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
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
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:
introduction of glasnost and its development into freedom of speech and
- The release of dissidents from prison and exile
and the resumption of rehabilitations of those unjustly repressed in the
- The establishment of freedom of religious observation
and the ending of the persecution of the churches.
- Freedom of
communication across frontiers, including an end to the jamming of
foreign broadcasts, more exchange of information, and a growing liberty
to travel abroad.
- The introduction of genuinely competitive
elections for a legislature with real power (a decision, taken in 1988
and implemented in 1989, marking the point at which liberalisation
turned into democratisation).
- The development of civil society,
with all sorts of independent organisations and pressure groups
emerging – a result of perestroika and not, as some observers imagine, a
precursor of it.
- Progress towards a rule of law which
included subjecting the Communist Party to the law and moving supreme
power from party to state institutions (with the Politburo in the last
two years of the Soviet Union no longer the de facto highest
organ of state power, but more of a talking-shop in which members
increasingly raised their voices against Gorbachev).
Leninism and dogma with a commitment to pluralism and free intellectual
inquiry (for even while Gorbachev continued to speak respectfully of
Lenin, he abandoned the fundamental tenets of Leninism).
ending of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, with the last
Soviet soldier leaving that country in early 1989.
- Allowing the
Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe to become independent and
non-Communist without a shot being fired (except in Romania, where
Gorbachev had least influence, and Romanians fired on Romanians).
to, and negotiating with Helmut Kohl, the peaceful reunification of
- Underpinning these last three momentous foreign policy
shifts was a fundamental change of outlook – what was called the ‘New
Thinking’ – which Gorbachev embraced and promoted. He rejected the
notion of East-West relations as a zero-sum game and endorsed the idea
that there were universal values and universal interests. By so doing,
he had already by 1988 demolished the ideological foundation of the Cold
War. In 1989, when Gorbachev’s actions and non-actions reflected this
New Thinking, the Cold War ended on the ground.
As Gorbachev reaches the
age of eighty and reflects on his life in politics, he can take pride in
the fact that he left Russia a freer country than it had ever been and
that, by playing the most decisive part in ending the Cold War, he
provided the chance for international relations to be conducted on a
more peaceful and equitable basis. It is quite another matter what use
has been made of those possibilities within his own country and by those
in other countries who mistakenly believe that it was their military
power, rather than Gorbachev’s vision and higher realism, that ended the
division of Europe and removed the threat of catastrophic nuclear war.
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.