“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (William Shakespeare)
Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing away on 30th August has compelled observers around the world to assess his place in history. For three decades, he has cut a tragic figure, ignored and vilified, mocked and sneered at by his own people and country. The reality is far more complex, and can be appreciated only if one has an understanding of the state of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985.
I was privileged to be a witness, with a ringside view, to the Gorbachev era – first as Political Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, and then as the Head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991. During this time, I had occasion to meet him, study him, analyze his policies, including as the interpreter from the Indian side for the talks that Gorbachev held with Indian leaders during his visit to India in 1986.
Returning to Moscow in July 1984, exactly nine years after I’d left the country at the end of my first posting to the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1975, I found that the country had not changed at all in the intervening period, except that the ailing and geriatric Leonid Brezhnev had passed away in 1982, as had his successor Yuri Andropov in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was the new leader, but he was also on his last legs. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Chernenko visited the Indian Embassy to sign the condolence book. At the request of the Soviet side, the book was kept in the entrance at the ground floor of the Indian Ambassador’s residence so that Chernenko would not have to climb the steps to the reception room on the first floor. Even then, Chernenko had to be physically hauled up the two small steps at the threshold of the Ambassador’s residence!
To me, that symbolized the state of the Soviet Union in 1985, when Chernenko died and Gorbachev took over. The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. In the local markets, fresh fruits and vegetables and decent quality meat was a rarity (I once had to barter a bottle of Scotch whisky for a leg of lamb!). Rumours of availability of basmati rice, fresh bananas or watermelons in local markets were enough to prompt people to set aside their work and rush to grab them before they vanished. Although I never had such a first-hand experience, veteran diplomats who had served in Moscow in the sixties said that it was considered acceptable behaviour for guests attending National Day celebrations organized by Embassies to pocket oranges and apples from the buffet table, since that was the only way to get them! The best memories that Soviet officials travelling to India on official trips came back with were of enjoying fresh tomatoes and cucumbers! For visitors from India, especially if they were vegetarian, a meal at an Indian home was like dining in a Michelin star restaurant where they could actually eat fresh vegetables that used to be transported for Embassy personnel once a month at subsidized rates by Air India flights.
You might have to spend a whole day wandering across town looking for a can opener, and in the process come across the strange sight of people walking with a garland of toilet paper rolls that they had managed to buy – not just for themselves, but for family and friends too. Russians always had a sturdy string bag in their overcoat pockets just in case they came across something worthwhile to buy. On seeing a queue, people instinctively joined it since it was assumed that it had to be for something worthwhile; securing a place in the queue was more urgent than finding out what was on sale! For an inexperienced foreigner, trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, what with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind! Workers in state and collective farms could not keep anything for their own consumption; everything had to be sent to a regional collection point, to which farmers had to drive in their vehicles or buses to visit towns or villages to buy milk, meat and eggs produced in their farms!
Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.
As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Factories turned out shoddy goods, which is why wary consumers always took care to check the date when an item had been manufactured, since it was a common belief that goods produced towards the end of a month were inferior quality products that were churned out in a hurry to meet the monthly production targets. Not that there was any reliability about statistics – as was later admitted, these were all cooked up. For most people, life meandered on aimlessly. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy). The three decades of Stalin’s rule had deadened Soviet society and polity, and deeply affected the psyche of the people. So secretive and tightly controlled was the system that the outside world only had an inkling of how hollow and brittle the system had become.
The system was crying out for a radical change – in fact, it had been doing so for the previous three decades after the death of Stalin, and the problems had only aggravated with time. Khrushchev did try to eradicate Stalinism. His “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 was seen as a landmark event, but Khrushchev ultimately failed to bring about any change. Kosygin (in the second half of the sixties) and Andropov (during his brief tenure between 1982 and 1984) also tried to institute economic reforms, again to no avail. On Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU by a very narrow margin. As a young man influenced by the “thaw” created by Khrushchev in the mid fifties, and as a protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev clearly had the conviction and the determination to reform the Soviet Union, as well as a sound assessment of the reasons for the failure of earlier reform efforts. Now, with a mandate and opportunity to change things, he was imbued with a sense of mission. There was no time to lose. As he put it, “If not now, when? If not we, who?”
