The spring of 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika. A unique period in Russian history, the paradigm of the Soviet Union’s development underwent a cardinal change in a peaceful fashion. In fact, the system of priorities was revised and new policy guidelines were identified. A powerful wave of enthusiasm and a sincere desire for change swept over society. Yet the disappointment was prompt and bitter. The reforms of the late 1980s ended in a profound socio-economic crisis and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. We are still experiencing the aftershocks of those tectonic tremors and are asking the same, still unanswered, questions, while clashing in disputes that should have been finished years ago. Perestroika and its foreign policy remain underestimated in Russia. Until we take an impartial look at this crucial stage in Russia’s development, I fear we will remain trapped in the vicious circle of historical doom.
WERE THE DRASTIC CHANGES WORTH IT?
In January 1986 one of my colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, Oleg Grinevsky, all of a sudden poured out his heart to me: “There was no point in launching perestroika in a country that was not ready for change. We opened the floodgates only to make things worse. In our society, with its very modest demands, things could have simmered for a long time. True, we were lagging behind, but lagging behind does not necessarily spell utter failure.”
Another colleage, Yuli Kvitsinsky, very disappointed at our “loss” of East Germany, exclaimed once: “But for Gorbachev, we could have held on for another twenty years.” The question remains if anyone would have been able to hold out. Party functionaries would possibly have managed because many of them were removed from the people and were relatively well off in material terms. But what about everybody else?
The way I see it, perestroika was an imperative of the day by virtue of several factors.
1) A nation in distress. The economic engines had ground to a halt, while social and political institutions that for many years had stood in the way of genuine development were unable to restart the engines. A friend from university, Boris Vladimirov, a functionary at one of the departments of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, told me in February 1982 that they were receiving heart-breaking messages from the provinces – not angry, but quite sad. People were complaining that they could not buy meat, milk, or eggs for years and that potatoes and cabbage were the only basic foodstuffs available. The worst thing, Boris said, is that those pleas for help did not reach anywhere.
In 2013 I asked my good friend Abel Aganbegyan, a classic of our economic thought, to briefly outline the situation the Soviet Union found itself in the spring of 1985. Here is the gist of his analysis: “Of the fifteen years of stagnation, the last few saw practically no growth of GDP, capital investment, or industrial production. We kept living on revenues from oil and gas that we were exporting for next to nothing. From the standpoint of scientific and technological progress, the country was hopelessly falling behind, above all in such advanced industries as electronics and computer manufacturing. In space technology, where we had once been in the lead, the Americans had gone far ahead. The budget deficit, just like other negative financial parameters, was a secret. Agriculture was stalled at the 1978 level. By 1981, grain imports stood at half of what the country was producing. And yet the government was unable to feed the people. Retail trade shortages were soaring. Direct distribution of goods through corporate cafeteria and departmental food distribution outlets closed to outsiders were becoming increasingly more common. Housing construction was declining. The average life expectancy declined to 66 years from 70 years in 1964. The country was at a dead end with no way out in sight.”
In December 1983, when I was among the speechwriters working on Yuri Andropov’s speech for a conference on economic affairs, I made the following note: “As a result of poor adjustment of plans, twenty to thirty percent of industrial capacities in some branches are idle, one billion rubles worth of equipment of both domestic and foreign manufacture lies gathering dust. A total of 200 billion rubles in cash are in Sberbank saving accounts, of which three quarters is in circulation and another 60 billion is at the people’s disposal on hand. At the same time, retail targets are not being met in all republics. There is no demand for available goods. The amount of cash in circulation keeps increasing. A tremendous amount of money is not being used. Underground millionaires are looking for loopholes in foreign trade organizations, opening anonymous accounts in foreign banks, concluding covert transactions, and taking huge amounts of rubles out of the country to exchange the national currency at a very low rate. The worst thing is that we have “eaten” our future! In the 1990s production rates were doomed to slump as low as one percent, because for a long time there had been no investment in basic industries that should have guaranteed an upturn: machine-building, metallurgy, railways, and machine tool engineering. Where did the people’s money go? The main spending articles are defense, agriculture, housing construction, and assistance to other countries (Vietnam, Mongolia, and Cuba). Real incomes are shrinking as a result of creeping inflation. We have repeatedly sped up money printing ever since 1965.”
As for the socialist countries, I quote testimony by Oleg Bogomolov, the then director of the Institute of the World Socialist System: “This is the most important sphere, but too little attention is paid to it. Our friends [a reference to the Socialist countries in those years] are getting ahead. We are playing a backward, retarding role; moreover, we are subsidizing them both overtly and covertly. Our enormous R&D potential is not used to meet our foreign economic needs. The military-industrial complex is its sole domain. The slogan of the day ‘Blending science, industry, and foreign trade’ (the way East Germany’s integrated plants operate) remains on paper, as even the existing resolutions on that score fail to be implemented. Only 18 percent of mutual supplies of machine-building industry products within COMECON match world market requirements. For critical technologies and know-how the socialist countries have to turn to the West. Our manufacturers have no incentives to produce export-oriented items because they get none of the revenues, while their employees have to excel at work to guarantee quality. Manufacturers’ rights, expanded for a short while during Alexei Kosygin’s premiership, have been axed again.”
2) The likelihood of risky political developments. On the eve of perestroika smoldering discontent could be sensed everywhere in Soviet society. Although not “structured” in modern parlance, the feeling that “life cannot go on like this” was becoming increasingly prevalent. U.S. columnist Flora Lewis, an expert on Soviet Russia, wrote at that time: “What must worry us is not that the Soviet Union will go on and on unchanged and insensitive to the aspirations of the ruled. It is that one day this society may explode with all the raging fury of the revolution against czarist tyranny in 1917, but with far greater menace.”
There were other kinds of risks. It is not accidental that the Brezhnev era leadership was ready to welcome the rehabilitation of Stalin. According to my observations, this sentiment was the strongest among middle-ranking party functionaries, for they felt the marasmatic manifestations of stagnation more than anyone else. In those days many had the premonition that “the total mess” (bardak, a word that was on everybody’s mind) will end only with the advent of another Stalin. Not Stalin the Terrorist, but Stalin the Tsar, who would restore order with an iron hand.
They were wrong. Unpredictable Russia brought to the surface Mikhail Gorbachev with his promise: “I will give you freedom.” Perestroika was crucial as it prevented both a social upheaval and a new version of Stalinism.
3) The role of personality. All good and bad fundamental shifts in Russia come from the top and have long been cyclical: short periods of freedom, democracy, and liberalism – whatever one wishes to call them – give way to prolonged periods of non-freedom. Alexander II followed Nicholas I. After the Tsar Liberator there was a long period of reaction up until the revolution of February 1917, when for a short time Russia was “the brightest democracy on Earth.” Next came the long Stalinist dictatorship, followed by the brief Khrushchev “Thaw.” Then another twenty years of moderate authoritarianism and, lastly, Gorbachev.
The arbitrariness and tragic mistakes of sovereign rulers have been paid for with blood: the Crimean War, World War I, and the revolution for which Nicholas II and the stupid and egoistic elite bore the brunt of responsibility, the Great Patriotic War, with millions who also perished through Stalin’s fault, and finally, Afghanistan.
Perestroika became possible only when – maybe for the first time in the entire history of the Soviet state – the reins of power went to a person who placed the interests of the country and its people above his own determination to stay in office at any cost. Gorbachev was a firm advocate of morality in politics. People possessing such qualities were very rare: the sacrifices that Soviet society had to suffer for the sake of ideological values had left a lasting imprint not only on life, but also on the mentality of people, including the ruling class, and greatly distorted their mode of thinking, making it one-vectored and aggressive.
The changes were just waiting for the one who would dare bring them to the fore. Volunteers were few. I can name just two such personalities in the whole period before perestroika – Khrushchev and Kosygin.
It is natural for people to remember what happened, but to seldom give thought to what could have happened if events had taken a different turn. In this particular case what if Gorbachev had decided against such a troublesome undertaking as perestroika and had chosen instead to govern the nation in the way his Kremlin predecessors had done. My friend Kvitsinsky was right: Gorbachev would have certainly stayed in power for a long time. Yet he chose a different fate for himself. And, incidentally, he has remained a person of very moderate means which is not very common with our leaders.
