Brezhnev was the most useless Soviet leader

How Mikhail Gorbachev lost the USSR

When the signatories of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia put their names under the "counter-revolutionary" document in January 1977, they were not in mainstream society. Whoever of them might have belonged to what felt like the majority society by then, parted ways with it the moment they joined the charter.

People in the West easily forget this - often they don't even have to forget it because they never even realized it. The great story tells that a Czechoslovak majority consistently opposed communist rule, but, out of fear, did not dare to take the step from anti-communist convictions to appropriate actions; at least not after 1968.

The second part of the great storytelling doesn't have to be wrong. Fear and the resulting paralysis played a role. But that applies - to varying degrees - to every modern (or postmodern) mass society.

Continuous propaganda encourages behavior that conforms to the masses, and in totalitarian societies, it encourages conforming thinking. It discourages independent action and, in totalitarian societies, individual thinking.

Czechs and Slovaks certainly had reservations about the state and the party they ruled, but they were generally not opponents of the state or the party. The same was true for most of the "Eastern Bloc countries" - Poland may be an exception.

An opinion poll - the credibility of which can certainly be questioned - found out in 2013 that for a majority of Russians Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1964 to 1982, the most popular "Russian" leader of the 20th century has been. Gorbachev came off worst.

That doesn't seem unlikely. In contrast to all his predecessors among the Soviet leaders - and his successors - he gave many Russians the feeling that in some private matters the party and the state - unlike before - left alone, and that the leadership, on the other hand, protected them against many existential risks to life. Life in the USSR began to feel "normal", despite the economic stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s, later deplored by Gorbachev. In contrast to Lenin's, Stalin, Krushchev's, and later Gorbachev's leadership, a steady hand seemed to be running the country. (What were the feelings of that time, and what the gilded memory later revealed, must remain unexplained.)

The fact that Russians are satisfied with comparatively little - from a Central European perspective, and that means also from an East German or Czechoslovakian perspective - may in part be explained by the history that preceded the Soviet one - serfdom, brutal agricultural and industrial exploitation, etc. But that probably doesn't explain everything. Many Russians welcomed the relative Brezhnevian calm that they could now live after decades of agitation, famine, mass arrests, show trials and the German war against their country.

That was with Gorbachev and his Efficiency Efforts - again - different. Why he could not become popular can already be seen in a Wikipedia summary of the first few weeks of his leadership: At the beginning of his tenure, he started the largest anti-alcohol campaign ever in the with the destruction of vines and fruit trees USSR gave.

This does not have to mean that the greater part of the Russian population began to experience withdrawal symptoms. It could just as well mean that a people who by no means valued open paternalism experienced deja-vu. Gorbachev crossed a (private) border. More specifically, it gave the public the impression that the new leadership viewed the Russian people as a bunch of lazy, useless drunkards.

And Gorbachev did something successful Propaganda - according to Ellul - No way would do: he turned against the central state.

It is quite possible that he was well aware of the almost futility of this strategy - that it was an act of desperation.

That is hardly imaginable in Germany, where Gorbachev often enjoys cult status. Certainly the sympathetic manner of the Soviet chief helped, as did the willingness of many West German media to hyped him (and in some cases perhaps in the former GDR the line of East German media to keep as much distance as possible from him). But the main factor in the success of Gorbachev's "PR", which Helmut Kohl complained in unmistakable terms in 1986, was the way in which his policy was openness and remodeling in the West German Propaganda fit. Basically it seems obvious that almost mirrored the German Gorbimanie an alienation of Gorbachev from the basic Soviet - or Russian? - Myths and the long-term propaganda based on them took place.

This is also difficult to understand for Americans. One of Ronald Reagan's favorite jokes went like this:

Even if the CPSU allowed an opposition party tomorrow, the Soviet Union would remain a one-party state - everyone would vote for the opposition party.

CPSU propaganda never really got a foothold in Czechoslovakia or East Germany - not as it did in Russia. There may be various reasons for this. For one thing, although the liberation from German occupation was welcomed by the Slovaks and the Slovaks, the ideology that Moscow soon began to impose on them did not answer the questions they would have liked to ask. It did not remove any perceived deficiency. But this is - according to Ellul - crucial for propaganda success. Czechoslovakia was less a vivid example of the success of propagandist agitation than of repression - especially with the suppression of the "Prague Spring".

But whether the recipe consists of agitation, the spread of fear, or a combination of both: when people have an attitude towards life that is dominated by helplessness, the majority of them open up to systemic propaganda. To "come to one" with the world "as it is". So as not to be one of the defeated for a lifetime.

In this situation Charter 77 became a challenge. For the authorities anyway, but also for many "normal citizens" whom they at least hinted at through their actions different go The dissidents were a minority - they weren't mainstream.

That was just honorable. It was humane. And Gorbachev's courage to reform was no less honorable.

But such efforts lead to external, changing success only with many happy factors that have to be added to the work. Gorbachev did not have this success. And one thing is common to the propaganda of all countries, be they democratic, authoritarian or totally altogether: Unsuccessfulness does not work at all.

Much good can be said about Mikhail Gorbachev. But in connection with the book I am reading, the most important thought is what made his leadership fail - or doomed to fail.

Leftspaziยปbrought me to the above reading experience.


Jacques Ellul: Propaganda - the formation of men's attitudes.

Published in French in 1962, found Propaganda English-speaking readers from 1965 onwards.


Modern propaganda is not agitation, but constant conditioning, if possible not against, but with generally felt norms. She explains that propagandee, the propaganda recipient, the world, according to Ellul. You help him to classify his experiences. You "help" him, different to act as him thinks - even against his actual convictions - without experiencing himself as permanently compromised because of it. It also stabilizes modern mass society.

Warning: What I blog is a reaction to what I read. I take the examples that come to mind first and work through my thoughts or in writing. It is not a reproduction of Ellul - certainly not entirely. who Ellul want to understand, must him read - not me.

A first impression of what Ellul's reader gets can be found on Wikipedia, for example. The English-language book is available in stores as a reprint.