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Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 [NOOK Book]


Leon Aron considers the “mystery of the Soviet collapse” and finds answers in the intellectual and moral self-scrutiny of glasnost that brought about a profound shift in values. Reviewing the entire output of the key glasnost outlets in 1987-1991, he elucidates and documents key themes in this national soul-searching and the “ultimate” questions that sparked moral awakening of a great nation: “Who are we? How do we live honorably? What is a dignified relationship between man and state? How do we atone for the ...
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Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991

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Leon Aron considers the “mystery of the Soviet collapse” and finds answers in the intellectual and moral self-scrutiny of glasnost that brought about a profound shift in values. Reviewing the entire output of the key glasnost outlets in 1987-1991, he elucidates and documents key themes in this national soul-searching and the “ultimate” questions that sparked moral awakening of a great nation: “Who are we? How do we live honorably? What is a dignified relationship between man and state? How do we atone for the moral breakdown of Stalinism?”    
Contributing both to the theory of revolutions and history of ideas, Aron presents a thorough and original narrative about new ideas’ dissemination through the various media of the former Soviet Union. Aron shows how, reaching every corner of the nation, these ideas destroyed the moral foundation of the Soviet state, de-legitimized it and made its collapse inevitable.  


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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Delight and despair jostle in the mind when reading Leon Aron's masterly survey of the greatest period of Russian-language journalism…The delight is in the intoxicating evocation of freedom unleashed…Those who had been muzzled and misinformed for decades could suddenly find the truth and speak it. The despair lies in what came before and afterward.—Edward Lucas, Wall Street Journal

— Edward Lucas

Washington Times
"It is hard to think of any other volume that provides as much information and insight into the nature of the Soviet system and its collapse as this book...Aron presents a richly documented and riveting portrait of every aspect of the Soviet system... Exceptionally enlightening and well-written."—Washington Times
International Affairs
"Leon Aron’s book, a genuine tour de force, is a fascinating chronicle of the main ideas that caused and inspired the revolutionary upheaval in the USSR."—International Affairs
Mikhail Gorbachev
 “Leon Aron has written a book about the moral foundation of perestroika and the colossal reassessment of values, which brought about an unprecedented and, for many, unexpected shift in Russian history. These were the years when we tried to bring together politics and morality. Today, when Russia is again facing a crucial choice, it is very important to remember that time and the people who moved forward this difficult but necessary process of intellectual and then political transformation.”—Mikhail Gorbachev
Anders Aslund
“This is an outstanding work. No such extraordinary work on the ideas of perestroika and glasnost will be written.”—Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Blair Ruble
“Human beings forget luminescent moments when the pursuit of human dignity lights up our world. Leon Aron does not allow us to forget the remarkable Soviet revolution of 1987-1991, a moment of moral clarity increasingly submerged in a miasma of deception.”—Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center
Daniel Treisman
“From America's most insightful chronicler of Russian affairs comes a vividly drawn portrait of a country coming awake. Both erudite and gripping, passionate and yet rigorous, Roads to the Temple is a masterpiece of cultural and intellectual history.”—Daniel Treisman, author of The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev
David E. Hoffman
“Leon Aron's book is an indispensible guide to the forces that shaped Russia's years of glasnost and revolution, a work of intellectual history that is brimming with fresh insights and points the way to the great challenges facing Russian democracy today.”—David E. Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
William Taubman
“Leon Aron’s wonderful, passionate book provides the fullest and most detailed portrait yet of the ideas and ideals that inspired the Russian Revolution of 1987-1991.”—William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era.
Stephen Sestanovich
"Scholars will forever disagree about what caused the great revolutions. But from now on anyone who tries to explain the fall of Soviet communism will have to read, and reckon with, Roads to the Temple. An extraordinary book."—Stephen Sestanovich, U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, 1997-2001
Wall Street Journal - Edward Lucas
“Delight and despair jostle in the mind when reading Leon Aron's masterly survey of the greatest period of Russian-language journalism…The delight is in the intoxicating evocation of freedom unleashed…Those who had been muzzled and misinformed for decades could suddenly find the truth and speak it. The despair lies in what came before and afterward.”—Edward Lucas, Wall Street Journal
Slavic Review - Mark Galeotti
“Magisterial, beautifully written… [Aron’s] deeply researched and lyrical exploration of glasnost and the public debate it liberated is a testament to a national hunger for moral regeneration after decades of vicious tyranny and then mendacious and self-indulgent oligarchy.”—Mark Galeotti, Slavic Review
Frontpage - Vladimir Tismaneanu
"A genuine tour de force...A fascinating chronicle of the main ideas that caused and inspired the revolutionary upheaval in the USSR."—Vladimir Tismaneanu, Frontpage
Anders �slund

“This is an outstanding work. No such extraordinary work on the ideas of perestroika and glasnost will be written.”—Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Anders Åslund
“This is an outstanding work. No such extraordinary work on the ideas of perestroika and glasnost will be written.”—Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300183245
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/13/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Leon Aron is Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is the author of Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life and Russia's Revolution: Essays, 1989–2006.

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Read an Excerpt

Roads to the Temple



Copyright © 2012 Leon Aron
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11844-5

Chapter One

The "Mystery" of the Soviet Collapse and the Theory of Revolutions

EVERY REVOLUTION IS A surprise. Still, the latest Russian Revolution (1987–91) must be counted among the greatest surprises. Of course, many had talked and written about the "system's" eventual transformation or demise, yet no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician—or, judging by their memoirs, the future revolutionaries themselves—foresaw the collapse of the one-party dictatorship, of the state-owned economy, and of the Kremlin's control over its domestic and Eastern European empires by 1991. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in March 1985, no contemporaries saw an impending revolutionary crisis. While they disagreed about the size and depth of the Soviet system's problems, no one felt them to be life-threatening any time soon.

Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union's collapse may in part be attributed to the "revisionism" and anti-anti-communism that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime's stability and legitimacy. Yet others who could hardly be considered "soft on communism" were just as puzzled by its demise. George Kennan, one of the architects of U.S. strategy in the cold war, wrote that in reviewing the entire "history of international affairs in the modern era," he found it "hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance ... of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union." Richard Pipes, perhaps the leading anti-revisionist historian of Russia, called the revolution "unexpected." The author of The Soviet Tragedy, Martin Malia, thought the "suddenness and completeness of the Soviet system's collapse to be "the greatest surprise of the end of the twentieth century." François Furet concluded his rather gleeful postmortem on "the idea of communism in the twentieth century" by stating that "the manner in which first the Soviet Union and then its empire fell apart remains mysterious." A collection of essays about the Soviet Union's demise in a special 1993 issue of the conservative National Interest was titled "The Strange Death of Soviet Communism."

After being duly noted, this collective lapse in judgment could have been safely consigned to a mental file containing the memories of other oddities and caprices of the social sciences and then safely forgotten. Yet even today, twenty-five years after Mikhail Gorbachev unknowingly started the revolution by promulgating glasnost and democratization in January 1987, the foundation of the consensus in what was then known as the "Sovietological community" seems just as solid. It rested on conclusions reached by the standard method of placing available knowledge in the context of the regime's history. Both that knowledge and that history bespoke continuation, or, at most, a long decline.

Indeed, in 1985 the Soviet Union possessed many of the same natural and human resources as it had ten years before. There was no devastation from a natural disaster or epidemics. To be sure, the standard of living was much lower than in most of Eastern Europe, let alone the West. Shortages, food rationing, long lines in stores, and acute poverty (especially among the elderly and those living in the countryside) were endemic. But things had been much worse. Food shortages and de facto food rationing, for instance, had been in place in most provinces since the early 1930s, and while resented by some, they were accepted as normal by the generation that came of age during or immediately after World War II—or most Russian adults. The Soviet Union had known far greater calamities and had coped without sacrificing an iota of the state's grip on society and economy, much less surrendering them.

