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Founding Father

My Six Years with Gorbachev

Anatoly S. Chernyaev, translated from the Russian and edited by Robert D. English and Elizabeth Tucker
Pennsylvania State University Press, 437 pp., $32.50

The act of resigning from supreme office was a novelty introduced to Russian politics, under some duress, by Mikhail Gorbachev. His example having been followed nine years later by Boris Yeltsin, Russia has been able to contain for the past fifteen months the presence of two past leaders of the nation, and one incumbent, alive at the same time. The overlap may be without precedent in all Russian history.

Admittedly, it has been touch and go how long that coexistence might last. Until mid-March Boris Yeltsin was lying in the suburban Moscow hospital where he retreated before his seventieth birthday in February. Newspapers were holding ready their obituaries. Yeltsin was said to have a “slight temperature”—though one less serious, apparently, than his “sore throat” of July 1996, which was finally treated only with quintuple heart bypass surgery a few months later.

Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has the rather terrifying air of a man who could well be around forever. A year into his presidency, he remains very popular and very powerful. The Russian constitution should limit him to eight years in office—but then he could rewrite the constitution, as other Russian leaders have done before him. A mere forty-eight now, it is hard to imagine him, at the age of fifty-six, exchanging the Kremlin voluntarily for twenty years on the international conference circuit.

Still, Putin doubtless looks sideways now and again at Mikhail Gorbachev for hints of how a reasonably fit retired Russian leader might hope to survive. And here the news is improving. After a decade of being reviled and ridiculed the length of Russia, Gorbachev is regaining respect, even affection. The tide of public sympathy began to turn in 1999 when he lost his wife, Raisa, to leukemia. His seventieth birthday on March 2 this year provoked flattering comparisons with the bedridden Yeltsin, sympathetic profiles in the main Russian newspapers, and a week of parties and press conferences.

It is clear, too, that the retirement of Yeltsin from public life has been satisfying for Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s stab at reforming Russia along Western lines is deemed now to have failed. Yeltsin himself is in no physical state to mount a rear-guard defense of it. So there is an excellent chance that the verdict of history will finally go Gorbachev’s way. He, not Yeltsin, will be seen as the founding figure of post-Communist Russia, whatever that Russia might turn out to be.

Comforted by that expectation, Gorbachev has learned at last to stop behaving like a bad-tempered member of the political opposition, as he did under Yeltsin, and to start enjoying the same status of dignified elder statesman at home that he has long accepted in the West. He runs an insignificant political party of his own, the Social Democratic Party, but his more important contribution to political life these days is his support for Putin. He was asked recently if he agreed with the many Russian liberals who claim Putin is turning the country into a “police state.” He said:

Some think that Putin will seek to build a special authoritarian regime. This hurts him most of all. Not only is it not in his plans. As a person, as a politician, and as a lawyer, he seeks to create a rule-of-law state…. He has the healthy and normal ambitions of a person representing the new generation which assumes responsibility for the country.1

An endorsement of this kind from Gorbachev may be of some real value in the West, where Putin’s authoritarian leanings are taken more or less for granted. If so, it is worth bearing in mind also that Gorbachev’s wish may be father to his thought. He has a large stake in Putin’s success.

Should post-Communist Russia somehow “come right” under Putin, then Gorbachev will be vindicated too. He will be able to claim Putin as his true successor. The intervening chaos of the Yeltsin years will appear more and more as the personal failure of Yeltsin, less and less as the inevitable consequence of Gorbachev’s unsuccessful political experiments. That outcome may be pleasing for Gorbachev’s admirers: he is certainly a more attractive man than Boris Yeltsin. But it risks being misleading in fact. As the affectionate and intimate portrait by Anatoly Chernyaev, one of Gorbachev’s close associates, makes all too clear, Gorbachev simply did not understand many of the problems he was trying to solve. He saw that the system he inherited was holding Russia back, but he underestimated the extent to which it was also, for want of better, holding Russia together. And he could only surmise wildly about the more pluralist, more market-based system that he wanted in its place. In the metaphor of the conservative Russian writer Yuri Bondarev, perestroika was a plane that was given instructions to take off, but none where to land.


It remains far too early to speak with any confidence about the long-term consequences of Gorbachev’s revolution. A counterrevolution of sorts under Putin remains a possibility, if a very slight one. But as the passage of time encourages attempts at placing Gorbachev’s turbulent reign in at least some measure of historical perspective, so Chernyaev’s insider account, first published in Russian in 1993, makes an excellent starting point. There are simple truths here about the way Russia was run under Gorbachev that risk being buried under the weight of more detailed studies by more objective but more isolated hands. Chernyaev was there, he took notes, he is perceptive within his limits. He is also—at least in the excellent translation by Robert English and Elizabeth Tucker—more readable than Gorbachev himself in his own writings.

