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Gorbachev: Lingering Mysteries


by Mikhail Gorbachev ( the copyright page states, “This edition based on the translation by Georges Peronansky and Tatjana Varsavsky,” implying that the translation was edited substantially.)
Doubleday, 769 pp., $35.00

The Gorbachev Factor

by Archie Brown
Oxford University Press, 406 pp., $30.00

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 many of the most controversial aspects of his rule. Informed readers will be offended by what, at times, can be regarded only as a deliberate distortion of the facts.


The English version of Gorbachev’s memoirs is an abridged translation of the original Russian text, published a year ago in Moscow.1 The German translation, which appeared even before the Russian, is a complete text and, like the English translation, has the advantage of an extensive index, which the Russian edition lacks.2 Most readers can be grateful for the editor’s compression of the full text; most of the passages that have been excised (comprising some 35 to 40 percent of the original) involve quotations from notes of meetings, comments on details of travel or contacts with lesser-known foreign politicians, and descriptions of various minor Soviet officials whom the foreign reader neither knows nor needs to know. Occasionally, however, the editor omitted details, such as anecdotes illustrating a general point that would have enlivened otherwise soporific passages.

The English translation is serviceable but mediocre. Gorbachev’s prose has little sparkle but is not as awkward as the translation suggests. With a few exceptions, the translation is accurate in a literal sense 3 ; but the careful scholar or biographer would be well advised to depend upon the original or the German translation.

Although Gorbachev neither tells it all nor takes care to tell all he does with scrupulous accuracy, what he says about his career and his years in office is revealing and important. The son of a tractor driver, he was brought up in Stavropol, an agricultural region just north of the Caucasus. He gives some vivid glimpses—no more than that—of his early life in rural poverty, exacerbated by the famine brought on by Stalin’s forced collectivization and by social isolation following the arbitrary arrest of both his grandfathers. The war brought further hardships, particularly during the months in 1942 when the Nazis occupied his village, and in 1944 when a second famine swept the region. He did well in school and after studying law at Moscow University returned to Stavropol, where he quickly rose in the Communist hierarchy and simultaneously developed strong reservations about the way it ruled. His account of how his doubts about the system began to develop in his student days is convincing because it is consistent with his subsequent behavior. He came to understand, consciously or unconsciously, that it could be modified only from the top. Thus, if one wanted to make a difference, one had first to gain sufficient control of the structure to force change on a highly resistant political machine.

One can infer from Gorbachev’s account as he rose in the Party hierarchy, and became the Stavropol party chief, that any suggestions he made (such as recommendations to modify some farming practices) did not call into question his loyalty to the system or its leaders. He makes clear that Leonid Brezhnev approved his promotion in 1978 to the Party Secretariat in Moscow—the move that brought him to national prominence—because Brezhnev was convinced that Gorbachev would be a reliable supporter. He was careful always to be one, while at the same time cultivating Yury Andropov, the KGB Chairman who moved into the Party leadership in time to succeed Brezhnev as General Secretary.

Gorbachev’s retrospective view of his predecessors sounds honest. He resists any temptation to paint them as ogres. While he makes clear his disdain for Brezhnev’s corrupt, self-serving rule, he does not claim to have resisted it openly. He makes no secret of his admiration for Andropov, whom he describes as “a brilliant and large personality, generously endowed with gifts by nature, and a true intellectual.” Even so, Gorbachev denies that Andropov (as some have claimed) was capable of reforming the system: “He realized the need for changes, yet Andropov always remained a man of his time, and was one of those who were unable to break through the barrier of old ideas and values.”

And what of Andropov’s reprehensible record as KGB Chairman? Gorbachev does not completely ignore it, but tends to dismiss it in the following passage:

The thought often occurs to me: he knew Stalin’s crimes better than anyone else. Yet he never mentioned them. He witnessed Brezhnev’s attempts to revive both Stalin’s image and his model of organizing society. Nonetheless, he did not even attempt to counteract it. And what about his role in the events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the Afghan War, and in the struggle against those who thought differently, the “dissidents”?

Apparently the years spent in KGB work had left an imprint on his attitudes and perceptions, making him a suspicious man condemned to serve the system.

