“Everything must be carried through to the end”
No. 4 2009 October/December
Mikhail S. Gorbachev


The last leader of the Soviet Union, he was General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 until 1991, and President of the USSR in 1990-1991

– Mr. Gorbachev, twenty years ago you made the greatest contribution to making Europe look as it does today. Are you satisfied with what you did?

– When the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was adopted at the summit level [November 1990 – Ed.], everything was put in explicit terms. But the way this process was handled later… It should have been carried through, especially with regard to the creation of a pan-European security architecture. If such an architecture had existed now, do you think we would be arguing endlessly about NATO? About which countries should be admitted to it and which countries should not?

– By the way, speaking of NATO expansion, do you feel cheated? They promised not to enlarge NATO, and now it comprises about 30 countries and there is no end to it.

– We ourselves are to blame; that is, the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, with which they had reached an agreement, ceased to exist and the agreement was undermined. This is only logical.

– Do you mean to say that if the Soviet Union still existed, they would have kept their promises?

– Of course they would have! Germans, for example, have fulfilled everything that we signed back then and are still fulfilling their part of the agreement. Thanks to the peaceful reunification of Germany that country is a reliable partner. Germans know their historical responsibility. Unification processes in Europe can be deepened. We discussed back then that Europe needs a Security Council of its own, which would have the authority, status and composition required for addressing all the issues. However, Europe has not yet overcome the classical formula of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, who said the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Only now a new generation is arising that can implement a different policy.

– And what were the guarantees of non-enlargement?

– We agreed on a wide range of actions, from nuclear disarmament to radical changes in the atmosphere in Europe, to the establishment of a stable balance and then, on this basis, to a transition towards a new architecture. And all this was put on record.

– These are general provisions. And were you given a concrete promise not to advance the military infrastructure to the East?

– And how would you perceive that? How could that be put on record? Do you think we could assume that the partners with whom we were concluding an agreement would attack us and we would attack them? In all our agreements, we introduced the principle of creating a common security architecture for Europe. This architecture must be common to all – this was the meaning of the whole process. Of course, it is up to each country to make a choice; this is the sovereign right of nations. But as regards Europe, it is more complicated; I would say that this is the sovereign right of all the nations taken together. However, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, things began to fall apart. A war broke out in Europe and it began to be torn into pieces. Instead of a genuine unification, now we are on the brink of confrontation.

– With whom was it easier for you to negotiate– Reagan or Bush?

– George Shultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, told me years later that Reagan was the only U.S. president who could make concessions to the Soviet Union – because he was ultra-right; those farther to the right were only the dregs of society. This is why Reagan could make a turn that no one else would have been allowed to do. Our contacts with him in Geneva began with me calling him a dinosaur at out very first meeting, and he called me a diehard Bolshevik. And then we began our rapprochement, because we knew nuclear war was inadmissible and that there could no winners.

George H.W. Bush is an experienced politician; clever, sly and consummate. When he succeeded Reagan, his administration began to negotiate with us as if from scratch, although he had been Reagan’s vice president. They weighed everything again for half a year. But then we reached a mutual understanding, because we trusted each other. The negotiations were very difficult, but whenever we reached an agreement, it worked. However, when nasty things began to happen behind my back, of course Bush began to take time to deliberate. We should thank our nomenklatura for that, the nomenklatura on which I had pinned hopes and I had promoted many of them. We did everything ourselves, with our own hands.

– Some people now secretly yearn for the Soviet Union. They regret that they no longer have an enemy and are trying to recreate it. Have you read the letter written by Eastern European leaders to Barack Obama?

– Amazing! I was shocked by their groveling and low intellectual level. I have lost respect for those who signed the letter. Some titans of geopolitics! How they are bowing to America and begging for protection! But the Americans have reacted calmly to it and have taken that for granted. We all must follow the path which we discussed 20 years ago: we must build a united, peaceful Europe governed by Europeans, open to other countries and claiming leadership in world politics.

– And why should Americans need a Europe claiming to be a leader? They are leaders themselves.

– They particularly need it. They have already stopped saying, as they did before, that they won the Cold War. I used to tell them: we kept winning while we acted together, and then we all lost together. First we lost then all the others followed. This “winner complex” did them a serious disservice; it undermined the policy towards building a new world order, which George Bush and I talked about. Everybody agreed then that we needed a new world order – one more stable, more just and more humane. Instead, Bush announced in 1992 that America had won the Cold War. They gloated over our breakup and humiliation, although just a short time before they could not have even dreamed of that. And now what? They themselves do not know what to do. The balance has been upset. The United States cannot get away from change – speaking at Harvard a few years ago, I predicted a perestroika in America.

– This is why Obama is now compared with Gorbachev, both in a good and bad sense.

– I sympathize with him; he has ambitious and humane plans for his nation and the world. But the military-industrial complex can trip up the new president: they do not care at all about his ideas. Look at what they are doing: they have increased defense spending to a level that is higher than it was at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer exists! Why should they do that? Because they really do not believe in anything except for their force and war. This is a lunacy which must be stopped.

– And how can it be stopped? When the Soviet Union existed, it served as a counterweight. Now there is no counterweight.

– Counterweights will be found; they always are, and they are already ripening. But this won’t solve the problem. Looking for solutions in destruction is not the right path. I could not make such a decision. In addition, I felt sorry for my country – how could I impose an arms race on it? Imagine yourself running a country which has not yet recovered from the losses it incurred in the previous wars and upheavals – would you subject it to more suffering? It had had enough suffering before me, including the Afghan War. As for the Western “victory”… If we had not launched the new policy, they would have achieved nothing.

– But did you have any choice? After all, the Soviet Union would not have held out economically.