The “what if” formula is fully applicable to the fourth factor: foreign policy. Towards the end of Brezhnev’s rule, the Soviet Union’s international position was precarious and vulnerable. Figuratively speaking, it was a one-against-all position. The dangers were not just local. The risk of a nuclear Armageddon kept growing. Nobody wanted that, but no one was able to vow it would not happen. By 1982, the year Brezhnev died, the aggregate yield of Soviet and U.S. nuclear warheads (both installed on operational delivery vehicles and in storage facilities) was so great that there was an equivalent of four tons of TNT per each human on the globe. That alone made perestroika an absolute must.
In order to avoid disaster, a new type of relationship had to be negotiated with the United States. Before Gorbachev not a single politician had dared make peace with a class enemy. The problem of preventing a nuclear war had been addressed by building up weapons stockpiles in order to prevent a situation where one country would possess more weapons than the other.
I can anticipate the question: If perestroika was so critical for the country, why then did it end in failure, loss of power by its leader, and the breakup of the Soviet Union?
My answer is this: perestroika and the Soviet Union fell victim to a power struggle (“the key question of any revolution” as Vladimir Lenin once put it) and, respectively, division of property. By 1985, thanks to its previous leaders, from Stalin to Chernenko, the Soviet Union had been brought to such a state that its rescue would have required tremendous efforts by the entire ruling class. But the country was split along confrontational lines between rival factions, from orthodox conservatives to ultra radicals. For most of them the chief motif was certainly not preserving the Soviet Union, let alone reforming it into a democracy.
Gorbachev lost, but the policy of perestroika that he launched made it possible to achieve two important things: first, cardinally improve the country’s international standing and, second, implement profound democratic reform within the country. Although many of these gains were later uprooted like what had happened on many occasions before. But just as in the previous brighter years of Russian history, some gains became deeply ingrained in political culture. It is from these strongholds that the way will be paved towards a Russia of honest people that Dostoevsky had dreamed of in his day. Historical experience indicates this is inevitable. It only remains to be seen when this will happen.
PERESTROIKA’S FOREIGN POLICY ACHIEVEMENTS
Boris Yeltsin was fortunate to inherit Gorbachev’s foreign policy legacy. That policy was in stark contrast to the one pursued from Stalin to Brezhnev. It was finally adjusted to the Soviet Union’s real needs. In practical terms this means that the Gorbachev team:
- put an end to the “who-will-bury-whom” ideological confrontation between the East and the West and removed the enemy image from the public mind and politics;
- ended the 40-year-long Cold War with the United States and its allies;
- halted the arms race that was ruining the country, and agreed with the United States on the physical elimination of an entire class of weapons –intermediate and shorter range missiles that posed a direct threat to the Soviet Union’s security;
- doing this greatly eased the threat of a nuclear war, although it did not eliminate it altogether because nuclear weapons stockpiles are still unreasonably large;
- had the courage to end the nine-year-long war in Afghanistan, pull out Soviet troops, and leave a government friendly to the Soviet Union (it would fall only after Yeltsin stopped supporting it);
- contributed to the settlement of a number of regional conflicts, for instance in Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua;
- restored to normal once hostile relations with China (this point is especially often forgotten) and was the first to develop the awareness that the centers of power were drifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region;
- not only restored diplomatic relations with Israel, but also established cooperation with it;
- after two bloody wars influenced the process of Germany’s unification in a way that ended with the historical reconciliation of Germany (remarkably enough, it managed to avoid the sad experience of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles immediately sowed the seeds of another conflict);
- refrained from attempts to use force to keep Eastern European countries in the orbit of the bankrupt Soviet regime; the former Socialist bloc saw no uprisings that might have placed a difficult choice before us (Romania was the sole exception, but even there the future of the country was shaped by its own people, without outside armed intervention);
- made a decisive contribution to turning Europe from a potential battlefield of another war into a zone of cooperation and booming international exchanges;
- turned the country towards a Europe sharing common values;
- brought to the forefront in both domestic and international terms the rights and freedoms of people, thereby greatly contributing to the growth of the Soviet Union’s prestige, which by March 1985 had shrunk to zero;
- set the course towards integration with the global economy;
- opened the Soviet Union to the rest of the world and the world to the Soviet people for the first time in many decades;
- eased and in many cases lifted the financial burden estimated at billions of rubles that had been spent on support for genuine and ostensible national-liberation movements and on buying the loyalty of devoted and not quite devoted friends;
- started putting in order the military sphere: the armed forces and the military-industrial complex were stripped of the decisive say in foreign and defense policies.
I can say with certainty that each of the aforesaid moves is consonant with Russia’s national interests. It is not an exaggeration to say that in less than seven years (1985-1991) the world changed beyond recognition. Gorbachev’s foreign policy determined the course of global affairs in many key aspects. At the will of the previous rulers the country continued to live the life of a besieged fortress, which excused cruelty and repression inside. Perestroika left Russia in an unprecedentedly favorable international environment. In fact, it had no foreign enemies that might pose a kind of threat that in the past required an all-out effort to ward off. (Here I do not speak of how perestroika’s legacy was managed afterwards.)
WHO LOST EASTERN EUROPE?
Yet Gorbachev continues to be rebuked “for making absolutely unprecedented concessions to the West and for catastrophically harming the country’s positions.” Most critics fail to specify, however, what sort of concessions and what positions they have in mind. The more seriously minded usually say that under Gorbachev we lost the geopolitical battle and ceded positions in Eastern Europe gained through a victorious war. This kind of reply rests upon formal logic: “under” does not mean “due to.” A prolonged struggle cannot be lost overnight. Empires do not fall in the blink of an eye. The key question is: Were the methods that maintained the whole postwar order right and proper?
Even if the eventual outcome is to be interpreted as our loss, the bill delivered to the Soviet Union that was first associated with Stalin’s despotism and then with Brezhnev’s stagnation and armed enforcement of Socialism had been growing over time. Then came the time to cash the check.
Our departure from Eastern Europe was forced, including from the German Democratic Republic. The reason is simple: very few people in Eastern Europe wanted us to stay. In retrospect it is clear that the tactic of keeping Eastern European countries under the Soviet Union’s command was a sure way into a trap. After the end of World War II, Stalin betted on territorial gains and converting them into social benefits: “Where the Soviet soldier reaches, there is socialism; where the American appears, there is capitalism as before.”
Stalin’s Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov regarded the Soviet Union’s territorial acquisitions as his greatest achievement – the recovery of the losses the Russian Empire had sustained during World War I and in the early years of Bolshevik rule. Brezhnev’s Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko took the greatest pride in perpetuating the postwar borders in Europe, the way they were drawn as a result of Stalin-Molotov policies.
Such reasoning looked quite fair in the light of the experience of all previous wars. But in the nuclear age Soviet security was far less dependent on a buffer zone near its borders. The geostrategic dogma remained in force for four decades. In shaping our defense policies, we primarily bore in mind nuclear warfare and offensive operations in Europe. We spent a quarter of our gross domestic product for this purpose (another quarter was used to subsidize prices). In the meantime, the implementation of either scenario looked increasingly more doubtful. Moreover, we assumed a colossal imperial mission as if the other burdens were not heavy enough.
We made huge investment in the conquered countries in the form of free aid, supplies of raw materials at huge discounts, and spending on infrastructures to accommodate hundreds of thousands of troops. But few Czechs or Poles were grateful to us. Discontent over the existing way of life, largely regarded as a derivative of Soviet dominance, was universal and it erupted many times in dramatic ways.
“Anti-socialist” demonstrations in Berlin (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) were suppressed by force. It is not accidental that the East Germans were the first to revolt against a crackdown on small private businesses, collectivization, and fast-tracked development of heavy industries. Add to this the single-party system and accelerated creation of the armed forces, which devoured a disproportionately large share of the state budget. There were trials and executions, and the eventual emergence of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Yet the contradictions remained and were bound to explode sooner or later. I recall a caustic remark popular in those days: even the Germans are unable to make the Soviet system work.
In Poland in 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski managed to avoid Soviet military intervention, but the Polish United Workers’ Party remained in a very precarious position. In fact, it was ousted from power in the first free elections.
Incidentally, in their own protectorate of Western Europe, the Americans governed life in a way that never required to use force.
By the time Gorbachev rose to power, demand for change, long driven deep inside all Warsaw Pact countries, had come close to the boiling point. Sensing blood, the United States and some of its allies stepped up their inciting and propaganda activities. The Soviet Communist Party’s ruling Politburo under Gorbachev by no means dropped the intention to preserve the Socialist bloc. It kept making decisions in favor of generous aid to the Warsaw Pact countries. In April 1985 the Warsaw Pact was extended for another twenty years (It would be disbanded in six years later). Active measures were taken in order to involve Eastern European countries in economic cooperation. Not all of them were unsuccessful; for instance, the joint project to lay the trunk pipeline from the Yamburg gas fields to the Soviet Union’s western border. Regrettably, there were more failures than victories on the economic front. At the end of the day, we even remained in debt to our former allies.
The greatest hope was that Eastern European capitals would see the advent of their own reform champions – their own Gorbachevs, leaders capable of giving a powerful boost to “socialism with a human face” as soon as they were free from the Kremlin’s yoke. But officialdom in most of those countries was extremely Brezhnevist, while a majority of the population no longer wanted “humane socialism” or any socialism at all, let alone a system pegged to the Soviet model imposed on them. The economic situation was dire, with low standards of living, incompetent bureaucracy, and political repression.
That is when the long-term effects of the never-let-you-go tactics surfaced, including attempts to quash by force the desire by the Czechs and Slovaks for democratic reform. Sadly, it was as late as November 1989 that the five states responsible for suppressing the Prague Spring uprising issued a collective statement to condemn the intrusion and to renounce the Brezhnev doctrine. Additionally, the Soviet Union issued its own declaration to express regret over the erroneous decision made in the summer of 1968.
I suspect we were largely unaware of how serious the situation in the Socialist countries was in those days. In the autumn of 1987, speaking at the Foreign Ministry’s board meeting after his return from Poland, Eduard Shevardnadze said: “The main problems have been overcome, and if the Polish comrades proceed in the same fashion, Poland will be a reliable link.”
We had poor knowledge of the real situation also because our Warsaw Pact allies preferred not to bombard Moscow with bad news – if, of course, the leadership itself was fully informed. Another reason was that Soviet embassies were usually led not by career diplomats, but by Communist Party functionaries who rarely presented an objective picture. The Kremlin expected that they would present the situation the way the ideology required it, and not the real state of affairs.
We understood that keeping those countries in our orbit was possible only through the use of force once the new authorities in Eastern Europe unequivocally pointed to a door. Vaclav Havel, elected president after the Velvet Revolution, said in no uncertain terms that Soviet troops must leave Czechoslovakia by the end of 1990. Reformers in Hungary demanded the same, while opening the border with Austria to East Germans and, as it later turned out, getting financial rewards from the West Germans in exchange. In Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov left office after 35 years in power.
Poland’s Solidarity was the only political force in Eastern Europe that in no way demanded a Soviet pullout for some time. The new Polish leaders even asked the Kremlin to keep troops in Poland until allied Germany reaffirmed its commitment to the post-war borders, which Poland owed entirely to the Soviet Union and to which it had no objections at all.
As the Soviet bloc started falling apart it took great courage to remain committed to the proclaimed principle that people have the right to decide their own future. Fortunately, very few of those responsible for making decisions contemplated action from a position of strength. The Gorbachev team, including Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, firmly opposed the use of force. A Politburo special resolution stated the same. All analysts agreed that any attempt at military suppression would first spell disastrous effects for our country. It would fuel the soaring hatred of the Eastern Europeans, create universal estrangement in relations with the West, and further hurt the economy. We would have been left all alone with our problems.
I would add that Gorbachev had a precedent to rely on – the Soviet Union’s earlier decision not to “defend socialism” by force. I mean Poland in 1981. The Brezhnev doctrine was buried during its architect’s lifetime. Gorbachev just went ahead with this policy.
As soon as the people realized they were free to take to the streets without the risk of being shot, they did so. Eastern Europeans were eager to get out of the bearish imperial embrace and away from socialism made in the USSR. Geopolitics merged with ideology. Take the GDR (East Germany). Its citizens were fleeing the country by the thousand because there was one more powerful incentive – German unity.
Seeing an empire fall apart and realizing that only violence might stop the process for a time – yet the use of force is impossible – was a dramatic experience that I would not wish anyone to have. In economic terms we could no longer afford to continue supporting our allies. COMECON had long turned into a phantom. The new rulers that replaced the Communists in the COMECON member-states demanded its elimination. The Eastern Europeans displayed a similar “initiative” regarding the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Moreover, oil prices had slumped 60 percent: the hand of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia seeking vengeance for Afghanistan was surely at work here.
It is a hard fact that in those months when events overlapped one by one and the risk of making a mistake was high, the leader of the perestroika made not a single irreparable error.
The popular masses were outpacing politicians; they were about to go out of control, but what looked at a certain point like an imminent clash, incredible in terms of scale and passion, was successfully avoided without bloodshed. The risk that the Soviet Army might be provoked into a response was neutralized. The inevitable divorce with the “countries of popular democracy” was not overshadowed by violence. Under Gorbachev, nothing happened like Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, or the violent crackdown against the Russian parliament in 1993.
I will not downgrade the discussion to the level of those who accuse Gorbachev of treason. But I must admit some reproaches are an expression of sincere concern about the country. Mainly, they stem from the bitter recognition that we lost the competition between two social systems. But those responsible for the failure should be looked for not in 1985, but much earlier. Indeed, is there a point in our past when one could say without hesitation that before that everything was fine?
The problems Gorbachev had to address had piled up over decades of deficient governance. The historical dispute between capitalism and socialism (to be more precise, its unsuccessful model) had been lost long before Gorbachev. He was merely bargaining over conditions of concluding peace, because the competition had acquired a shape of the Cold War with all its materialistic background like the arms race, declared to be a form of class struggle. And Gorbachev was compelled to carry on diplomatic bargaining abroad when the internal struggle flames were about to envelop the house.
EMERGING FROM THE AUTHORITARIAN MATRIX
There is another “What if” question: Did Gorbachev do the right thing by ending the Cold War? I have heard some critics say: “Just a bit more and the Americans would have lost, if not for Gorbachev who saved them.” Apparently what they had in mind was that our huge military potential was really not inferior to that of the U.S. Thanks God, no one dared check this in practice. But one aspect of parity was not enough. In all other respects we lost. We lost without a single shot fired, to be more precise, without a single missile launched. Incidentally, that kept “winding up” the post-Soviet establishment – it had certainly not suffered a military defeat (by contrast, the U.S. establishment, which never had a chance to experience what war is like, developed the delusion that it was omnipotent, which led it to Afghanistan and Iraq.) But if dreams of revanche are brushed aside, if our target is peace, Gorbachev did everything right.
Eastern Europe’s drift away from us – and let me reiterate, not against the will of the people of those countries, but of their strong desire – worked towards peaceful development. It was hardly a loss, rather it was a relief from a burden, since in our “empire” we contrived to generate more losses than gains. Reconciliation with Germany, our most important partner of all the Western countries, also worked towards peaceful development. So did the exit from confrontation with the U.S. and its allies, and normalization of relations with China. From the standpoint of peace prospects, the outcome of the end of the Cold War was quite acceptable for Russia.
It is an entirely different matter as to how the opportunities for a peaceful Russian-Western cooperation that opened up in the early 1990s were used and what has taken us to the crisis of 2014. This is a separate topic for discussion. But even that crisis could have been far more serious if not for the positive experience of overcoming acute situations, and the experience of cooperation in the post-perestroika years in trade, economy and other spheres, which soared to new highs after the end of the Cold War.
Gorbachev’s approaches might look somewhat idealistic. To his critics they looked even naive. But this was noble idealism. It heralded a U-turn away from a class ideology. Its projection to international relations implied an antagonistic struggle between two social systems until the opponent was annihilated. Gorbachev’s idea was to replace the concept that relied on division and enmity with the priority of common humanitarian values, social justice, and the emergence of a democratic world order.
Gorbachev’s idealism by no means interfered with his quite pragmatic foreign policy. In fact, it was rather helpful, for it prompted thoughts about the future and also encouraged “breakthrough” ideas.
Gorbachev’s new thinking cropped up on fertile soil. It derived strength from the firm wish of the advanced section of society to work for the sake of the people and to make government policies serve the people’s interests. It continued in more advanced forms – the Khrushchev Thaw in international relations and the easing of tensions of the early Brezhnev era. Manuscripts do not burn. Good ideas do not vanish without a trace.
