Misremembering Gorbachev

The death of the USSR’s final leader comes at the crisis point of the post-cold war period. Paul Demarty considers Gorbachev’s grim legacy

Given his international fame, Mikhail Gorbachev’s funeral was a rather low-key affair.

Even the most optimistic estimates put attendance in the low thousands - Lady Di this wasn’t. Among those absent was, of course, one Vladimir Putin; he paid no glowing tribute to his de facto predecessor. There is little surprising about all this. Among Russians, Gorbachev is generally loathed. He must carry the can, in part, for the break-up of the Soviet Union, and thus for the decade of economic chaos and general national humiliation that followed.

Insofar as Putin has a sales pitch to his people, it is that he was the guy who started to repair the damage done in 1991; ‘Putinism’ may be little more than a chauvinist apologetic veil for near-comical corruption and gangsterism, but it is allegedly a distinct improvement over the abjection of the 1990s. If one must be subjected to the predations of mafiosi and kleptocrats, then let there be a strong man to keep them in line - and if he can stand up to greater world powers, all the better.

Is such opprobrium fair on Gorbachev? You would have to say, yes and no. There is a certain kind of ultra-tankie perspective to the effect that his political career was, from end to end, that of an anti-communist saboteur climbing the greasy pole, until such time as he could finally deal the USSR its deathblow. This rather flies in the face of the historical record, which saw him trying to hold the ailing Soviet state together almost to the very end. Yet all political programmes are, in the end, gambles. Gorbachev gambled on the west being happy to return to the policy of détente; on the weakness of nationalist sentiment in the USSR’s component republics; on the ability of the central state to improve productivity and catch up with the USA. He lost every one of those wagers.

It matters little whether we think of Gorbachev as a sincere idealist, trying to rescue the Marxist-Leninist faith of his youth, or as a cynical politician trying to keep his privileges intact. He was catastrophically wrong in either case; his leadership was a historic failure. Indeed it matters little whether we think that anyone in his position would have failed, that the USSR was doomed (which it probably was, sooner or later). The failures we have are his.

Humble origins

Gorbachev was born to peasant parents, of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage, in the 1930s. Members of his father’s family died in the disastrous famines of that decade; both his grandfathers spent grim spells in the gulag. After the war, he began to excel academically, but continued to work with his father on the harvest in the summer months. His academic achievement, combined with his worker-peasant background, enabled him to get into Moscow State University, where he studied law, and proceeded from there into the Soviet administrative state.

The onset of his political career coincided with the rise to power of Nikita Khrushchev, with whose deStalinisation policies he had some sympathy, but for most of this period he made little trouble for himself, and was quite as loyal to Leonid Brezhnev when he replaced Khrushchev. His moment came after that. When he was voted onto the politburo in 1980, the USSR was very obviously in a troubled state. Economic stagnation was worsening; Brezhnev’s health had deteriorated to the point that he was barely able to govern at all.

Then there was the international situation. The USSR’s Polish client state was confronted by a determined trade union-type struggle against it - although Solidarność was already, by this time, taking political direction from the Catholic church and (indirectly) the United States, its success would have been unimaginable without the disastrous economic performance of Polish ‘socialism’. Also, Soviet troops had entered Afghanistan in an attempt to shore up the rule of the People’s Democratic Party - an adventure that was to end badly.

When Brezhnev finally died, Gorbachev was thought to be too young to succeed him; the politburo, however, veered comically far in the other direction. The grim reaper wasted little time in dispatching Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko; Soviet citizens had faced the indignity of losing not less than three decrepit party general secretaries in as many years and Gorbachev got his chance.

The task before him was to deal with the bizarre wastefulness of the Soviet economy, its inability to improve productivity, to roll out new techniques and technology, even to complete straightforward building works. The various policies attempting to achieve this became known as perestroika, or ‘restructuring’. They were, more or less universally, failures. Attempts to achieve speed-up at the factory level were dashed against the passive resistance of managers, who in practice were more incentivised to keep workers than to get more work out of them. Attempts to cut back on alcohol consumption by restricting sales of vodka merely diverted Soviet dipsomania to home-made bathtub gutrot (as, indeed, took place in 1920s America …). The Soviet regime was pushed more in the direction of marketisation; but it proved politically impossible to do what Reagan and Thatcher accomplished in the same period: inflict labour discipline by effectively imposing mass unemployment as a policy; or what Stalin managed in the first five-year plan - achieving a revolution in production through sheer force of terror.

At the same time, Gorbachev attempted to loosen political restrictions on free speech and organisation - glasnost, or ‘openness’. The beneficiaries of this were overwhelmingly of a nationalist political persuasion, and increasingly assertive forces within the various Soviet republics proved a nuisance - until, of course, they finally conspired to put the whole thing to bed in 1991. Blaming bureaucratic obstructionism in the Communist Party for the failure of his goals, Gorbachev governed in an increasingly ‘presidential’ style (he was elected as the USSR’s first and only president in 1990), but this made him even more dependent on personal relationships of patronage; before long, his clients (above all Boris Yeltsin) simply did not need him any more. Yeltsin, by then president of the Russian Soviet Republic, conspired with his counterparts in the Ukrainian and Belarusian SRs to set up the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’; at that point, the Soviet Union was effectively dissolved, with the formalities sewn up in December 1991.