Chernyaev worked as an adviser to Gorbachev, mainly on foreign policy, between 1986 and 1991. The two first met in 1972, when Chernyaev accompanied Gorbachev, then a young provincial Party boss, on a trip to Belgium. In 1985, as a member of the international department of the Central Committee, Chernyaev helped Gorbachev prepare for his first summit with Ronald Reagan, in Geneva. This seems to have prompted his appointment to Gorbachev’s staff.

The Gorbachev who emerges from Chernyaev’s account is a man of brilliant simple ideas and occasional dazzling charm, but uneven energies and poor managerial skills. He is incapable of running his own private office efficiently. The chaos around him seems a microcosm of the country itself. His fixation on the good opinion of Western leaders made him all the more careless and petulant when dealing with rivals and subordinates back home. He believed, wrongly, that he could democratize and liberalize the Soviet system while maintaining the dominance of the Communist Party, a mistake that he made because he believed the Party to be a popular and legitimate institution.

As the scale of his errors became clear, he understood roughly where he went wrong, but he had absolutely no idea how to put things right. Here he is expressing his bafflement about the Russian economy to Willy Brandt in 1989:

Prices are forced on the consumer and he doesn’t have a choice. Incomes are growing but the commodity supply hasn’t increased. Before, enterprises produced a certain assortment of goods demanded of them by the plan. Now it’s unprofitable, so society is left without many commodities. We didn’t think everything through. We have no tax policy….

Toward the end he became a sad and rambling figure—“more like a mediocre Party official from the past than a proponent of the new thinking,” writes Chernyaev. Well into 1991 he was formulating fantastical schemes for “overcoming the crisis of perestroika,” while the Soviet Union was collapsing almost literally around his ears.

In form, My Six Years with Gorbachev is a mixture of diary and memoir. Chernyaev quotes extensively from private and official conversations, meetings, and letters. As such, the book has much in common with the first volume of Verbatim, Jacques Attali’s similarly privileged account of the early years of François Mitterrand’s presidency. Attali, like Cher-nyaev, was a special adviser with ready access to the leader and his papers. Chernyaev, like Attali, manages to convey convincingly what the exercise of great political power looks like when viewed at very close range.

It turns out that, in France and in Russia, political power looks surprisingly similar—so much so that a moment from Attali’s book may well supply the best one-word explanation both of Gorbachev’s ultimate failure as a professional politician and of Mitterrand’s success. The moment comes when Attali asks Mitterrand to name the quality most valuable in a politician. Perhaps Attali is expecting an ennobling reply for the pages of his diary: “wisdom,” perhaps, or “vision.” Or even—this is France—“cynicism.” But Mitterrand says bleakly, “Indifference.”

And indifference, certainly, was a quality Gorbachev never managed to acquire. He had many different hopes and loyalties, most of them misplaced but all of them sincerely held. Taken together they were more than enough to guarantee his confusion. Indeed, it seems hard now to believe that a man so naive and idealistic in so many ways could have made it to the top of so crude and brutal a political machine as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev was capable of bluster when necessary; he had shown he could be tough with opponents in his job as a regional boss; and his optimism was infectious, at least until the time came for testing it to the point of destruction. In Chernyaev’s summary: “He thought that if you restored professional, friendly, and honest relations based on merit, then you could change everything for the better.” What was more, Gorbachev believed you could change everything for the better while still preserving both “socialism” and the Communist Party’s monopoly on institutional power. His changes of conviction on those subjects came much later.2

Gorbachev’s predecessor was the seventy-four-year-old Constantine Chernenko, who died in 1985 after an embarrassingly inept year as general secretary. His weakness helped ensure Gorbachev’s nomination to replace him. As with the transition from Yeltsin to Putin, the desire among the political elite for generational change was at least as great as the desire for any ideological change. Russia thus acquired a relatively young leader, who—and here was the real novelty about Gorbachev—took the risk of acquiring a political education in public. Both the triumph and tragedy of the man derived from his willingness to learn.

A comprehensive education it turned out to be. There may be little new to say now about the sheer density of lying and unexamined stupidity on which the Soviet political system rested; but these are the things that leap off Chernyaev’s pages with a new vigor and poignancy. His journal is nothing if not the story of one intelligent and reasonable man, Chernyaev, watching another intelligent and reasonable man, Gorbachev, trying to understand and improve the functioning of an irrational system which has relied for its survival on decades of unquestioning acceptance.