One can respect Gorbachev’s consistency in refusing to condemn the man who in many respects had been his patron4 and at the same time note that his willingness to overlook the unsavory side of Andropov’s career reveals a softness and indeed credulity in his attitude toward the KGB and its activities, a failing that subsequently contributed to his downfall.

Gorbachev writes that he intended to make reforms from the beginning of his tenure as General Secretary in March 1985, though initially he did not share his aspirations with his Politburo colleagues. In fact, his aims at that time were vague and he still was under the illusion that the Communist Party could become an engine of reform. What eventually became perestroika—an attempt to transform the Soviet political and economic system by establishing the rule of law, a government of limited powers, political pluralism, and an economy based on the market—developed gradually in the face of increasingly passionate resistance. As Gorbachev’s own goals became more concrete and more radical, he began to view his task as forcing, or tricking, the Communist Party apparatus along with the army and the KGB into accepting changes that were not only alien to their way of thinking but contrary to their interests as they traditionally understood them. These goals could be achieved, if at all, only in stages, with frequent resort to stealth and deceit.

Nikita Khrushchev’s failure to bring about changes in the mechanism of Communist rule was an object lesson for Gorbachev. As Andrei Sakharov frequently observed after he returned from his exile in Gorky, Gorbachev had “studied and absorbed the lesson of Khrushchev”—the lesson being that the Politburo was likely to remove any General Secretary who attempted to force precipitous changes on the Party. What Khrushchev’s opponents called his “harebrained schemes” stopped far short of threatening the Communist Party’s supremacy. Gorbachev’s reforms, in contrast, were aimed at its very foundation. Can it be any wonder that he had to zig and zag, say one thing one day and something different the next, proclaim a policy and then do the opposite?

None of this should be surprising under the circumstances, yet the tactics he used confused not only the hard-line Communist apparatchiks they were designed to outwit but also some sophisticated foreign observers who, knowing the Soviet past so well that they could not imagine departures from it, failed to see what was happening before their eyes. If they looked only for shadows of the past they could find them, but their contention, right up to 1991, that nothing essential had changed required a feat of self-induced blindness.

Gorbachev recounts in convincing detail his conflicts with his conservative opponents in the Party apparatus, often though not always led by Yegor Ligachev, including the battles over his reform program at the 1988 Party Conference, over the contested elections in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, and over establishing a presidential system in 1990, which enabled him eventually to bypass the Party Politburo. He is also persuasive in describing and defending the shifts he made in Soviet foreign policy—dropping the “class struggle” as the guiding principle in favor of the “common interests of mankind,” agreeing to deep arms reductions, allowing the East Europeans the freedom of choice, ending Soviet support for insurgencies in the third world, and agreeing that a unified Germany could remain in NATO. Despite efforts both in Russia and abroad to portray his policy as one of unwarranted concessions to the West, he is absolutely right when he insists that the agreements he negotiated served Soviet interests. The policy of his predecessors had created enemies on every border and impoverished the Soviet peoples by siphoning off the country’s resources for the benefit of the ruling party and military-industrial complex. If Gorbachev had not reversed these ultimately self-defeating policies, the Soviet collapse might have been much more destructive and violent than it in fact was.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhizn’ i reformy, two volumes (Moscow: Novosti, 1995).

  2. 2

    Michail Gorbatschow, Erinnerungen (Berlin: Siedler, 1995).

  3. 3

    Sometimes, however, a literal translation is not easily understood. For instance, the translator uses “tariffs” to mean price schedules, fails to explain that “wholesale prices” did not carry the same connotation in the Soviet Union of 1987 as in the West (they involved a shift from physical quotas to a system of bookkeeping “prices” to be used for transactions between enterprises). Similarly, familiar terms such as “money” and “ready cash” in a Soviet context are confusing without explanation. “Money” was used to translate a Russian term for assets on the books of a state enterprise which can be used for settling accounts between enterprises but cannot be converted to cash.

  4. 4

    Andropov not only supported Gorbachev’s rise in the Communist hierarchy, but also apparently hoped that Gorbachev would succeed him. Gorbachev writes that Andropov’s widow told Raisa Gorbacheva shortly after Andropov’s death that her husband had recommended that Gorbachev be his successor. She expressed outrage that the Politburo had ignored this request in electing Chernenko.

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