Russia's redundant revolutionary

The Gorbachev Factor - Life and Reforms
May 3, 1996

As recently as ten years ago, the Berlin Wall symbolised the political and economic division of the whole world into two systems, each with thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at the other's cities and each with global alliances that fought each other in local conflicts. Then suddenly this bipolar, confrontational world was destroyed in less than a year. The disintegration of the USSR itself followed. In the course of a few days, the Soviet Union turned from a mighty superpower into a conglomerate of 15 independent states. The main catalyst of these events was one man - Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev. But when he embarked upon his perestroika he had not aimed to produce such an outcome.

Although only five years separate us from the collapse of the socialist system, dozens of Russian and western books have been published to explain it. Gorbachev's two volumes of memoirs, Zhizn'i Reformy (Life and Reforms), published last year in Russian, are significant additions to this literature. Now they are complemented by The Gorbachev Factor, an analysis by Archie Brown, one of the best western students of perestroika.

The biographical details, which take up a great deal of space in both the memoirs and Brown's analysis, are interesting in themselves. But they do not tell us what it was that made Gorbachev a reformer. In fact, he only became a serious and convinced reformer at the end of 1986. His first approaches to the problems confronting the country were traditional party methods: the slogan "Acceleration", for example, to revive the economy; an anti-alcohol campaign to deal with social problems; and the creation of bureaucratic superstructures such as Agroprom. The real reforms only began in 1987, but even then, they went off in all directions and were not based on a clearly thought-out general strategy. Both Gorbachev's memoirs and, to a lesser extent, Brown's account, try to prove with hindsight that a general strategy underpinned perestroika and that it was implemented, even though frequent resort had to be made to subterfuge to prevent the conservatives in the party and the government from uniting against the reforms and removing the general secretary.

The paradox of any reform in the USSR has always been that the party leadership itself has had to initiate and formulate it as directives of party congresses and plenums. Thus the leader-reformer (and there were only two in the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev and Gorbachev) has had to prepare his plans in deepest secrecy and then reveal them unexpectedly at a plenary meeting or conference. This was how Khrushchev made his speech on Stalin's personality cult to the 20th Congress of the CPSU. The problem is that the sudden reforms required in a one-party totalitarian state precluded a well thought-out, gradual transition to the new conditions. And the sharp and unexpected turns, not surprisingly, led to mistakes and conflicts.

There has been a tendency in the western literature analysing the events of 1986-91 to ignore the personal role of Gorbachev, which these books will change. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has been explained as the collapse of a communist empire that could not withstand the historical challenge of the West, and which fell apart when the competition between the two systems was transferred to the sphere of high technology.

Henry Kissinger, for example, argues that Ronald Reagan's policy towards the USSR consisted of raising Soviet expenditures on its outer empire and transferring the arms race to the cosmos, where the USSR could not compete with American technology. This strategy was certainly successful. While negotiating a reduction in missiles in 1988, Gorbachev unexpectedly announced a unilateral reduction in the Soviet armed forces. For maximum propaganda effect he made his announcement at a session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Soviet army would be reduced by 500,000 men and 10,000 tanks, half of the tank armada deployed against Nato forces in Europe would be removed and a considerable part of the army would be withdrawn from the Sino-Soviet border. Although this was a unilateral decision, Gorbachev expressed the hope that Nato would follow suit.

Kissinger believes that unilateral cuts of such magnitude signal either extraordinary self-confidence or exceptional weakness. At that point of its evolution self-confidence was hardly a Soviet attribute. It seemed that the Soviet Union was crumbling from within.

In his memoirs Gorbachev maintains that his UN speech was the turning point on the route to a new world order. It was in this speech that he expressed ideas about a common European home and the need to shift from ideological confrontation to the defence of all human values. He was attempting, he says, to inform the world that the USSR would no longer base its foreign policy on Marxist-Leninist doctrine since it had become irrelevant in the age of nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev's UN speech was remarkable, as I well recall. But it displayed a naive misunderstanding about the economic basis of US and West European policy. "Humanising international relations", "untying the noose of the international debt crisis", "making North-South economic relations more just", "cooperative development instead of rivalry", "creating a world community of law-based states" - all these were wonderful ideas. In practice, however, they were unrealistic dreams, implying that rich countries should share their wealth with the poor, write off their debts and pay higher prices for their resources.

