The Agony of GorbachevnMikhail Gorbachev has evidently imagined that angovernment turned virtuous would elicit a generousnresponse from a naturally virtuous people. It is an “immaculatenmisconception” because the Russian people, alwaysnlethargic in the face of their leviathan government, havenendured in the Soviet experiment a unique erosion ofnEdward Gibbon’s old Greco-Roman ideal of civic virtue.nLord Acton suggested that power corrupts. Studs Terkelnmaintains that utter impotence corrupts more yet. But thenSoviet people have experienced the worst corruption of all,nthe juxtaposition of unlimited power in the government andnunqualified impotence in the people.nThere is a simple explanation for the trials and travails ofnGorbachev’s program of reform. He has misconceived thenRussian variant of human nature, and he suffers from annahistorical perception of the Russian political tradition.nMoreover, his game plan is surprisingly blind to Russia’snexperience with reform, and in three ways in particular.nFirst, there is a distinct parallel between the crisis thatnafflicts the Soviet Union today and the similar crisis in 1917,nwhich the Russian Empire did not survive. To the governmentnof Nicholas II, it seemed obvious that both economicnand political reform were required to secure the long-termnsurvival of an outworn system. Yet the reforms that werendevised, the Witte program of planned industrialization andnthe awkward constitution of 1906, were applied in such anway as to aggravate in the short run the very situation theynwere designed to alleviate in the long run. Gorbachev’snreforms obviously entail a similar risk.nSecond, Gorbachev sells himself as a populist and andemocrat. Thus he ignores what is perhaps the most conspicuousnand persistent characteristic of Russian politics: thenprogressive nature of the authoritarian state. Contrary tonAmerican popular mythology, which cannot free itself of itsnmistaken image of George III, monarchy in eariy modernnHugh Ragsdale is a professor of Russian history at thenUniversity of Alabama.nby Hugh RagsdalenEurope (1500-1789) was usually an agency of progressivenmodernization, frequently also an agency of popular justice.nIt was aided mightily by an ally ultimately more progressiventhan itself, the bourgeoisie. The monarchy in Russia, on thenother hand, lacking a bourgeois ally, has been the uniquenagency of progressive, though often brutal, innovation, andnpublic opinion has typically ranged from passive and lethargicnto conservative and even reactionary. No one hasnsummed up this interpretation of the Russian politicalntradition so pithily as the dissident mathematician IgornShafarevich in a remarkably imaginative work entitlednSotsializm kak iavlenia mirovoi istorii {Socialism as anManifestation of World History). Shafarevich quotes thenfifth-century B.C. Chinese sage. Lord Shang; “Where thenpeople is strong, the state is weak; and where the people isnweak, the state is strong.”nThird, Gorbachev has failed, in his naivete, to consultnthose political theorists who would have been most useful tonhim. The ancient Kremlinologist whom we know as Ecclesiastesnwould have warned him of the difficulty of reform:n”What has been is what will be, and what has been done isnwhat will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”nHe would have called Gorbachev’s attention to the Sovietnbureaucracy: “what is crooked cannot be made straight.”nAnd he would have cautioned him about economic planners:n”what is lacking cannot be numbered.” Anothernunimpeachable authority, the Marquis de Sade, would havenwarned that “crime serves nature’s intentions as well asnwisdom and virtue [do].” Thus he would have had Gorbachevn”sally forth into this perverse world” in a distinctlynmore cynical spirit. And the American theorist of then”booboisie,” H.L. Mencken, would have told Gorbachevnthat only countries naturally rich and safe can affordndemocracy, for “democracy is the most expensive andnnefarious kind of government on earth.”nEcclesiastes stands here for the idea of cultural conservatism.nNo state, no matter how mighty, has yet acquired thenpower to change mentalities, the cake of custom, in a merennnFEBRUARY 1990/19n