Get back

In the west, Gorbachev is remembered sympathetically for being a ‘peacemaker’, for withdrawing from Afghanistan, and for negotiating the strategic arms limitation treaty with the Americans. Yet his record in foreign policy was, if anything, even more calamitously stupid than in domestic affairs. A month after his election to the presidium, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. But the Carter administration had already shifted the US away from its policy of containment and détente to one of anti-communist rollback in the name of human rights.

Reagan’s own strident anti-communism was bolstered by the first generation of neo-conservatives, who achieved considerable influence in the 1980s. The US escalated its involvement in regional politics, backing dictatorships and rightist paramilitaries in Latin America that frequently bordered on the genocidal. American arms and support for the mujahedin in Afghanistan turned that war into the quagmire it was by the time of Gorbachev’s withdrawal. Solidarność was only the most successful of dissident movements in the eastern bloc to be propped up by CIA largesse, laundered through the Vatican.

Gorbachev seems to have supposed that it was possible to get back to détente, which was a grave miscalculation. Only total victory could satisfy the US and its patsies and it paid off for them in 1989, when the Stalinist regimes toppled one after the other. It was at this point that Gorbachev made his worst blunder. The fall of the German Democratic Republic posed the re-unification of Germany. Gorbachev was happy to allow it. That, however, in turn posed the question of whether a united Germany would inherit the Federal Republic’s Nato membership. Gorbachev was happy to allow that too, so long as the Americans promised no further expansion. He failed to get written assurances, however, and by the mid-1990s Bill Clinton’s administration had started the process of expansion that eventually marched Nato’s borders up to within a few hundred miles of Moscow and St Petersburg. Gorbachev’s decision to accept America’s pinkie-promises on this point was such a mistake that, by the end of his life, he flatly denied it had ever happened, in plain contradiction to subsequently declassified documentary evidence.

Clinton and co got away with it in part due to what the fall of the USSR actually resulted in for the Russian people: immediate and protracted economic collapse; the wholesale plunder of the national wealth by the old nomenklatura and their mafia allies, by means ranging from fraud to murder; corrosion of Russia’s military capability to the point that it was humiliated by the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya, with everyone from the lowliest enlisted man up to the president himself spending half the miserable campaign blackout-drunk. Zbigniew Brezsinski’s dream of breaking Russia up for good seemed on the cards. That combination of external encirclement and internal chaos gave us the slightly more robust gangster regime of Putin, and eventually the latter’s present adventures in Ukraine.

Given how Gorbachev was played so successfully by the west, it is amusing to recall how resistant political elites on that side of the cold war were taking him at his word. The ascendant neocons considered him a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (In the classic spoof cop movie, The naked gun, Leslie Nielsen disrupts a conference of America’s enemies chaired by Gorbachev, with Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi et al in attendance; he accosts Gorbachev and cleans off his famous birthmark, declaring, “I knew it!” It was only half in jest: the film’s writers were typical rightwing anti-communists of their era.)

In the dock

So it was, naturally, for some comrades on the left. Tony Chater, then editor of the Morning Star, proclaimed Gorbachev “the Lenin of our day”. The Star’s coverage since the man’s death has been rather less starry-eyed, given the results of the reign of this “Lenin”; and of course the militant Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain’s rogue youth organisation have been even more abrasive.

But it was not only Stalinists who were wrong-footed. Many Trotskyists, from Tariq Ali to Gerry Healy, saw in glasnost and perestroika the anti-bureaucratic ‘political revolution’ long anticipated by the followers of Lev Davidovich. Others, such as the Spartacists and Marcyites, understood that what was on offer was a road back to capitalism (which is, if anything, a rather optimistic spin to put on the ravages of the 90s ‘shock therapy’), but few took seriously the ease with which the USSR would collapse. Trotsky’s theory, after all, indicated that only violent counterrevolution could restore capitalism in the ‘degenerated workers’ state’. True, the breakup of the USSR was not as peaceful as is sometimes claimed by western nostalgists, but the violence was a consequence, not a cause - Russia and Chechnya, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and rival factions of Kazakh society took up arms to alter the division of the spoils. Before a shot was fired, the whole thing collapsed like a botched blancmange.

In the dock of history, then, Mikhail Gorbachev stands accused of failing to prevent that collapse. It is only much of a charge, however, if someone else might have prevented it. Was that possible? In this writer’s view, the answer is in the negative. Perhaps, as Ben Burgis argues in Jacobin, Gorbachev is a “tragic figure”;1 his failure is in not being cynical enough either to drag out Brezhnevite decline for another decade or so, or do as Yeltsin did and organise the collapse himself, all the better to profit from the fallout. He failed thereby to notice the extent to which the economy’s malfunctioning was irreparable, to which the official ideologies of society had been supplanted by corrosive nationalism, or to which his strength on the world stage had been eclipsed by his American rival.

So we might have said, had he been murdered during the 1991 events, bringing a properly tragic end to the story. But, of course, he lived another two decades, long enough to make uneasy peace with the ruined Russia he gave us; long enough for us to see that famous birthmark in a Pizza Hut advert. There is something pitiable about a man so left behind by history that he survives to watch his own obsolescence. No longer, at least.


  1. jacobin.com/2022/09/mikhail-gorbachev-legacy-transition-postsocialism-ussr.↩︎