A family in a Moscow restaurant argues over Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy. “Because of him we have economic confusion,” the father complains. “Because of him, we have opportunity,” the son protests. Claim is followed by counterclaim: “Because of him, we have political instability” — “Because of him, we have freedom” — “Complete chaos” — “Hope!”
The mother interjects: “because of him we have many things … like Pizza Hut.” Now the family agrees. They and the whole restaurant rise from their seats, pizza slices in hand, to salute his achievements. The camera cuts to Gorbachev himself, basking in the attention.
Appearing during the 1998 Rose Bowl, this Pizza Hut ad was a rather strained portrayal of Russians’ view of the former president. It was not shown in Gorbachev’s own country. In Russian media he was instead widely ridiculed for taking part in the stunt, selling his past status for advertising purposes. This was not, however, simply a story of a politician reviled in his own country and appreciated abroad. For all his honorary degrees and his Nobel Peace Prize, Gorbachev had hardly become a revered global statesman. He was a symbol of an abortive reform project, a failure.
Gorbachev never got the liberal saint status conferred on Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, or (until recently) Aung San Suu Kyi. Each of these figures could be depoliticized and canonized as modern-day saints, standing above the fray of ideological sparring. Gorbachev’s bid for such status soon ran aground. His perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) policies as Soviet leader never lived up to their promise. The reform effort was followed by the Soviet Union’s collapse, then a slide into chaos, gangsterism, and reimposed “order” under Putin. Russia’s new rulers repudiated Gorbachev’s record.
Faced with the dubious successes of post-Soviet Russia, William Taubman’s new biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, is an attempt to present the leader’s record in a more heroic light. The product of eleven years of research and interviews, this past biographer of Nikita Khrushchev presents Gorbachev as the most important political figure of the second half of the twentieth century. It was he who brought an end to the Cold War, and, against his own intentions, to the USSR itself. Nonetheless, Taubman also presents Gorbachev as something of a tragic figure, breaking up the sclerotic Soviet system yet lacking the means to create a liberal democracy in its place.
From Peasantry to Nomenklatura
Taubman is above all concerned with the human side of the Gorbachev story, and to this end devotes over a quarter of the book to his life before his six-year spell in power. This includes a rich detailing of Gorbachev’s youth, starting with the humble family to which he was born in 1931. From his teenage years he worked long days in the fields, including when his father was sent to the front in the fight against German invasion. Too young to fight in the war, Gorbachev still lived the ravages of Nazi occupation firsthand.
From his youth Gorbachev was a party man, first in the Komsomol (Communist Youth). His Order of Banner for Labour (achieved together with his father, for his toil as a farmer) together with his academic brilliance allowed him to attend Moscow State University, the most prestigious school in the Soviet Union. Graduating in 1955, he became a local Komsomol leader in the city of Stavropol, and by 1970, he was the Communist Party boss in this Southern city.
These were times of great change in the USSR. Victory over Nazi Germany meant the need to rebuild, but also the hope that the worst sacrifice was now at an end. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, it was more liberal elements who asserted their control over the state, and new General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev began a reform process. This was most notably expressed in Khrushchev’s Twentieth Congress speech denouncing the cult of personality and unjust acts of repression. Nonetheless, this posed the broader questions of where these ills had stemmed from, and what change the system would now undergo.
At Moscow State University Gorbachev showed a certain diffidence toward the rituals of the regime. But resistance to dogma didn’t lead him to form any substantively different idea of what the Soviet Union might become. Gorbachev steered clear of more properly “dissident” elements seeking the system’s overthrow.
He instead stayed close to the Khruschevite mainstream, hoping for an end to the worst Stalinist repression. However, the leadership’s own line of march was not clear. It was first tested in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Moscow’s response was to send in tanks, bloodily reimposing Soviet domination. Whatever the liberalization within the USSR, there was no prospect of Moscow allowing the disintegration of its sphere of influence won through the sacrifice of war.
Gorbachev himself outwardly supported the action, just as he would Brezhnev’s 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring. Indeed, these events illustrated the basic problem of the USSR’s relations with the rest of the Eastern Bloc. To allow even a single socialist regime to break from Soviet hegemony would threaten the unity of the Bloc and the Soviet role as the “leading state” in the socialist camp. Yet thwarting efforts to create “socialism with a human face” itself undermined the unity and idealism of the Soviet-led Communist movement, giving it a nakedly repressive character.
As general secretary from 1964 onward, Leonid Brezhnev developed a hard-line doctrine of collective security within the Eastern Bloc, imposing an iron unity from Moscow. This conformed to his wider emphasis on stability. Yet the regime was also losing its prestige, both internationally and at home. This was particularly clearly highlighted by the rise of China, Cuba, and Vietnam as alternative centers of revolutionary authority. Gorbachev was essentially the inverse product of this period. Too young to be part of the USSR’s heroic war generation, he was among those Communists who rose through party ranks as economic growth slowed and the Soviet state lost its remaining sense of historical mission.
By the time Gorbachev joined the Communist Party Central Committee in 1971, the Soviet Union was no longer in the ascendant. The next decade would see economic stagnation and the hardening of a gerontocratic ruling elite focused above all on stability. It constantly had to firefight challenges from the periphery. The Polish strikes of 1980–81 crystallized Central and Eastern European opposition to the Warsaw Pact system, an opposition also expressed in dissident intellectual movements like Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. And all this while the USSR was bogged down in a military quagmire in Afghanistan.
The Soviet leadership reflected these challenges. Gorbachev was allied to figures like Yuri Andropov, who in 1981 counseled Brezhnev against direct military intervention to suppress the Polish opposition. General secretary of the Soviet Communist Party from just late 1982 until his early 1984 death, the elderly Andropov groomed Gorbachev as his successor. After a brief interregnum under Konstantin Chernenko, in January 1985 Gorbachev became the leader of both party and state.
His signal policies of perestroika and glasnost sought to break the Soviet Union out of the conservative retrenchment of the Brezhnev period. However, unlike the 1990s Chinese leadership, this approach in fact put relatively little premium on economic privatization. Internally, the most important change was the loosening of press controls and increased toleration of public criticism. Gorbachev’s intention in 1985 was not the dissolution of the Soviet state. However, taking the lid off the repressive atmosphere opened up a swirl of contradictions.
Historians are not agreed on the role of economic factors in triggering the USSR’s final crisis. Soviet military spending had built up over a long period, and did not suddenly increase in response to Reagan’s expansion of the US defense budget. However, there was a combination of disruptive factors. The fall in world oil prices coinciding with Gorbachev’s rule was a severe blow to an already debilitated system, and the failing economies of states like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland increasingly relied on Western loans.
In this sense, the developments in the Eastern Bloc countries played a decisive role in breaking up the Soviet Union. Most important in this regard was Gorbachev’s explicit reversal of the Brezhnev doctrine, making clear that the USSR would not intervene to shore up the beleaguered Eastern Bloc regimes. The debt crisis in the late 1980s, and the resulting pressure on the price of consumer goods, only fed mounting street protests in countries like East Germany and Poland. In certain states these were partially animated by left-wing and independent trade union movements, but they were also shaped by a strong rejection of Soviet control.
Gorbachev was not directly allied to reform movements in other Eastern Bloc countries or the advocate of a specific alternative path to socialism. His privileged interlocutors were reforming but non-ruling parties like the Italian Communists, like him bound to a specifically “Communist” identity and yet standing at odds with the USSR’s reality. Within the Warsaw Pact states themselves, the conflict set shaky Communist establishments, dependent on Soviet backing, in opposition to pro- democracy movements.
Gorbachev’s refusal to intervene in defense of the other Warsaw Pact governments would in 1989 allow partly free elections in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the specifically nationalist dynamic of these movements also fueled tensions within the USSR itself. Imitating the national movements in Central and Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union themselves demanded independence from Moscow. As the republics began to splinter, ethnic tensions spread in the Baltic states and Caucasus. Leader of the Russian republic Boris Yeltsin in turn asserted himself against Gorbachev and the unitary Soviet state.
The final crisis came from a backlash within the Soviet establishment. On August 19, 1991, with Gorbachev on holiday in Crimea, Soviet hard-liners declared a new regime. Within two days the coup had failed, the army declaring its loyalty to Yeltsin. Gorbachev was restored to his post, but the reform project had failed. National tensions had developed over decades; the liberalization process did not calm them, but rather, finally allowed them out into the open. Yeltsin met with the Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders to declare a looser “Commonwealth of Independent States.” Resigning as Soviet president on Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev sounded the death knell for the USSR.
Regrets, I’ve Had A Few
Taubman presents Gorbachev in a sympathetic light, but as a figure who unleashed events beyond his control. The rapid escalation of liberalization into the total destruction of the USSR immediately forced the Soviet president out of political life. He was reduced to touring the Western world in search of public acclaim, even being transported around the United States in a plane owned by Forbes magazine, the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool.” In 1994 he appeared as a witness in the trial of the August 1991 plotters, but his appearance produced only a shouting match between him and those who accused him of betraying the USSR.
Gorbachev’s ill-fated decision to stand in the 1996 presidential election illustrated how far he had fallen in Russian domestic politics. The election marked a revolt by the electorate against the soaring unemployment and social chaos of the early transition period, with the Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov running neck-and-neck with Yeltsin in the first round. The contest pitched the desire for a return to former stability against the promise that Russian capitalism could eventually recover. Standing as an independent, Gorbachev achieved a feeble 0.5 percent of the vote.
If Gorbachev’s greatest achievement was to end the Cold War, at twenty-five years’ distance, this looks less like a complete success. In 1991 he gave the green light to the US-led war in Iraq, and the dissolution of Soviet counterpower would embolden neocons in their project of remaking the world in Washington’s image. The rise of democracy in the former Eastern Bloc was a more definite success, though even Gorbachev himself bemoans NATO expansion into his own country’s former sphere of influence.
The peasant boy had risen through the ranks of the Soviet system, becoming its “ideal product.” Yet ultimately, Gorbachev was left unable even to defend his own actions, or identify with the shallow progress made.