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.
In a few instances, Gorbachev concedes that he made mistakes: he initially underestimated the magnitude of reforms needed and overestimated his ability to transform the Communist Party. His confidence in several officials was misplaced. He signed some ill-advised decrees in late 1990 that increased inflationary pressures. Still, he avoids confronting his most egregious failures, and in doing so sometimes obfuscates the record instead of illuminating it. I will cite here only a few cases that point to broader issues, drawing on my own experience as ambassador to Moscow during much of Gorbachev’s tenure.
Yeltsin: Every reference to Boris Yeltsin seems designed to prove that from the very beginning of their break in 1987, Yeltsin was power-mad, a potential tyrant. It follows then that Gorbachev was prescient when he expelled Yeltsin from the Party leadership in November 1987 and that subsequent attempts on his part to cooperate were doomed by an obdurate Yeltsin, who was determined to seize power rather than to work with Gorbachev for the good of the country.
Even if one were to accept this version of events, unanswered questions arise. For example, if Yeltsin had been such a threat to the reforms Gorbachev was attempting to carry out, how is it that, by 1990, Yeltsin was seen by most Soviet citizens as a more consistent proponent of reform than Gorbachev? Why is it that Yeltsin could win popular votes when Gorbachev could not? Why is it that Yeltsin’s most vigorous opponents in 1987 and 1988 turned out by 1990 also to be Gorbachev’s opponents, and that by 1991, most of Gorbachev’s original supporters were backing Yeltsin?
To make his case Gorbachev has to ignore much and distort even more, beginning with the circumstances of Yeltsin’s ouster from the Party leadership in the fall of 1987. Gorbachev describes the confrontation with Yeltsin that occurred at the Central Committee meeting on October 21, 1987, and he paraphrases both Yeltsin’s speech criticizing him and the Party and the attack on Yeltsin that followed. However, if the published record of that session is accurate, Gorbachev’s version is misleading.5 The transcript also reveals that the storm of criticism of Yeltsin was orchestrated, not spontaneous as Gorbachev claims (there were twenty-five speakers in succession, and some of them spoke longer than Yeltsin did), and that far from trying to save Yeltsin from the angered apparatchiks, Gorbachev egged on the verbal lynch mob.
Why did he do it? We find a clue in the Memoirs when Gorbachev writes of Yeltsin’s record as Moscow Party secretary. Admitting that Yeltsin was attempting to carry out a general policy of reform decided by the Central Committee in January 1987, Gorbachev observes that the “institutions of the old system” saw that their interests were threatened and put up a fight. Yeltsin “tried to rally Moscow Party organizations and the Muscovites themselves against these structures, and in my opinion he was right in this attempt. However, from the very beginning he used populist methods to achieve his goal.” Horror of horrors, Yeltsin had gone outside the Party and was building up popular support for change!
Gorbachev does not admit it, but it is obvious that he was disturbed not so much by Yeltsin’s arguments as by the thought that Yeltsin might become more popular than Gorbachev himself. According to Mikhail Poltoranin, who at that time was editor of the newspaper Moskovskaya pravda, orders were issued by the Central Committee information department in the spring of 1987 that Yeltsin was not to be mentioned by name in the press, even in the paper published by the organization he headed. Although Gorbachev reproaches Yeltsin for following a “populist” approach, he asserts elsewhere in his book that by 1987 he understood that ways would have to be found to bring public pressure to bear on the Party to change rigid, inefficient, and undemocratic procedures.
The irony does not end here. In one of the few self-critical passages in his Memoirs, Gorbachev says:
We allowed the time-frame for structural transformations to be dragged out for three or four years and thus missed the most economically and politically favorable time for them in 1987-8. This was a strategic miscalculation. As a result, the situation in the country rapidly worsened and conditions became less and less favorable for successful reform. We therefore needed different, more radical approaches to reform.
