In just two years, from 1989 to 1991, a major geopolitical edifice collapsed. This edifice was built on the ideological foundations of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (whose centenary went almost unnoticed), consolidated by the evil genius of Josef Stalin, expanded through cynical deals between post-World War II powers, and held together by the iron hand of a rigid, centralised bureaucracy.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the principal destroyer of this edifice, is as admired in the West as he is reviled in his country. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he was deposed as president of the USSR in 1991 and, when he stood for election as president of Russia in 1996, secured just 0.5 per cent of the popular vote.
It’s a moot question if the West wanted Gorbachev to succeed. Rather than face a formidable USSR, its break-up was a better option. Hence US acceptance of Yeltsin sacking Gorbachev.
In Gorbachev: His Life and Times, William Taubman, the biographer of an earlier Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev, tracks Gorbachev’s remarkable progress up the greasy pole of Soviet politics, and his precipitous fall from it.
Born into a peasant family in 1931, Gorbachev won a state award as a boy for labour in a Soviet collective farm. Unusually for a boy from his background, he got admission to the prestigious Moscow State University. Emerging with a law degree, he joined the Komsomol (Youth Communist League) branch in his native Stavropol region. He rose steadily up the Komsomol ranks and then up the Communist Party hierarchy to become chief of the Communist Party of Stavropol at the relatively young age of 39.
Besides education and energy, Gorbachev’s asset was an acute sensitivity to ideological winds—moving seamlessly from praise of Stalin’s policies, to criticising them in the Krushchev era, before backsliding to an intermediate post-Krushchev position.
Influential Politburo members, including Andropov (who later became party chief) and Kosygin (PM), vacationed in the spas of Stavropol, giving Gorbachev the opportunity of impressing them with his erudition and commitment. By the 1980s, the Soviet Communist Party and government leaderships were dominated by aging, tired and ill leaders, overwhelmed by the mounting challenges of the country. The Soviet economy was in agricultural and industrial decline and hurting from the high costs of the arms race with the West and the ill-advised misadventure in Afghanistan. Gorbachev’s patrons in the party apparently felt he could bring in fresh ideas. Thus, he progressed upward to membership of the Politburo and, as leaders Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko died in quick succession, became party chief in 1985.
The principal themes of Gorbachev’s tenure were economic reform (perestroika) and democratisation of governance (glasnost). Unfortunately for him, perestroika ran aground even as glasnost gathered steam, focussing public attention on the shortcomings of the system and unleashing forces that he could not channelise in his support.
Repair of the economic and social fabric of the country faced formidable challenges. Replacement of the old guard at senior party and government levels stretched over many years. Gorbachev had mixed success in assembling loyal personal aides to push his agenda. Personality clashes and differences over the pace or direction of reform retarded progress. The collapse of global oil prices was another factor: a 70 per cent drop, combined with a steep fall in domestic oil and grain production, had a devastating impact on the budget. Added to this was the self-inflicted wound from a rigorous anti-alcohol campaign: it resulted in revenue loss of about $100 billion between 1985 and 1990 and alienated public sentiment.
Gorbachev’s personality traits, as much as policy differences, led to an acrimonious fallout with critical leaders like PM Ligachev and the mercurial Yeltsin (who delivered the final humiliation of expelling him from office) wrecked policy coordination. Taubman notes that his capacity for grand visionary ideas was not matched by the ability to put in place detailed plans for their execution: he preferred ‘vast ideas’ and had an aversion to ‘routine matters’. History is replete with examples of visionary leaders lacking the pragmatism and political skills to transform vision into reality.
Like most leaders facing difficulties at home, Gorbachev found solace in the glamour of foreign visits. His message of reform and promise of disarmament were received rapturously by Western audiences, particularly in Europe, which was at the frontlines of the Cold War. Admirers turned out on the streets to hail the statesman who would hack the Iron Curtain. This adulation extended to the Warsaw Pact countries in Europe, whose populations hoped that the winds from the promised ‘Soviet spring’ would blow westward into their political systems.
According to Taubman, Gorbachev believed that the West would embrace his dream of ending the Cold War by democratising his country, opening up its economy and enhancing global security by rapid disarmament. As his domestic policies failed to generate the resources required to revive the Soviet economy, he argued that it was in the West’s interest to extend generous economic assistance. The response disappointed him: Western leaders applauded and flattered him with ‘special gestures’, but did not extend the aid he needed to rescue the Soviet economy and to silence domestic critics.
Gorbachev responded with more concessions that he felt would create the goodwill to generate support. He announced a unilateral Soviet troop reduction in Europe, allowed the Warsaw Pact countries out of the Soviet fold, and acquiesced in German re-unification and its joining NATO. Each time, his interlocutors pocketed his concessions and gave little more than approbation. Gorbachev nevertheless pursued with this strategy of negotiation by unilateral concession.
German re-unification is a case in point. As the Berlin Wall fell (November 1989), Gorbachev declared that the USSR would never countenance German re-unification. Taubman notes that the US, France and Germany were convinced that, having paid “an immense price” to defeat the Nazis, Moscow would never accept the potential threat of a re-unified Germany. French and UK leaders confidentially conveyed their reservations to Gorbachev, as did some prominent US politicians (including Kissinger). The Bush Administration, however, conveyed that it would support re-unification.
Within weeks, Gorbachev told German Chancellor Kohl that “Germans themselves should decide their own future”. Kohl apparently repeated his words, “to make sure he’d heard correctly”!
Another volte face permitted united Germany’s entry into NATO. Again, the entire West was convinced that USSR could not agree. Gorbachev agreed (without conditions) that Germany could join NATO.
Apprehending Soviet opposition, US and German leaders had promised that NATO would not extend eastwards. Gorbachev did not seek to formalise these assurances. In the event, NATO did expand eastwards, to include all of USSR’s European allies and most post-Soviet states in Europe.
Taubman hails Gorbachev as a visionary, who destroyed the totalitarian Soviet state, created democratic institutions for its citizens, allowed freedom to East European countries, and enabled peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire. Separately, he quotes the harsh assessment of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, conveyed by his son to an American journalist: “My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot”, elaborating that he risked the survival of Communism by putting the cart (political transformation) before the horse (economic reform). A more balanced assessment of his legacy has to await the denouement of the global developments that are consequences of his actions.
Gorbachev’s ex post facto rationalisation of his actions was that he was willing to trade in his country’s superpower status (which prolonged economic failures had anyway rendered hollow) for an end to the Cold War, prosperity for his people, and their participation in a shared European future.
Were there valid premises for this trade-off? For one, it is a moot question whether the Western world really wanted him to succeed. Taubman quotes the assessment of Deputy CIA chief Robert Gates (later US Defence Secretary) that Gorbachev’s reforms would make the Soviet Union a more formidable adversary. The break-up of the Soviet Union was obviously a better outcome. This explains the US’ immediate acceptance of Yeltsin’s unseating of Gorbachev, without questioning its constitutional propriety.
In sharp contrast, the US extended unstinting support to Yeltsin as president, including help for his re-election in 1996, overcoming poor popularity ratings. The US help included political consultancy, facilitating huge IMF loans and overlooking election irregularities. It was during this period that NATO expanded rapidly eastward towards Russia’s borders.
The Cold War died with Gorbachev’s fall, but we have a new incarnation with worrying blots on the global geopolitical landscape. Gorbachev’s legacy continues to unfold.
(P.S. Raghavan is a former Indian Ambassador to Russia)