According to the book of Ecclesiastes, there is no new thing under the sun. But at first glance, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev would seem to be proving the ancient sage wrong. His program of domestic social and economic reforms, gathered under the umbrella of glasnost or "openness," is if not an entirely new thing then certainly a surprise.
Gorbachev and his allies are doing their best to shake a moribund communist system back to life. They seem determined to disprove the Reaganaut doctrine of Cold War metaphysics, which holds that communist societies are inherently unreformable.
In the last year, scores of Soviet prisoners of conscience have been released. Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, the international symbol of the Soviet human rights struggle, was returned from exile and restored to his position in Moscow's scientific community. Literature, films, plays, music, and other artworks long suppressed have surfaced to great public fanfare.
Straightforward news reports of unpleasant events, including strikes and anti-government riots, are being broadcast for the first time. Criticism of corrupt and incompetent officials by the public and the Soviet media is not only tolerated but actively encouraged by the Gorbachev regime. On the economic front, Gorbachev has charted a new course of decentralizing the creaky and unproductive state planning machinery, giving more power to individual plant managers and market forces.
Those are the facts of the case as widely broadcast by the Western media, which the Soviet reformers are eager to court. But what those facts mean is open to a range of interpretation both in the West and in the Soviet Union itself. Does glasnost herald the long-awaited advent of "socialism with a human face," or is it just a cosmetic touch-up on the old, familiar regimen of state control?