Watching Mikhail Gorbachev at the World Festival of Youth and Students in the Summer of 1985, I had a thought which I later recorded in an article in the Sri Lankan newspapers. I felt, and wrote, that “at last we have a Soviet leader we do not have to be embarrassed about”.
I was born in the year of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), 1956. For my generation of the global community represented at the World Festival of Youth and Students, the only Soviet leader of our lifetime who could be admired was Yuri Andropov, and his tenure at the top was a tragically short episode.
Two years after the 1985 World Festival, at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, Fidel Castro was prophetically warning in Moscow that “one day we may awake and find that the Soviet Union has disappeared”. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised. Something had begun to go very wrong. By 1991, Fidel’s prophecy had come true.
So much has been said about Gorbachev and so much can be said, but I wish to focus on only one point, one question.
For a while Gorbachev gave the global left the moral high ground. Leftists were pointing to the USSR and contrasting the dramatic, peaceful change with the rigidity and coup-making tradition of the part of the world under the hegemony of the West.
Furthermore, Gorbachev broke down all the walls on the global Left, permitting the free interplay of all traditions which had been at civil war with each other. Bukharin was rehabilitated, social democracy and Communist parties were embracing each other. The World Festival of 1985 was a rainbow of the left.
With this thaw, this Moscow Spring, the reform process in the USSR had a rich storehouse of ideas and concepts to draw on, which had been locked in separate vaults, inaccessible for decades. These were the ideas of ‘market socialism’ from the USSR itself but even more so from Eastern Europe.
Within the tradition of dissent in the USSR there were three trends. One was the frankly pro-western (e.g., Sakharov), the second was anti-Soviet traditionalist (Solzhenitsyn) and the third was socialist (the Medvedevs). For a brief period, there was a surfacing of the third trend and a flourishing of interpretations of Lenin which focused on post-1920, his last years. In short, the ethos seemed to be an ‘open socialism’ in an ‘open Soviet Union’.
This was summed-up in the very wording of the proposition put to the Soviet people in early 1991 at a referendum. It was carried by a handsome majority.
How then did that endorsement by the people turn into ashes by the end of that very year 1991? I wish to point to a factor other than the farcical coup attempt. I wish to point to a paradoxical choice that Gorbachev and his team made.
I cannot pin down a date or even a year but somewhere along the line, two interconnected changes of track were made, amounting to what would be called a ‘deviation’ in the old lexicon.
The first was ideological and domestic. There was a permeation between ideas of a reformed socialism and a political identity of an open, democratic left, on the one hand, and on the other, ideas of capitalism liberal democracy and worse, Western rightwing ideology.
The counter to this rightwing deviation came from conservative Soviet Marxists like Nina Andreyeva and Yegor Ligachev, whose time had come and gone. There was no one who fought back on the basis of the original program and promise of socialist modernity of 1985-1987.
The second paradoxical choice was in the realm of foreign policy and external relations. In the 1980s the USSR had the option of reaching out to the Social Democrats in the west and elsewhere as the primary allies of the reform Communists who were also strong in parts of Europe. Even in eastern Europe, there were renovated, reformist socialist trends that had arisen, though they were not preponderant. The USSR under Gorbachev also had the sympathy of a strong peace movement in the West.
In what was probably the biggest blunder made by Gorbachev, he bypassed or downgraded this proximate option of an alliance with the social democrats, the Communists and the peace movements, and instead flung himself into an embrace with Reagan and Thatcher, who were hardly sympathetic to his project of a reformed socialism.
The Mikhail Gorbachev I saw and applauded in July 1985 in Moscow at the World Festival of Youth and Students had disappeared, only to be replaced by a Mikhail Gorbachev who was the naïve fellow-traveler of the most hawkish, anti-Soviet leaderships of the West.
That latter Gorbachev who had become a convert to the theory of convergence, was, historically a transition to Yeltsin, a champion of capitulation.
The Soviet tragedy was avoidable. It is interesting that Fidel Castro consistently refused to regard Gorbachev even in retrospect as anything but sincere, though profoundly in error. Fidel told the Sandinista Commander Tomas Borge, that the end of the Soviet Union was a case of “suicide, not homicide”. Mikhail Gorbachev was a tender-minded tragic figure who by his inexplicable confusion and conversion, assisted that suicide of a superpower.