Consider, for example, how Cher-nyaev struggles to explain an early crisis of the regime under Gorbachev, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986. Here is his recollection at length:

I attended all the Politburo meetings and some special meetings concerning Chernobyl…. Even our top leadership did not fully realize the difficulties and dangers associated with nuclear energy. Still, one can blame Gorbachev for trusting those responsible. But since nuclear energy was directly linked to the military-industrial complex, it was taken for granted that everything was in perfect order. And that there was no chance of a “surprise” like Chernobyl.

Again, we saw that the military-industrial complex was in fact a “state within a state.” And that the safety of nuclear power was not its top priority. The split between science and morality in Soviet society, and the amorality of an elite part of the scientific intelligentsia, bore their terrible fruit in Chernobyl. Still, it is hard to blame the scientists personally (there were few Sakharovs). The accident, like much else, was a product of the Soviet system as well as of a patriotism twisted by the Cold War.

In essence, Chernyaev is arguing that the scientists who understood the dangers of nuclear power were kept in check by the political system; those who controlled the political system were kept in ignorance by the scientists; and “patriotism” silenced any doubters; so nobody was to blame. A pity; but there you are, that’s Russia for you.

Gorbachev was in a similar state of denial—save that, as a political leader, he had more reason to blame the scientists. On July 3 he hauled a group of them into a Politburo meeting to denounce them in the following terms:

For thirty years you’ve been telling us that everything was safe. And you expected us to take it as the word of God. This is the root of our problems…. Everything was kept secret from the Central Committee. Its apparat didn’t dare to look into this area. Even decisions about where to build nuclear power stations weren’t made by the leadership. Or decisions about which reactor to employ.

Among the absurdities in this paragraph we can only marvel at Gorbachev’s salute to the Party leadership. He thinks—or implies, at any rate—that standards of nuclear safety in Russia would improve if the Central Committee, rather than the scientific establishment, were to decide where nuclear power stations should be placed and what sort of reactors they should use.

Gorbachev does have one constructive point to make. He tells the Politburo: “Under no circumstances will we try to conceal the truth…. There should be complete information about the disaster.” But the instincts of secrecy run deep. After quoting this instruction, and without the slightest indication of any intended irony, Chernyaev adds the following comment: “All of this was said ‘behind closed doors’ and so, even more than his public statements, reveals Gorbachev’s actual thinking.”


It took three or four years for Gorbachev’s radicalism to reach the point at which it could no longer be reconciled with the ideology he inherited. Chernyaev says he believes the general secretary of the Communist Party “ceased to be a socialist in 1990.”

One decisive influence on his ideological evolution was, apparently, the American academic Stephen Cohen. In 1987 Gorbachev took Cohen’s book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution on his summer vacation.3 According to Chernyaev:

[Gorbachev] read it closely and kept quoting it to me. He was impressed by [Cohen’s] intellectual powers. And it was then that he decided Bukharin should be rehabilitated.

And that’s what he did in his anniversary speech on Novem-ber 7, 1987. The reevaluation of Bukharin’s role and personality opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.

A year later Gorbachev progressed to an outright condemnation of Stalin, during a special Party meeting provoked by the “Nina Andreyeva” affair in April 1988. (Gorbachev’s conservative rivals within the Communist Party leadership engineered the publication in a government newspaper of an article under the name “Nina Andreyeva” calling for a return to Stalinist values.) To Gorbachev’s fury and dismay, the article was widely applauded within the Party. Chernyaev records him as saying: “There are no two ways about it. Stalin was a criminal, devoid of any morality.”

Previously, he had been more guarded about Stalin’s role, and critical of anti-Stalinist works such as Anatoly Rybakov’s book The Children of the Arbat. According to Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s views hardened when he studied “what had really gone on under Stalin,” again during his preparations for the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1987.

By the start of 1989, Chernyaev records, Russian society was deep into “the reappraisal of anything and everything.” The resulting criticisms affected Gorbachev too. He would “get angry and curse, upon reading some article before going to bed,” says Chernyaev. “But I also saw that [he] was affected by the serious and thoughtful revision of our past, of our dogmas, that was also under way.” Gorbachev never turned wholly against Lenin, as he did against Stalin. But his uncertainties grew. In January 1989 he read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich, and described it to Chernyaev as “spiteful but talented” (a rather elegant summary, one might say, of Solzhenitsyn in general).

The more Gorbachev saw through the historical propaganda, the more he came to see the magnitude of his central error, his belief in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as something that could be put to rights. Chernyaev dates the crisis here from the spring of 1988:

Only too late did he see that a party like the CPSU, created and completely intimidated by Stalin, couldn’t function as a normal political party in the commonly accepted, democratic sense of the word. And when he finally admitted it, he felt he had no choice but to remain its general secretary because, as he put it, of other considerations—to keep “this colossus of conservatism” under control lest it should overthrow pere-stroika. This is exactly what he said among friends.