– We did not lose economically but politically – when Yeltsin began to stab me in the back and set fire to the situation. After that, the West began to hesitate about giving us support. Previously, Bush had tried to convince the Baltic republics and the Ukrainians not to try to ruin perestroika and warned them against nationalism. However, at a G7 summit, where I asked the West for aid, he gave me the cold shoulder. Mitterrand actively supported me, as well as Delors [Jacques Delors was President of the European Commission until 1994 – Ed.], but Bush did not want to support me. He was already thinking of other options – Yeltsin had brought them his anti-Communism on a silver platter. I deeply regret that I was too soft towards Boris Yeltsin. He should have been completely removed from politics back in 1987, at a plenary meeting of the Central Committee. That could have been very easy to do – the system worked well. But I decided that he should be put in his place and given an opportunity to make amends. It was my mistake.

– But you are a Marxist, Mr. President. Of course, the role of the personality in history is great, but there are also objective prerequisites. The problem was not Yeltsin.

– The situation was difficult, very difficult, and we needed help. But the country still had enough resources. We would have pulled through. While the Soviet Union existed, all difficulties were surmountable, both inside and outside the country. Now some people want to present things as if Gorbachev had no way out. The most important thing then was that people wanted change. And we were already searching for a new economic model. And what do we have today as a result? The same problems that we had then – dependence on oil and a poor situation with small business, although we had planned to begin precisely with the development of small business.

– Dmitry Medvedev has sort of built a bridge to those times with his initiative about a new European security architecture. Previously, no one in Russia had spoken about “a Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok” for a long time.

– Now is the time for that which cannot be missed. We are witnessing a crisis of all the models used previously. We need to look for a new model together, within the framework of cooperation as a basis for solving security problems. I always remind Americans about John F. Kennedy’s words that the world will be either for all, or there will be no world.

– And Lenin once wrote: “Before we can unite […] we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation.” Perhaps, we are now at the stage of the required demarcation?

– This “demarcation” has now exceeded all thinkable limits, I think. Lenin was quite a “brawler.” But I still have respect for him. He was a great person, and all attempts to sling mud at him and put him on a level with Stalin are unfair. One should understand the time in which Russia found itself then. After all, it was not Lenin who had brought the country to that state: it was the Romanovs. But Lenin dared to propose an incredible and enormous project. He had an amazing instinct. Before the revolution in Russia he wrote that the proletariat would win power through democracy and would rule the country through democracy. And then comes the year 1917, with all those events, the sharp turn in the country’s development, the war and chaos. And he rethought the situation and wrote “The State and Revolution,” in which he said we need a dictatorship in order to turn events around with a single stroke. This is what I call risk!

– Do you think this is an example for politicians to follow?

– No, but such things happen and there may arise such a need.

– Was he right?

– At that time, yes, he was.

– And later?

– And later he himself proposed a new economic policy. Importantly, he did not do that on the sly to cover his tracks, so to say. No, he said: We have made a big mistake and have taken the wrong path. It is difficult to imagine Lenin admitting such things. And after that, within five years, the ruined country achieved its prewar level.

– What do you think of what is now happening in Russia with regards to Stalin?

– I know a lot about the events of those times – from family memories, from my personal experience and from what I have read. When I came to Moscow and found myself in politics, I saw the legacy of Stalinism with my own eyes.

– And why wasn’t the charge of the late 1980s enough? It seemed then that it was over and done with, as so many things had been disclosed. And now we are discussing the same issues again.

– Because such things must be carried through. Khrushchev began it, but he did not bring it to an end. Unfortunately, we failed to do this, as well.

– What do you mean he did not bring it to an end? What should this “end” be?

– It must be the full truth about events. Everything must be done systematically. When I was leaving the post of president, the head of the Central Committee’s General Department gave me an envelope with a letter written to Khrushchev by Shelepin about the Katyn massacre. [Alexander Shelepin was the head of the KGB and later deputy prime minister and secretary of the Central Committee under Khrushchev – Ed.] It was all described in the letter how it happened. I gave the letter to Yeltsin. He later presented things as if Gorbachev had hidden this document and that he (Yeltsin) had found it in a safe. But I had never seen that letter before. Surely the archives contain a lot of other things. For example, when I became General Secretary I wanted to find a memo on the status of agriculture, which I had written when I was secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee in 1978. We ransacked the archives, but for some reason the memo was only found in Irkutsk after a long time, in the local archives of the CPSU Central Committee. Those archives need a good digging through and many things can be found there. For me, what is happening with regard to Stalin now is a political struggle. Politicians pursuing their own goals seek to draw support from history. Things have always been that way and the same things are taking place now.

– For many people Stalin is a synonym for great power.

– Well, yes, but this will pass. We must focus on the development of our country, so that people can be proud of it. Without that all our efforts will fail. Meanwhile, instead of development, they first ruined the country, and now we are witnessing pseudo-patriot games. When people justify Stalin, they return to the idea that the end justifies the means. But this is unacceptable. We must always remember what price we paid.

– Perhaps, this is our mentality, that price does not matter?

– No, it is not our mentality. Some people simply want to score political points this way.

– Many people support them.

– So what? People may support anything – we in Russia know this particularly well. That’s where politicians must show their responsibility. We still must follow the path we started down earlier. In our transition to democracy we are somewhere in the middle, still far away. We, a country in transition, have not understood what freedom is and how to use it. We do not use democratic institutions in earnest.

– Do you feel defeated?

– I lost as a politician. But I am absolutely certain what we started and what we brought to Europe and the world is already irreversible. This is a great achievement for our people.

– Few people in the world think this is the merit of our people. Take, for example, the aforementioned Eastern European letter. Actually, it negates the role played by Russia and the Soviet Union.

– Cé la vie. But this can be overcome.