This was precisely the point Yeltsin was making, albeit clumsily, in October 1987. In concentrating his attention on Yegor Ligachev, then a Secretary of the Party Central Committee, he correctly identified the leader of the still-inchoate faction in the Politburo determined to block these reforms. Gorbachev’s strategic miscalculation in 1987 was to expel Yeltsin from the Party leadership instead of using his public appeal to popularize the reform program and bring pressure to bear on the apparatchiks.
Lithuania: From 1989 right up to the attempted coup in August 1991, Gorbachev had no more pressing problem than dealing with the attempts of the Baltic states to regain the independence they had enjoyed between the two world wars. By December 1989 Lithuania had taken the lead among the three countries and was clearly headed for the declaration of independence its parliament enacted the following March. Those of us who dealt with Gorbachev on this issue at the time were aware that he was under enormous pressure from the Communist Party, the army, and the security agencies not to grant independence to the Baltic countries. Most observers thought that Gorbachev would not be able to continue in office if he made too many concessions to the Baltic independence movements.
Under these circumstances, the best Gorbachev could do if he was to resist pressure to apply force was to reject the claims of the Balts and resort to temporizing tactics. However, one could have hoped that, in his retirement, Gorbachev would be capable of looking on these events with more understanding and objectivity than he could allow himself while in power. Alas, as in his account of his relations with Yeltsin, he gives the impression that he has learned nothing and forgotten a great deal.
For example, in discussing Algirdas Brazauskas’s decision to lead most members of the Lithuanian Communist Party out of the CPSU in December 1989, Gorbachev states, “At the time I deemed it possible to preserve the unity of the CPSU while ensuring the independence of the…Communist Parties [in the various Soviet republics] or, at worst, creating a kind of federal union between them.” In fact, at that time Gorbachev specifically rejected any thought of creating a federal structure in the Communist Party, and it was this refusal that drove the Lithuanians to pull out of the Party altogether.
Second, he writes as if the law on secession, passed in the spring of 1990, offered the Lithuanians (and the other Baltic states) a reasonable way to leave the Soviet Union. In fact, it did not. It was supposedly enacted to implement a constitutional right to secede, but it required a long procedure and then permitted secession only if the Soviet legislature approved. In other words, it treated secession not as a constitutional right but as a privilege—and one which, practically speaking, was unlikely ever to be granted. Naturally, the Balts refused to comply, all the more because they (like the United States and most other Western countries) considered their incorporation in the Soviet Union to have been illegal to begin with.
Gorbachev was not unaware of these arguments. They were presented to him repeatedly, not only by the Balts but by many representatives of Western governments, including myself. Nevertheless, he goes so far as to charge that the Lithuanian leaders refused to “avail themselves” of the law on secession because they feared that they could not win the referendum it required. This is nonsense. The Lithuanians, along with the Estonians and Latvians, conducted a referendum which showed overwhelming support for independence. They refused to conduct it with explicit reference to the law on secession because they did not concede that the law applied to them.
Finally, and outrageously, Gorbachev accuses Vytautas Landsbergis, the elected chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament, of “provoking the creation of the Committee of National Salvation” in Vilnius on January 11, 1991. The so-called Committee of National Salvation was an illegal junta which is alleged to have ordered the storming of the Vilnius television tower in the early hours of January 13, 1991, when a dozen or more people were killed. It became obvious after the event that it included hard-line Party officials and army officers acting with the cooperation of the KGB. In fact, the troops that stormed the television complex were from the KGB’s notorious Alpha Detachment, which operated under the direct orders of Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB Chairman.
At the time, Gorbachev claimed that he had neither given the order nor did he know who did. He still maintains this in his Memoirs, but his account of his efforts to discover who was behind the bloody events strains credibility. Here is what he writes:
I contacted Kryuchkov immediately after receiving news about the events in Vilnius, and demanded an explanation. The KGB Chairman replied that neither he nor Pugo [the Minister of Internal Affairs] had ordered the use of force. The decision was made locally, and he was not sure who was behind it….
I also rang Yazov. “Who sanctioned the use of force?” I asked. He replied that he thought it was the chief of the garrison. It was hard to believe that such a junior officer could have done so without the approval of the Minister. But at the time I trusted Yazov.
This explanation is so implausible that it just might be true. If it is, Gorbachev knew in general what was going on, but did not want to know the details since this would have obliged him to take action against those he still thought he could use. In 1987 he had fired the entire top military command when they allowed a Cessna flown by a young West German to elude Soviet air defenses and land on Red Square; and yet he permitted the KGB chairman, with agents in every military unit, to evade an answer to his direct question. If Kryuchkov didn’t know who was responsible for such a serious breach of public order in Vilnius, he should have been fired on the spot. But, of course, Kryuchkov did know. He probably planned the whole affair to pressure Gorbachev to declare presidential rule in Lithuania—as a test case, in fact, for the coup he attempted in August.
Why Gorbachev persists in ignoring all this and attempts to blame others is difficult to understand. Perhaps he cannot face the fact that on this occasion he willingly allowed himself to be duped. It was his responsibility as President to see to it that whoever gave the command was brought to justice. If he had done so, there would have been no attempt to remove him in August.
The “Democrats” and Gorbachev’s “Turn to the Right”: During the fall of 1990 Gorbachev dismissed most of his reform-minded advisors, including the economic planners who wanted to liberalize the economy, hardened his rhetoric, and for a time tolerated attempts by the Soviet military to undermine international agreements he himself had signed, including the agreement to reduce conventional forces in Europe. These developments induced Eduard Shevardnadze to resign as foreign minister in December, warning of a coming dictatorship. Many of those who advocated democratic reforms—whom Gorbachev himself labels “democrats”—became convinced that Gorbachev had turned away from his earlier policies, and they shifted their support to Yeltsin. Gorbachev reacted as if opposition to his misguided policies was tantamount to treason. To judge from some of his public statements, Gorbachev actually began to believe KGB fabrications designed to convince him that Yeltsin was plotting with the “democrats” to seize power by force, an allegation that was ridiculous on its face since they had no influence in the KGB or the army, the only organizations even theoretically capable of seizing power.
Those of us who observed this puzzling turn of events at the time noted the tragic irony that Gorbachev had turned to the forces that were determined to block further reform and was treating as enemies the strongest supporters of the goals he still ostensibly espoused. By spring of 1991 Gorbachev began to revert to his earlier policies when he agreed with Yeltsin and eight other leaders of Soviet republics to negotiate a union treaty that would shift much power to the republics. In August his allies of the winter turned on him and tried unsuccessfully to take power. Following that experience, it is difficult to understand how Gorbachev can fail to understand that his “turn to the right” in 1990 was a major strategic error, and that his judgment of the reformers who reacted to it was mistaken.
Clear as this seems to most observers, however, it is not clear to the Gorbachev of the Memoirs. He still portrays Yeltsin and the democratic reformers as conspiring against him in the winter and spring of 1991. In order not to provide implicit refutation of this bizarre view, he ignores his turn to the right in the winter of 1990-1991, and claims that Yeltsin and the democrats already sought the break-up of the USSR. In fact, most democrats opposed breaking up the Soviet Union. They backed Yeltsin because Gorbachev seemed then to be blocking further reform.
Gorbachev’s comments in the Memoirs on some of the democrats who criticized his political mistakes is sharp, unforgiving, and usually distorted. A case in point is his treatment of Gavriil Popov, then the mayor of Moscow and one of the most outspoken democratic reformers, who predicted, months before it hap-pened, that unless Gorbachev’s policies changed and he gave more power over the economy to the republics, the USSR would break up. Every reference to Popov is venomous, and when Popov’s activities are mentioned they are ripped from their context and ridiculed. Take Gorbachev’s account of Popov’s attempt, in June 1991, to warn Yeltsin that a plot against Gorbachev was brewing:
The democrats did not wake up to what was happening until the power ministers had spoken. However, the reaction of their leaders was quite unique [sic]; instead of declaring themselves openly in the Parliament, they preferred to contact the American leadership through closed channels. Not until two years after these events did we learn, from an article published by Gavriil Popov, about his hurried meeting with the US Ambassador Jack Matlock, and the transmission through him of a warning (apparently intended for Yeltsin, who at that time was in the USA) that reactionary forces were conspiring in Moscow. Moreover, the information contained the clear hint that these events were taking place with the knowledge, and, moreover, practically according to the scenario and under the guidance, of Gorbachev himself. It goes without saying that this information was intended mainly for Bush, who according to Popov then forestalled this conspiracy.
