Echoes of the reforms that ended the former Soviet Union are still reverberating in Russia and other former Soviet Republics, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader and the man who implemented those world-altering changes, told a packed Sanders Theatre Monday (Nov. 11).
Those echoes continue today despite mistakes made during the process, Gorbachev said in a 45-minute speech, “Looking Back on Perestroika.”
Gorbachev, who held power from 1985 until the nation he led came apart in 1991, said mistakes were made both inside and outside the U.S.S.R. Speaking in Russian with a simultaneous translation in English, Gorbachev said the U.S.S.R. should have reformed the relationship with its member republics much earlier and shifted money from defense in an effort to stabilize the consumer market. Together, those changes may have eased the difficult political and economic transition the nation experienced.
Outside the Soviet Union, Gorbachev said, Western leaders were slow to embrace Soviet reformers. And, once the Soviet Union broke up, economic reforms influenced by the West, which Gorbachev termed “shock treatment,” were far too harsh, driving many Russians into poverty.
Still, Gorbachev said, he believes that perestroika (restructuring) was a success. A poll taken in 1995, when much of the country was still mired in poverty, showed that almost half believed that perestroika was the right course. Given the economic pain people were feeling at the time, Gorbachev said, he believes that result showed that the people supported the changes. A similar poll, focusing not on economic changes, but on political, cultural, and religious freedom, showed that between 60 percent and 70 percent supported those reforms.
“A lot of things could have been done differently after perestroika. A lot of things could have been done differently during perestroika, but there are no ‘ifs’ in history,” Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev, whose visit was sponsored by the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, was introduced by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. Summers said the changes set into motion by Gorbachev resulted in wide-ranging changes around the world. He said today’s Harvard students don’t remember Cold War school days where civil defense drills were as common as fire drills. Despite its intensity, however, the Cold War ended without the massive bloodshed of other 20thcentury conflicts.
“History shaped Mikhail Gorbachev and Mikhail Gorbachev shaped history,” Summers said.
The changes set into motion during perestroika have not run their course yet, Gorbachev said. A new generation of Russian youth is growing up and being educated under the greater political and economic freedoms available in Russia today. Those youth will continue the changes as they mature and take power.
“People are asking today whether perestroika has a future or is it in the past. I believe perestroika is still in the future,” Gorbachev said. “When I stepped down, people said the era of Gorbachev is over. I replied then and I still reply, ‘The era of Gorbachev is just beginning.'”