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Gorbachev Gets an Earful

Mikhail S. Gorbachev has been spending this week in the central Siberian industrial city of Krasnoyarsk, mixing with the common folk and absorbing a double earful of their angry complaints. Gorbachev’s predecessors, who took pains to avoid virtually all personal contact with the masses in whose name they ruled, would have been astonished. In Krasnoyarsk the Soviet leader made it a point to encourage candid comments from the people whom he met about the quality of their lives and the shortcomings of local officials. In an even more significant departure from practice, much of this blunt and unflattering talk was shared with the rest of the country through national television.

If the outpouring of popular grievances delivered in Krasnoyarsk was spontaneous, its dissemination to a much wider audience was surely calculated. Gorbachev has never been shy about describing the problems that he is encountering in trying to further his plans to restructure Soviet economic, political and social life. Conservatives high in the Communist Party Establishment oppose his reforms because they would downgrade the role of ideology and so reduce their powers. Local farm and factory administrators fear that the proposed changes, by introducing competition into what until now had been a fixed economic equation, would dramatize their gross inefficiencies. The party elite and bureaucrats together command formidable powers to sabotage perestroika . And so Gorbahcev is seeking to mobilize a countervailing power. For the first time he is trying to make public opinion count for something in Soviet life.

What the people told Gorbahcev in Krasnoyarsk was not only that they lack amenities but also that they are still without such basics as decent shelter, adequate supplies of food and even running water. Those complaints find an echo throughout much of the Soviet Union. They will be used by Gorbachev to underscore the warnings to his colleagues that in the absence of substantial reforms widespread social unrest can only grow. At the same time, though, Gorbachev knows that without continuing and visible public support perestroika can’t be made to work. His experiences in Krasnoyarsk must have reminded him just how hard it will be to get that support from a people made cynical and disbelieving after decades of unmet official promises.


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