By July 1990 Gorbachev’s language was plainer still. He said, again of the Communist Party: “I can’t let this lousy, rabid dog off the leash. If I do it, all this huge structure will be turned against me.”

Another big factor in Gorbachev’s estrangement from his Party heritage was his immediate infatuation with foreign policy. He was lured on by the sophistication and the flattery of his Western counterparts. As the world was soon to see, he warmed to Margaret Thatcher, and she to him. Gorbachev knew that other leaders were seeking to manipulate and to test him, but he believed he shared enough of their goals to make genuine friendship and common purpose possible.4

And, to his credit, he understood fully their early skepticism about his own capacity to deliver a change in the Soviet regime. He recognized that his best chance to succeed was to win over Western public opinion directly, and in that way force Western leaders to pay attention to his own concerns. In the coup de théâtre that would determine his relations with the US, he proposed the drastic cuts in nuclear weapons which, together with the unintended collapse of the Soviet Union, are the things for which the West celebrates Gorbachev to this day.

Chernyaev’s account of the struggle for arms reduction catches Gorbachev at his best. Indeed, as Gorbachev becomes desperate and distracted in the final chapters, one has to turn back to the early pages on arms policy to remember how and why he ever got the job of running Russia at all. Here is Chernyaev’s summary of his speech to the Politburo, immediately before the Reykjavik arms summit with Ronald Reagan in 1986; it packs so much simple wisdom into so few words that it surely ranks in its way as a work of political genius:

We are by no means talking about weakening our security. But at the same time we have to realize that if our proposals imply weakening US security, then there won’t be any agreement. Our main goal now is to prevent the arms race from entering a new stage. If we don’t do that, the danger to us will increase. If we don’t back down on some specific, maybe even important issues, if we won’t budge from the positions we’ve held for a long time, we will lose in the end. We will be drawn into an arms race that we cannot manage. We will lose, because right now we are already at the end of our tether.

If only Gorbachev had tackled Russia’s economic problems with an equal shrewdness and directness. But he did not, partly because he saw them less clearly and partly—one suspects—because he found them less interesting. They could not be settled in summits: they had to be argued for to committees and bureaucracies headed by tiresome people of reactionary political views, who, undistracted by world affairs, often got the better of Gorbachev on his home turf.

As the problems multiplied at home, Gorbachev almost became two separate people. One was the popular and successful international statesman. The other was the reviled and struggling Russian politician. Chernyaev gives a rather eerie account of Gorbachev slipping from one persona into the other when he received Dick Cheney, then American defense secretary, at the Kremlin in October 1990. First Gorbachev had to endure a meeting of a presidential advisory council:

[He] sat there gloomily, getting angrier and angrier but offering only a few comments. Soon it was noon, the time scheduled for his meeting with [Cheney]…. We walked into a different room. And Gorbachev seemed to turn into a different person. He was in charge again, the leader of a world power, controlling the situation in the “hot spots” of international politics, calm about domestic affairs and sure of success.

The end of Chernyaev’s book does not make pretty reading. The collapse of the Russian economy forced Gorbachev to channel most of his foreign-policy expertise into begging for soft loans. He disastrously underestimated the challenge from Boris Yeltsin. He departed at last for his ill-fated summer holiday in Crimea on August 4, 1991, where he was briefly held hostage by the coup plotters. The failure of the coup cleared the way for three main consequences: the end of Communist Party power, the triumph of Boris Yeltsin, and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev may not have seen the end coming. But he certainly felt its inevitability in some visceral way. Chernyaev quotes him delivering a farewell, just before he left for Crimea, that is worthy of Chekhov:

Oh Tolya, everything has become so petty, vulgar, provincial. You look at it and think, to hell with it all! But who would I leave it to? I’m so tired.

  1. 1

    Press conference, Moscow, February 27, 2001.

  2. 2

    Receiving the American Communist Party leader, Gus Hall, in 1986, for example, Gorbachev explained:

    Our goal is to realize the full potential of socialism. Those in the West who expect us to renounce socialism will be disappointed. We’re not going to give up socialism. On the contrary, we need more socialism, more democracy, more awareness. And that means more ideological activity.

    And when Gorbachev talked about “democracy,” he meant more diversity within the Communist Party, not more parties. Thus, Chernyaev records him saying in conversation two years later:

    We have to elaborate on the formula “More democracy—more socialism!” We must work out mechanisms to account for diverse popular interests under a single-party system.

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1980.

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