Primary Sources

The Soviet Union over the Next Four Years


In early 1989, shortly after President George H. W. Bush had taken office, the office of US ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack F. Matlock sent this message to the attention of the new National Security Advisor General Brent Scowcroft. The message details the strains placed on official Marxist-Leninist ideology by the the most recent economic reforms implemented by Gorbachev. Many of these had been "market" reforms in line with neoclassical economic theory, which were an awkward fit with the Marxist view of history, which viewed capitalism as something that happened before socialist state planning, not after. Thus, according to this document, Soviet leaders were mostly staying on the safer ground of attacking the excesses of Stalin, and selectively reading Lenin, and rehabilitating dissident Soviet thinkers who had been discredited in earlier periods. Market reforms in the Soviet Union, the document suggests, while breathing new life into the economy, were laying bare the intellectual failings of Soviet Marxism and thus damaging the legitimacy of the government.

The second part of this message is concerned with internal domestic reforms. The author makes it quite clear that America's main interest in Soviet domestic matters is how they are likely to constrain Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet Union, the author argues, must make "painful" reforms to its domestic economy over the next four years or face collapse. But the more ambitious these reforms, the more they will be opposed internally, either by sections of the population or of the government or military. The outcome of the reforms will ultimately be the result of these conflicts. The author's central prediction—that the process would be messy, but that the Soviet leadership would survive—was wrong.


Moscow Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "The Soviet Union Over the Next Four Years," 3 February 1989, Cold War International History Project, Virtual Archive, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

[Part 1]

... Earlier attempts at "reform" tried to keep the ideology intact and simply change the way it was implemented. This sufficed to eliminate the grosser aspects of Stalinist terror, but not to improve the managerial efficiency of the economy....

When Gorbachev first came to power it appeared that he, too, was going for superficial "fixes" in economic management. Nevertheless, as his program developed, it began more and more to confront the ideological foundation of old practices—and to change the old assumptions....

This process followed several paths. On was an all-out attack on Stalinism, which implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—denied that the Stalinist system of state monopoly was even a legitimate form of Socialism....

Rehabilitation of non-Stalinist Marxist thinkers such as Bukharin has occurred with the devious intent of providing variant and more congenial interpretations of Marxist principles....

Lenin has remained sacrosanct, but his utterances on topics of the day were so varied that the diligent researcher can find a quote to bolster virtually any proposition. "Leninism" in effect becomes what the current leaders want it to be—transformation of Marxism itself....

Among the major ideological points which the reformers are trying to establish are the fundamental role of the market in determining economic value....

An objective look at the major economic initiatives launched under the banner of perestroika shows a recurrent flaw. Top Soviet leadership is having to revisit each initiative in order to sustain or rebuild momentum which is otherwise lost when the leadership itself is not focused on it. The political thrusts of each major economic initiative (e.g., land-leasing, consumer goods, free trade zones, financial autonomy, industrial policy, consumer good production) have far outdistanced economic substance, and provision of the specifics necessary for implementation and overcoming resistance to reform at all levels.

It is almost as certain that Perestroika will not bring marked improvements to the Soviet economy in the [next four years] and that internal resistance to major aspects of the reform program will force those a the helm to tack against the wind much of the time. The potential for severe outbreaks of public disorder will grow. This will contribute to a sense of anxiety on the Supreme Councils of the Party and State, though I believe that they, in the end, will maintain order.

Crystal balls are never as clear as one would like and they tend to cloud over during times of rapid and fundamental change. Nevertheless, it seems that we can make some assessments about the Soviet domestic scene over the next 4 years with a high degree of confidence.

How to Cite this Source

U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, "The Soviet Union over the Next Four Years," Making the History of 1989, Item #132, (accessed April 16 2014, 3:34 am).