The accidental hero of 1989

Twenty years after the wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev is quietly celebrated in the west, but shunned in Moscow. Yet in both places his reputation rests on his failure to reform the dying system in which he truly believed
July 27, 2009

In an interview with a reporter not long ago, Mikhail Gorbachev reminisced about his years at the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union. Once in flow, it is normally hard to stop him talking. But on this occasion he hesitated, was silent for a long time and stared at his interviewer disconcertingly with those piercing eyes. "You know, I could still be there now, in the Kremlin," he said. "If I was motivated solely by personal power I might still be possessing it… If I had simply done nothing, changed almost nothing in the Soviet Union as it then was, just sat there and carried on like those before, who knows…" Then he laughed. If he felt bitterness, he hid it well.

Part of this was the usual self-delusion of retired, defeated or ousted leaders. But Gorbachev has a more profound point, especially relevant this year—the 20th anniversary of 1989, the beginning of the end of his rule. Even with hindsight, it does not seem inevitable that the Soviet empire—that vast monolith that two generations in the west were brought up to fear—would disappear overnight. Analysts thought the USSR could limp on for decades trying and failing to reform communism: Upper Volta with nukes, but a serious power.

Gorbachev is still a fit-looking 78, an age when most of his predecessors were considered in their prime. In the 1980s a general secretary of the Soviet Communist party had virtually dictatorial powers if he chose to use them. Gorbachev could have harnessed them to tinker at the edges. He could have introduced minor reforms to a system that in fundamentals had not changed since Stalin and taken no chances with the place of the Warsaw pact states in central and eastern Europe. But he was too ambitious for that. His aim was to save and renew communism—the "real" communism of the founders of the faith that he believed in. With equal passion he believed in his country—not Russia, but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet it was Gorbachev who did more than anyone else to kill communism.

Instead of ruling from the Walnut Room of the Kremlin, as part of him believes he could still be doing, Gorbachev now travels relentlessly, doubtless using the Louis Vuitton luggage that he advertises throughout the world. He makes a fortune on the international lecture circuit and has plenty of other sidelines—only last June he recorded a few of his favourite folk songs for a large sum that went to charity. Technically he lives in Moscow, but he spends little time in Russia. His best friends are billionaire oligarchs, who help to endow the two Gorbachev foundations, one holding his archive of documents, the other in memory of his late wife Raisa, which fights childhood cancer. He is an all but ignored figure in Russia, even though he has a stake in a Moscow newspaper with one of his wealthy supporters, the erstwhile KGB official Alexander Lebedev, who recently created a media stir when he bought the Evening Standard.

When Gorbachev is remembered at home, he is invariably vilified as the man who gave away an empire without a fight and caused economic collapse when the union broke up in 1991. To the nationalists around Vladimir Putin this was a humiliating disaster for which Gorbachev was directly responsible and from which Russia is only now recovering. In new Russian schoolbooks Gorbachev is barely mentioned, and then unkindly almost as a footnote, while Stalin is hailed as "a great Russian leader" (no matter that he was Georgian). Outside Russia, history will be kinder. Gorbachev will be remembered as the leading figure in the liberation of a third of Europe from military occupation and totalitarianism, for his role in the end of the cold war, and as one of the key players in the dizzying weeks of revolution in 1989. Moreover, the last years of his rule and the first few under his successor, Boris Yeltsin, may come to be seen as a brief halcyon age of freedom in Russia.


Of course, Gorbachev was not meant to bring any of these things about. He was selected by a group of 18 geriatric communist magnates largely because of his relative youth, energy and charm. There had been three funerals of Soviet leaders in the two-and-a-half years before Gorbachev was chosen on 10th March 1985. Leonid Brezhnev was in power for nearly 20 years and personified what even his aides called in private "an era of stagnation." In his last years Brezhnev was so frail he had to be transported up to the Lenin Mausoleum on an escalator during Red Square parades. Yuri Andropov was terminally ill when he took over; for most of his 13 months in charge he ran the country from a hospital bed. Konstantin Chernenko, whose main task in government had been to light his best friend Brezhnev's cigarettes, was an ailing septuagenarian stop gap. His decrepitude symbolised the state of the country.

The party bosses in 1985 would have liked to select one of their own vintage. But no plausible older candidate was available, and even they had heard the jokes going around the country—"Comrades, we will start the congress in the traditional way—with the carrying in of the general secretary." Gorbachev's selection was fixed by Andrei Gromyko, the grim-visaged, hardline foreign minister who for four decades had been known as the "Mr Nyet" of Soviet diplomacy. He assured his colleagues that Gorbachev, the youngest Politburo member at 54, was a man in their own mould, but with the vigour to restore the prestige of the Soviet Union. They did not pick Gorbachev because a few months earlier Margaret Thatcher had said she could do business with him. They chose him because they thought he had the energy to revive the atrophied Soviet system. Gromyko said Gorbachev believed in strong defence and maintaining the USSR's European empire. He concluded: "He has a nice smile. But comrades, Mikhail Sergeyevich has iron teeth." He also seemed like a breath of fresh air, even in Washington DC. Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan's principal National Security Agency adviser on the Soviet Union, and soon to be appointed US ambassador to Moscow, shared the initial enthusiasm. "Both at home and abroad everyone was tired of watching the Soviet empire floundering under infirm incompetents," he said. "Gorbachev walks, he talks, his suit fits… so he dazzled the world."

Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to be born after the Bolshevik revolution. His story was typical of a young peasant boy from the provincial Soviet Union under Stalin. His region of the North Caucasus suffered terribly under the man-made famines of the 1930s. Gorbachev used to recall later how he had watched neighbours dying of starvation. At first he was protected from the worst: his maternal grandfather, an early communist, headed the local collective farm. But after Stalin's great purge of 1937 his protector was arrested as a "rightist Trotskyist counter-revolutionary" and for 14 months his family were outcasts, until the grandfather returned from jail. Gorbachev learned to conform. He became a party man—and the party gave him everything. As he rose through the ranks he showed no hints of unorthodoxy. He was renowned as a master of sycophancy, in a bureaucracy where subservience counted for everything. Gorbachev said later: "We all licked Brezhnev's ass, all of us." It wasn't until he made it to the Politburo that he allowed himself to display one of his other more endearing characteristics, a sense of humour. In private he was a great collector and teller of communist jokes and has even made up a few of his own.

Joking apart, Gorbachev surprised his aides by his sincere belief in socialism. Cynicism had by then so eaten into the soul of Soviet communism that few thinking people inside the system took ideology seriously. Gorbachev was convinced that Lenin had outlined the path, and it was up to him to guide the USSR back after Stalin's "wrong turn." He often talked of Lenin as a "special genius" and read him constantly even in his last days in the Kremlin. The diplomat Sergei Tarasenko, who worked closely with Gorbachev, said that most apparatchiks throughout the empire paid lip service to such teachings: "It was politically correct to have Lenin in your library. If you had to write a speech you were keen to find a Lenin quote so you turned to the index." Gorbachev was rare, a true believer who thought the founder of the Soviet Union had a special relevance to his own position, 70 years on.

It was on a "walkabout" in Leningrad in May 1985, a couple of months after taking office, that two terms forever identified with the Gorbachev era first entered the political lexicon. Perestroika and glasnost became global buzzwords, but in Russian they had specific definitions. When Gorbachev used them they meant precisely what he chose them to mean. In its early days perestroika—"restructuring"—meant a process of modest reform to improve workplace discipline. Gorbachev introduced a rash of energetic measures to allow enterprises to show more initiative and made some changes in the distribution of goods. He removed dozens of Brezhnev cronies and corrupt "stagnation era" bureaucrats. He made steps to introduce a little more democracy into the system by reorganising electoral lists, but still within a one-party state. But none of this was revolutionary. He had no intention of abandoning central planning, introducing a market economy, liberalising prices and wages or abandoning the communists' monopoly on power. After four years in power he did take one radical step: he allowed an election for the Congress of People's Deputies—theoretically the highest legislative body in the country. And while ensuring a gerrymandered majority for the communists, he permitted the election of some critics, such as the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. Gorbachev talked a lot about democracy, but he would never risk putting himself up for election. He wanted to "restructure" everything but without touching the foundations.

