Pretensions: Son of Perestroika
When word got out that Mikhail Gorbachev was planning a follow-up to his immensely popular book, Perestroika, many people's reaction was: No way, Gorbay! Sure, Perestroika had been a powerful, illuminating, vastly influential book—and a dynamite read—but it still seemed to most of us that when you've read one book about glasnost you've read them all.
Besides, you have to go all the way back to the New Testament to find a sequel you could put in the same league as its predecessor; even The Odyssey was a bit of a disappointment after Homer's first time at bat. But if anyone could pull this off, it was the G-Man—so I, for one, decided to reserve my judgment until the book had rolled off the presses.
Well, now it's here, and the finished product should make all Doubting Thomases—and herein I include Yours Truly—recoil in shame at our earlier apprehensions. Astonishing though it might seem, Perestroika II is even more fascinating, more witty, more insightful, and more powerful than its monumental forebear. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.
When Gorbachev wrote Perestroika he hadn't been on the scene for very long and had no way of knowing how well his wham-bam, thank-you-ma'am literary approach would go down in this country. So he soft-pedaled it a bit, toning down some of his grittier prose. Thus, in Perestroika, he limited his discussion to such traditional Soviet characters as "caterpillars of fascism," "children of an outright parasite," "loudmouths," "bugbears," "pseudo-socialists," and "peace loafers." But now that he's got his sea legs, Gorbo is ready to air it out and cut loose.
Thus, in Volume II we are introduced to such post-perestroikal zanies as "earthworms of reaction," "neo-hooligans," "pseudo-guttersnipes," "crypto-wiseacres," "fellow-traveling street urchins," "decadent floozies," and "children of a lesser parasite." And, true to the spirit of glasnost, the Soviet premier even uncorks a couple of snappy, postmodern one-liners that would make even the stodgiest Bolshevik chuckle. Here's an example:
"Two Kulaks, an Estonian, a Bessarabian, and an apparatchik walk into a bar. So the bartender says, 'You guys get the hell out of here before this joke goes any further.'"
Take that, Davidschka Letter-manshkov!
In Perestroika, Gorbachev regaled us with riveting stories of bureaucratic foulups in such chapters as "More Light to Glasnost!" and "On to Full-Cost Accounting!" In the new, improved volume, he goes us one better with such chapter headings as "Hail, Hail, Perestroika!," "On to Fuller Disclosure of FASB-Approved Non-Arms-Length Relationships!" and "In the Rostov-Minsk Industrial Dry-Cell Battery Factory, the Quality Goes In Before the Name Goes On!"
One of the most rewarding features of Perestroika was those terrific letters ordinary Soviet citizens had sent to Gorbachev. My personal favorite came from V.A. Brikovskis, who wrote after the January 1987 plenary meeting of the Central Committee, "My heart is so filled with impressions that I simply have to share them with someone else." And who better to share them with than the Soviet premier? The letter writer went on to say, "Many people—I mean the generation born in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties—have become ossified. And I am not afraid of using this word."
In the new volume, there is a follow-up letter from Brikovskis, reading:
"A year ago, I wrote to you about Soviet citizens who had become—and I was not afraid to use this word—ossified. Since that time, many of those people have become calcified. Thanks to glasnost—or is it perestroika?—I am not afraid to use that word, either. Next year, I may write and say that these people have become mummified. Right now, though, I am still a little bit afraid to use that word.
"Incidentally, if you want to get rid of that birthmark, my brother-in-law is a wonderful dermatologist.
Your friend, Boris."
Truly, the spirit of glasnost is alive and well in the Soviet Union, and Perestroika II brims with the unbridled enthusiasm of its chief architect. So buy this volume for yourself, then pass it along to a friend. A better read you will not find this year. And if Volume II is the same hit Volume I was, perhaps we can soon look forward to The Other Side of Perestroika, Glasnost: The Untold Story, or I Never Promised You a Rosa Luxemburg. Hey, Mister G is just getting warmed up.
Joe Queenan is a freelance writer in Tarrytown, New York.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pretensions: Son of Perestroika".