Thirty years since the start of the Soviet-era perestroika reforms, what lessons should Russia and the U.S. have learned from this unique period in bilateral relations?

Soviet leader and architect of perestroika Mikhail Gorbachev, left, and the Member of the Politburo of the Soviet Union' s Comminist Party Nikolai Ryzhkov at the Red Square. Photo: RIA Novosti

It has been nearly 30 years since the start of the famous perestroika reforms (1985-1991) undertaken by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a time when interest in the Soviet Union and Russian language surged and Soviet-American ties were strengthened through student and professional exchanges as well as through telecasts that connected Soviets and Americans, separated both geographically by the ocean and ideologically by regimes.

According to the Modern Language Association, there was an almost two-fold increase in enrollments in Russian language in the U.S shortly before and throughout perestroika. Particularly, between 1980 and 1990, the number of people studying Russian increased from about 24,000 to more than 44,000.

Enrollments in Russian in the U.S. in 1960-2013. Source: The Modern Language Association

Research from Victoria Bonnell and George Breslauer from University of California-Berkeley indicates that Gorbachev’s reforms and, particularly, his glasnost policy (an attempt to establish freedom of speech and transparency in governmental institutions) brought excitement among academics and experts and enriched the field of Soviet Studies “with a multiplicity of novel observations of policy changes and societal reactions.”

“Glasnost increasingly diminished the level of data poverty that had hobbled the field since its inception. From a trickle in 1986, glasnost opened a floodgate by 1989-90; censorship declined dramatically; increasingly sensitive archives were opened both to Soviet and non-Soviet scholars,” Bonnell and Breslauer wrote.

Most importantly, perestroika allowed Soviet and American scholars to exchange their opinions and publish articles together in Western scholarly journals. In addition, scholars regularly participated in joint events – in telecasts and academic international forums, where, as Bonnell and Breslauer put it, “Soviet scholars became increasingly emboldened to speak their minds.”   

Likewise, the Soviet and American people started participating in telecasts (or “TV bridges”) starting in the early 1980s. Soviet and American journalists organized such conferences between 1982 and 1987 and brought together Soviet and American people from major cities: Moscow, Leningrad (modern St. Petersburg), Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston and San Francisco. Primarily, they dealt with common interests, culture, movies, journalism, and lifestyle as well as the shared history of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.   

Famous TV talk show star Phil Donahue and his Soviet counterpart Vladimir Pozner were among those who hosted these “TV bridges,” one of which was viewed by 200 million Soviet citizens and more than 8 million Americans.

“In those years I participated in joint telecasts with the U.S. and felt myself a pigeon with an olive twig in my beak,” well-known Russian writer Andrei Knyshev told Kommersant. “And I felt myself those kindnesses and hopes expressed by Americans.”

Meanwhile, Donahue admitted that when “Gorbachev came to power in April of 1985 and perestroika was alive,” almost everybody “was talking about a new openness,” which was crucial for mutual understanding.

“We did a woman-to-woman TV bridge between Boston and Leningrad,” he told Russia Beyond The Headlines. “We asked them, ‘May we see what’s in your purses? And they all opened their purses and there were the same things [inside]. It was the beginning of seeing ourselves in others. We reached out instead of lashed out. And we saw each other as parents caring about their children, adults caring about their employment, and income, and so on and so forth. And I think we made a bit of [progress] in what had been a very suspicious relationship."

“The shift of power from an older generation to a newer one”

Russian and foreign experts agree that perestroika played a crucial role in establishing closer ties between Russia and the U.S.

“The perestroika experience in the U.S.S.R. was a unique phenomenon determined by very specific conditions – most importantly the Soviet Union's reevaluation of its foundation myths and achievements,” said Anton Fedyashin, director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University. “Doubt is always a healthy thing in human societies since it stimulates introspection and this experience led many people in the U.S.S.R. to express genuine interest in the U.S. and its culture.”

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the two leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington, D.C. on December 8, 1987. Photo: AP

Given big changes in public opinion in both countries, decreasing differences and reassessment of mutual stereotypes in such a short period of time, perestroika could be seen as a valuable lesson for Moscow and Washington now, agrees Andrey Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

“It happened thanks to the readiness of the authorities from both countries to come up with compromises,” Kortunov said. “It indicates that nothing could be irreversible and definitive in politics. The transition from confrontation to collaboration in the 1980s should evoke cautious optimism in us.”

Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Moscow, sees the thaw of perestroika as “a great example of two states with apparently opposing ideologies beginning to understand” that cooperation benefits both sides.

He graduated from Harvard’s Russian Studies Masters Program in 1998, long after the Soviet collapse. However, since his mother is Russian and his American father, George Feifer, is a journalist who reported about Soviet life during the Cold War, he grew up very much aware of Soviet life. No wonder, he met perestroika with a great deal of hope.

“My early perception of the U.S.S.R. was little more than a stereotype: a place where life was grim and everything was grey — but that under the surface people were warm and valued love and friendship,” he said. “When Gorbachev began perestroika, it was a period of great optimism that the Soviet Union was finally opening.”

Kenneth Martinez, a graduate from Stanford University with a Master’s Degree in International Studies, focusing on Russia, was born just before perestroika, but studied it the university in detail. He sees perestroika as “the shift of power from an older generation to a newer one,” as a sense of movement in the stagnant society long in need of change. He especially appreciates the level of trust that existed between people, including diplomats. 