And still, in my opinion, President Gorbachev’s greatest merit lies outside the realm of foreign policy. It is the rare and, unfortunately, unused chance that his perestroika gave Russia. It was a great and bold attempt to pull Russia out of the authoritarian matrix dating back to the Mongol Yoke. To reform the country without oppressing the people and squeezing them to the last drop the way Emperor Peter I and Stalin did, and give them the rights and opportunity to build their own lives. It was a unique attempt, because not a single person before or after Gorbachev has offered the nation the choice of stepping off the track the country had trodden for centuries.
Now we are back on the same track again. Where will it take us? No optimistic prospects are in sight.
Gorbachev and his team were well aware that like the Paris Commune of 1871 they would have to “storm the heavens.” The strategy of perestroika confronted a robust system. Just a few figures say it all: during the years of stagnation (1971-1984) the staff of the bureaucratic machinery grew by 4.6 million to 17.7 million in September 1985. It was a united, experienced army with no scruples, and well aware of what it was fighting for. One has to admit that the perestroika leadership chose rather mild measures in their struggle with bureaucracy and its vanguard, the privileged class of functionaries and administrators. It was believed that cutting the roots would be far better than aggressive purges. But the nomenklatura was very resourceful in inventing ways of resistance. The ruling elites headed by Russian President Yeltsin decided the fate of perestroika and Gorbachev. They won the struggle for power.
As soon as they saw the real strength of the ruling nomenklatura class, the leaders of perestroika thought it might be a good idea to seek support from the public at large and from constructive grassroots initiatives. But they hardly suspected to what extent society had been crippled by decades of hardships, poverty, and purposeful, deliberate brainwashing. The people are not to blame for being subjected to monstrous experiments. But Gorbachev’s firm belief that the people “stand solidly for perestroika” was a delusion, however sad this recognition may sound.
The leaders of perestroika never managed to achieve in-depth realization of what kind of society had been built, something Yuri Andropov had called for in his day. Setting in motion a country that by and large was unprepared for reform and accustomed to the previous placid existence and unaware of the perils of stagnation required far more time than was available in reality. In March 1987 Gorbachev thought “we shall achieve the first results in three-four years’ time, if we manage to hold on.”
Regrettably, the demagogues and populists were able to derive more benefits for themselves than those who had brought perestroika and glasnost into existence. It was an illustration of the classical pattern at work – some stand up for the people, while the people prefer to follow somebody else. Those who by and large do not care about the people. Power and money are their sole beacon.
Contrary to what incompetent propagandists keep saying, it was not Gorbachev who ruined the Soviet Union, but the top of the state machinery who revolted against his democratic reforms. Boris Yeltsin’s deadly enmity played a disastrous role. Leonid Kravchuk, the former ideology chief of the Communist Party in Ukraine, made the second largest personal contribution to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ancient Romans in such cases used to ask “Cui bono?” (“To whose benefit?”). It was the top tier of the political and economic bureaucracy that benefited the most from the fall of the Soviet Union.
People are gradually developing an awareness of what happened. According to opinion polls conducted at the end of 2012, only 18 percent blamed the Soviet Union’s breakup on Gorbachev compared to 45 percent twenty years ago. There is a growing understanding that perestroika released long-simmering negative energy and prevented internal cataclysms. It is noteworthy that well-educated people generally approve of perestroika.
I hope that in the long term the just and fair attitude towards Gorbachev will gain the upper hand. I agree with Russian political scientist Dmitry Furman, who wrote: “Gorbachev was the only politician in Russian history who, having all power in his hands, consciously agreed to its limitation for the sake of ideal moral values, although by doing so he ran the risk of losing it altogether.”
One of Russia’s characteristics has often been a tight alliance of political and economic machinery, on the one hand, and of the omnipotent class of state bureaucracy, on the other. Yet there have been attempts to curb it: Stalin used purges, and Khrushchev and Gorbachev implemented reforms. In that respect there has definitely been an unmistakable pullback away from Gorbachev’s innovations. The arbitrariness of bureaucracy, corruption, and other forms of parasitism are now stronger than ever.
I would like to end these notes with a quote from my preferred writer Venedikt Yerofeyev, who tried to predict our future in 1989: “Russia has no joy about anything; nor does anyone feel sad, in fact. It is rather in anticipation of some kind of still vague-looking grandiose filth; most probably, a return to the infamies of the past.”
In short, Gorbachev warmed our souls, now again…