kaiser

Reviewed by Jock O'Connell

Who can deny that life in the Soviet Union has been completely and perhaps irreversibly turned upside down in the years since Mikhail Gorbachev was elevated to Communist Party General Secretary in March 1985? Today, genuinely free elections are held in which almost anyone running against an official Party candidate is routinely swept into office, Leningrad is about to become St. Petersburg again, and Soviet economic policies are being drafted at Harvard University. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of books by Western observers seeking to understand Gorbachev and the extraordinary revolution he has instigated.

Among the latest and most substantive such works is "Why Gorbachev Happened" by Robert G. Kaiser. Currently the Washington Post's deputy managing editor, Kaiser served as that newspaper's Moscow correspondent during the mid-1970s and has maintained an active interest in Soviet affairs ever since.

The broad outline of the Gorbachev story as recounted by Kaiser is widely known: An atypically bright, vigorous leader assumes leadership of a moribund nation and then wages a canny struggle against entrenched interests to bring about long overdue economic and political reforms. To abet the process of change, he introduces glasnost, a wholly unprecedented climate of tolerance for intellectual, political and even religious expression. Alas, economic conditions continue to deteriorate as he thrashes around for solutions, all the while testing how far he could go without giving up the ghost of doctrinaire socialism. Adding further to his woes, the union itself, fractured by nationalist strife, showed every sign of disintegrating as republic after republic declare varying degrees of independence from the Kremlin. At length, his vaunted capacity for innovation and adaptation ran out of steam as he repeatedly found himself out-maneuvered not by his foes so much as by the odd turns of developments he himself had earlier set in motion. As the latest chapter is written, Gorbachev risks becoming a virtual spectator at his own revolution.

Kaiser cautions us not to discount the historic changes Gorbachev has brought about in Soviet life merely because of his conspicuous failures on the economic front or his inability to counter the centrifugal forces of national disunity. What is remarkable, as Kaiser amply demonstrates, is that Gorbachev achieved as much as he did without anything resembling a plan for action. Indeed, for nearly two years after becoming to power, Gorbachev's reforms were confined to narrow, unimaginative attempts to make a bankrupt economic system work more productively simply by rearranging the administrative machinery. Only as the true extent of the economy's appalling deficiencies became more and more obvious (thanks in part to the candid light of glasnost) did Gorbachev appreciate the need for more a more radical approach to perestroika.

The rub was that too many powerful interests inside the Communist Party and the enormous state bureaucracy had a vested stake in the status quo. Material progress in addressing the nation's pitiable economic plight therefore had to await political changes that would prevent the conservatives from foiling the economic reforms that would deprive them their power and privileges. Gorbachev's problem, though, is that he had neither the time nor the improvisational skill to bring off an economic renaissance to match a very real political one.

This is a story rich in drama, intrigue and danger. One regrets therefore that Kaiser plods through much of it in a dry, almost academic style. It is the work of a perceptive journalist who appears to be stretching for full-blown pundit status. Tantalizing references to Gorbachev's hand-picked bodyguard, the nighttime movements of army units around Moscow, and the unexplained posting of KGB troops near Gorbachev's country dacha remind us how exciting this story really is and how easily it lends itself to more compelling literature.

One of the more nettlesome features of this and other recent books on the Gorbachev revolution is the excessive use of secondary sources (usually reports by Western journalists). But, after all, this is the Soviet Union and, although times are changing, Soviet officials are evidently slow in learning the fine art of the leak. Still, even though Kaiser presents very few new facts, he has successfully crafted what information is available into an exceptionally coherent and illuminating narrative.

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