Why Gorbachev Was One of the Greatest Failures in History

Photograph Source: RIA Novosti archive, image #28133 / Boris Babanov – CC BY-SA 3.0

Russia would not have become a Communist state without Lenin or ceased to be one without Mikhail Gorbachev. At either end of the 20th century, each man played a decisive role in pushing history in a radically new direction it would not have taken otherwise.

The path chosen by Gorbachev after he became Soviet leader in 1985 was in some respects more surprising than what Lenin had done in 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution was driven by a terrible war, while Gorbachev’s attempt to modernise and re-energise the Soviet Union was a voluntary choice.

A myth has since grown up that the Soviet Union was in a state of collapse when Gorbachev took the helm, but this is not correct. It was politically and economically dead in the water, but it was not falling apart and the Government faced no serious challenge to its authority. It might have continued in this semi-moribund state for decades – like the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century – if its leadership had so wished.

But Gorbachev, who was a genuine democrat, wanted far more than this as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He promoted “glasnost” – limited freedom of expression whereby criticism of failings would propel reform. There was also to be “perestroika” – radical restructuring of an unstated kind to improve almost everything, though the mechanics of this were always vague.

What Gorbachev did not foresee was that you could not transform a party that was run and organised like an army – justifying its monopoly of power by its messianic faith in its own ideology – into something resembling a social democratic party, sharing power with others. Between 1985 and 1991, Gorbachev tried to do this, relying on his power as leader of the CPSU to drive forward change. But by diluting its authority, he was effectively sawing through the branch on which he and the reformers were sitting.

I was in Moscow as a foreign correspondent between 1984 and 1987, but I certainly did not take on board the revolutionary outcome of what Gorbachev was doing. The ailing and mostly invisible Konstantin Chernenko was Soviet leader when I arrived and the promotion of Gorbachev as his successor on his death was a great relief. Soon, there were interesting speeches, articles, interviews to read, rather than tedious outpouring of official blather. Moscow became an extraordinarily interesting place to live and work, leading to a procession of world leaders heading for the Kremlin to be told about “the new thinking”.

There were many others at the time who said that what Gorbachev was saying about “perestroika” and “glasnost” was all a put-up job by the KGB to give the Soviet Union a better image. Journalists and diplomats in Moscow who took all this seriously were denounced as credulous suckers. Sceptics soon fell into an embarrassed silence as it became clear that Gorbachev meant what he said. But the doubters did have a point that, if Gorbachev was genuine about real political, social and economic change, then the system would not be able to take the strain without cracking up.

Gorbachev wanted less resources allocated to the Soviet armed forces and they no longer received the undiluted patriotic plaudits they were used to. When a light plane penetrated Soviet air defences unnoticed and landed in Red Square, the incident was an excuse to change the military leadership. But very large armed forces were needed to hold onto eastern and central Europe which had been conquered by Soviet armies in the Second World War. Only the threat of the massive use of armed force could sustain this imperial control and, as soon as Gorbachev made clear in 1989 that he was not prepared to use it, Soviet rule collapsed in ruins.

Much is being made in the immediate aftermath of Gorbachev’s death about how well he got on with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This is perhaps less surprising than it looks, since he was essentially ceding victory to them in the Cold War and telling them what they wanted to hear. The mood music was good, but how realistic it was was another matter. I went with Gorbachev to Iceland for the Reykjavik summit with Reagan in 1986 and it was difficult not to feel relieved as they talked of abolishing nuclear weapons – ambitions swiftly curtailed in the aftermath of the meeting.

Perhaps the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ousting of Gorbachev should not have taken us by surprise as much as it did. When an army begins to dissolve – and the CPSU was structured like a political army – it dissolves very quickly. Gorbachev was its commander and when it lost power, so did he.

What should have been clearer early on was that there was nothing much to replace the old regime. Boris Yeltsin presided over predatory anarchy in which mass theft of state assets produced a land of gangsters and oligarchs – and the two were often the same people. When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, he brought order to this system and restored the power of the state, but little else improved.

Gorbachev was a very decent man who did his best for his people, yet going by his hopes and ambitions in 1985, he was one of the great failures of history.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).