In any case, as Cuba, North Korea, or Iraq under Saddam Hussein (not to mention the Soviet Union under Stalin and China under Mao) has amply shown, in totalitarian regimes the connection between popular deprivation and policy change is tenuous at best and usually results not in liberalizing reforms but in heavier repression. It was in the wake of the poor economic performance and brief bread shortages of 1963–64 that liberalizing but erratic Nikita Khrushchev was replaced by a conservative regime that remained in power for the next twenty years. Greater "discipline" was the thrust of Yuri Andropov's brief (1982–84) reign, which elsewhere I have called a "police renaissance."

No key parameter of economic performance prior to 1985 pointed to a rapidly advancing disaster. In 1981–85 the growth of the country's GDP, although slowing down compared with the 1960s and 1970s, averaged 1.9 percent a year. The same lackadaisical but hardly catastrophic pattern continued through 1989. Budget deficits, which since the French Revolution have been considered among the prominent portents of a revolutionary crisis, equaled less than 2 percent of the GDP in 1985. Although growing rapidly, it remained under 9 percent through 1989—a size most economists would find manageable.

The sharp drop in oil prices, from $66 a barrel in 1980 to $20 a barrel in 1986 (in 2000 prices) certainly was a heavy blow to Soviet finances. Still, adjusted for inflation oil was more expensive on world markets in 1985 than in 1972 and only one-third lower than throughout the 1970s. Similarly, at $29 billion in 1985, the external debt was decidedly not life-threatening, and the debt service was to remain "within a reasonable limit" in relation to the hard-currency export earnings until 1989. All in all, the financial crisis did not become "acute" until 1988 and could still be "averted" as late as summer 1990. Meanwhile, the incomes of the Soviet population increased by more than 2 percent in 1985, and inflation-adjusted wages continued to rise (albeit with their purchasing power increasingly eroded by shortages of goods) in the next five years through 1990 at over 7 percent on average.

Thus, the subsequently much belabored "stagnation" was obvious and worrisome, but as an astute commentator wrote recalling the Soviet Union before the revolution, "chronic ailments, after all, are not necessarily fatal." In the end, even the leading students of the economic causes of the latest Russian revolution (which fully corresponded to the classic definition of a sudden and irreversible overthrow of political and economic systems) admit that in 1985–87 the situation "was not at all dramatic."

What could have been will forever remain a mystery. Yet it is quite plausible that while raising questions about the system's long-term viability, the obviously deteriorating economic performance was hardly a harbinger of inevitable doom. The Soviet economy could have "continued to stagnate" for a very long time. It is undeniable, however, as Peter Rutland puts it, that the "real [economic] breakdown" began only after 1988 and was as much "a product of political processes as their cause."

From the regime's point of view, the political situation was even less troublesome than the economic slowdown. After twenty years of relentless repression, virtually all the prominent dissidents were imprisoned, exiled, as Andrei Sakharov had been since 1980, or forced to emigrate, or had died in camps and jails.

Far more menacing were the widespread sentiments of national liberation, the aspirations for a greater autonomy or outright independence from Moscow, especially in the Baltics, western Ukraine, and Georgia. The centrifugal pressures mounted and eventually were certain to result in fissures in the long run. Yet the long run is a long time. In the meantime, the terror had been successful in decimating the ranks of the "nationalists," who were meted out especially brutal and lengthy prison terms, often tantamount to death sentences.

With the state of the Soviet economy and politics falling short of supplying a satisfactory explanation of a pre-revolutionary crisis, the other traditional cause does not fill the gap either: the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s was hardly crumbling under external pressure. On the contrary, the previous decade was correctly judged to "amount to the realization of all major Soviet military and diplomatic desiderata."

Of course, Afghanistan increasingly looked like a long war, but for a 5-million-man armed force the losses there were negligible. The bloody, drawn-out anti-guerilla war in the reconquered Lithuania and western Ukraine after 1945, not to mention the casualties in World War II, sustained well-founded hopes for an eventual victory in Afghanistan through the sheer weight of the mammoth military preponderance unrestrained by domestic or international public opinion. Although, as we shall see, the enormous financial burden of the empire and the defense expenditures were to become major issues in the post-1987 debates, the cost of the Afghan war itself was hardly crushing: estimated at $4–5 billion in 1985–86, it was less than 1 percent of the Soviet GDP.

The "Reagan Doctrine" of resisting and, if possible, reversing the advent of the Soviet Union's client regimes in the Third World put considerable pressure on the perimeter of the empire: in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, or Ethiopia. Yet the Soviet difficulties there, too, were far from fatal and could have been alleviated, if not undone, with the inevitable turn in U.S. public opinion, domestic politics, and, especially, the occupancy of the White House.

As a precursor to a potentially very costly competition, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was crucial—but not as a sign of a pending military defeat. Like the vociferous opponents of the program in the West (above all, in the United States), the Kremlin knew very well that effective deployment of space-based defenses was decades away. The obvious lag in high defense technologies was disconcerting, and the enormous costs of catching up to the United States did seem to matter—but only after the revolution was under way and the leadership began to pay attention to domestic public opinion and the standard of living, which the SDI contest was likely to beggar further.

The 1980 peaceful anti-communist uprising of the Polish workers had been a very disturbing development, which underscored the precariousness of the Soviet Union's east-central European empire. But occasional tentativeness is not the same as defeat. Suppressed by the Polish military regime and contained by martial law, by 1985 the Solidarity revolution looked exhausted. The Soviet Union seemed to have adjusted well to undertaking bloody "pacifications" in its Eastern European empire every twelve years—Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1980—without much regard for world opinion.

Overall, in 1985–87, the Soviet Union was at the height of its world power and influence, anchored in the strategic nuclear parity with the United States. So strong was the conviction in the permanence of the Soviet power in general and its occupation of East Germany in particular that the West German elites and public alike were determined to "march through" the Soviet and East German "institutions" for generations, in hope of cajoling and bribing Berlin and its Moscow masters into incremental changes and rapprochement. Following the West's lead, Eastern European elites seemed prepared to tolerate Soviet domination and occupation indefinitely, and some of its leading dissidents aspired only to make "Mittel Europa," a "bridge" between the Soviet-owned East and the democratic West. "We tend to forget," Adam Ulam would note later, "that in 1985, no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR."

Thus the "mystery" of the Soviet collapse was not, for the most part, a product of negligence, incompetence, or ideological biases of individual Sovietologists. Yet instead of relief, exoneration brings with it a still larger difficulty: the key traditional areas of inquiry—economy, foreign policy and defense, and domestic politics—fail to point to, or even hint at, the possibility that the vast and vastly powerful imperial state, which looked (and, apparently, was) solid enough to last many more years, would fall apart so stunningly swiftly and completely only a few years later. The only conclusion possible is not that the search for the causes of the revolution was not diligent enough, but that it was restricted to the wrong places.

At the time (as today) the reigning paradigm for anticipating and analyzing large-scale social upheavals—the method that several generations of social scientists, including experts on the Soviet Union, who came predominantly from the ranks of historians and political scientists, had come to accept and deploy routinely—was structuralism.

The approach is rooted in Marx's "historical materialism," whose causal scheme is centered around the "forces of production" (the economic system), which constitute the "basis" of any social and political organization. In their constant development, the "forces of production" come into conflict with the increasingly obsolete and constraining "relations of production" ("superstructure"), or the political and social arrangement of a society. There ensues a revolution led by the "classes" whose locations in the economic system make them especially desirous of change. The constraining political, cultural, and social "superstructure" is cast aside and with it the impediment to economic progress, which, one day, was to bring about a classless communist society without exploitation and political conflict.

Modifying and updating the Marxian theory, most structuralists among the students of revolutions reject Marx's philosophy of history, in which class wars and revolutions are stages toward the inevitable triumph of classless communism. Following Max Weber, they also emphasize the relative autonomy of state, state institutions, and state bureaucracies as collective political actors—in contrast to Marx's view of them as nothing more than the "committees" for carrying out the agenda of the economically dominant class. Thus the causes of "social" (or what used to be known as "great") revolutions are traced to the states' inability—because of the "macro-structural" domestic economic, demographic, or political constraints, or unfavorable international environment—to effect the necessary economic, social, or political reforms. The result is a breakdown in state organizations, especially in their administrative, military, and coercive capabilities.

