Trying Out a Little Openness

The Week in Review of the New York Times has a very interesting article today about the transformative power of just a little bit of openness in autocratic societies: Still, it is worth recalling a time when a little openness flew out of control.

As a correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times in Moscow in the late 1980s, I had a ringside seat to observe the slow disintegration of the Soviet Union under Mr. Gorbachev. The collapse of the Soviet empire and dissolution of the Communist Party were not exactly what he had in mind when he took power in 1985 and launched his twin policies of glasnost (greater openness) and perestroika (political reform). As events unfolded, it was like watching a scientist start a nuclear chain reaction that races out of control, eventually consuming him and all those around him.

Mr. Gorbachev realized his country was rotting from within, paralyzed by repression and ideological rigidity, a backward economy and a deep cynicism among Russians about their government. “We can’t go on living like this,” he told his wife, Raisa, hours before he was named Soviet leader, he recalled in his 1995 memoirs.But he clearly had no inkling of where his initiatives were headed when, shortly after taking office, he broke new ground for a Kremlin leader by mingling with citizens in Leningrad and giving unscripted interviews.In those early days of glasnost, it was hard to tell whether the changes were purely superficial or the start of something more profound.