Perestroika Creator Fears a Reversal

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when the word “perestroika” evoked visions of hope and change.

The term means “reconstruction,” and what was being rebuilt in those heady years of the late 1980s was the Soviet Union’s entire relationship with its citizens and the world outside.

These days, many Russians talk about perestroika with more scorn than reverence because millions here have been plunged into poverty by its free-market reforms.


People have become so disenchanted with the restructuring that leaders of Russia’s democratic movement have been warning of a backlash.

Alexander N. Yakovlev, the man widely acknowledged to be the architect of perestroika, said recently that Russia’s democratic revolution was in danger of reversing course after 15 years of political reform.

“Six years ago, I spoke about how a setback [in the revolution] was unavoidable. I meant there would be a certain stoppage in the movement forward. But I never thought that it would take the shape of a movement backward, of a restoration of what was before.

“Unfortunately, this is what we are seeing today,” said Yakovlev, who crafted much of the reforms instituted by former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“And when I was speaking about setbacks, I don’t think one could have forecast beforehand the depth and the size of the current setback,” he said.

In recent weeks, both Gorbachev and his successor, Boris N. Yeltsin, have raised questions about Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s moves to further consolidate his power after a wave of deadly attacks blamed on separatist rebels from Chechnya.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin were mild in their criticism compared with Yakovlev, who accused Putin of trying to impose a Chilean model of economic liberalism and political authoritarianism.

In an interview at the office of the Moscow-based program he heads, the International Democracy Foundation, Yakovlev, 80, said Putin had shown signs early on of returning to Russia’s Soviet past.

In 2000, at the end of his first year as president, Putin restored the former Soviet national anthem with updated lyrics.

“This anthem was the backdrop for the execution by shooting of a million people. Millions more were thrown into labor camps. And now, when they begin to play this anthem, some listen to it with disgust. But others listen with pleasure,” Yakovlev said.

“Bringing this anthem back was an immoral deed, a sacrilegious step.”

Putin’s more recent steps, proposals to eliminate independent seats in the parliament and cancel direct election of regional governors, are equally worrying, Yakovlev said.

“When the parliament is represented by one party in the majority, the opposition ceases to exist, and without an opposition, I’m convinced there can be no democracy,” he said.

“No new leader can grow without an opposition, and the situation in which we have no alternative is being created.”

Yakovlev, a historian who drafted the first Kremlin policy papers for implementing perestroika, is often blamed for the disintegration of the Soviet Union in a country where a majority of the population longs for the restoration of Russia as a superpower.

He is occasionally branded an American spy, and said he recently turned down a teaching post at Stanford University because he didn’t want his critics “to be able to say that all the supporters of perestroika are unwilling to live in the country they made.”

Indeed, he said, some of Russia’s early builders of democracy are only now beginning to realize the mistakes they made.

In pursuing market reforms and privatization, democrats neglected “the social sphere,” he said, and millions of teachers, doctors and pensioners “turned into paupers, and turned away from democracy.”

“When you hear about nostalgia for the Soviet Union now, this nostalgia is not for concentration camps, and it’s not for executions.

“It’s nostalgia for when salaries were big enough to buy bread and milk with.”

Recently, Yakovlev said, he talked with early free-market pioneers Anatoly B. Chubais and Yegor T. Gaidar, who helped usher in the era of privatization.

“Now they understand all of this,” he said.

“I also had lunch with Yeltsin not long ago. He understands something of this too. But he is mostly concentrated on the mistake he made when he began the war in Chechnya. He understands this now. He keeps asking me, ‘Do you really think there was an alternative to that?’ And I say, ‘Yes, of course there was.’ ”

Since the recent attacks, there have been major military clampdowns in Chechnya, including violent sweeps through villages and shootings of civilians on the streets.

In Moscow, the Kompaniya business weekly fired editor Andrei Grigoryev late last month after criticizing the Putin government’s handling of the Sept. 1 takeover of a school in Beslan.

Earlier, the editor of Izvestia lost his job just days after his newspaper reported critical details of the authorities’ handling of the incident.

“My main concern is the gradual liquidation of freedom of speech,” Yakovlev said.

“For me, it’s especially bitter, because I was in charge of glasnost,” Russia’s opening to the West, which accompanied perestroika.

“When glasnost is trampled underfoot, I cannot agree. I cannot agree with the concept which the government is attempting now, a liberal economy with authoritarianism in politics. I think it’s an erroneous way,” he said.

Yakovlev said he believed that “the main things we did will remain.”

“With perestroika, for the first time in history we replaced a totalitarian regime with a democratic regime without a bloody revolution. That’s the main thing. And whatever criticism we would allow today about the situation in the country, after all, let us not forget that today we live in a different country than what was before.”