The Empire Toppler: Gorbachev and the Power of Glasnost

Mikhail Gorbachev, who inherited Soviet leadership twenty-five years ago this week, unwittingly saw his policy of glasnost (openness) topple communism's house of cards. As Russia again tightens its control on information, it is worth recalling the events that memorialize Mr. Gorbachev's greatness and cautioning against a return to "official reality."

Mr. Gorbachev intended to jumpstart Soviet economic growth and normalize societal functioning by loosening controls on information but underestimated the implications of this information on the Russian psyche. He truly believed that, given a choice, Russians would prefer communism. As argued in The Economist on November 5, 2009, "dismantling the Soviet Union was the last thing on Mr. Gorbachev's mind."

Through glasnost, reality replaced illusion. The free flow of information exposed communism's darkest recesses, rendering its survival as an organizing ideology entirely untenable. Foreign reporting nullified longstanding propaganda, assassinated the Soviet illusion, and snuffed out its tired ideology. The revelation of unpleasant historical events, from Stalinist atrocities to the attempted cover-up of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, merged with dissatisfaction over basic living conditions and annihilated communism's popular legitimacy.

Glasnost presented Russians with the complexities of reality for the first time in seven decades. Soviet propaganda had portrayed Americans as one-dimensional figurines representing an evil empire. Information subjected this caricature to reality and juxtaposed a vibrant, three-dimensional world with the imprisoning Soviet construct.

Openness about Soviet history destroyed the myth of cohesion and offered no replacement identity, which produced psychological malaise and an earthquake of virulent nationalism movements across the former empire. In additional to uncovering historical atrocities such as Stalin's gulags, glasnost led to admissions of the massive prosperity gaps between the USSR and the West, and even between the USSR and third world countries. Combined with Russians' sudden capacity to criticize their government without fear of brutal consequences, these revelations made communism's continuation entirely untenable.

Looking back, the moral seems clear: never again should we allow facts to be taken hostage by a totalitarian regime. Yet the conditions for a recurrence seem to be ripening. Vladimir Putin has called the fall of the USSR the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and has eagerly sown the seeds for Russia's triumphant reemergence as a global player with which to be reckoned.

Mr. Putin's stranglehold on media has arguably been facilitated by the Internet, which allows his supporters to track dissenting voices, promote self-censorship through punitive actions against journalists deemed unfriendly to the state, and disseminate relentless propaganda that echoes the Cold War and discourages opposition. A current initiative aims to subject websites to the same regulation as other mass media, which could have a silencing effect on dissenting bloggers and other critics of the regime.

Twenty years after glasnost, monuments to Soviet mythology are testament to its enduring influence. Critical Russians see continued reverence to Lenin's mausoleum as an unbearable vestige of Soviet lies--of its tenacious insistence that two plus two is five, so to speak, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Mr. Putin has embraced Soviet symbolism; the emblematic hammer and sickle brand is reemerging, along with its mythological baggage.

USSR insignia has long been trendy with American youth, but it is now increasingly visible on the streets of Saint Petersburg. Some Russians, particularly disenfranchised youth who are drawn to Mr. Putin's imperial rhetoric and galvanized by his evocations of a glorious Soviet past, seem to have developed collective amnesia about communism's dark side. In concert with substantial crackdowns on the free flow of information, refurbished Soviet symbolism sets a worrisome trend and warrants careful observation.

Russia needs a leader who can counteract its insidious return to authoritarianism. Loosening controls on information would allow media to play its critical watchdog role and enable citizens to educate themselves about the key issues at stake. Russia currently ranks 153rd out of 175 countries on the Reporters Sans Frontières press freedom index, down from 141st in 2008; it seems that Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has inherited his predecessor's antagonism to the truth.

Arguably, Russia needs another Mikhail Gorbachev. The events of 1989 showed the transformative power of facts in vivid detail and substantiated the maxim "information is power." To re-empower citizens to act against their government, Russia needs another glasnost and needs it soon.