Glasnost—"openness"—was also a moveable feast. It started cautiously but, as his conservative critics feared, once journalists were encouraged to publish stories about incompetent officials, an underclass of mass poverty in provincial cities, or the suppression of nationalist movements and dissidents, the process became hard to control. Gorbachev's USSR did not have an entirely free press, but it was freer than it had ever been. Gorbachev genuinely thought that publication of works by writers like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, and revelations about the horrors of Soviet history, would make citizens try to make the Soviet Union work more honestly and efficiently. Of course, it simply made them hate communism even more, and only a true believer could have imagined otherwise. Glasnost had far more radical effects, both in the USSR and the "near abroad" satellite states of eastern Europe, than he expected. To his credit he did nothing to halt the process or to crack down on the media.

Even some of Gorbachev's greatest admirers, clever and gifted people who worked tirelessly for him as aides, were occasionally exasperated by his methods. A classic example came within days of his assuming power. Gorbachev was determined to deal with a besetting Russian vice: vodka. In 1984 more than 9m drunks had been picked up off the Soviet Union's streets. The premature deaths, crime, poverty and ruined families could be seen everywhere. On 4th April 1985, after three weeks as "Gensek," he summoned the Politburo and declared that henceforth the price of vodka would be trebled. Beer and wine production would be reduced by three quarters. Vladimir Dementsev, the finance minister, warned him that there would be a huge hole in the national budget. Gorbachev interrupted him and declared: "What you've said is nothing new. We know there's no money to cover it. But you're not proposing anything other than to keep people drunk. Do you propose to build communism on vodka?" Nobody questioned the authority of the general secretary. Gorbachev pursued his version of prohibition with determination—and to disaster. There were huge queues outside liquor stores and a thriving black market in vodka was created overnight. The financial black hole Dementsev had warned of was even deeper than he had projected. The death rate shot up from the consumption of poisonous home brews. After three years Gorbachev admitted his mistake and abandoned his campaign, but enormous damage had been done. It was typical of the way he governed for six-and-a-half years.

Gorbachev could inspire intense loyalty and admiration by his vision, intellect and sincerity. His "big picture" thoughts and instincts were decent and honest, even if they were based on faulty analyses. He wanted to normalise relations with the US and Europe, abolish the risk of east-west war, slash spending on the military and improve the domestic economy in the USSR. Does it matter that he thought all these would help to strengthen communism? Soon after taking power he and his chief advisers, notably the chief apostle of perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev, had come to the conclusion that the Warsaw pact states were more of a burden than a prize. But he never came up with a consistent strategy to offload them.


Why did the Soviets give up their empire so peacefully, with barely a whimper? And why in just a few months at the end of the 1980s? Three of the most important factors are the ones least mentioned, certainly in the US and Europe, perhaps because they do not emphasise the roles played by western popes, presidents and prime ministers. Essentially east Europeans liberated themselves. But among the reasons they were in a position to do so were the Soviet Union's defeat in Afghanistan, the crippling foreign debt faced by the communist regimes in the Warsaw pact, and the dramatic fall in oil prices during the 1980s which all but bankrupted the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was reacting to these events as much as to the need to make geopolitical deals with the Americans.

To take the first factor, there was an overriding reason why, at the start of the Solidarity revolution in Poland during 1980-81, the Soviet Union did not send tanks into Warsaw and Gdansk—as it had in Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. The answer came from the most hardline apologist for Soviet imperialism in the Kremlin leadership, the ideology chief, Mikhail Suslov. "We simply cannot afford another Afghanistan on our hands," he said, during an agonising leadership debate.

The Soviets realised they had blundered by invading Afghanistan soon after their troops arrived at the end of 1979. Gorbachev had no hand in the decision to go in. He was a junior apparatchik at the time and had heard about it on the radio. He was among the first Soviet officials to call the war "our bleeding wound," and compare it with Vietnam. By the time he took charge nearly 10,000 Soviet troops had been killed. He and his entourage were determined to end the war—especially as the generals said it could not be won and the best the Soviet military could do was "stabilise the situation." The question was how to do this without losing too much face. He could have pulled out in his first months of office, and blamed the increasingly unpopular war on his predecessors. Such a move would have earned widespread plaudits from the west. But he flunked the opportunity. He couldn't face the humiliation of Soviet defeat by a puny band of "terrorists." As he said: "Our friends… would be concerned… They think this would be a blow to Soviet authority." So for four years he prevaricated, some further 6,000 Soviets and 200,000 Afghans died and Soviet room for manoeuvre elsewhere was reduced. By the time the red army left Afghanistan, dissidents in central and eastern Europe were much less worried that the Soviets would use force against them.

As for the second factor, Miklós Németh, the Hungarian prime minister in the late 1980s, has explained how his country had used a 1bn deutschmark loan from West Germany in 1987. The money was supposed to go towards economic reform, but "We spent two thirds of it on paying interest [on previous loans] and the remainder importing consumer goods to ease the impression of economic crisis." All the east bloc regimes (except Romania) were massively in hock to the west: by roughly $150bn by the end of 1989. They lied incessantly about their economies. East Germany, which the World Bank was fooled into listing as the world's 11th richest country, paid more than 70 per cent of its national income on foreign loans and found it hard to make interest payments. Communist leaders like Eric Honecker and János Kádár thought the only way to keep going was to borrow from western banks. The banks saw eastern Europe as a safe bet—they thought the Soviet "guarantee" would rule out default. But Gorbachev was no longer willing, or able, to give guarantees, economic or political to the Warsaw pact regimes. As Németh, who went on to become a banker, explains it, "the killing of the communist system began the moment the western banks… gave loans to countries like Hungary. We were on a hook."

?The third factor, the collapse of oil prices from 1985-86, forced the final crisis of Soviet communism. The USSR's export income crashed, which made many in the leadership wonder about the way the economic system of the empire worked. Was it worth subsidising the Warsaw pact countries with cheap oil and natural gas in return for shoddily produced consumer goods? Economists and think tanks in Moscow were beginning to question the relationship between the USSR and its colonies. And then a minor scandal prompted action. The USSR's closest ally, Bulgaria, was selling cheap oil it received from the Soviet Union to the west at market prices and pocketing the difference in hard currency. When Gorbachev heard, he was apoplectic with rage against Todor Zhivkov, the dictator who had been in power in Sofia for three decades. It transformed his attitude to east Europe, in which he was losing interest anyway. He changed the terms of trade between the USSR and the eastern European countries and told the regime leaders that they stood or fell on their own, that the Soviet Union would no longer come to their aid against their own people. Old stalwarts like Honecker did not believe him and thought that eastern Europe was too important for the Soviet Union to abandon.

The west had become a greater lure for Gorbachev—not just in geopolitical terms but also personally. He loathed preparing for trips to Warsaw pact capitals, but became excited at summits in London, Paris or Rome. His head had been turned by the "Gorbymania" of the 1980s. He was bored by discussions with dimwitted Politburo officials in Prague. What were they compared to a motorcade along Fifth Avenue cheered on by Americans waving the Soviet flag and carrying placards proclaiming "Blessed is the Peacemaker"?

Gorbachev never had a plan either to retreat from eastern Europe, or to preserve Soviet power there. He imagined that he could encourage "mini Gorbachevs" to replace the ageing and incompetent dictators so loathed by the people. His great miscalculation, which he believed even as late as the fall of the Berlin wall, was that these countries would choose to remain within the socialist orbit. But he had long ago made the decision that he would not use force to maintain an empire. The same can be said of no more than a handful of others in history. By his own lights Gorbachev was a failure. He believed he could save communism. He was a patriot of a country that ceased to exist while he was at its helm. He is full of contradictions, as a man and a historical figure—and the biggest is that Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered as a great man because he failed.