MIKHAIL GORBACHEV’s greatest asset — his decency — is also his greatest weakness. As leader of the Soviet Union between 1985 and its collapse in 1991 Gorbachev struggled to make Soviet socialism “humane and democratic”, to use his own words.
This was a noble ambition. Gorbachev knew that there was a huge deficit of what he called “social justice” in the Soviet Union.
Official proclamations that Soviet socialism was superior to capitalism where so much hot air. The USSR had a bloated military economy and was locked into an arms race that it was losing and which was an existential threat to all human life. Soviet citizens’ quality of life was far below that of the average West European or American, and threatened to decline further.
Gorbachev’s decency drove him to try to tackle these problems. He wanted his perestroika (restructuring) reforms to deliver better lives for Soviet citizens. Gorbachev’s views on what needed to be done to secure reform evolved as he struggled to get the USSR to change. The Soviet system needed not just economic change but political reform and an end to the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War was achievable. Gorbachev played a pivotal role in what is probably the greatest ever de-escalation of international conflict. He disarmed and reduced Soviet troop numbers, negotiated missile treaties, pulled the USSR out of the war in Afghanistan, and allowed Eastern Europe to break from the Soviet bloc peacefully. His Nobel Peace Prize was justly deserved.
Domestic political reform was much harder to achieve. Political reform required glasnost — openness, more press freedom — and the ruling Communist Party to change the way that it worked. Eventually this led to the introduction of semi-competitive elections.
These elections did not work out as Gorbachev intended. They split the Communist Party and unleashed nationalist movements in the USSR’s 15 republics.
Gorbachev found himself besieged from all sides and unable to control events.
Preserving the USSR as a state meant he trucking with conservatives who blocked economic and political change. Forcing the pace of economic and political change would mean allying with liberals, but many of them in the Soviet republics were opposed to the preservation of the USSR as a state, or wanted it to be something completely different to what Soviet conservatives envisaged.
Gorbachev’s decency prevented him from seeing the impasse he was in: If it was obvious to him what needed to be done for the common good why could others not see it and work with him?
Decency became Gorbachev’s blind spot. Arguably, he came to see himself, the decent man who wanted the best for everyone, as the only person capable of holding things together and bringing about change. To his opponents, this looked more like vanity and indecisiveness than decency.
Gorbachev ended up satisfying none of his rivals, and frustrating all of them by tacking between opposing forces to try to keep reform going and to preserve the USSR. In August 1991 the conservatives tried to depose him and preserve the Soviet state by force. Their failure led to the implosion of the USSR. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus shrugged off the Soviet state and Gorbachev as its president to begin their own unsuccessful experiments with democracy and free markets.
Gorbachev’s frustration with the failure of his reforms and the demise of the USSR, and with the failures of post-Soviet Russia and post-Cold War international politics are the topics of his new book.
Gorbachev’s frustrations are still rooted in the decency that drove him to reform in the first place and is still a weakness in his analysis of what happened after. The book is pervaded by Gorbachev’s belief that if everyone had acted decently and worked together the USSR would have been able to reform and the world would have been a better place.
This leaves little room for reflection on what went wrong during his perestroika
reforms and prevents any detailed analysis of what has happened since the collapse of the USSR. In many ways, this new book is less self-critical than Gorbachev’s memoirs, which were published in English 20 years ago.
The overwhelmingly defensive tone flaws the book, leaving it to fall between two stools. It neither develops fully as an autobiography, nor as an attempt to get to grips with what has happened in Russia since Gorbachev left the main political stage.
The book is an autobiography in that it follows Gorbachev’s life after leaving office.
However, biographical detail is often missing. He does not discuss the death of his wife Raisa, for example. Instead the reader is presented with a list of conferences attended and famous personages met, interviews given and newspaper articles published, and how these events, statements, and conversations continue the work that Gorbachev did as Soviet leader.
The book presents Gorbachev’s thoughts verbatim from interviews and newspaper articles written or given in reaction to events as they unfolded. This leads to a lot of repetition and a lot of what turned out to be very minor events are addressed at length.
The articles and interviews will also be hard to follow for a casual reader. People, institutions, and policies that are well known to Gorbachev and his interviewers are discussed without introduction or context. The book really should have been edited down and annotated rather than just translated from Russian.
The one-sidedness of Gorbachev’s account of the failings of modern Russia comes from his continued disgust with the person he blames most for the failure of perestroika and the collapse of the USSR: Boris Yeltsin.
Everything that went wrong after 1991 in Russia is presented as Yeltsin’s fault. Whilst it is true that Yeltsin was often inept and his reform policies flawed, many of the difficulties that he faced were legacies of the Soviet system or created by the faults of Gorbachev’s reforms, and these are not accounted for at all in the analysis.
Gorbachev’s loathing for Yeltsin colours his description of Putin too.
Gorbachev has come to see the failings of Putin but Putin gets the benefit of doubt that is never accorded to Yeltsin. The problems Putin faced on coming to power are acknowledged because they can be attributed to Yeltsin. Gorbachev also assumes Putin wanted to do his best for Russia, at least in the first years of his rule, an assumption he never favours Yeltsin with.
The result is a lopsided, and often inconsistent, account of Russia’s problems. Too many things are not thought through. For example, Gorbachev supports the idea that Russia should have a strong president, but wants a strong parliament and political parties too. Yet the strong presidency is one of the reasons why both Yeltsin and Putin failed to democratise Russia and why political parties and parliament have been so weak.
Gorbachev is clearly still struggling to see the events of the 1980s for what they were, warts and all, and see his own role in them more clearly and where they led.
Gorbachev’s anger at the failures of reform and the demise of the Soviet state, the injustices and corruption that has followed is a righteous anger.
In part this anger is an appropriate response to the faults of Russia’s current administration.
But it is an anger that obscures as much as it reveals. In the end, Gorbachev’s anger at the failure of Russia to become the decent society that he wanted works against itself, making it harder to see how to move forward from the past.
Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick.