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Gorbachev at eighty
On Wednesday, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, celebrates his 80th birthday. A leading British scholar salutes a man who changed Russia and the world for the better.
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev: Soviet statesman, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985-91) and President of USSR (1990-91).
In each successive year in the second half of the 1980s perestroika meant something more radical to Mikhail Gorbachev than it had in the previous year. He continued to voice support for ‘the socialist idea’ as well as for perestroika, but this element of linguistic continuity (accompanied also, however, by much conceptual innovation) misled only the most superficial of observers. In reality Gorbachev moved from being a Communist reformer to becoming a socialist of a social democratic type – a qualitative shift. It is a superficial and misplaced criticism of him to say that what transpired was not what he intended in 1985. It was, on the contrary, one of Gorbachev’s strengths that he had a sufficiently open mind to broaden his conception of what was politically desirable and, if pursued with sufficient finesse, possible in a country with a long tradition, both Tsarist and Soviet, of authoritarian rule. The radicalisation of Gorbachev’s outlook owed much to the political opposition and bureaucratic inertia which even moderate reform encountered. It was stimulated, too, by the flow of fresh ideas and arguments both within his own advisory circle and in the broader society, itself a response to the glasnost and greater frankness he had encouraged.
Liberalisation of the system, especially from 1986-87 and its partial democratisation, especially from 1988-89, brought every conceivable long suppressed problem and grievance to the surface of Soviet political life. Gorbachev’s political in-tray became monumentally overloaded. There were some failures. Most notable was economic reform. A start was made, but the economy in the later perestroika years was in limbo – no longer a command economy but not yet a functioning market economy. The length of time the Soviet Union had been under Communist rule made a transition to a market more difficult than in either the East European Communist states or in China. What is more, when marketisation did take place in the 1990s, it manifestly failed to meet elementary standards of social justice and helped to explain Gorbachev’s hesitation, even after he had embraced the idea of a market economy in principle (as he did in 1990-91), to take the plunge.
The other failure was the delay in attempting to move from a pseudo-federal system to a genuine and voluntary federation. Gorbachev’s highest priorities were liberalising and democratising political reform at home and the endeavour to put international relations on a new footing. Relations between the nationalities and republics in the Soviet Union were not at the top of his political agenda until they forced their way there. It was his political reform – allowing people to air their national grievances without fear of arrest and imprisonment, even to elect to a new legislature deputies intent on seeking national sovereignty for their republics – that made this issue such a salient one. Gorbachev’s foreign policy, and hostility to military intervention, which led to the peaceful acquisition of independence of the countries which had formed the Soviet bloc, also raised expectations within the most disaffected Soviet republics, especially in the Baltic states. People there began to believe that they, too, could become independent and non-Communist.To blame Gorbachev for not resolving the nationalities problem and achieving a voluntary federation, with far greater powers devolved to the republics (as was the aim in successive variants of his proposed new Union Treaty), would be harsh. Within the party-state machine, and especially in the ranks of the siloviki – the army and the military-industrial complex, the KGB and the Ministry of Interior – there was fierce opposition to losing any part of the Soviet Union, following the ‘loss’ of Eastern Europe. The fact that the Vice-President, the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the KGB, the Minister of Defence, and the head of military industry were among the principal plotters who sought to overthrow Gorbachev in August 1991 was sufficient proof, if proof were needed, of the impossible task Gorbachev faced in trying to reconcile the aspirations for sovereignty of a number of nations within the multi-national USSR with the determination of the most powerful institutional interests within the country to maintain the integrity of the Soviet state. Gorbachev would, in all probability, have succeeded in partially squaring the circle by getting agreement from a majority of Soviet republics to join what he called a ‘renewed union’ had not Boris Yeltsin put a spanner in the works by demanding Russian ‘independence’ from the Union, even though Russia and Russians had been the dominant partners within that state.
These failures, such as they were, are dwarfed, in my view, by twelve monumental achievements of Gorbachev. Other people contributed to these outcomes, of course, but in the strictly hierarchical Soviet system they would not have happened had anyone other than Gorbachev been chosen as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when Konstantin Chernenko died in March 1985. We know from their memoirs and interviews that the other members of Chernenko’s Politburo were shocked by the subsequent radicalism of the change of direction in domestic and foreign policy which Gorbachev initiated and developed. The new General Secretary had to employ the full authority of that office and all of his personal powers of persuasion to carry the Politburo and other veteran apparatchiki along with him for as long as he did.The list is not exhaustive (there were other changes for the better), but the following are twelve fundamental breaks with the Soviet past which Russia and the world owes primarily to Gorbachev:
Archie Brown is an Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University. He is Britain’s leading expert on communism. This article has been republished under a Creative Commons licence from openDemocracy.net.
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