The Gorbachev Factor
While Mikhail Gorbachev was in control of the Soviet state, three events transformed the world’s political landscape: the cold war and the division of Europe ended; the Soviet Union and most of the countries allied with it ceased to be ruled by their Communist parties; and finally the Soviet state itself collapsed, fragmenting into fifteen sovereign successors.
Gorbachev was at the center of the political storms that produced these convulsions, yet his role in them is still debated. We argue over whether he was responsible for what happened, and if so, to what degree. Was he a genuine reformer or a schemer who used reform rhetoric as cover for a power grab? Was his foreign policy one of feckless surrender to the West, short-sighted opportunism, or a wise adaptation to the reality that the Soviet Union needed friends, not enemies, beyond its borders if it was to pursue reform at home?
Whatever answer one gives to these questions, a number of incongruities, even mysteries, remain. Those who feel that he was not a genuine reformer need to explain why, in that case, he would undermine the authority of the Communist Party, which, as General Secretary, he could have controlled so long as he did not try to change the way it operated. And those who feel that his foreign policy ran counter to Soviet interests need to explain how a continuation of the cold war would have helped cure or even contain the growing internal problems the Soviet Union faced in the 1980s.
Those of us who are convinced that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and that his foreign policy also served Soviet interests confront puzzling questions of a different sort: (1) How could a person with the potential to change the system rise through the Soviet nomenklatura’s filtering apparatus, which was designed to exclude people who were not servile conformists? (2) If Gorbachev was a real reformer, why did he have so much difficulty understanding and making common cause with other reformers, inside and outside the Communist Party? (3) Given his demonstrated skill for political maneuver and intimate knowledge of apparatchik “culture,” how could Gorbachev have failed, despite ample warnings, to recognize the perfidy of some of his close associates? (4) How can one explain his inability to grasp the nature and popularity of nationalist aspirations? (5) What were Gorbachev’s calculations when, in the winter of 1990-1991, he threw his support to those who eventually tried to remove him and declared verbal war on the democratic reformers?
To what degree do the memoirs of this remarkable man answer such questions? In fact, they make a credible case for the proposition that he was a genuine reformer, and they also provide insight into the way he, a latent dissident, rose to the top of the apparatchik pyramid. They contain a spirited and convincing defense of Gorbachev’s foreign policies. But the other mysteries remain, and the reader will be disappointed by his failure to deal forthrightly with …
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‘The Gorbachev Factor’: An Exchange March 27, 1997