Russia's spurned reformer

November 1, 1996

Archie Brown contrasts Oxford's warm welcome for Gorbachev with the cold shoulder he gets from his countrymen. Mikhail Gorbachev is back in the news again - at least in the West. These days he is rarely given the opportunity to expound his views on Russian television, but during his current trip to Britain he has given interviews to, among others, David Frost, Clive Anderson and Jonathan Dimbleby.

This week saw him in Oxford, wife Raisa by his side. For an hour on Tuesday he signed copies of his memoirs in Blackwell's bookshop, while a queue of hundreds waited to get the signature of the man who a decade ago was Soviet president, one of the two most powerful people in the world.

Later, at the university's Sheldonian theatre he delivered a speech which focused on Russia today, but compared the current situation with that which he, as a Politburo member, saw when urgent problems were ignored while the country was nominally run by three successive ailing general secretaries - Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.

Gorbachev is in no doubt that Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation since 1991, should resign for the sake of the country, but he is doubtful whether Yeltsin's addiction to power will allow him to do so. One of Gorbachev's prime demands is that the succession should be determined by strict adherence to constitutional procedure, even though he is no great admirer of the current constitution, which, says Gorbachev, "gives Yeltsin more power than a Russian tsar".

Gorbachev sees Alexander Lebed as the leading contender for the succession. He has his reservations about the former general, but warmly approves of the deal he negotiated to end the war in Chechenia. Gorbachev's view is that, given Lebed's importance, the battle for his mind - since he is still a relative political novice whose views are open to influence - should be joined by democratic forces.

Gorbachev is far from alone in Russia in his rejection of the unreconstructed Communists led by Gennady Zyuganov and of the policies of the Yeltsin administration, which have enriched a substantial minority but reduced many more to poverty. But the people whom he sees as potential allies in a new democratic alliance - those opposed to communism, nationalism and dogmatic neoliberalism - have shown little disposition to work together. They include the leader of the middle-of-the-road Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, the eye surgeon turned businessman and politician, Svyatoslav Fedorov, the key figure, Lebed, and, of course, Gorbachev himself. Gorbachev - a natural coalition-builder - is prepared to work with any or all of them, but given that he has been a useful scapegoat for the ills of post-Soviet society for Yeltsin's team and Communists alike, his level of support within Russia makes him a less attractive partner than his political experience might suggest.

It seems probable that Mikhail Gorbachev's principal contemporary role in Russian politics will be as a spokesman for democratic norms and as a critic of the government, Communists and nationalists. In a country in which dissent was historically stifled until Gorbachev himself introduced a new spirit of tolerance, the value of a critic of his stature should not be underestimated.

The Soviet Union and Russia required four fundamental transformations - of the political system, of the economic system, of the country's foreign relations, and of its pseudo-federal system. They had to be transformed into a structure which accommodated the aspirations, and took account of the historic grievances, of scores of peoples within a multi-national state. All these processes were interconnected and it is hardly surprising that after engaging with them over a period of dramatic change which lasted for less than seven years, Mikhail Gorbachev should remark that he feels as if he has lived through several lives.

But he could have achieved nothing like as much as he did had not Soviet society itself greatly changed over the generation which separated his accession to power from the death of Stalin. Nor could he have initiated reform - and then moved from being a reformer of the system to a systemic transformer - had there not been within the Soviet system people who were deeply dissatisfied with it. Until 1985, however, they had been utterly frustrated by the strict limits of Soviet official political discourse and the narrow bounds of all sanctioned political activity. They needed a Gorbachev even more than he needed them.

Many people in Russia who are today free to criticise to their hearts' content, as they have been for almost a decade, prefer to forget that the great majority of them did not raise their voices in protest until Gorbachev made the Soviet Union safe for dissent. There are some who cannot forgive him for granting them freedom when their self-esteem suggests they should have won it for themselves. But even now a substantial and perceptive minority (far more than those who voted for him in the presidential election, since many who admired him believed he had no chance of winning) evaluate the Gorbachev era more justly.

Even Alexander Yakovlev, a significant ally of Mikhail Gorbachev during the second half of the 1980s but a person who has been far from close to him since the collapse of the Soviet Union (partly because of their very different judgements concerning many of the actions of Boris Yeltsin), said last year: "I consider Gorbachev to be the greatest reformer of the century, the more so because he tried to do this in Russia where from time immemorial the fate of reformers has been unenviable".

In a political system that concentrates great power in the hands of the political leader, the character of the person at the top of the hierarchy becomes crucially important. Historically, a Soviet leader was accorded great power provided he did not engage in actions that posed a threat to the system. Since Gorbachev did present such a threat, he was always in danger of being removed and the fact that he survived for almost seven years while transforming the system is a tribute to his political finesse.

The former chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Nikolai Ryzhkov, aptly remarks in his memoirs: "Gorbachev - long before all our native parliamentary games began - was a leader of a parliamentary type", although he goes on to add: "How this formation took place in a party-bureaucratic system, God alone knows". Gorbachev, in his newly-published memoirs, puts it thus: "I saw the entire meaning of the reforms in eliminating the very principle of class dictatorship ... and (in) creating a constitutional mechanism by which relations between social groups and people were decided, not by head-butting and bloodshed, but rather by politics."

Mikhail Gorbachev is entitled to be regarded not only as one of the greatest reformers in Russian history but also as the individual who made the most profound impact on world history in the second half of the 20th century. The unusually well-informed American ambassador to Moscow (1987-1991), Jack Matlock, put it well when he wrote: "I am convinced that Russia will eventually regard Mikhail Gorbachev as the person who led it out of bondage. The fact that he was unable to reach the promised land is secondary".

Listening to Gorbachev today, no one could be left in any doubt that, so far as he is concerned, the promised land has certainly not been reached. But, equally important, he is a politician who has learned to be sceptical about utopian goals. Temperamentally and intellectually he is averse to zealots who promise a radiant future, whether a communist or a capitalist one.

Archie Brown is subwarden of St Antony's College and professor of politics at Oxford University. Gorbachev's Memoirs are published by Doubleday, price Pounds 25.00.

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