Unintended Consequences

(Left) Milos Forman, Sotheby’s Auction, (Right) Grisha Bruskin
Fundamental Lexicon

Sviblova— I remember when [Fundamental Lexicon] was presented for the first time in the Kashirskii exhibition hall. It was a shock. I remember my eyes opening. I was the curator, a word that could still not be pronounced. I did the show, these one-day exhibitions, I wrote some lyrics, it was not a job, it was life.

A year later, or perhaps at the same time, I was approached by my Finnish colleagues to become a commissioner. I laughed, when they said, ‘you’re the Commissioner’ and I raised my hand and said, ‘the Commissioner,’ because the commissioner in Russia – is military, whilst involvement with the arts was not work, it could not be paid, it could not be a product of society with a prominent audience. It was just a part of life, which was necessary to someone and those to whom it was important, like me, were many. We were spectators; we were a grateful audience.

Fundamental Lexicon, detail

I remember the shock when I encountered the work. I wrote an article on this other, second culture, and gave it to the only art magazine Art, of the time, the official one. And so, for two years they were afraid to print it. I remember on the day of the Sotheby’s auction people were bidding but we did not really understand that art could be sold, that it can just be sold on an auction. It was absolutely incredible.

Fundamental Lexicon, detail

Grisha Bruskin’s work sold for an amount which for us was meaningless at the time, because none of us had even one hundred dollars in our pockets, so to imagine one million dollars was very difficult, but it was clear that this was a symbol. Some man jumped on me from behind and shouted “Hurrah, hurray, we’re the first”. He kissed me, I did not understand quite why and so turned away in terror, and there in front of me I see the editor of this magazine. He said: ‘you know, tomorrow we publish this article’ and … it was just a coincidence, but when I saw this magazine and I saw the works of the artists that formed this period and among them was the work of Grisha Bruskin…

It was published here in this format so that a person who knew the work could make it out, but a person who didn’t know what the work was about could not make it out. That’s how these Soviet functionaries acted and thought. But when this work was validated by Sotheby’s, when it received a price, from this moment, it was no longer necessary to prove the meaning of this work or the extent to which it was important for our culture. It was like a self-drawing of our culture. They saw the price, they saw that this was legal, and they were happy that we had finally made it in time for the train which was going forwards into the future.


Patenaude— Gorbachev came to power believing he could reform the Communist system, not only in the USSR, but throughout the East Bloc. He believed that the Soviet system could be reformed in the areas of economics, politics, freedom of information, foreign policy, and nationality policy. But in each of these areas, his reforms unleashed forces that he found he could not control. One pundit in 1990 compared Gorbachev to a surfer riding a huge wave and praying he wouldn’t wipe out.

In economic policy, Gorbachev introduced limited market reforms— perestroika—though he refused to take the plunge and introduce a genuine market with real prices in place of the so-called “command-administrative system”: namely, the centrally planned economy run by the economic ministries in Moscow. Here Gorbachev ended up sitting between two stools. His reforms destroyed the limited efficiency of central planning, but failed to introduce a real market in its place. He never challenged collectivized agriculture, never proposed the introduction of private property.

Propaganda for Perestroika

So the Soviet economy went into a tailspin, as the central distribution mechanisms broke down without anything to replace them. The result was empty store shelves and skyrocketing prices—nothing like it had been seen in the “era of stagnation.” In Brezhnev’s time, the essential goods (bread, fuel, etc) were available either on the store shelves, or on the (tolerated) black market. But by the late 1980s, the stores were bereft of goods, and Gorbachev’s economic reforms were widely condemned, even by people who supported reform generally.

Gorbachev kept talking about a return to Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s, yet he refused to disown the Stalinist economic base created through the Five-Year Plans and the collectivization of agriculture from 1929 to 1932. As Boris Yeltsin later said of Gorbachev, he was trying to combine entirely incompatible things. (Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, introduced early in his tenure, was very unpopular from the start.) The unraveling of the Soviet economy was not what Gorbachev had had in mind.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev, 1986

In introducing a new openness—glasnost—Gorbachev hoped to rejuvenate Soviet society, to make it more dynamic and able to compete with the West. Glasnost started out as openness in the press about current problems, such as environmental issues, alcoholism, crime, etc, but soon spread to the treatment of Soviet history. Gorbachev believed that only by purging the ghost of Stalin could Soviet society move on and build a truly dynamic form of communism.

But the condemnation of Stalin’s crimes became generalized to a condemnation of the entire Soviet system. By 1990 newspaper and magazine articles were condemning Lenin as the man who laid the foundations for the Stalinist system, who picked Stalin as his successor. The criticism moved back to the October Revolution itself. Gorbachev and others in the Kremlin became alarmed at this development, which threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet system—and ultimately it did. Here, too, Gorbachev realized too late the unintended consequences of his reform program.

Gorbachev introduced New Thinking in foreign policy as a way to end the Cold War so that his perestroika reforms could proceed. This was a big reason he wanted to get the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. But he found that every time he conceded something to the United States in the realm of arms control, the Reagan administration would proceed to make further demands—to which he would also have to give in. One arms control treaty led to another, and then Ronald Reagan showed up at the Berlin Wall to demand that Gorbachev “tear down this wall!”

President Reagan, Berlin Wall
President Reagan, Berlin Wall

The total effect was to make the Kremlin look weak at home, and especially in the East Bloc countries. Gorbachev set in motion a process that he found impossible to stop. (The influence of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986 as a catalyst for Gorbachev’s reforms is hard to overestimate.)

Gorbachev encouraged perestroika and glasnost reforms in the East Bloc countries as well— not, as some people later believed, in order to set them free (which is what ultimately happened), but rather in order to make their socialist economies run more efficiently and— very importantly—to stop being an economic burden on the Soviet Union. The Kremlin had begun to realize back to the 1970s that Moscow could not carry the economies of countries like Poland and Hungary—they would have to become more efficient, while retaining central planning and state ownership of property: in other words, they should, like the USSR, introduce just enough capitalism in order to run things more efficiently and attract trade and credits from the West, but without compromising the essence of Communism. In fact, however, Gorbachev’s reforms let loose a wave of freedom that turned into a revolution across the East Bloc—mostly peaceful, though with violence in Romania.

(Left) Mikhail Gorbachev, (Right) Eric Honecker
(Left) Mikhail Gorbachev, (Right) Eric Honecker

The crowning example of the unintended consequences of Gorbachev’s reforms is what happened in East Germany in the fall of 1989. Gorbachev visited Party chief Eric Honeker in October with the intention of prodding him to loosen up and reform his system. Honeker got the message and began to reform, but very quickly East German citizens took matters into their own hands and within a few weeks the Berlin Wall began to come down. By the end of 1989 the “outer empire” of the Soviet Union had slipped away.

And then came the turn of the “inner empire”: namely, the constituent republics of the USSR. Gorbachev had come to power believing that the Soviet Union had solved the “nationalities problem,” that the Soviet peoples were relatively content living within the federative system that was the USSR. But to his surprise and chagrin, the force of nationalism increased in the late 1980s, as the three Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—led the way in demanding, first, “autonomy,” then “sovereignty,” and ultimately “independence.” Georgia was another republic out in front on this, and ultimately, by 1989, Russia as well.

Demonstrators, Lithuania, 1990
Demonstrators, Lithuania, 1990

Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia in 1990 presented the greatest challenge to Gorbachev, because Yeltsin threatened to make the Soviet center irrelevant. After the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the force of nationalism rose uncontrollably. It was the Kremlin hardliners’ attempt to stop Gorbachev from signing a new, very loose union treaty, with only 9 of the original 15 union republics willing to sign up, that led them to stage the coup of August 1991. When it failed, Russia and Ukraine led the way in signaling the death of the Soviet Union. Just about every republic wanted out. The end came on December 25 with the dissolution of the USSR.

Ukraine and Russia signing Belavezha Accords, December 1991
Ukraine and Russia signing Belavezha Accords, December 1991
Ukraine and Russia recently when fighting first broke out
It was like
a self-drawing
of our culture.

-Olga Sviblova
Gorbachev's reforms unleashed forces
that he found he
could not control

-Burt Patenaude
only by purging the
ghost of Stalin could
Soviet society move on

-Burt Patenaude

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