Gorbachev really believed that his speech could become the foundation for a new world order in which everyone's lot would improve. He ordered his press service to collect the reactions of the western press, and he reproduces some of the positive responses in his memoirs. But the press does not make policy. Western leaders saw the main point in Gorbachev's speech - he was willing to announce unilateral disarmament and reject communist doctrine because there was an internal economic crisis in the Soviet Union, the extent of which they had previously underestimated. It also meant that the USSR could no longer maintain its external political empire. The loyalty of countries such as Poland had been purchased by massive economic aid. Gorbachev admits that when General Jaruzelski's military regime was in grave difficulty, the Soviet Union gave Poland $2 billion and several billion roubles.

Gorbachev's style in disarmament negotiations was a sharp contrast to the behaviour of previous leaders. In the past the Soviet leadership had conducted arms control negotiations slowly, carefully elucidating each point in expert working groups. The process took years. Gorbachev wanted to resolve problems quickly, and he made unexpected, radical proposals. The West perceived this as proof of acute internal economic tension in the USSR and the need to receive immediate relief from the burden of the arms race.

In essence, this was correct. The anti-alcohol campaign, the Chernobyl catastrophe and the sharp fall in the world price of oil and gas had severely strained the economy. Under these circumstances, the main element of perestroika, the introduction of a socialist market, had produced an unpopular, sharp rise in the prices of consumer goods and services as subsidies were cut.

Gorbachev could, of course, have launched economic reforms while simultaneously resorting to repression. In the Soviet press this was called the Chinese model of reform, or it was compared with Pinochet's tactics in Chile. But he decided to combine economic perestroika with political rapprochement with the West, rapid disarmament and democratisation of the USSR.

His calculation was simple. Disarmament would free enormous resources. A genuine parliament, and parliaments in the constituent republics, would switch popular protest from strikes to debate and discussion. The introduction of a market economy and the inclusion of the USSR in the world economy would attract foreign investment. The conversion of the military-industrial complex would flood the country with consumer goods. The end of the cold war also promised huge peace dividends to western countries and they might be shared or be received in the form of credits.

Gorbachev's premises were absolutely correct and they formed the main elements of perestroika. But this was a long-term programme and Gorbachev was impulsive and impatient - hence the famous 500-day leap to a market economy. He wanted to reform everything at once - not only the economy, but also the party and government, replacing the Soviet Union with a free union of independent republics that would voluntarily sign a new union treaty.

Having removed "Socialist" and "Soviet" from the new name of the country, Gorbachev believed that the USSR, as an economically and historically unitary state, would not disintegrate if it was "de-ideologised" and if the centre of power was transferred from the politburo to the new institution of the presidency. But the latter, constructed (like everything else he created) in haste, with the president elected by parliament (Gorbachev was clearly afraid that he might lose a general election), turned out to be powerless. Far too many independent centres of power had arisen by the end of 1990. The removal of the CPSU from important decisions, and hence from power, led to the rapid growth of nationalism in the republics and the ignition of armed conflicts.

The collapse of the USSR was not caused by perestroika, however. As both Gorbachev and Archie Brown maintain, the blame must be laid on others, on the putschists, on Yeltsin, Shushkevich and Kravchuk et al and on the creation of a separate Russian Communist party within the CPSU.

But neither Gorbachev nor Brown really offers a deep, objective analysis of the reason for this most important and unexpected historical event. Personally, I am convinced that the collapse was not inevitable. Its only definite result so far has been to prove to all of the national republics without exception that the USSR was not an empire, and that they were not colonies of Russia or Moscow. In fact, Russia was the main economic donor to the USSR; the recognition of that simple fact by impoverished Georgians, Uzbeks and even Ukrainians is now feeding the idea of reintegration. Gorbachev, as he enters the electoral campaign for the post of president of Russia, is doubtless thinking about the possibility of reviving the union.

Brown ends with a section on Gorbachev's place in history - but he offers no simple answer. Certainly he changed the course of history more than any other leader in the past 50 years. Russia itself gained very little from perestroika, and lost a great deal. And if Nato fulfils its intention of expanding to incorporate Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, then the end of the cold war - indisputably Gorbachev's main historical achievement - may turn out to be short-lived.

Zhores A. Medvedev is a retired scientist and the author of Andropov, Gorbachev, Soviet Agriculture and The Legacy of Chernobyl.

The Gorbachev Factor

Author - Archie Brown
ISBN - 0 19 8344 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 406pp

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments