2 March 2021
By Andrei Kovalev. Andrei Kovalev worked for many years at the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as a member of the secretariat of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Russia has almost always been unlucky with its rulers. That is because, almost always, those who have been involved in its politics have not been, to put it mildly, the smartest or most decent people, although there have been exceptions. The gap in time between the arrival of the two great reformers – Alexander II (1855-1881) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) – was 130 years.
We must hope that the next reformer to emerge will arrive in less time than that. But it would be even better if the people of Russia, instead of waiting for the arrival of such a reformer, took their rights and freedoms themselves. After all, when rights and freedoms are granted from above, they remain unappreciated. This is the lesson of Russian history. And it is not simply a case of not looking a gift horse in the mouth. It just turns out that no one – or almost no one – actually needs these rights and freedoms. Otherwise Alexander would not have been assassinated, Russia’s citizens would not have rushed into the arms of the new post-perestroika dictatorship, and they would not now be looking for a new ‘messiah.’
Gorbachev was not a messiah and never claimed to be. As Head of State he took on the role of an educator of society. He never wanted to be Supreme Leader. He appears to have drawn lessons from the tragic consequences of his predecessors – from the demoniacal Lenin through the paranoid Stalin, to Brezhnev, the master of political intrigue, and the dangerous Andropov, who either failed to fully establish himself as political leader or fell victim to his own illness (the first assumption seems more convincing).
Gorbachev can be blamed for many things. Mostly for things that were not actually done by him but by the opponents of his reforms – all those Ligachevs, Kriuchkovs, Yazovs and the like. On their conscience are the crimes of Tbilisi, Vilnius, Nagorno-Karabakh and others. It cannot be argued that Gorbachev does not bear his share of responsibility for these events. The captain of a ship is, after all, responsible for everything that happens on board. But it can happen that the crew rebels, led on by senior officers who pretend to be the loyal executors of the captain’s orders – orders that he had never given.
Many hotheads accuse Gorbachev of being indecisive. I beg pardon, but in what way precisely? Was Gorbachev indecisive in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? In embracing disarmament, rapprochement with the West, an end to the Cold War? Was he indecisive in reducing the role of the Central Committee in political decision-making in order to hand over ultimate power in the country to the new, freely elected Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet it elected? Was he indecisive in liberating the Soviet colonies, above all in Eastern and Central Europe?
And finally, was it through indecision that he secured the enactment of laws ensuring fundamental human rights and freedoms? Was it indecisive to release all prisoners of conscience known to the authorities who had been imprisoned on political and religious grounds? And was it just as indecisive to dismantle the system of punitive psychiatry? Was it indecisive to protect the political career of his main opponent, Yeltsin, saying: ‘It is a very good thing that I have an opponent of that calibre’?’ Was it indecisive to voluntarily step down from high office in December 1991?
And now let’s ask ourselves the question: how would events have unfolded if a Stalinist had come to power in March 1985? (After all, that was a very real danger.)
The Soviet regime was doomed to collapse. It could not have been otherwise in a society dominated by a false ideology and empty slogans. Collapse was inevitable given the inherently flawed nature of the Soviet economic system weighed down by the reckless arms race that drained the country of resources and talent, that could in other circumstances have served its prosperity, along with the fatal confrontation with the West in the Cold War on terms set by Stalin and later nurtured and nourished by his successors, the fall in oil prices and many other factors.
Dissatisfaction mounted with the status quo, with the paucity of consumer goods, with the real poverty of the population, and with the individual’s complete dependence on their immediate superior, and on the highest government leaders.
In addition, nonsensical domestic policies aggravated the more than justifiable disaffection on account of ethnic and religious problems, the closed nature of the country, the lack of rights to pray to one’s own gods or to freely leave and return to the country, and the pervasive lies and demagogy of the authorities.
Let’s not forget the tragedies of the perestroika era, such as the Chernobyl disaster and the earthquake in Armenia that brought so much human grief and caused enormous damage to the Soviet economy.
An explosion was inevitable. In these circumstances, Gorbachev and his team had no choice but to act in line with the motto of Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, the knight ‘without fear and beyond reproach’: ‘Do what you must, and what will be will be.’
Gorbachev is often criticised for ‘surrendering the results of the Great Victory’ (and both words are always capitalised). Does this mean the GDR and the other countries of ‘people’s democracy’ had to remain forever a part of the alien Soviet empire because of the will of Stalin and the indifference of Roosevelt and Churchill? That is precisely the logic of Russian imperialists and revanchists.
Gorbachev’s compatriots often blame him for the collapse of the USSR. That is quite ridiculous. Gorbachev did everything possible to preserve the country in a modified form, one similar to the European Union. And it was precisely thanks to his efforts, and despite all the extraordinary risks, that full scale civil war was avoided. It was also thanks to his abdication of power. (Numerous bloody conflicts instigated by the opponents of reform made the signing of a treaty to establish a Union of Sovereign States unrealistic and both caused and hastened the disintegration of the country).
The smooth transformation of the country to a democratic rule-of-law state that was in everyone’s interests, both in the USSR and beyond its borders, was derailed, first by the August 1991 putsch and then by the signing of the Belavezha Accords that exacerbated long-standing problems and created new ones in the post-Soviet region.
Gorbachev was one of only a handful of twentieth-century heads of state who succeeded in radically transforming their countries for the better. In what was, historically speaking, a very brief period of time, he succeeded in turning a totalitarian, aggressive, messianic empire, with a habitually passive population, that was a threat to the whole world, into a normal democratic country with the rule of law, separation of powers and freedom of speech. Albeit not for long, but nevertheless he succeeded.
But the totalitarian system could not accept this. And after various coups d’état, the country began to return to its grim and cheerless past. And Gorbachev, who had placed the fate of the country above his own, simply did not have the time to complete what he had started.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove