769 pp. Doubleday. $35.
Why a review of Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoir, why a review now and can lessons be drawn there from which are relevant for us today?
Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, a seventy year long experiment in state governance where political authority flowed top-down and all capital and economic decision making was in the hands of the state. This was of course in abject contrast to the western democratic model in which individuals are free to accumulate capital.
During the last four decades of its existence, which ended with its precipitate dissolution and Gorbachev’s resignation 20 years ago, in December 1991, the Soviet Union, posed a seemingly existential threat to the United States and its allies. This was so because its economy, although much smaller than that of the United States, was essentially a great armaments machine. The state of affairs deeply marked the attitudes and thinking of America’s political class of that period, attitudes which to some considerable degree have survived. The fact that Gorbachev is associated with the dissolution of his country and with the consequent removal of the threat against America and its allies has made him a much admired man in the West, a near hero. His role is the reunification of Germany and the ‘liberation’ from Soviet overlordship of the remainder of Eastern Europe earned him a Nobel Peace prize in 1990.
However in the much diminished successor state of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, Gorbachev is seen in a very different light. There he is marked as the man who led his country into oblivion, or, in the words of Vladimir Putin in 2004, “the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the twentieth century”. According to Russian opinion polls, Putin’s negative attitudes towards Gorbachev are shared by 95% of Russian voters today.
Thus a chasm exists in the perception of Gorbachev as a person and as a politician between Russia and the West.
The topicality of a review of Gorbachev’s memoirs arises from the fact that Gorbachev has recently emerged as a direct and leading critic of Putin who aims at regaining the all powerful Russian presidency at elections this spring. Gorbachev charges Putin with stifling Russian democracy and giving corruption a free hand. As Russia’s military is the only force that can obliterate the United States, political developments in this country still matter a great deal.
There is also, perhaps, by reviewing Gorbachev’s memoirs a more general lesson to be drawn from the exploration of the reasons for the dichotomy in the way Gorbachev is perceived in Russia and the West.
The memoirs themselves create certain difficulties in getting to these reasons. First of all they are massive in volume, in English translation numbering 769 pages. Furthermore, unless a reader has some knowledge of the Soviet State of his day and the organisation of the Communist Party, the book can, in places, be a heavy read. On the other hand, the language in the book runs smoothly, expressing the author’s thoughts with certain clarity. This is in contrast with his custom during his time in power. At that time, Gorbachev became famous for the volume of his words to the point of garrulousness, not the clarity of his thought.
In the book Gorbachev directly addresses the biggest issue of his rule, the fall of the Soviet Union. Here he squarely puts the blame on Boris Yeltsin, his main political opponent in 1990 and 1991 and also an intractable personal enemy. Yeltsin later emerged as the first President of the new independent Russia enjoying massive American support. He is portrayed as an opportunist by Gorbachev, a political adventurer bent on the destruction and dissolution of the Soviet State and indifferent to the fate of 25 million Russians stranded in the new countries outside Russia, invariably searching for means and issues to advance his own personal fortunes in the political arena. ‘Those who pointed to his [Yeltsin’s] overgrown ambition and lust for power were right. Time has only confirmed this evaluation.’ Gorbachev even hints at the suggestion that Yeltsin, in his destructive quest for power, benefitted from the work of foreign, presumably American intelligence services.
This picture of Yeltsin is much at variance with the picture of the first Russian President in the West, perhaps especially in the past at Harvard, where members of the economics faculty, both in Cambridge and also in their capacity as officials in Washington, played a major role in shaping the economic reform policies in Yeltsin’s time during the 1990′s.
However, not explicitly mentioned by Gorbachev is Yeltsin’s great popularity among the Russian electorate that sharply contrasted with Gorbachev’s own great unpopularity in the last two years of his rule.
The cause of this unpopularity is well known and understood. It lay in the ultimately disastrous economic and financial policies which Gorbachev persistently pursued from the beginning of his rule. The Soviet economy was, in 1985, the year of his ascendancy to the General Secretary-ship of the Communist Party, in dire need of reform. This assessment was generally accepted by all elements of the party leadership. Gorbachev describes in detail many of his country’s economic shortcomings that, by that time, had led to a widespread malaise.
He then portrays the political opponents of his economic reform policies as ideology bound bureaucrats, in other words, old time communists, and goes on to blame the failure of his policies in large part on them. This may be in part true and his rendition of events may also gain him sympathetic audiences in the West. However, it leaves out the fact that much of the opposition arose as these reforms, within the space of less than two years, had virtually destroyed the fiscal basis of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, while many of his subsequent democratising political reforms may have been genuine in their conception, they also powerfully helped him to stay ahead of those very party forces who wanted him ousted for, precisely, the reason of these disastrous fiscal and also deeply destabilizing economic reforms. The repeated coincidence of these two possible motives is not discussed by Gorbachev.
Wholly incomplete, indeed misleadingly so is Gorbachev’s rendition of his foreign and security policy, in particular as it relates to his country’s relationship with its main strategic adversary, the United States. He portrays himself as a peace seeker, announcing the unilateral disarmament of the Soviet Union, as he cites in his own words to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1988, “to ensure the primacy of universal human values over the numerous centrifugal forces nourished by possibly legitimate but egotistic motives.” ‘Original issue’ Gorbachev-speak, without the help of American editors.
It is not difficult to appreciate that Western opinion became beguiled with such a performance, which the ‘memoirs’ serve to reinforce, in particular when followed by his strategic abandonment of the East German state, largely in return for nothing. The ‘memoirs’ also makes it clear that he foreswore, as a matter of principle, the use of force to keep the constituent republics of his disintegrating state from going their own ways as wished for by their local elites. This was a situation not wholly unlike that in the American secessionist states in 1860 and ’61. His ‘un-Lincolnesque’ stance further increased Western, American appreciation for him and his policies.
In the process Gorbachev describes his relationships with presidents Ronald Reagan and, in particular George Bush, as one of joint achievement, albeit somewhat strained by the exigencies of the remnants of Cold War politics. Gorbachev remembers his final call to President Bush; ‘I used the opportunity to repeat that I genuinely appreciated what we had achieved together’, achievements, which in essence, amounted to the destruction of Gorbachev’s, own country.
The crucial linkage, which Gorbachev fails to mention here, is that his desperate need for money to stave off the approaching insolvency of his country and his own, consequential dismissal, caused him to dance to an American strategic tune in the vain hope of obtaining financial assistance. The price for such assistance his actions show, but his memoirs fail to state, was acquiescence to America strategic objectives. These included, precisely, unilateral disarmament of the over militarised Soviet State, which he led, the handover of Eastern Europe to the West and possibly also NATO and the peaceful secession of non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union.
Thus far from being a peacemaker by personal choice, the reality was that Gorbachev hoped for Western monies to keep him in power in Moscow in return for selling off the Soviet ‘family silver’ to his country’s strategic enemies. The fact that this situation appears to have been played to near perfection on the American side by President Bush, is not described in the book. It is these particular omissions, which begin to explain the difference in appreciation of Gorbachev and his policies in Russia and in the West.
An early reviewer of these memoirs summed up this confusion which he also attributed to Gorbachev himself. “Capable of asking the big questions, by nature and by training he was only able to attend to the small details. Looking back at his career as a Communist bureaucrat, he wonders, ‘How was it that any initiative which patently served the interests of society was immediately viewed with suspicion and even overt hostility? Why was our system so unresponsive to renewal and innovation? Other questions crossed my mind. But I was much too busy to give them serious consideration.’ “ The portrayal of Gorbachev drawn here is of a confused, seemingly overwhelmed man, thoroughly muddled in his thinking.
The lesson to be drawn from Gorbachev’s memoirs may be that we in the West should be a trifle more careful to automatically attribute selfless, universally beneficial acts to foreign leaders, if what they do benefits us and plays to our preconceptions of what such foreign leaders ought to say. Such an impression may not be a true reflection of the underlying reality in faraway lands where western power attempts to reach. In consequence, in the case of Gorbachev and his present public criticism of Putin, we should perhaps consider that there may be more to the story than the simple morality play as the dispute between a past and a present foreign leader is often presented here at home.
Sabrina Castenfelt ‘15
Photo Credit: gorby.ru