“What is quite interesting, however, are the personal ties and trust that characterized the relationships of many diplomats of the older generation during this period,” he believes. “This created a sense of stability that allowed relationships to be built on mutual respect and on trust – a wary trust, well-characterized by Reagan’s slogan of ‘trust but verify’, but trust nonetheless.”

Perestroika: The other side of the coin

In contrast, Nicolai N. Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russia, warns against romanticizing the perestroika period.

“For the Soviet leadership at the time it was not an effort to promote mutual understanding with the West,” he argues. “Rather, it was an attempt to reform the U.S.S.R. and re-connect with the original Leninist ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with people in Belgrade during his official visit to Yugoslavia. Photo: RIA Novosti

According to Petro, perestroika was just one of several terms – including “glasnost,” “uskoreniye” (or speeding up production without sacrificing efficiency) and “new political thinking,” designed to popularize the image of the Soviet Union in the world by diminishing the role of Marxist-Leninist ideology and building a more flexible foreign policy – which were launched at the time.

“As Gorbachev says at the time, taken together these new initiatives were designed to deter a Western attack and to strengthen socialism – all very traditional Soviet foreign policy goals,” he said. “Not surprisingly, therefore, in the United States perestroika met with enormous skepticism.”

At best, it was seen as an opportunity to achieve the advancement of U.S. policy interests by taking advantage of the fact that Gorbachev had temporarily disoriented the Soviet leadership; at worst, it was seen as merely another effort by Soviet leaders to bamboozle the West.

Other experts, academics and journalists also don’t see perestroika as such a transformative phenomenon in the era of Soviet-American relations. Many argue that it didn’t meet all the expectations of the U.S. and Russia, which, finally, led to mutual misunderstanding.

According to Kortunov, perestroika drove Soviet-American relations to a significant improvement, but it was “unstable,” “inconsistent” and “unsustainable” and failed to reach long-term results, partly, because the U.S. “was in a state of euphoria” that stemmed from their triumphalism after the Cold War. This prevented Russia and the U.S. from building a reliable partnership, argues Kortunov. 

Fedyashin echoes his view.

“Once the floodgates opened, Western and American culture quickly overwhelmed the U.S.S.R., but the dismantlement of the country in 1991 led to two unfortunate consequences,” he said. “In Russia, the end of the Cold War inspired unrealistic expectations about becoming part of a greater West. In the U.S., triumphalist interpretations of victory in the Cold War resulted in unrealistic assumptions about Russia's cultural and political convergence with the West. The outcome was a reluctance to study Russian culture as an integral part of Russian national identity in the West.”

Meanwhile, Martinez argues that perestroika “opened a can of worms with perestroika that acted more like a kicked bag of snakes,” and one of them bit its main architect: Gorbachev.

“What resulted was the chaotic Russia of the 1990s out of which Russia’s current institutions were born and that gave ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ a bad connotation for many Russians,” he said.

Anti-perestroika as the current dynamic of U.S.-Russia relations 

Petro believes that the U.S. must look beyond Gorbachev’s perestroika to “anticipate the emergence of a new national consensus based on traditional Russian values.”

“Failure to do so would result in misreading Russia as simply an extension of the Soviet Union, and blind us to opportunities for forging a new relationship that come but once in a lifetime,” he warns.

When asked why the increasing interest toward Russia after the Ukrainian crisis hasn’t translated into more funding for Russia Studies programs in the U.S., Petro said that “initiatives of this magnitude take years to establish and our focus on Ukraine is barely two years old."

According to him, the problem in funding lies in the historic perception of Russia. In particular, Petro argues that more funding will be rather available to study Russia as "the perennial enemy of the West" and to combat “Russian propaganda,” as was the case at the apex of the Cold War. And only when such tactics fails, “academics will again be brought in to explain to the public relations folks that translation is not enough,” Petro concludes. “One actually has to understand the cultural values of the target population and speak to these.”

Related: "Bilateral exchanges are the key to the future of Russian Studies in the US"

“The good news, therefore, is that government support will afford more opportunities to study Russia,” Petro said. “The bad news is that we will have replicated the ideological, organizational, and institutional perspectives of the Cold War, and once again lost sight of the complexity and diversity of Russian life and society.”

At the same time, Feifer argues that the current trend in U.S.-Russia relations is far from the one that existed during perestroika, so that it would be too naïve to dream about a new perestroika.

“Today’s dynamics are the opposite,” he said. “Vladimir Putin’s drive to shore up power by waging a new Cold War with the West is ensuring relations will only deteriorate. He has fashioned opposing the West into a test of loyalty to the Motherland: Precious few ambitious people would risk taking part in the kinds of television links and exchanges that characterized the late 1980s. Putin is a leader in the mold of Stalin or Brezhnev, not Gorbachev or Khrushchev – any Perestroika 2.0 will have to wait.”

Martinez agrees with Feifer’s assessment of U.S.-Russia relations. According to him, the potential for open conflict is even greater than at almost any time during the Cold War.

“There are no established rules to the game, and the amicable relations of the previous generation have crumbled into mutual distrust,” he said. “I think this lack of certainty and degeneration of personal relationships are probably one of the worse outcomes for those of the older generation.”