Observations of an expat: Gorby’s object lesson

Mikhail Gorbachev is an object lesson in the dangers inherent in moving a corrupt, highly-centralised autocratic government in which the individual is a servant of the party and state to a fairer and more open society in which the state is the servant of the people.

That is not to detract from Gorbachev’s greatness. His policies of perestroika and glasnost helped to bring an end to the Cold War. But it also opened the door to the rise of dangerous Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev did not set out to topple the Soviet empire. He was a true believer who was convinced that communism was the path to political nirvana. His mentor was Mikhail Suslov whose primary role was to keep the Politburo on the ideological straight and narrow.

The problem was that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was not communist. It was a planned economy with the financial levers in the hands of the Party. But even more so, it was a corrupt, oppressive geriatric oligarchy with a rapidly failing economy that was unable to support its military establishment and political control of Eastern Europe.

The “Era of Stagnation” – As Gorbachev dubbed it – started in the mid-1970s under Leonid Brezhnev with a clampdown on human rights and emphasis on heavy industry and the military establishment. Soviet consumers were ignored. Between 1975-1985 the Soviet economy grew at a miserly average rate of 1.8 percent a year. The income of Soviet man dropped. Bribery, long queues and shortages were endemic. The state-controlled media and statistical bureau reported the exact opposite. Everyone knew they lied.

The exception to this economic plunge was the Party faithful. They were allowed to buy Western consumer goods in special hard currency shops and the Politburo were chauffeured from office luxurious dacha in Zil limousines.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982 there was a power struggle between the reformist wing led by Yuri Andropov and the old guard led by Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov won and then died 15 months later. Chernenko succeeded him only to die after just 13 months in the top job. The hierarchy swung back to the reformist wing and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev immediately announced that he wanted to improve living standards and political freedoms and was prepared to cut non-productive military expenditure to achieve those aims. His policies were summed up by the terms perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political and social openness). The economy was decentralised, incentive schemes were introduced for workers and managers and state subsidies reduced along with Soviet aid to satellite countries. Nuclear arsenals were reduced and Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan.

Reduced subsidies in Eastern Europe were accompanied by increased freedoms—political and economic– in the hope that increased productivity would replace the need for handouts. But it only created a taste for more. Gorbachev was easing the lid off the pressure cooker which his predecessors had kept tightly bolted in place. The boiling discontent it had contained very quickly blew it off.

In April 1989 the border between Hungary and Austria was opened and 50,000 East Germans drove across it on the way to West Germany. The iconic Berlin Wall had become redundant and on 9 November 1989 it came toppling down. Over the next two years the wall was followed by one communist government after another, culminating in the formal end of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991.

As well as being an object lesson on how not to democratise a dictatorship, the collapse of the Soviet Union was an instruction in the law of unintended consequences. For decades the West beavered away at undermining the Soviet Union. Understandably so. Moscow made it clear that the Cold War was a them or us, win or lose, situation. The West won. The former Soviet satellites secured their independence and most of them moved into the Western camp.

The Russian rump (which is still the biggest country in the world) crumpled into chaos. In an attempt to rescue the economy, Gorbachev’s successor Boris Yeltsin, sold off Russia’s vast natural resources at bargain basement prices to an unholy coalition of ex-KGB men and organised crime. What emerged from the political vacuum was a Western nightmare of a kleptocracy fuelled by anti-Western ultra-nationalism which mirrors the rise of Nazi Germany from the ashes of World War I.

Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, is revered in the West for his part in ending the Cold War and reviled in the East for losing it. The poster boy of a resurgent Russia, Vladimir Putin, has refused to attend his funeral.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • David Warren 3rd Sep '22 - 10:41am

    A really insightful article Tom.

    I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen once the whole thing started to unravel in 1989. George Bush snr was quoted as saying that he thought the collapse of the Stalinist regimes would stop at the Soviet border. The failed internal coup against Gorbachev was a key event (not least because it was the first day I noticed I was going bald) after that the old guard were finished.

    Yeltsin and Indeed Gorbachev were not ideologically Communists they were products of a system. The 1917 revolution was much to far back to have influenced their generation. If you wanted to get involved in politics in the Eastern bloc you joined the ruling party i.e. the CP. In Czechoslovakia the party’s theoroticians included Vaclav Klaus who later became a conservative!

    Gorbachev knew that the Soviet system couldn’t survive and he was astute enough to realise that reform was needed. As so often in history when a despotic regime embarks on that course events take over. I hope to see a truly democratic Russia in my lifetime but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Sep '22 - 2:25pm

    Actually mainstream Trotskyism did predict the sudden collapse part, the argument was that unlike Capitalism with its mass of linked but separate Elites, in constant competition with each other The Soviet Empire had a single source of Authority. Once Gorbachev let go there was nothing else to take over. Everything depended on Belief of one sort or another, either that The Party knew best or that you would be shot if you made a noise. Once enough people realised that they weren’t alone in not believing that was it.

    Of course The Trotskyites didn’t predict that the crowds would demand Capitalism & Western style Democracy but they got half the equation Right.

  • Gorbachev was an important voice in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, perhaps the most important. In his 2007 Albert H. Gordon Lecture he called for the Elimination of All Nuclear Weapons Gorbachev Calls for the Elimination of All Nuclear Weapons
    “As we watch the world today, we see profound civilizational changes. We… are already living in a global world. We have found international politics not yet ready for this global world. We don’t know yet, whether dialogue or conflict will prevail in interactions between civilizations.”
    “In nuclear policy, we are seeing a re-militarization of thinking. Today, nuclear states are basing policies on the continuance of nuclear weapons. You can’t get rid of nuclear weapons overnight, but we should be working in that direction. We should persuade policy makers that this is the way to go.”

  • Richard Church 4th Sep '22 - 3:05pm

    “an object lesson on how not to democratise a dictatorship”. So how do you democratise a dictatorship? Other countries have only succeeded where they have done it on the back of growing prosperity (eg Spain), an option not available to Russia in the 1980’s.

  • How do you democratise a dictatorship? No easy answer but I think lots and lots of money from interested outside sources would probably help. The US State Department suggested to the first Bush (George H.) that the US launch a second Marshall Plan but only for Russia and its satellites. He rejected the idea because Congress would block it. If they had proposed a joint EU-US plan that might have made it. Could be a thought for the future.

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