Subsequent pillorying of Gorbachev as being politically naïve does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how he managed to climb up to the very top of the greasy pole of Soviet politics at such a young age. It also ignores his ruthless sidelining of opponents and his steady accumulation of power in his early years in office. Both by background and conviction, Gorbachev was cut from a different mould than his predecessors. Unlike them, he was well educated, that too at the prestigious and premier Moscow State University. In addition, in Raisa he had a spouse who was smart, educated and intellectually aware. Unlike the spouses of his predecessors and much to the annoyance of traditionalists both in the party and society, she was not content to live life in anonymity and is thought to have played an important role in shaping his policies.
From his very first days in office, Gorbachev showed a decisive and vigorous style of leadership, oozing determination and confidence, impatience and urgency. He was open and accessible, mingled freely with ordinary citizens in the streets, encouraged popular criticism, and eschewed any personality cult. When one met him in person, he radiated warmth and sincerity. His initial goal was to reform socialism, not destroy it; to make the Party a more effective instrument of governance, and not sideline it. Thus his slogan in the early days was merely “uskorenie” or acceleration. He called for “new thinking” for an interdependent world in the nuclear age, dreamt of the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home,” brought about a thaw in relations with China, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, gave a new dynamism to relations with India, worked for bold and courageous cuts in nuclear and conventional weapons and, in the Delhi Declaration signed with India in November 1986, breathtakingly endorsed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world. The tight grip over the East European countries was loosened, and support to Marxist regimes around the world on ideological grounds was given up. Although discerning diplomats and journalists could see the far-reaching logical and ultimate consequences of Gorbachev’s foreign policy pronouncements, no one really expected, at least in the early years of Gorbachev, that Soviet troops would be actually removed from the Warsaw Pact countries.
Was Gorbachev merely a dreamer, an idealist imbued with the ideas of truth, morality and humanism? As subsequent events showed, he did have some of these qualities, when he refused to send troops to quell uprisings in different parts of the Soviet Union and in the East European satellite states. But Gorbachev was also a realist. His outreach to the West was a compulsion, born out of the recognition that, saddled with a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union did not have the wherewithal to compete with the West, with which he foresaw a period of intense competition, aggravated by US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). As a satiated territorial power, Gorbachev needed peace with the West, and did not want to fritter away energy and resources to export of revolution. To many of us living in the Soviet Union at that time, it was evident as early as in 1985 that Gorbachev’s coming into power would be a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. Even cynical and skeptical observers were compelled to revisit old stereotypes and assumptions about the Soviet Union.
After having got a mandate from the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, and having consolidated his political authority in the Politburo, Gorbachev shifted gears from merely “uskorenie” or acceleration to a wider “perestroika” or comprehensive restructuring of all aspects of political, economic, social and intellectual life. In order to overcome the entrenched vested interests of the party elite who were bent on sabotaging Gorbachev’s policies, Gorbachev tried to enthuse ordinary people to support his perestroika. He exhorted people to believe and feel that they were the ‘owners’ of the country. His was a nutcracker approach: cleanse the top ranks of the leadership, and then use the people to exert pressure on the party and bureaucracy from below. In the early months, there was indeed considerable enthusiasm and optimism among at least a section of the elite in the cities. The cultural renaissance, criticism of past leaders’ policies, removal of ‘blank spots’ in history, release of dissidents, reopening and restoration of churches and monasteries, easier travel abroad, emigration of Jews, access to foreign broadcasts, articles in the press exposing misdemeanours of officials – all this released considerable pent-up frustration. 1986 and 1987 were years of heady optimism, mingled with anxious hope that this was not just a dream.
Gorbachev’s strategy didn’t quite pan out the way he had intended. None of this ferment percolated down to the small towns and villages. The bulk of the people were passive and could not get out of their ingrained habit of receiving orders from above. They were uneasy at having responsibility thrust upon them, and their decades-long bitter experience of life in a Stalinist environment prompted them to be naturally cautious and circumspect, even fearful. The bureaucracy was sullen and hostile, at best fence sitters. In any case, they did not know how to work in a more open and liberal environment. One instance that typifies this problem comes to mind. Thanks to Ambassador TN Kaul’s initiative, an agreement was reached to open an Indian restaurant as a joint venture in Moscow. The opening of a foreign restaurant in Moscow was a pioneering and path-breaking development. But the nitty-gritty of opening was infuriatingly frustrating. The Russian General Manager and his Indian deputy took a long time to arrive at a compromise on whether the doors of the restaurant should be kept open or closed. The Indians wanted open doors, whereas the Soviets (in keeping with the prevalent practice that doors to restaurants were kept shut and it usually required a bribe of a rouble or two to persuade the doorman to let in customers!) wanted the doors to be kept shut and a doorman appointed to regulate access to the restaurant. The compromise reached was that the doors would be kept open, but there would be a doorman to keep an eye on who was coming in. A couple of days after the opening of the restaurant, a diner hailed the Indian Deputy Manager with a complaint that his soup was cold. As he went to the kitchen to investigate, he found that there was a babushka(old lady), seated at the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen, weighing the portions of soup and other food items before they were sent to the dining room. Aghast, the Deputy Manager asked why this was being done. The babushka said that she was simply following rules: the prescribed quantity of each soup serving was 300 ml. and she was just making sure that no one got more or less soup! It took considerable effort by the Deputy Manager to persuade the kitchen staff and the supervising babushka that two ladles of hot soup were preferable to an exact 300 ml. of cold soup!
By 1988, perestroika had begun to sputter, and within a year the situation had become critical. There was a flux in all spheres of life. Old systems had been dismantled but new ones hadn’t been set up. The most worrying aspect was the state of the economy because, far from bringing a change for the better, perestroika had worsened the day-to-day life of people. Ethnic and separatist problems began to surface. Gorbachev’s popularity and credibility sharply declined. He was widely blamed and intensely hated for crating the mess in which the country found itself. As it was impossible to turn back the clock, Gorbachev decided to press ahead even harder with radical changes. He got himself elected as President, though not through direct elections. While that gave him more legal powers, it did not give him greater political legitimacy. There were now many independent centers of power – the party, the republics, the army, the KGB, the miners, workers and farmers. Ethnic and regional nationalism, as well as separatism, surfaced menacingly throughout the country.
Soon, the Soviet Union was like a runaway train, hurtling towards a crash. Gorbachev had opened too many fronts simultaneously, and was unable to control the course of events. The Communist Party was made to give up its leading role, but it was forgotten that it was not just a political organization but also the administrative organ of the State that held it together. The old system had been dismantled, but there wasn’t a new one to replace it. Laws to regulate property rights were not in place. No one in authority had any experience in managing a market economy. Nor did ordinary people understand what it meant. By the second half of 1990, as republics, regions, towns and districts declared their “sovereignty” there were serious widespread doubts in the minds of observers and even Gorbachev himself whether the Soviet Union could survive. A referendum in March followed by an agreement reached in April 1991 between nine of the fifteen Republics to have a new treaty that would restructure the Soviet Union as a loose federation or confederation of sovereign states with a weak Centre was a last-ditch effort to avert a looming train wreck. However, the August 1991 failed putsch against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s grab for power torpedoed this possibility. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as President of the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev era was over.
Was Gorbachev a failure? In his later years in power, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years later when he received less than one percent popular support for a failed Presidential bid, he was scorned and hated by the people at large. It was not just because the Soviet Union had been broken up, and day-to-day survival had become an ordeal for ordinary people. The sense of despondency and despair deepened during the tumultuous decade of the 1990. Gorbachev slid into irrelevant anonymity as a drunken and dysfunctional Yeltsin did nothing to set things right, the West and local oligarchs looted Russia; and NATO steadily spread eastwards. Yet it is noteworthy that he was given, albeit grudgingly, a modicum of respect by the establishment when he passed away, and many ordinary citizens, as well as former Russian President Medvedev and Hungarian Prime Minister Oban, attended his funeral.
Gorbachev was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Like him or hate him, he cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is wide consensual acknowledgment of his enormous global contributions – a peaceful end to the Cold War, reduced risk of use of nuclear weapons, freedom to Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and the reunification of Germany without bloodshed. Just for that, he deserves a grateful salute. Outside Europe, Gorbachev’s policies have shaped, for the better, the development path that China and India have taken over the last three decades. The Chinese leaders drew their lessons from Gorbachev’s failed perestroika and took a reform path that was intended to avoid the pitfalls of Gorbachev’s strategy. India was forced to open up its economy and diversify its foreign relations, which is why India today is a more self-confident country with global influence. Ideological regimes across the world that had been propped up by the erstwhile Soviet Union have collapsed. As far as his ideology goes, Gorbachev continued to believe in socialism, but a “humane socialism.” Even if the socialist and communist experiments around the world have left much to be desired, the idea of socialism remains firmly entrenched among hundreds of millions around the globe, especially as it is glaringly evident that capitalism has been unable to ensure either sustainable or inclusive growth, has caused irreversible damage to the environment, and accelerated climate change. Gorbachev’s call for “new thinking” remains painfully relevant.
For Russians, the touchstone of Gorbachev’s legacy is the transformation he has brought about in his homeland. Was he responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union? He certainly set in motion policies and processes that led to the breakup, but the Soviet Union could have survived as a confederation were it not for the selfish ambitions of the demagogic Yeltsin who stoked Russian chauvinism, and the inherently artificial and semi-colonial structure of the former Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Central Asian republics, heavily dependent on Russia, did not want the breakup of the Soviet Union; it was Russia that spurned them in the mistaken belief that they would become a burden on Russia. Gorbachev also made mistakes – there was too much breast-beating and self-flagellation about the crimes of Stalin and other preceding Soviet leaders. He did not realize that sovereign states have an obligation to engender a positive national narrative, and do not admit their mistakes. He was naïve in trusting the West, and failed to secure ironclad guarantees about the future direction of a united Germany and the Soviet Union’s erstwhile satellite states in East Europe. It was humiliating for a proud and patriotic people to stomach the betrayal of their toil and sacrifices to build up their country and the squandering of the gains of a hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany.
Was perestroika a failure? Certainly, from an economic perspective, perestroika failed. Should it have been even tried? There was a strong feeling among the leadership, though not a complete consensus, that there was an urgent need to change the way the Soviet Union was functioning; otherwise, Gorbachev would not have been elected as the General Secretary. He could well have taken a safe line and done nothing, but the danger was that the Soviet Union was likely to have become a giant, and more dangerous, version of North Korea. Could Gorbachev have gone about perestroika differently? Could he not have followed the Chinese reform strategy? Not really – for many reasons. Apart from the fact that the Chinese had the benefit of learning from Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia was saddled with far more baggage than China. While China had the advantage of having a tradition of entrepreneurship that had survived the three decades of Mao’s rule, Russia had been catapulted from a feudal society to a completely new and untested form of governance, communism, whose prolonged life over seven decades of Stalinist rule had snuffed out all spirit or knowledge of entrepreneurship. Unlike Russia, China also benefited from having Hong Kong as a crutch and a teacher, as well as a large and prosperous Chinese diaspora. Since earlier incremental reform efforts had got bogged down and ended in failure, Gorbachev felt that a more radical, even if riskier, approach was called for. In pursuing this line, the deeper he dug, more and more unanticipated problems surfaced, and soon Gorbachev found that he had opened a can of worms.
As I see it, Gorbachev’s biggest and lasting achievement is the eradication of the cancer of Stalinism in Russia. He definitively and irreversibly destroyed the old centralized, inefficient and corrupt authoritarian system of governance based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Equally importantly, he radically transformed the psyche and liberated the minds of his people. His domestic critics would do well to reflect on the irony that they got the right and courage to speak out only thanks to Gorbachev! By bringing down a crumbling, hollowed out edifice, Gorbachev created the precondition for a rejuvenated Russia. It is unrealistic to expect that he should also have managed to clear the rubble and erect a new structure. Those who destroy are not destined to create as well; that is a task left for new leaders and generations with different skills. To those who may regard this as an unduly apologetic and charitable perspective, it is worth pointing out that the suffering and trauma that millions of Indians experienced as a result of the Partition of India does not take away from the achievement of Independence from British rule. Many might even regard the Partition, perhaps justifiably, as a blessing in disguise.
Although three decades have passed since the end of the Gorbachev era, it is still too early to pass a definitive judgment on Gorbachev. As long as Putin, the handpicked successor of Gorbachev’s arch-rival Yeltsin, remains in power, it would be difficult for the Russian establishment to make or even permit an objective assessment of Gorbachev. In the decades to come, history is likely to judge Gorbachev more kindly. Russia is once again at a turning point. Russia’s break with the West is likely to be a definitive one for at least a generation or two. Russia appears to have finally given up its centuries-old effort to gain acceptance as a “European” country, and is now focussing on forging an independent Eurasian identity. It will have to rely more on its indigenous talent and resources and build cooperative relations with countries that constitute the Rest rather than the West. The conflict in Ukraine is for Russia an existential battle for survival. It is a war that Russia cannot afford to lose. Its outcome will shape the future of both Russia and the West. Should Russia be confronted with the admittedly remote possibility of losing, then, sadly, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Putin’s Russia will not go down without taking the West down with it. On the other hand, if Russia were to prevail, it would be only because, thanks to the flywheel that Gorbachev set in motion, Russia is a stronger, more confident nation than the old Soviet Union could ever have become. Either way, Gorbachev would be smiling in his grave, whether ruefully or happily!
Views expressed are personal