More than three and a half decades have passed since the start of the process of change in the Soviet Union known throughout the world as perestroika. The debate about its meaning and its legacy continues with undiminished intensity. All these years, perestroika has been in my thoughts. I have been trying to find answers to the questions put to me by scholars, journalists and ordinary people in the letters that I receive. They want to understand perestroika—and that means it has not been relegated to the past. The experience and the lessons of perestroika remain relevant today, both for Russia and for the world.
Perestroika went through various stages. We were searching, we had our illusions, we made mistakes, and we had our achievements. If given a chance to start anew, I would have done many things differently, but I am confident that historically perestroika was a just cause. This means two things: first, perestroika was necessary, and second, we were moving in the right direction.
The initiators of perestroika have had to face multiple accusations and reproaches. It is said that they did not have a clear plan, that they were naïve, that they betrayed socialism. Some go so far as to say that there was no need for perestroika. Of such people, I can say only that they have very short memories. They either have forgotten or do not want to remember what kind of moral and psychological atmosphere dominated Soviet society on the eve of 1985.
People demanded change. Everyone—leaders and ordinary citizens alike—was acutely aware of the country’s malaise. Our country was sinking ever more deeply into stagnation. The economy was, for all intents and purposes, at a standstill. Ideological dogma kept intellectual and cultural activity in a straitjacket. The bureaucratic machine sought total control of society’s life while being unable to satisfy people’s basic needs, with the stores virtually empty of consumer goods. The social situation was rapidly deteriorating amid general discontent. The absolute majority of the people believed that “we cannot go on living like this.” I did not invent that phrase; it was axiomatic.
The legacy we inherited weighed down on us. We knew that changes of great magnitude and depth were necessary and that such changes always carry risks, but leaving things as they were was not an option. That was the unanimous opinion of the Soviet leadership.
It would have been strange if from the very start we had a ready-made program of reforms, the kind of “clear plan” that the critics of perestroika say we failed to produce. Where would it have come from after two decades of stagnation? It was clear to us that identifying the path forward would be a tough challenge, and we never claimed that we had some kind of “train schedule” or “game plan.” That, however, does not mean we lacked a clear goal or a vision of where we wanted to go.
From the very beginning, perestroika had an overarching theme, a guiding idea that defined it at every stage and provided the framework for our thinking. Perestroika was meant for the people. Its goal was to emancipate the human being, to give people ownership of their lives and of their country.
The system that we inherited was based on the Communist Party’s total control. After Stalin’s death, the regime he created renounced massive repressions, but its essence remained unchanged. The system distrusted the people, refusing to believe that they could act independently as makers of history. The leaders of perestroika had a different view: we believed that giving people freedom would unchain their initiative and creative energy.
Were we naïve in our faith in the people, in their creative potential? I can assure you that the members of the country’s leadership—the Politburo—were far from naïve. Each of us had a proven record of experience. We had arguments, which later grew into principled differences, but all of us supported the founding concept: perestroika for the people.
Hence, perestroika was a wide-ranging humanist project. It was a break with the past, with the centuries when the state—autocratic and then totalitarian—dominated over the human being. It was a breakthrough into the future. This is what makes perestroika relevant today; any other choice can only lead our country down a dead-end road.
Foreign policy factors, too, contributed to the need for reform. The state of the world concerned me and my colleagues no less than the situation inside the country.
In the mid-1980s, the world was facing the rapidly rising threat of nuclear war. The international community was at an impasse from which there seemed to be no exit. The confrontation between the East and the West continued, seemingly with no end in sight. That was the assumption on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The Soviet Union’s relations with many countries were tense.
The protracted conflict with China, the all-encompassing confrontation with the United States, the deterioration of relations with Western European countries caused by the deployment of medium-range missiles, regional conflicts in various parts of the world, and the presence of tens of thousands of our troops in Afghanistan—all were poisoning the external environment in which we were undertaking our reforms, while the arms race was sapping our economy.
The militarization of the economy was a big burden for all countries, including the United States and its allies. Yet for our country, this cost was particularly high. In some years, total military spending amounted to 25-30 percent of gross domestic product, i.e., five to six times as much as in the United States and other NATO countries.
The military-industrial complex absorbed enormous resources, the energy and talent of our most highly skilled workers; 90 percent of our science was dedicated to defense needs. However, excessive armament did not make our security more reliable. People felt this, and a sense of alarm was always on their minds. Wherever I went, I heard them saying: “Mikhail Sergeevich, please do whatever is needed to prevent war.” It was clear to me that continuing the arms race was not the path to lasting peace.
It was therefore apparent both at home and abroad that we must not continue as before. Both we and our international partners had to reconsider our approaches to foreign policy and our positions on specific issues. A major rethinking was in order, and it was the Soviet Union that took the first steps toward changing the foundations of international politics. We proposed to the world a new way of thinking and, albeit not immediately, our efforts met with a response.
New Thinking did not come out of the blue. It had its origins in the thought of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell; in the anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s; in the “political repentance” of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, who mustered the courage to step back from the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis; in the concept of common security developed by the Olof Palme Commission. We were the first to make the principles of New Thinking into state policy, and I believe that the leaders of perestroika can take pride in this.
The core of New Thinking is the proposition that humankind’s common interests and universal human values must be the overarching priority in an increasingly integrated, interdependent world. New Thinking does not negate national, class, corporate or other interests. However, it places at the forefront the interest of saving humanity from the threat of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.
We refused to consider world development through the prism of the struggle of two opposing social systems. We revised our concept of security and formulated the task of demilitarizing international politics and the principle of reasonable defense sufficiency at lower levels of armaments.
Overall, New Thinking in foreign as well as in domestic policy was an attempt to think and act in accordance with basic common sense.
I describe the historical context of perestroika and New Thinking in order, once again, to explain and emphasize the necessity and inevitability of changes in our country’s domestic and foreign policies. This was the point of departure for our concrete action as we moved from initial intent to deep and ultimately irreversible changes.
What should we bear in mind when we discuss the first stage of perestroika?
First, radical changes in the USSR could only start from above, initiated by the Party’s leadership. After several decades of total control and suppression of any initiative, our society was not ready for self-organization and could not produce leaders capable of assuming responsibility for reforms.
Second, during this initial period, the transformations could only be aimed at improving the existing system and proceed within its framework. An abrupt break with the existing “formula of power,” political vocabulary and tradition was impossible. No one was ready for it—neither the vast majority of our society nor even the proponents of change, including those who later adopted the most radical positions.
Initially, political reform was not our objective. I acknowledge that, at the time, I believed that the Party—the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—would be the vehicle of reform. For many years, it had been managing the country’s affairs; its representatives had vast administrative and political experience and held key positions in all areas of government and society. Therefore, the Party, particularly during the initial stage of perestroika, played an indispensable role. Plenary sessions of the Central Committee convened regularly, and all my reports were approved at Politburo meetings, often after sharp debate, which became increasingly contentious as tensions and differences of opinion came to the fore.
This was the drama of perestroika. Millions of Party members and many Party leaders in central bodies and local organizations supported new policies. But as I traveled and talked to people, I increasingly felt that the energy of change was hitting the wall erected by the Party and government bureaucracy—the nomenklatura.
People were wondering: Where is perestroika? Why are the most basic issues not being addressed? Why do our leaders’ attitudes toward the needs and concerns of the people remain unchanged?
In the fall of 1986, we concluded that we need to convene a plenary meeting of the Central Committee to discuss personnel policies. The plenum, held in January 1987, resonated tremendously in the Party, throughout the country and around the world. For the first time, we recognized the responsibility of the CPSU, its Central Committee and the Politburo for the strategic mistakes that had led our country into social and political stagnation. A large part of the nomenklatura saw the ideas and decisions of the plenum as a threat to themselves and moved to sabotage perestroika.
In 1987, the struggle between the reformers and the anti-reform wing of the CPSU began in earnest. It was pervasive, and it was weakening the Party’s ability to manage the country’s affairs and its legitimacy within Soviet society. My like-minded supporters and I realized then that unless we truly involved the country’s citizens in the processes of renewal and decoupled the Party from political power, the policy of perestroika would hit a dead end. We became aware of the need for political reform.
Glasnost was a most important lever for effecting change and involving people in the reform process. That is why the word is so often mentioned in conjunction with the word perestroika. I regarded glasnost as my principal aid. That is still my opinion, even though glasnost has come in for a lot of criticism from all kinds of people, including, surprisingly, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Gorbachev’s glasnost ruined everything, the great writer once said. Years before, however, he had said something very different: “Honest and full glasnost is the primary condition for the health of any society.” I reminded him of that and asked where he himself would have been if not for glasnost. Without glasnost, nothing would have happened—no changes, no perestroika. It would all have remained bogged down in the swamp of obsolete ideology and recalcitrant bureaucracy.
The old Russian word glasnost holds many meanings, among them the openness of society, freedom of speech and government accountability. No wonder it had to be borrowed rather than translated into other languages.
Glasnost, like all the other initiatives of perestroika, began from above. At first, many regarded it as just another form of propaganda, another way of explaining the Party’s policies to the people. I saw it quite differently.
For the leaders of perestroika, glasnost meant speaking truth to the people. We needed to start telling the truth about the state of affairs in our country and about the world around us. Glasnost also meant receiving feedback from the people, who were now able to say what they thought—including, increasingly, things that the authorities did not like to hear.
Glasnost meant upholding the people’s right to know by reducing secrecy and “classified information” to a reasonable minimum. Previously, statistics had been in the grip of censorship. Data on the economy and social and population statistics were only published if permitted by a special resolution of the Central Committee and had to be heavily redacted. Crime statistics and environmental and medical data were shrouded in secrecy. The defense budget’s real numbers were secret. Not only the country’s citizens but even its leaders did not have a real and complete picture of many aspects of its life. We put an end to that.
Quite rapidly, glasnost evolved into real freedom of speech. People could now read dozens of books by Russian and Soviet writers that had been either prohibited or mangled by censorship, including Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which opened the eyes of millions of people to the crimes of Stalinism.
Glasnost made it possible to discuss any subject. Without it, people would not have been able to speak openly about human rights, the real freedom of conscience, economic freedom, and market economics.
It is also true, however, that glasnost had a flipside. Freedom is always a risk, and freedom of speech is no exception.
No one got more from glasnost than our intelligentsia. The latter made full use of the possibility to speak and write freely. Our intellectuals rushed to explore and develop new ideas and to advocate for radical change. But at the same time, freedom of speech quickly revealed that many members of the intelligentsia, particularly those of “higher status,” were unprepared for a reasonable, step-by-step process. They did not understand the simple fact that freedom is inseparable from responsibility.
As problems began to mount, many of them behaved in an increasingly destructive and irresponsible manner.
None of this, however, negates glasnost’s historic significance and its relevance today. Perestroika proved that the normal development of a society and the proper functioning of a government is impossible in an environment of total secrecy. Instead, what is needed is openness; freedom of information; freedom to express one’s political, religious and other convictions and views; and freedom to criticize without constraints or exceptions.
Critics of perestroika make a special point of our failures with regard to reforming the economy and see them as probably the main reason that we were not able to realize our intentions. I would not say that we are beyond reproach in this respect. But I have to say to them that criticizing is easy; it is a lot more difficult to act under the real conditions of an incredibly rigid system that has been “set in concrete” decades before.
We were fully aware that the economy of “real socialism,” as the system was labeled in Leonid Brezhnev’s time, was in shambles and that the country was moving inexorably into a crisis. In the early 1980s, economic growth was at a standstill and the standard of living was frozen at an already low point. In terms of real income per capita, the USSR was far behind the developed countries of the West. The country’s finances were in disarray. The economy was plagued with imbalances and shortages. Not only food products and manufactured goods, but even commodities like metals and fuel, which we produced in enormous quantities, were in short supply.
We tried to identify the causes of the dire state of the economy and ways to restore it to health. Economists believed that the main reason for the weakness of our economy was that we had overlooked the advances of the scientific and technological revolution, whereas the West had restructured its economy on a new technological basis. Yet in their recommendations, both scholars and economic officials, while recognizing the need for change, did not go beyond trying to “more fully use the potential of socialism.”
It should also be remembered that people wanted to see some improvement with regard to housing, the food supply and consumer goods as soon as possible. So first things first, we thought; let us try to get something done in the old ways and then tackle deep reforms.
Indeed, 1985 and 1986 saw some improvement in the state of the economy: 4.4 percent growth in industrial production and 3.3 percent in agriculture. During those two years, we increased investment in education and healthcare and raised wages and pensions by 40 percent more than had been envisioned in the five-year plan. But giving people more money meant increasing pressure on the consumer market and a wider gap between money supply and product availability. What is more, precisely at that time the oil price in international markets plummeted to 12 dollars a barrel; we lost two-thirds of the revenue from oil exports.
In retrospect, it is obvious that this was the time for decisive steps to dramatically cut military spending and other types of government expenditure and to relieve pressure on the market by importing consumer goods on a massive scale. This would have set the stage for a transition to radical economic reform. As a first step, a reform of the price system would have been needed to address the imbalances caused by the fact that the prices of many products, set years earlier, no longer reflected the rising costs of production.
That would have caused economic pain, but such measures were necessary. However, the leadership of the Council of Ministers strongly resisted them. Its chairman, Nikolai Ryzhkov, was adamant: “We must not destroy anything. We have planned targets and the budget, and they must not be touched.” His viewpoint found support in the Politburo.
I remember the sharp debate on the problem of price formation. In June 1987, the plenary meeting of the Central Committee instructed the government to prepare proposals on price reform, but they were dragging their feet, probably just afraid of tackling this very difficult issue. In the meantime, rumors were spreading that “price stability is in jeopardy,” causing increasing concern in our society. This created fertile ground for populists, who made full use of it in the political arena.
“Do not touch the prices!” This became the slogan of the emerging opposition. Practically all our leading economists, including those who took part in developing the concept of economic reform, took that stance. The critics were unconcerned by the fact that by doing so they were blocking the path to economic reforms and that, should they come to power, they too would have to take such a step. The economic bureaucracy, which was resisting reforms, secretly applauded the opposition.
I now think that had I taken a strong stand at the time, things could have turned out differently. We should have told people the painful truth, and they would have understood us. Instead, we allowed an unjustified delay in the structural transformation of the economy and missed the train of reforms in 1987-1988, when it was politically and economically the right time to undertake them. That was a strategic misstep.
We did not know then, nor could we know, that history gave us too little time. Radical economic reforms and the transition to a market economy required a kind of revolution in the minds of both leaders and ordinary people. Those who came after us thought that they would succeed in two or three years at most. Hence their belief in “shock therapy”; hence its destructive consequences. That, too, should be borne in mind when evaluating the mistakes of economic policy during perestroika.
Perestroika inherited a difficult situation with regard to interethnic and federal relations. I have to admit that when we started perestroika, my colleagues and I did not see the full extent of that problem.
It is of course obvious now that preserving and renewing a country that represented “a world of many worlds”—a conglomerate of nations as different as, say, Estonia and Turkmenistan—was, objectively, a daunting challenge. In the years of perestroika, all that had been accumulating in this sphere for decades and centuries burst to the surface. I do not think that anyone was ready for it.
Historically, the Soviet Union was the heir to the Russian Empire. Was the empire really a “prison of nations,” as it was once called? If so, we must regard the Russian people as its first inmate. During the years of the Stalin regime, it suffered at least as much as the other peoples of the Soviet Union.
All of this notwithstanding, it is also true that these peoples co-existed and did a great deal together and that there was a chance to preserve the best of their common experience in new forms.
Why was that possibility not realized?
The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has on a number of occasions laid the principal blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union on Lenin’s concept of federation, which included the principle of sovereignty of the Soviet republics and the possibility of their self-determination, up to and including secession. But is that the real reason? We know that many empires and states have broken up even though their constitutions did not allow for such a possibility.
I believe the reasons lie elsewhere.
Under Stalin, the multi-national state was cemented into a super-centralized single entity, with the center deciding and controlling everything. On top of that, Stalin and his associates carved territories and borders arbitrarily, as if they were trying to make sure that no one could even think of separation. The problems of nations were buried deeply, but they did not disappear. Behind the façade of “nations flourishing and drawing closer together,” there were acute problems that no one sought to address. Stalin regarded any national claims and inter-ethnic disputes as inherently anti-Soviet and suppressed them without further ado.
With democratization and greater freedom, it was inevitable that this would come to the surface. We have to recognize that we initially underestimated the scale and severity of the problem, but once it emerged, we could not resort to the old methods of suppression and prohibition. We believed that we must take a different path and seek thoughtful and balanced approaches using methods of persuasion.
In early 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh problem exploded, we understood that its roots were deep and that it had no quick solution—which, by the way, is still the case. Although some people tried to persuade me that re-carving the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan would solve the problem, the country’s leadership unanimously agreed that this was unacceptable. I believed that it was up to the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to reach an agreement; the central government was there to help them normalize the situation and, in particular, solve the economic problems. I remain convinced that this was the correct course.
However, neither the Party bodies nor the intelligentsia of the two republics were able to make progress toward an accord or at least dialogue, leaving the way open to extremists. The situation unraveled rapidly. In late February 1988, there was bloodshed in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Troops had to be sent in to stop the massacre.
During that period, in 1987 and 1988, I sought to develop a consistently democratic approach to inter-ethnic disputes. Essentially, this was based on the assumption that nationalities’ problems could only be properly resolved within the overall context of political and economic reforms. It must be recognized that initially, the national movements in the Baltic republics, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine declared their support for perestroika. In 1987, practically no one was proposing withdrawing from the Soviet Union.
It soon became clear, however, that the national movements were being taken over by separatist elements, while the Party leaders in the republics were losing their bearings and were unable to act in a democratic environment. This is what happened in Georgia when people took to the streets of Tbilisi in April 1989. Members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia should have reached out to the people, but instead they preferred to wait it out in a bunker. This ended disastrously: force was used “to clear the square” of the protesters, leaving 19 people dead and dozens injured.
This is a painful memory. But I can say with a clear conscience that the decision to break up the protest in Tbilisi was taken behind my back and against my will. Then and afterwards, I took a principled position: even the most difficult issues must be resolved by political means, without the use of force, without bloodshed.
By late 1988, we had managed to solve most of the problems related to ending the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, to reach a new level of relations with Western European countries, and to prepare the ground for normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China. This was by no means easy. The country’s leaders, diplomats, military officials and experts put enormous effort into it.
I want to emphasize that I did not take decisions alone. Directives for negotiations with our partners were the product of complex interactions between all the government agencies concerned. It was an arduous process; differences and disagreements occurred. Disputed issues and different potential solutions were discussed at Politburo meetings and we hammered out an agreed position, which I then upheld during the negotiations.
The initial emphasis was on relations with the United States, for improving relations between the nuclear superpowers was indispensable if we were to effect change in world affairs.
My first meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, which took place in Geneva in November 1985, broke the ice that had been building up for decades. This happened despite the fact that after our first conversation I, speaking to members of the Soviet delegation, called him not just a conservative but “a real dinosaur,” and we later learned that Reagan had called me “a die-hard Bolshevik.” And yet, two factors were crucial: responsibility and intuition. We both felt that, however difficult our dialogue, we needed to persist.
The main results of the Geneva summit are well known but are worth repeating here. We signed a statement that declared: the leaders of the USSR and the United States agree “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Furthermore, the two sides “will not seek to achieve military superiority.” We also agreed to expand exchanges between our countries—both people-to-people and youth contacts—and to resume airline flights.
Our speeches at the closing ceremony reflected a new tone that had for many years been absent from the rhetoric of Soviet and American leaders. It was the first step on the road to trust—something that is hard to achieve but is essential.
