Disclaimer: Due to the overall hypersensitivity of Assembly members, anyone who reads this essay must read this disclaimer. In no way does the author of this paper compare George Geftakys, or any current or past Assembly functionary to Stalin, Lenin, Gorbachev, Chernenko, or any other Soviet era leader. Neither does the author mean to compare the Assembly to the Soviet Union. What the author is attempting to do is to illustrate a principle at work in mass movements and human institutions in general. This principle was at work before, during and after the Soviet Union, and is at work in other places, including religious organizations. Do not make the mistake of discrediting this essay on the grounds that the author is trying to compare George Geftakys to Josef Stalin. If one were to do so it would be intellectually dishonest and would expose the reader’s unwillingness to confront the truth, for whatever reason.
During the 1980’s a new Secretary General, Mikhail Gorbachev, rose to power in the Soviet Union. Without a doubt, historians agree that this man was not unlike his predecessors, in that he too shared an insatiable thirst for power. What made Mr. Gorbachev different was the era in which he obtained power.
The USSR was totally bankrupt. Their economy was in dreadful shape, the morale of the people was at an all time low, and there was no way anyone could continue to lie about the efficacy of the communist policies that had been in place for the last 70 years. Communism in Russia was a total failure, period. In spite of this, most of the rulers were absolutely committed to maintaining their positions and the status quo, whatever the cost.
Enter Gorbachev. Mr. Gorbachev began a comprehensive program called Perestroika, which is best translated as Rebuilding, or Reconstruction. Without ever fully admitting past mistakes in plain simple language, he attempted to re-build the Soviet economy (Even though the official view was that it was in fine shape) using western capitalistic ideals in limited capacity. People could now have their own gardens to raise their own food, and could engage in limited, controlled capitalistic behavior. Little freedoms were granted in small, well-circumscribed areas of life.
Another component of Perestroika was Glasnost, or Openness. In previous years, the communist party had complete and total control over the press and media, and only allowed information that met their approval to be broadcast. What Glasnost did was to allow a liberal press to be formed, which could actually criticize the government to some extent. In addition to this, for the first time people were allowed to travel out of the Soviet Union and even emigrate. Western culture began to be popular and people started asking questions and voicing dissent.
To be sure, Gorbachev did not want a totally free press; he wanted to use Glasnost and the illusion of a free press to further his political ends. For instance, Breshnev, Krushev, and Stalin could be criticized, but not Father Lenin, because to do this would be to criticize communism itself, which was not at all in Gorbachev’s plans. By making a habit of engaging in a little careful, planned, self-criticism, when he then used the press to criticize his enemies, it would carry much more power. Much of the false history taught in Soviet schools was replaced with a truer version, but the whole truth was never to be told.
In short, Glasnost and Perestroika were political fixes designed to improve morale. Much in the same way as a mortician, Perestroika attempted to make a dead, hopeless economy look more acceptable. At the same time, Gorbachev believed that these changes would endear him to the western world, especially the United States, in order that he could obtain billions of dollars to put his very sick country on life support, and of course to spread the wealth around to those who helped him in his rise and continuing grip on power.
However, things did not work out the way he planned. Somewhere around 1989, Glasnost broke it’s leash and no longer obeyed its master. The first hint of this was in 1986, during the Chernobyl disaster, when the Soviet Union attempted to keep silent about the problem. They kept this up for 48 hours, and were then forced to tell the whole truth in an unprecedented way. The western media got involved, and the United States was even asked to help. Soon, the Soviet citizens were to learn that their government had destroyed their environment in a most hideous fashion, and that they were hopelessly behind the rest of the world in every aspect of life except misery.
The press began to criticize Gorbachev. Radicals wanted change faster, hard-line communists wanted to crush all dissent, as of old, and the huge, decades old fractures in the USSR’s political landscape were finally admitted to, even as it shattered.
Ronald Reagan was well aware of the situation. Instead of only praising Gorbachev and the slightly improved version of communism, he took the opportunity to call the USSR an "Evil Empire." One of his most memorable phrases was, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" At the same time he did this, he was engaged in high-level diplomacy with the Soviets. It was a masterful display of courage and truthfulness and political skill on the part of Ronald Reagan. The result was that shortly into the presidency of George Bush Sr., the Soviet Empire broke apart, and the cold war was over.