This account is breathtakingly inaccurate, and Gorbachev certainly knows that it is. He refers to an incident which has been widely reported, but so many distorted versions have been published that I must repeat the basic facts if the reader is to appre-ciate the magnitude of Gorbachev’s misrepresentation.
Popov paid a social call on me on the morning of June 20, 1991. As we discussed recent political developments in Moscow, Popov handed me a hand-lettered note in Russian which read: “A COUP IS BEING ORGANIZED TO REMOVE GORBACHEV. WE MUST GET WORD TO BORIS NIKOLAYEVICH [Yeltsin].” At that time Yeltsin was in Washington and was scheduled to see President Bush the same day. As we continued talking of other things, I scribbled on the same piece of paper, in Russian, “I’LL SEND A MESSAGE. BUT WHO IS BEHIND THIS?” Popov scrawled four names—[Prime Minister] PAVLOV, [KGB Chairman] KRYUCHKOV, [Defense Minister] YAZOV, and [Parliament Chairman] LUKYANOV. He then retrieved the note, tore it into bits, and thrust them into his pocket.
I sent Popov’s message to Washington. President Bush conveyed it to Yeltsin at their meeting and asked what to do. Yeltsin replied that we should warn Gorbachev. Thereupon I was instructed to go to Gorbachev and give him a warning, but we agreed that we should not mention either Popov or the people he named. Gorbachev received me that evening, and when I told him that we had a report that was more than a rumor but less than confirmed information that a conspiracy was underway to remove him, he laughed it off but thanked us for our concern. Subsequently, in a telephone conversation, President Bush apparently mentioned that we got the information from Popov. When Gorbachev next saw Popov, at a state dinner for the Bushes in July, he berated him for “telling tales to the Americans.”
One would have hoped that Gorbachev would be sufficiently honest with himself to realize, after what happened to him on August 18, 1991, when the very people Popov named were involved in a coup against him, that he had been mistaken to dismiss this warning and furthermore that everyone involved in conveying it—Popov, Bush, Yeltsin, and myself—had acted in support of Gorbachev’s interests.6 Why he chooses to castigate Popov is incomprehensible until we note Gorbachev’s comment about an article Popov wrote two years later, in which Popov speculated (incorrectly, in my view) that Gorbachev’s failure to heed the warning and subsequent refusal to admit that this was a mistake suggested that Gorbachev had known all along what was going on.
In fact Gorbachev’s own cavalier treatment of the warning gave rise to these suspicions, which, contrary to Gorbachev’s assertion, were not in any way implied in the message Popov asked me to send to Yeltsin. Popov also did not claim in his article that President Bush had “forestalled the conspiracy.” He wrote that, when Kryuchkov learned from the Bush-Gorbachev telephone conversation (monitored by the KGB) that Popov knew about his machinations, he had to restrict those privy to his plans to such a small circle that the August coup could not be properly prepared, and this lack of preparation may have caused its failure.
Archie Brown’s closely reasoned book The Gorbachev Factor makes a better case for Gorbachev’s record as a reformer than Gorbachev’s own sprawling work. As he occasionally reminds us, Brown, a professor at Oxford, was one of the Sovietologists who predicted when Gorbachev came to power that he would be different from his predecessors. He thus has a personal stake in proving that he was right, and he does so with such thoroughness that he should be forgiven for implying that he was virtually alone among Western specialists in recognizing Gorbachev’s potential.