This is not an occasion to review the immense literature of structuralism in any detail. Of relevance to us here is that all the "meta-factors" of the structuralist analysis—whether economic, political, institutional, or demographic—are invariably "material" and "objective." They are independent of (or "exogenous to") people and people's ideas. In the words of Theda Skocpol, who is perhaps the leading structuralist theorist of revolutions today, "revolutions are not made; they come": it is "objective relations and conflicts" among "groups and nations" that explain revolutions, not "the interests, outlooks, or ideologies."

With apologies to Skocpol, Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Jack Goldstone, and other expounders of structuralism (each of whom calls attention to different elements of pre-revolutionary situations), let us note only that structuralist explanations can be very helpful in identifying long-term tendencies, tectonic shifts, as it were, in economy, institutions, politics, demography, or international environment as causes of revolution. Yet nothing in history is automatic or inevitable. Something having happened—and, in retrospect, having had very good reasons for happening—does not mean that it was inevitable and, moreover, should have happened only in the way it did. To use Charles Tilly's frequently made distinction, a "revolutionary situation" is different from a "revolutionary outcome." Throughout history, only a tiny fraction of political or economic crises have become revolutions.

If a revolutionary process is represented by a line on which letters from, say, a to d mark the stages of the revolution from first stirrings to the triumph, the structuralist approach may be very helpful in uncovering what happened on the c-to-d stretch, from a clear crisis to a revolution. But it is clearly deficient in illuminating what happens between a and c, especially in explaining why structures that were present in ancien régimes for decades before suddenly became risk-enhancing factors.

The latest Russian revolution is no exception. There were plenty of structural reasons why the Soviet Union should have collapsed as it did, yet they fail to explain fully how it happened. How, that is, between 1985 and 1989, in the absence of a sharp worsening in the economic, political, demographic, and other structural conditions, did the state and the economic systems it owned—ridden as they were with large and visible faults, failures and deficiencies yet appearing viable and lasting both to the overwhelming majority of its citizens, their leaders, and outside experts—suddenly begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women among the politically active minority, which everywhere and at all times makes revolutions, to become doomed?


Excerpted from Roads to the Temple by LEON ARON Copyright © 2012 by Leon Aron. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 The "Mystery" of the Soviet Collapse and the Theory of Revolutions....................11
2 For Truth and Goodness: The Credos of Glasnost....................36
3 Inside the "Deafened Zone"....................63
4 In Search of History....................71
5 "The Innocent, the Slandered, the Exterminated"....................76
6 The Peasant Hecatomb....................99
7 The Unraveling of the Legitimizing Myths, I: Food, Housing, Medical Care, the "Golden Childhood," and the Standard of Living....................112
8 The Unraveling of the Legitimizing Myths, II: Progress, the "State of Workers and Peasants," Equality, "Freedom from Exploitation," Novocherkassk....................131
9 The Unraveling of the Legitimizing Myths, III: The Great Patriotic War....................151
10 The "Immoral" Economy....................172
11 The "Disintegration of Souls": Homo Sovieticus....................187
12 The House That Stalin Built: The Master State and Its Political Economy....................199
13 "De-individualization," the "Original Sin," and the Nationalization of Conscience....................210
14 Stalin, Memory, Repentance, Atonement....................223
15 The "Spirit of Freedom" and the Power of Nyet....................236
16 The Freedom Canon: Mandelstam, Dombrovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Platonov, Grossman....................255
17 In Man's Image, I: "Privatizing" the State and Economy....................270
18 In Man's Image, II: The Empire, the "Garrison State," and the World....................287
GLASNOST'S TROUBADOURS....................321
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2013

    Get a new editor

    For the history and work that the author put into this book, I would think that the editor would have paid more attention to the typo's and been better at the editing to make this an easier read.
    That being said, I commend the author for his research.

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