Nevertheless, in 1986 it became clear that Cold War inertia and the routine of formal diplomacy might thwart the efforts to reach agreements. The attempts of U.S. Navy ships to enter our territorial waters, spy scandals and “the same old tune” in disarmament negotiations convinced me that it was once again up to the leaders to make their position clear and their voice heard. I proposed to President Reagan that we meet “somewhere halfway” between Moscow and Washington and discuss ways of getting things off the ground. This is how the idea of Reykjavík was born.
The president’s response was positive. Though he did not bring new ideas to Reykjavík, we were able to make significant progress on intermediate-range missiles and strategic offensive weapons, mostly on the basis of the Soviet side’s proposals. In preparing these, we sought to address our partners’ concerns on such issues as heavy missiles and verification in order to stimulate a constructive response on their part. But we assumed a simple prerequisite: while ending the arms race on Earth, we must not start a race in space.
This is where, as they say, push came to shove. President Reagan wanted not just to intensify his Star Wars program, but also to make us give the go-ahead to testing missile defense systems in space. This was something to which I could not agree.
Nevertheless, the progress achieved on a number of important issues and the two leaders’ agreement that the ultimate goal of the negotiations was to rid the world of nuclear weapons allowed me to say immediately after the conclusion of the summit that Reykjavík was not a failure but a breakthrough, a new beginning in nuclear arms negotiations.
Quite a few people in our country, in the United States and in Europe were shocked. Margaret Thatcher, who associated Great Britain’s security with nuclear weapons, said, perhaps inadvertently, “We can’t afford a second Reykjavík.” Throughout 1987, there were many attempts to scuttle the negotiations on INF missiles and the conclusion of the treaty eliminating two classes of nuclear weapons hung in the balance, but Reykjavík’s impetus proved strong. In December 1987, the Treaty was signed.
The Treaty was heavily criticized, in our country and elsewhere. The critics chastised me for the fact that the Soviet Union cut more missiles and warheads than the United States. It should be borne in mind, however, that the deployment of our SS-20 missiles in Europe was a strategic blunder on the part of the previous leadership: their presence poisoned our relations with European countries, while their numbers were not based on any rationale. When U.S. missiles were deployed in response, they held us at gunpoint, since their range enabled them to reach vitally important targets and decision-making centers on Soviet territory. Therefore, from a qualitative standpoint, renouncing INF missiles on a mutual basis was good for us.
Let me point out another fact that is essential in evaluating the INF Treaty. It set in motion the process of dramatic reductions in practically all categories of nuclear weapons, particularly in Europe. Since 1987, the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe has been cut to a fraction of what it used to be. The United States withdrew from Europe all its nuclear artillery and surface-to-air missiles and dropped plans to deploy Follow-On To Lance missiles. This is what happens when leaders have the courage to act realistically and abandon outdated concepts of security.
We gave President Reagan credit for refusing to be persuaded by those who wanted him, under some pretext, to backtrack on his own “zero option” proposal to eliminate all INF missiles. That would have killed the treaty. The president’s firm stand opened the way to the emergence of mutual trust. This created an environment in which we took decisions that reduced tensions in many of the world’s regions and moved toward the settlement of conflicts that for many years had seemed impossible to resolve.
It was then that we corrected another mistake that had cost our country and our people dearly: we withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The orderly withdrawal of our troops created the conditions for starting a process of internal settlement in that country. We proposed that the great powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors work together to support national reconciliation in Afghanistan, and it is not our fault that this did not happen. Instead, civil conflict continued and Afghanistan became a breeding ground for terrorism. September 11, 2001, came as a horrible reminder that the legacy of the Cold War was still with us.
Nevertheless, the first results of our policy of New Thinking were evident, and I summarized these and the lessons we learned in my address to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1988.
The world in which we live today, I stated, is radically different from how it was at the beginning or even in the middle of this century. “The new realities are changing the entire world situation. The differences and contradictions inherited from the past are diminishing or being displaced. But new ones are emerging. Some of the past differences and disputes are losing their importance. But conflicts of a different kind are taking their place. Life is making us abandon established stereotypes and outdated views. It is making us discard illusions. The very concept of the nature and criteria of progress is changing.”
From the rostrum of the United Nations, I spoke about the need to demilitarize and democratize international relations. This derived directly from what we were doing within the Soviet Union. I spoke in detail about the challenges of and plans for perestroika. Having embarked on the path of democracy, rule of law and human rights, and arms reduction, we were fully justified in proposing to this global organization criteria and approaches based on universal human values.
I said that “we have entered an era when progress will be shaped by universal human interests,” and then added: “Our ideal is a world community of states which are based on the rule of law and which subordinate their foreign policy activities to law.”
Let me repeat: we were not naïve. We were fully aware that the road to the realization of that ideal would be long and arduous. But both at home and abroad, we had firmly made our choice and were moving decisively in that direction.
On the day when I spoke to the United Nations, I also had a meeting in New York with President Reagan and President-elect George Bush. We noted the impressive results achieved in relations between the two nuclear powers over the less than three years of our joint efforts. I am proud of what we have been able to do together, Ronald Reagan said. For his part, George Bush stated that he hoped to continue our joint efforts. I replied by saying that this was fully in line with our intentions.
I gave a frank account of the processes under way in our country, of our achievements, problems and plans. I said that we were entering perhaps the most challenging stage of perestroika: ushering in fundamental, difficult changes. We needed to change the mindset of every individual, from a Politburo member to a machine-tool operator. In such a challenging endeavor, temporary backsliding could occur, for this was a multifaceted and contentious, though also irreversible, process. I added that I could say with confidence: the Soviet Union had irrevocably taken the path of radical change.
I want you to know, President Reagan replied, that you have our support in this difficult undertaking.
The year 1989 was beginning. It was indeed full of unexpected developments, problems and daunting dilemmas. But even more importantly, it turned out to be the year when the changes brought to our country and the world by perestroika and New Thinking became irreversible.
The political reform ushered in by the 19th Party Conference in June 1988 sought to transfer political power from the party that had monopolized it to bodies elected by the people. My like-minded colleagues and I understood that the bureaucracy would push back against such a reform and that it had the leverage to delay and erode political transformations.
Two-thirds of the delegates to the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, which convened in May 1989, were elected in direct contested elections. In many electoral districts, there were 10, 12 or more candidates. As a one-time, temporary measure, one-third of the delegates were elected by various public organizations. We were criticized for this format, but I continue to believe that this criticism was unfair. This format made it possible to avoid a “mutiny on the ship” by weakening the resistance of the Party’s upper echelons while simultaneously bringing in new people who would otherwise have had little or no chance of being elected.
The election campaign showed that we found ourselves in a totally new, unprecedented environment. The debate, in the media and elsewhere, was frank and sharp as never before. It revealed many bitter truths and previously unknown facts. Some members of the country’s leadership reacted to it with exasperation and alarm.
Ironically, 85 percent of the elected deputies were members of the CPSU, whereas in the previous Supreme Soviet, whose members were in effect appointed rather than elected, only about half had been Party members. Nevertheless, the Party’s leaders perceived the election results as a defeat. The mood at the meeting of the Politburo after the elections was somber. But unlike many of my colleagues, I stated that the results of the elections were a major step in the implementation of political reform.
We awakened society, achieving what we had set out to do in the preceding years of perestroika: involve the people in the political process. Free elections brought to the fore many new, interesting people and clarified the positions of those strata of society of whom we had previously had a very vague and sometimes misleading view that had been distorted by political dogma.
At the Politburo meeting, I stated that we had no right to reject the criticism of the Party, including its leaders, that marked the election campaign. Thirty-five high-ranking Party officials had suffered a defeat. If the CPSU wanted to be in the vanguard of perestroika, it needed to change.
Subsequent developments would show that the Party was unable to play that role and did not stand the test of democracy, freedom and glasnost. I have to admit that seeing that the Party was increasingly an obstacle to perestroika was, for me, a painful experience. But as its General Secretary, I believed that it would be wrong and dangerous to abandon the Party. That would have turned its leadership and a large part of its membership into direct opponents of perestroika. This made my position in the early stage of political reform difficult and ambivalent.
The USSR Congress of People’s Deputies elected a new Supreme Soviet that was quite capable of effective work and laid the groundwork for a new, democratic political system. It would seem that the prerequisites were in place for perestroika to really take off, overcoming the negative tendencies in the economy and in inter-ethnic relations. Why, then, did this not happen?
I think the reason lies in the fact that the processes of disintegration outpaced the shaping of new institutions of government and administration. At the same time, the radical opposition was gaining strength. In and of itself, the appearance of the opposition was logical and necessary. But in propounding populist slogans, fighting the central authorities and centrist policies, and supporting separatists, the radicals undermined the foundations of governance and in effect linked up destructively with the hardline conservative opposition.
Nevertheless, even today, the experience of the functioning of democratically elected authorities is important, and I would say it is still invaluable. The Supreme Soviet adopted laws on relations between the citizens and the state, providing for political freedoms and civil rights. I am referring, in particular, to the laws on freedom of the press and other media, on public (non-governmental) organizations, on the rights of trade unions, on freedom of conscience and religious organizations, on local self-government, and on entry to and exit from the country. This legislative activity was comparable in its importance to the reforms under Tsar Alexander II in the second half of the 19th century, which were a major milestone in our country’s history. The course of our reforms, like those of our predecessors, turned out to be difficult, but I remain convinced of their continuing importance. Their place in history is secure.
The events of 1989-1990 were unprecedented in terms of political intensity, with changes breaking out simultaneously in our country and in the international arena. Difficult decisions had to be taken under enormous time pressure. Examples of such a sharp and dramatic acceleration of the course of events are rare in history. Under such circumstances, there was a danger of the defeat of perestroika, of power being seized by forces willing and able to liquidate its democratic gains. Preventing such a rollback became a major challenge for me, requiring tactical maneuvers and steps to maintain balance. Even some of my supporters sometimes failed to understand the need for such steps.
A conservative group formed within the Party and particularly its leadership, with Yegor Ligachev emerging as its leader. A remarkable man, he was honestly and sincerely concerned for the country’s future. He supported me strongly during the initial stage of the process of change. With time, however, he demonstrated his commitment to the “fundamentals” of the kind of socialism that we inherited and which was incompatible with democracy. He and several other members of the Politburo in effect supported an article by Nina Andreeva published on March 13, 1988, in the newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia that was nothing if not a Stalinist tract, an anti-perestroika manifesto. This revealed the fissures within the Party’s leadership.
I felt it was important to prevent differing views from causing a split in the leadership and, at the time, I succeeded. Preventing a split was particularly important with respect to our foreign policy at a time when international affairs took a sharp turn. With the Cold War coming to an end, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were voicing their aspirations and Germany was uniting.
Without a doubt, those processes received an impetus from the changes in our country. Having granted democratic rights and freedoms to the peoples of our country, we could not thwart the aspirations of the peoples of neighboring countries, our allies. From the very start, we told those countries’ leaders that we would not interfere in their affairs and that they were responsible to their people.
Therefore, when the wind of change blew in those countries, we proved that what I had said about freedom of choice—which was one of the main theses of my speech at the United Nations—was not empty rhetoric. One of the main results thereof was the reunification of Germany.
It is very important that by the time the process of unification began to gain momentum, the Cold War had in effect ended. In December 1989, the president of the United States, George Bush, and I stated at Malta that our two countries no longer considered each other enemies. The U.S. president also stated there that he would react to the events in Central Europe prudently and responsibly and that he would not be “dancing on the [Berlin] Wall.”
Nevertheless, the road to German unity was not easy, nor could it be smooth. The situation was tense, and any incautious step could lead to an explosion. Prominent politicians and some leaders in Europe, including our country, expressed doubts and concern about the unfolding process. They did it publicly and, to an even greater extent, privately. Under such circumstances, the position of the Soviet Union was crucial.
Let me say frankly that there were reasons for doubts and concern. The memory of the devastating war unleashed by Hitler’s regime had not been erased from people’s minds. The war had brought untold suffering to our country and to the Soviet people. It had left a searing impact on millions of families.
When history accelerated its course and Germans in the East and in the West declared that they were one nation, political leaders were challenged to show wisdom, restraint, depth of thought and vision. It was a major test. Together, we passed that test. Despite the problems, obstacles and risks that awaited us every step of the way, we were able to achieve a historic outcome. The documents we signed laid the foundations for security in Europe in new conditions.
In taking difficult decisions amid the whirlwind of events, I relied on certain principles. I felt that attempts to thwart German unity by force would undermine everything we had done to end the Cold War, irreparably damage the policy of perestroika and poison relations between our nations for a long time to come.
Above all, I relied on the will and magnanimity of our people. The Soviets showed they understood the aspirations of the German people and met them halfway. I saw proof of that in the reaction of our citizens to my speech in the Kremlin in May 1990, in which I explained our policy with respect to Germany.
Today, we can state that the decisions we took proved sound. Germany and the Germans have fulfilled the obligations they took on in the process of unification. I am referring in particular to the massive reduction in the size of Germany’s armed forces and the implementation of the treaty between the USSR and the Federal Republic of Germany signed on November 9, 1990. Although over the past few years relations between Russia and Germany have grown more difficult, I am confident that their foundations are strong and that they still have enormous potential.
The crisis that broke out in the Middle East in late summer 1990 was another test for New Thinking and new relations among states after the end of the Cold War.
Had such a crisis, caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, happened during the Cold War, it could have led to an extremely dangerous confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies. The reckless adventure of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, created serious problems for us, primarily because of the relations that had existed for many years between the USSR and Iraq. The Soviet Union had a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Iraq. Thousands of our people worked in Iraq in various roles, including as military advisers and technical cooperation experts. Furthermore, we had billions of dollars’ worth of economic projects ongoing in Iraq, which was particularly sensitive given our economic difficulties.
Nevertheless, from the very beginning, without delay or vacillation, I condemned the aggression and called for joint efforts to end it and restore Kuwait’s sovereignty. At the same time, we took a firm position in favor of achieving this goal by political rather than military means.
Overall, we were able to hold to that line. Although the president of the United States did resort to force in order to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, in the end we could note a number of positive outcomes.
The sovereignty and the very existence of Kuwait were restored. Saddam Hussein failed to divide the international community or to make it put up with aggression.
The resolutions of the United Nations Security Council were implemented. Furthermore, U.S. troops did not cross Iraq’s border; they did not occupy the country to force “regime change.”
Our country made a major contribution to shaping the common reaction of the international community to the aggression and to reversing it; it also helped to consolidate the role of the United Nations. We succeeded in carrying the new Soviet-American relations through a severe post-Cold War crisis that put them to another test. Finally, we agreed to hold an international conference in Madrid to discuss the Middle East peace settlement.
My critics assert that in paying primary attention to international problems and seeking to solve them on the basis of New Thinking, I underestimated the severity of the Soviet Union’s domestic problems and missed opportunities to address them. In fact, during those years, particularly in 1991, I dedicated the lion’s share of my time, efforts and strength to domestic politics, primarily to efforts to preserve our Union as a single entity.
What led us to the crisis in 1991? Why did events take such a sharp turn? The reasons were both objective, caused by the legacy of the decades of the Soviet state’s existence, and subjective, related to mistakes and failings during the years of perestroika.
The problems of inter-ethnic relations, federal-regional relations, and economic problems tightened into a single knot that could only be untied by resolutely modernizing those relations and implementing radical economic reform. We were slow to fully realize this, but when we did, we acted.
On the eve of 1991, I addressed the citizens of the country, saying: “The coming year will be special. At stake is the future of our multi-ethnic state. The peoples of this country have been living together for centuries. Perhaps we now realize more than ever before that we must not live behind fences that would separate us. To find a way out of the crisis and firmly follow the road of renewal, we must work together.”
I was convinced that the problem of preserving and reforming the Union could be addressed politically, without the use of force and bloodshed. But as early as the first half of January, a storm broke out. There was bloodshed in Lithuania.
The leadership of Lithuania, having come to power as a result of elections, took the course of exacerbating relations with the Union’s central government and achieving independence at any cost. Nevertheless, I was looking for a compromise and was ready to negotiate. On January 12, I stated that the crisis would be resolved by constitutional means. But on the night of January 12-13, the TV tower and a radio station in Vilnius were taken over with the help of Soviet troops and several people were killed.
As president of the Soviet Union, I did not order and could not have ordered such actions. They were a provocation against me as president, as would later—particularly after the attempted coup in August 1991—become abundantly clear. There are documents to prove it.
After the bloodshed on January 13, any efforts to prevent the withdrawal of Lithuania and the other Baltic republics from the Soviet Union were doomed. But the struggle for the Union continued.
I was sure that issues relating to the fate of the Union state and of our nation must not be addressed without the participation of the people. I was convinced that at a referendum, the vast majority would support the preservation of the Union and favor transforming it into an effective federation.
On March 17, 1991, at the referendum I initiated, 76 percent of the country’s voters and 71.34 percent in Russia said yes to the Union. The results were equally impressive in Ukraine and Byelorussia. President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, who had assumed the role of leader of the radical opposition, and his entourage had to reckon with that outcome. This is what made it possible to convene regular meetings between the USSR president and the leaders of nine republics, including Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan, at Novo-Ogarevo. Those meetings helped ease tensions and speed the preparation of the draft Union Treaty.
Together with my like-minded supporters, I simultaneously had to fight the attempts of separatists and “radical democrats” to dismember the Union and the actions of those who wanted to wind down the democratic process and return our country to the past.
At the April plenum of the Party’s Central Committee, the latter went so far as to demand a change of leadership. The upper echelons of the Party sought support from the rank and file. Groups were emerging that called for “fighting revisionism” and “restoring the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Dozens, even hundreds, of letters from Party committees reached my desk, their ultimatums demanding “immediate measures to save the socialist system,” up to and including declaring a state of emergency. On April 22, during the debate in the Supreme Soviet on the Cabinet of Ministers’ report on steps to end the economic crisis, some deputies—prompted by Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and with Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Anatoly Lukyanov sympathetically looking on—began to speculate about declaring an emergency throughout the country or in crucial sectors of the economy. I had to intervene to counter the hard-liners and return the parliament to normal work.
Some members of the country’s leadership, even some of my close associates, were two-faced people who professed their commitment to democracy while at the same time being ready to betray it—and me. Of course, every one of them had the right to their own opinion, but they had every opportunity to state it directly, to argue and fight for it in open political debate. Instead, they chose to collude behind the scenes, ultimately attempting a coup d’état. Promoting some of them, including nominating Gennadii Yanaev for the post of vice-president, was a grave mistake, but at the time this was not so obvious.
My own choice, however, remained firm: stay the course of democracy, reject the appeals of the hard-liners, and seek unity among all healthy elements of our society in support of reforms. So when in April representatives of the Party nomenklatura went all out and demanded that I either declare a state of emergency or resign as general secretary, I said:
“Enough demagoguery, I am resigning.”
Asked to reconsider my decision, I refused and went back to my office.
An hour and a half later, an overwhelming majority of the Central Committee, with just 13 members voting against and 14 abstaining, accepted the Politburo’s proposal to delete my statement of resignation from the agenda.
Some high-ranking officials, too, failed the test of democracy. At a Supreme Soviet session in June 1991, Prime Minister Pavlov, supported by top security officials, demanded that the parliament grant the Cabinet of Ministers emergency powers. I was not present at the meeting because I was at Novo-Ogarevo conferring with the leaders of the republics on the final draft of the Union Treaty.
Once again, I had to take a stand to rebuff the proponents of emergency. It was now clear that in the new leadership to be formed after the signing of the Union Treaty, there would be no place for Pavlov, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Lukyanov.
This was the context in which the Union Treaty was being drafted, with contentious debate over its key provisions. Following complicated political maneuvering, arguments and clashes of opinion, by the end of July we were coming close to finding reasonable solutions to the problems that impeded perestroika. That created the prerequisites for overcoming the crisis.
The completion of the drafting of the Union Treaty on July 23 was, of course, of decisive importance. We reached agreement on issues related to the rights and powers of the republics and the Union center, a common monetary policy, and taxes. Also in July, we began to implement the anti-crisis economic policy. It was the result of a lot of hard work, but in the end, we agreed on a version that received support from the republics, and even the Baltic leaders were ready to act in accordance with that program.
It all came together in July 1991, and it was the outcome of longstanding and arduous efforts on the road down which we had first embarked in 1985. The real prerequisites were now in place for pulling the country out of crisis and making a major breakthrough with regard to democratic reform.
During those months, our activity in the international arena was subordinated to one goal: consolidate the transition from confrontation to cooperation and ultimately to partnership in relations with the world’s major powers and move toward real integration of our country into the global economy. This was the thread that ran through the central events of the 1991 foreign policy agenda: my participation in the meeting of the group of seven leading industrialized countries in London and U.S. President George Bush’s visit to the USSR.
By the time I met with the leaders of the G7, we were ready for serious discussion. Perestroika had liberated us from the dogmas that had stood in the way of recognizing that a modern, efficient economy cannot exist without private property, economic freedom, and market economics. In the years before glasnost, when fear still prevailed, our politicians and economists did not dare even to speak those words. But by 1990, we could say that there was consensus in our society and among experts on the need to move toward a market economy.
During my meetings with Western representatives in the fall of 1990, I always emphasized that overcoming our economic crisis and reforming the economy was our responsibility, something that no one could do for us. We understood that. But the West, too, had a stake in our success. A healthy economy in our vast country was necessarily in the West’s interests. Therefore, at the most difficult, make-or-break moment in our reforms, we were entitled to hope that our partners would take steps in our direction.
Yet our Western interlocutors suggested, directly or indirectly, that reforms in the USSR were still going too slowly and that our economy was “insufficiently market-oriented,” making it difficult for the West to take such steps.
We took our preparations for the meeting with the G7 very seriously. In July, the working group preparing papers and proposals for the London meeting worked practically day and night, and on July 8 it presented the results of its work to the leaders of the republics in Novo-Ogarevo. The discussion that followed produced a common position based on mutual understanding between the USSR president and the republics’ leaders. All of them, starting with Boris Yeltsin, supported the papers prepared at Novo-Ogarevo and the draft of my presentation to G7 leaders in London.
Here is the central idea of my speech: “Our concept of integrating our country into the global economy assumes the need for radical changes in the USSR as well as reciprocal steps by the West, such as lifting legislative and other restrictions on economic and technical ties with the USSR, the participation of the USSR in international economic organizations, and so on.”
The discussion with Western leaders turned out to be frank and serious. Most of them, however, did not show a real understanding of how much was at stake. Given the significance and the scale of the problem of our country’s inclusion in the global economy and of the assistance needed for it, the agreements reached in London did not go far enough. As Margaret Thatcher, who had stepped down as U.K. prime minister a few months earlier, told me when we met in the Soviet Embassy, they did not measure up.
Some commentators later suggested that had the agreements on economic support for perestroika been more concrete and binding, the August coup plotters would probably not have dared to attempt a putsch against me.
Overall, however, my assessment of what happened at my meeting with the G7 remains positive. The London summit marked a major turn: following the changes in the political and military sphere, it was the beginning of dismantling the barriers that had hindered our integration into the global economy.
In late July, U.S. President George Bush came to the USSR on an official visit. Looking back, I think that if the president had moved resolutely to work with us from the very start, the results that this visit produced could have been achieved even earlier. This does not, however, diminish their importance. We signed the treaty agreement to reduce strategic offensive forces by 50 percent. Never before—nor since—have such massive cuts been made to nuclear arsenals. This alone makes the 1991 U.S.-Soviet summit a historic event.
Our private discussions on the key problems of world affairs and the prospects of U.S.-Soviet relations contained very new content.
For me, the main theme of these talks was the prospect of shaping a new system of comprehensive security, which for the first time in history would be the product of a common approach to world affairs, based on new criteria that had already undergone a kind of stress test.
Today, I recall that visit of the U.S. president, his last to the Soviet Union, with some sadness. We did not know then what would happen just three weeks later.
Two blows proved fatal to perestroika: the attempted coup d’état organized by the reactionary forces, including elements close to me, in August 1991 and the collusion of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia in December, which cut off the age-old history of our state.
The coup plotters had lost in an open political struggle; they knew that there would be no place for them in a renewed Union. Their assertions that their motives were patriotic and that they acted to preserve the Union are demagogical. It is not that they were indifferent to the fate of our state, but they identified it with the old system and committed betrayal in an attempt to preserve it as well as their place in it. The consequences for the country were catastrophic.
There is no need here to recount in detail the events of August 1991. I never changed my position and I am responsible for every word I said publicly, in the evidence I gave to investigators, and in my interviews and books. It is the coup plotters and their defenders who keep changing their “versions of events,” and in each of those versions, there are more and more lies.
Those three days in August were an almost inhuman ordeal for me and my family, but I maintained my presence of mind and I acted. I rejected the ultimatum of the conspirators, who demanded that I declare a state of emergency, and I videotaped a statement denouncing their actions as illegal. This, and the firm stand taken by President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, who stated that the coup was unconstitutional, condemned the coup to defeat.
Nevertheless, the coup attempt weakened the position of the president of the USSR, frustrated the process of building new Union relationships between the sovereign states and gave an impetus to disintegration. The republics, one after another, adopted declarations of independence. Still, I believed that even in such circumstances I must not give up. While I fully understood how much more difficult my task had become, I continued to fight for a Union treaty to be concluded. The leaders of the republics and I succeeded in crafting and signing a joint statement that we presented to the Congress of People’s Deputies. It proposed that all republics that so wished should elaborate and sign a treaty on the Union of Sovereign States in which every republic would be able independently to decide the form of its participation.
There was a chance to prevent disintegration. After difficult, sometimes arduous discussions, we arrived at the formula for the new Union: a confederative Union State. In mid-October, eight republics signed a treaty of economic community, and the inter-republican economic committee began to function. On November 14, the draft of the new Union Treaty was submitted to the State Council. After many hours of debate, we went to face the media. Boris Yeltsin then said:
“It is hard to say how many republics will join, but I am firmly convinced that there will be a Union.”
The participation of Ukraine was a difficult issue. Following the coup attempt, the mood in Ukrainian society had turned toward independence. Yet I was convinced that gradually, through negotiations, we would be able to find a format in which that state, too, would be willing to participate in a new Union; we could at least agree on common armed forces and coordinated foreign policy. I am sure that much of what happened later, bringing so much grief to so many people, could have been avoided had we succeeded.
Yeltsin did not keep his word. He and his inner circle sacrificed the Union to their wanton desire to reign in the Kremlin.
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia decided the fate of the Union in an unlawful way and against the will of the people as expressed in the March 17 referendum. They were guided, above all else, by their intent “to remove Gorbachev.” This brought together the radical, separatist and Communist members of Russia’s Supreme Soviet, who voted as one to approve the outcome of the collusion sealed on December 8, 1991, at Belovezhskaya Pushcha. They did not think about the consequences. Even the problem of the armed forces and nuclear weapons was left dangling: the common armed forces quickly disintegrated, while the statement of intent “to preserve under unified command a common military-strategic space, including single control of nuclear weapons” turned out to be empty rhetoric. Even the Americans were amazed by the rushed and irresponsible nature of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreements.
What amazed and, more than that, shocked me was the indifference of public opinion, which did not condemn the disintegration of the Union. People failed to understand that they were losing their country…
I am still asked: Are you sure that after the Belovezhskaya Pushcha collusion you did everything possible and used all the powers of the presidency to preserve the Union?
And what could it have led to? It could have divided all institutions, including the army and the police, leading to civil strife and possibly even civil war. To me, that was out of the question.
The breakup of the Union interrupted perestroika but it was by no means “the end result” of it, as my opponents and people who have not looked carefully into that period still assert. More generally, perestroika should be evaluated not in terms of what it failed to achieve or was not given time to achieve, but in terms of its magnitude in Russia’s history and its positive consequences for the world.
I am often asked how I assess the specific decisions taken during that time; which of them were right and which were wrong.
It is true that we made mistakes. I mentioned some of them above. We should have started to reform the Party and decentralize the Union earlier than we did; we should have been bolder in reforming the economy. But here are the real results of perestroika: the end of the Cold War; unprecedented agreements on nuclear disarmament; human rights and the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and emigration; contested elections on a multi-party basis; and, most importantly, we brought the process of change far enough that it could not be turned back.
After perestroika was broken off, the road ahead for Russia and the other republics was hard and uneven. The rupture of various ties, ill-advised economic policies, and the new rulers’ immaturity and lack of a truly democratic spirit had dramatic and sometimes tragic consequences. Criticizing perestroika, accusing its leaders of all sins real and imagined, and engaging in destruction turned out to be much easier than building something new on the ruins that they had wrought.
I had warned that the radical and irresponsible attitudes that prevailed in Russia, particularly in the 1990s, would come to no good, and my warnings proved right. The damage not just to the economy, but also to democratic institutions was substantial.
We are still far from the goals set during the very early stages of the process of change: regular transfer of power to elected leaders and making sure that people have a real say in the government’s decisions. Nevertheless, the years gone by cannot be described as just backsliding or marking time. Through these years, whether I have criticized developments or praised them, I have always called for preserving the ideals and values of perestroika. Without them, we might lose our bearings going forward.
Understanding perestroika and upholding New Thinking are two interconnected tasks that I undertook after stepping down as president of the Soviet Union.
How do we preserve the gains achieved through joint efforts? How do we make the end of the Cold War irreversible and prevent the return of confrontation? How do we consolidate the new, cooperative trends in international relations and thus change the nature of international politics?
There are no simple answers to these questions. The End of History, proclaimed hastily in 1989, did not happen. The history being made before our very eyes has turned out to be complex, contradictory, surprising and, we must admit, much more alarming than many of us expected.
The reasons for this are diverse and complicated, but I must emphasize the responsibility of those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War and claimed “special rights” in world affairs.
I recall my visit to the United States in 1992, when I was invited to speak to the U.S. Congress. The welcoming speeches by the leaders of both chambers of Congress were constructive both in tone and in content, with not a word about the “victory of the United States in the Cold War.” The same is true of major speeches by President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in April 1992 and of my conversation with them at the White House.
Later, however, the American political establishment changed its tune. That was a major error in judgment and a failure to meet their responsibility to history. Instead of recognizing our common victory over the Cold War, they decided to declare themselves the sole winners. Within just a few weeks, “victory in the Cold War” became the buzzword of the election campaign. It was picked up by the U.S. media and even quoted approvingly by quite a few people in our country.
That about-turn set the course of world events on the wrong track. It is the root of many mistakes and failures that undermined the foundations of new international politics.
In politics, triumphalism gives bad advice. It is, among other things, immoral. The need to bring together morality and politics is one of the main principles of New Thinking.
In a global world, relations among states must be governed not just by the norms of international law but also by certain rules of behavior rooted in universal moral principles. Such rules of behavior should include restraint, consideration of the interests of all sides, and consultations and mediation if the situation deteriorates and a dangerous crisis is looming. Many crises could have been averted if the parties directly involved and, to an even greater degree, outside parties followed such rules of behavior.
Finally, there is one aspect of New Thinking on which I will keep insisting. It is the rejection of nuclear weapons and militarism.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a danger of nuclear war. It is like a gun on the wall in the first act of a play. As the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said, at some point it will fire.
When President Ronald Reagan and I stated in 1985 that a nuclear war must never be fought, that meant one thing: the ultimate goal is nothing short of the elimination of nuclear weapons.
But talk about a world without nuclear weapons, which is still supported rhetorically by all countries, including the United States, will mean nothing if we do not put an end to the current militarization of international politics and political thinking.
Let me once again recall here another provision of the joint U.S.-Soviet statement adopted at the 1985 Geneva summit: the two sides will not seek military superiority. This should resonate powerfully today.
Let us imagine that in ten or fifteen years the world gets rid of nuclear weapons. What will remain? Sky-high numbers of conventional weapons, including the most sophisticated types whose power is often comparable to that of weapons of mass destruction. The lion’s share of them would be in the hands of one nation, the United States, which would thus acquire an overwhelming advantage in the world arena. Such a state of affairs would block the path to nuclear disarmament.
No challenge or threat facing humankind in the twenty-first century can have a military solution. No major problem can be solved single-handedly by one country or even a group of countries.
As we ended the Cold War, the world community formulated a set of concrete tasks to be addressed by the new generation of political leaders. These include eliminating nuclear weapons, overcoming mass poverty in developing countries, providing equal opportunities for everyone in education and healthcare, and reversing the degradation of the environment. Yet the United Nations has had to recognize that progress on these tasks has been insufficient.
This is not an indictment of the current generation of leaders, but a call for urgent action. They must seriously reassess their political thinking and consider the experience of their predecessors, who had to deal with even more dangerous challenges. Their achievements are on record; no one will be able to negate them.
I hope that this reminder of the goals and values of perestroika and New Thinking will help readers who want to understand what is happening today. I want this to be my contribution to the dialogue between the past and the present. Linking them requires knowing the truth about the past and learning lessons for the future. This is what we all need in a changing world.
Figure 1. Detail of Gorbachev’s signature on a Russian-language version of this essay
Translated by Pavel Palazhchenko
This article is a translation of a Russian-language text by Mikhail S. Gorbachev previously published in Russia in Global Affairs. The original is available at: https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/ponyat-perestrojku/.