Brown offers overwhelming evidence for his basic thesis that Gorbachev “moved from being a reformer of the Soviet system to a systemic transformer…[who] went on…to dismantle the pillars of Communism.” He is also persuasive when he argues that Gorbachev shifted Soviet foreign policy away from the “zero-sum” approach of his predecessors by subordinating the Marxist concept of the class struggle to the principle that mankind has common interests which should lie at the basis of every country’s foreign policy.
Brown’s analysis, to be sure, is sounder when he discusses the ins and outs of Soviet domestic policy than when he treats Soviet foreign policy. By largely ignoring the policies adopted by President Reagan and his NATO allies between 1983 and 1985, he makes it seem that Gorbachev changed the direction of Soviet foreign policy mainly on his own initiative. In fact, the wide-ranging proposals for ending the cold war that Reagan made in January 1984, more than a year before Gorbachev came to power, prefigured what actually happened.7 Gorbachev recognized, gradually, that the US proposals were consistent with reform in the Soviet Union, and he then adjusted Soviet policy to fit them.
In his implicit debate with other Sovietologists, Brown sometimes stacks the deck by quoting extreme and sometimes atypical views. For example, he begins his chapter called “Gorbachev and Foreign Policy” by citing two quite different views prominent in the West when Gorbachev became General Secretary: (1) that he would have to be passive in foreign policy because of domestic problems, and (2) that these problems would cause him to pursue an adventurous policy abroad. Brown observes accurately that both views were mistaken.
These two views did exist, but neither was paramount among well-informed observers. US policy was based on the assumption that pressures within the USSR, sooner or later, would cause Gorbachev to moderate traditional Soviet foreign policy and ultimately accept fair terms to end or at least attenuate the rivalries of the cold war. After Reagan made his January 1984 speech on US-Soviet relations he continued to elaborate his proposals during the next two years precisely with this probability in mind.
But foreign policy is not at the center of Professor Brown’s analysis. His book is, by all odds, the most thorough exposition of Gorbachev’s domestic political record yet to appear, and his assessments of it are likely to be sustained as additional evidence accumulates with the declassification of documents and the publication of memoirs by Gorbachev’s contemporaries. Specialists, therefore, will read The Gorbachev Factor carefully and refer to it frequently. But Brown’s analytical approach fails to capture the drama of the period he discusses. He provides separate analyses of ideas, economic reform, political transformation, and foreign policy. While this approach is logically sound, it leads to repeated references to the same event and leaves the reader with a frequent sense of déjà lu. There is much meat in the 1,518 endnotes, which cover seventy-two pages in eight-point type, but his meticulous documentation may seem tedious to the reader not immersed in the Sovietological debates of the l980s.
So Gorbachev was a genuine reformer who was shrewd and lucky enough to conceal the fact until he could do something about it. But what about the other mysteries I have mentioned? Brown’s analysis, which plays down Gorbachev’s inconsistencies, offers slight help in solving them. Gorbachev’s omissions and distortions not only obscure understanding, but actually promote the sort of suspicions that are still rife in Russia and are even entertained by some foreign observers.
There is, for example, no reason to doubt Gorbachev’s account of his isolation in the Crimea by coup plotters from the afternoon of August 18 until August 21, 1991. Nevertheless, some do. Gorbachev has never explained how he could have been fooled for so long by so many of his closest lieutenants, and this has induced some commentators to suspect that Gorbachev himself was part of the conspiracy, even though there is no evidence to support the suspicion.8 Similarly, Gorbachev’s unfounded charge that the Russian reformers were interested only in seizing power when they opposed his suicidal “turn to the right” has both embittered them and caused many to doubt that Gorbachev was ever truly devoted to reform.
Gorbachev seems to have written his memoirs with this year’s election to the Russian presidency uppermost in his mind. In style, his book is more like a campaign autobiography than the reflections of an elder statesman. He seems more concerned to justify his decisions to hard-line Communists who accuse him of abandoning and ruining the Party than to the reformers who were the real supporters and beneficiaries of his perestroika.