Did Ronald Reagan destroy the Soviet Union? Absolutely not, Soviet style communism destroyed itself with its dismal economy, oppressive environment and lying, manipulating media.
Did Glasnost and Perestroika destroy the Soviet Union? No, they were merely the last symptoms of a terminally ill patient. As Eric Hoffer states in his excellent book, The True Believer, when a mass movement, like communism, begins to give out little freedoms, and make small concessions in the face of internal criticism, the death of the movement is imminent.
The fact that Gorbachev saw that the people needed some sort of token freedom, and should be told a little more of the truth, was at the same time an admission of failure that spoke much louder than words, and the deadly dose of poison that would euthanize the already terminally ill patient. Soviet style communism was dead.
What is the principle at work here?
It is that people who are accustomed to bondage, upon getting their first taste of freedom, do not find temporary comfort to help them carry on in their oppression. On the contrary, once an enslaved people get a small taste of real freedom, be it a first time visit outside the borders, or the first article in a newspaper to expose the lies and cover-ups of their oppressive leaders, they will not be satisfied until they have thrown off all of their chains and feel they are free.
The current climate of The Assembly can be compared to the brief, simplified history given above in the sense that The Assembly is now being forced to make small concessions to its members. It is not cracking down on dissent quite as vigorously as in the past, and the people are beginning to find out that their leaders do not always tell the truth, and have actually done much harm to those they lead. At the same time, many are getting "visas" to visit other churches and are noticing that back home at The Assembly, things are not as prosperous as their centrally controlled press told them they were. Just as the influx of Western culture into Russia signaled a massive change in the Soviet Union, so too The Assembly’s acceptance of Rock music in outreach is a symptom of a tidal shift in Assembly culture.
Gorbachev was forced, by circumstances of longstanding, to institute Perestroika and Glasnost. In no way did he ever design to yield power over the press, or enable his political opponents. He never intended to see the downfall of his empire, and to find himself out of power, but he most assuredly doomed himself by giving the media and the people a small taste of freedom. Freedom is a potent concept and has historically proven to be a much more powerful motivator of human events than fear and oppression ever have been.
Lately, The Assembly has undergone a good deal more criticism than at any time in the past. While in the past members were not allowed to have television, they have been allowed to have computers, and thus are able to use the Internet. Members are able to view writings that are critical of the Assembly and its leaders, and are able to clandestinely email former members to obtain banned information. While the leadership has tried to limit member’s exposure to this sort of thing as much as possible, they have not been successful, and have thus been forced to make concessions.
The outside evangelical world has long viewed The Assembly as elitist and exclusive. This is an absolutely true assessment. The current leadership vehemently denies this claim, but nevertheless they are at the same time attempting to be less exclusive than before in many small areas. While they have not progressed to the point of actually doing something with another church, they have allowed prayer with other Christians at Mom’s in Touch, and have actually attended some events in the Christian community. There is a general softening, a Glasnost beginning to take root in Assembly culture. In just the same way that Gorbachev intended, the leadership hopes to bolster morale and at the same time discredit some of the opposition. In no way is it the leadership’s intention to admit that they have ever been the least bit exclusive. They, like other leaders in similar situations, have no plans to yield power.
Because of this new "glasnost," allowed by the leadership, members are having more contact with other Christians in the community. Instead of making life in The Assembly more tolerant, I believe this will result in a thirst for more freedom, and a demand for more concessions. Sooner or later, members will learn of The Assembly’s revisionist history, cover-up of crimes in the leadership, and most importantly, the alarming state of bankruptcy to which their spiritual economy has fallen.
Sooner or later, this creature called Glasnost will break its leash and will no longer be under the control of The Assembly leaders. Public dissent will increase. Factions in the leadership, which are already very much in place, will become public and visible. Leaders will vie with one another for power and the empire will crumble.
History has a funny way of repeating itself.
Has The Assembly committed all the atrocities of the Soviet Union? Certainly not. Is The Assembly leadership as morally reprobate as Stalin? Most definitely not. Is there a principle at work in human institutions and movements such as described above? I think it is a self-evident truth.
I predict a major change in The Assembly in the near future.
October 10, 2002