Gorbachev’s failure to confront the lingering mysteries about his years in power leaves us no choice but to guess at explanations for them. I believe that Gorbachev’s inordinate fear that some subordinate would steal the limelight from him lay behind some of his errors of judgment. When he observed Yeltsin’s growing popularity in Moscow in 1987, he decided—perhaps only subconsciously—that Yeltsin had to go. Then, when Yeltsin provided him with a pretext, Gorbachev moved swiftly to rid himself of a potential competitor.
His exaggerated sense of pride—hubris, in fact—led him to overlook criticism and even perfidy when it occurred behind the scenes, and to treat open and principled debate as treachery motivated only by a desire for power. Vladimir Kryuchkov seems to have been well aware of these vulnerable tendencies and to have fed Gorbachev slanted and at times fabricated information to exacerbate his suspicions of Yeltsin and the democrats, while covering up the machinations of Party, police, and military officials who were determined to block Gorbachev’s reforms.
Another factor which would help to explain Gorbachev’s behavior in 1990 and 1991 was his apprehension that he might be deposed if he got too close to the democratic reformers or began to loosen the Soviet hold on the Baltic states. Though he has never explained it that way, this seems to have been behind his “turn to the right”—an attempt to buy time by giving the hard-liners the hope that he would eventually side with them.9
If these guesses are close to the mark, Gorbachev could have made a much stronger case for his stewardship of the Soviet state if he had discussed his calculations—not just his aspirations—with greater candor. How refreshing it would be if, say, regarding Yeltsin, he had written something like, “I was blinded by jealousy and this caused me inadvertently to make a public hero out of the only man who had the potential to challenge me directly.” Or, in regard to the Baltic states, “Of course they had a right to press for independence, but the best I could do was to keep our military and police from using force. The Balts never understood that and I can’t blame them because I had to turn a deaf ear to their demands or lose control over our hotheads. The Balts never realized that if I had been replaced, they would have been treated like the Chinese students on Tiananmen Square.”
Regarding Shevardnadze’s resignation, Gorbachev might have admitted that when his foreign minister spoke of a coming dictatorship, he—almost as a reflex—construed those words as an attack on his integrity, and that emotion so clouded his judgment that he missed what Shevardnadze was trying to say: that people like Kryuchkov, Yazov, and Lukyanov were determined to force him to endorse violence or to replace him. As for the “democrats,” he would deserve more respect if he could honestly say: “Although I had good reason to be annoyed at some of their tactics—they never seemed to understand that I had to build up the president’s authority to counter the Party apparat’s resistance—I should not have allowed myself to see them as enemies. In retrospect, it is obvious that I could not have reached my goals without their cooperation. I must assume much of the responsibility for the fact that sustained cooperation always eluded us.”
These explanations of his motivations are no more than guesses, but I would bet that they are accurate. The main reason Gorbachev was unwilling to be candid about his misjudgments, aside from his limited capacity for self-criticism, seems to be that he still had aspirations for public office, at least when he wrote the Memoirs. In the Epilogue, he makes only passing mention of his disastrous campaign for the Russian presidency in the spring of this year; but the hope of turning the tables on Yeltsin must have been much on Gorbachev’s mind between 1992 and 1994 when he was writing his book.
Most Russians were puzzled by Gorbachev’s decision to run for president in 1996. At first he announced that he would be willing to lead a “broad coalition of democratic forces” in the election if requested; but then, when no request was forthcoming, he entered the contest anyway. He opposed with equal vigor President Yeltsin and the Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. His campaign received more respectful attention than derisory Russian press reports suggested, but the attention seems to have stemmed more from curiosity than from warmth. In the end, he received only slightly more than one half of one percent of the votes cast.
Why did he embark on this predictably quixotic effort? According to his associates, he decided to run because he thought he had a duty to provide Russian voters with a reasonable alternative to Yeltsin and Zyuganov, both of whom he considered disastrous for Russian democracy. He also seems to have thought that he had a real chance. As his aide, Anatoly Chernyayev, explained to me in May, he believed that the polls were inaccurate and purposely distorted to favor Yeltsin, and that no candidate would get more than 14 to 15 percent of the vote on the first ballot. In that case, he thought he might do as well as the others and reach the run-off. If these were indeed his calculations, they were wide of the mark, and the assumptions he presumably made about the usefulness of his memoirs as a campaign document turned out to be equally unwarranted.
Gorbachev’s record deserves a different and better book than his Memoirs. Let us hope that, with his futile campaign for the Russian presidency over, he will turn his energy to a deeper self-examination than he revealed in the Memoirs. He now can serve his country best if he will drop his defensiveness, restrain his tendency to re-fight the political struggles of his incumbency, and give us an honest and searching analysis not only of what he did right, but where he went wrong and why. After all, he benefitted enormously from Nikita Khrushchev’s failures. In a different book, he could not only give valuable pointers to reform-minded Russian politicians but also might produce a classic as enduring as his mark on Russian history.
December 19, 1996
Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhizn’ i reformy, two volumes (Moscow: Novosti, 1995). ↩
Michail Gorbatschow, Erinnerungen (Berlin: Siedler, 1995). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Gorbachev writes that in this meeting Yeltsin accused him of creating a “cult of personality,” warned against trying to improve the standard of living over the next two to three years, complained that he could not do his work properly because of inexperience and Ligachev’s interference, and asked to be relieved as a candidate member of the Politburo and as first secretary of the Moscow City Party Organization. In fact, Yeltsin did not use the word “cult of personality.” He said that the Party should learn from the mistakes of the past by filling in the “blank spots” of history as Gorbachev had suggested. He also said that some members of the Politburo were given to flattering Gorbachev (implying that they were working against him behind his back). He charged that reforms had as yet hardly progressed beyond talk and warned against promising that perestroika could be carried out in a mere two to three years lest the public be severely disappointed. He complained of Ligachev’s interference in his own work and then offered his resignation from the Politburo, but not from his position as head of the Moscow Party organization. (Izvestiya TsK KPSS, No. 2 (February 1989), pp. 239-241) ↩
This could not be simply a case of forgetfulness on Gorbachev’s part. His own foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyayev, who still works with Gorbachev at his institute and assisted in preparing the Memoirs, recounts in detail my meeting with Gorbachev to pass on Popov’s warning in his Shest’ let s Gorbachevym (Moscow: Kul’tura, 1993), p. 451. ↩
Reagan’s speech of January 16, 1984, proposed an agenda calling for arms reduction, elimination of military competition in third-world countries, protection of human rights, and the end of restraints on human contacts and the flow of information. (It can be found in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, January 23, 1984, pp. 40-45.) These proposals were further elaborated publicly in June 1984, when Reagan spoke of expanding human contacts, and in speeches before the Geneva summit of November 1985. They were discussed privately with then Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Washington in September 1984, with his successor Edward Shevardnadze in September 1985, and in extensive private correspondence after Gorbachev became General Secretary in March 1985. ↩
A recent example of unfounded suspicion parading as scholarship can be found in Chapter One of Amy Knight’s Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB’s Successors (Princeton University Press, 1996), entitled “The KGB and the Myth of the August Coup.” It is ironic that the author, while properly deploring the persistence of old habits in the KGB’s successor organizations, fell for the lies circulated by its previous leaders. In his book, Archie Brown thoroughly refutes the arguments Knight repeats (pp. 208-209) and points out, in addition, that the most persuasive evidence that Gorbachev could not have been party to the attempted coup is the effect it had on Raisa Gorbacheva, who suffered a nervous collapse and partial paralysis. ↩
The effect turned out to be the opposite of the one intended, since it was during Gorbachev’s dalliance with the “right” that he put in power or enhanced the power of those who subsequently tried to overthrow him. ↩