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6 September 2022

From the NS archive: Rising star of the Kremlin

14 December 1984: Mikhail Gorbachev, heir apparent to the then Soviet general secretary Konstantin Chernenko, paid a visit to London.

By Stephen Cohen

By December 1984 Mikhail Gorbachev had emerged as a likely heir to the then Soviet general secretary Konstantin Chernenko. In advance of Gorbachev’s visit to London later that month, Stephen Cohen, then a professor of politics at Princeton University, writes about the future that lay ahead. The British government was clearly interested in the future leader of the USSR. Gorbachev stood out: with two degrees, he was the best educated member in the Soviet leadership since the 1920s, and, compared with the typical “snail-like ascent” through the bureaucracy, his rise had been rapid. Gorbachev was keen on reforming policies that had led to a stagnant economy. But were he to take power, he would be faced with the complicated bureaucracy of the Politburo. “Because of the extreme aging of the governing elite during Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, conflict is playing a far greater role in Soviet politics today than ever before,” Cohen writes. But “none of this means that another era of reform from above, as occurred under Khrushchev, is impossible”.


Frustrated by two decades of conservative rule, and by almost a decade of aged and infirm leadership at the top, reform-minded Soviet officials are now, as reports from Moscow put it, “waiting for Gorbachev” – Mikhail Gorbachev, who at 53 years old is the current heir apparent to Konstantin Chernenko and twenty years his junior.

Rarely, if ever, have Soviet reformers put their hopes so squarely on one contender in a succession struggle that still lies ahead, and in which they will play no direct role. They have done so out of two widely held convictions.

First, reformers believe that the only solution to the country’s economic problems is fundamental change toward decentralised management, more incentives for industrial workers and a larger role for private enterprise and other market factors in agriculture and in consumer services. Second, they are now convinced that such reforms are politically impossible until the reigning generation of Soviet leaders, enfeebled men in their seventies who began their careers under Stalin, are replaced by a vigorous post-Stalin generation that is less tied to the past, better educated, and thus more component to govern in the 1980s.

Equating generational change with policy change, reformers are counting on Gorbachev, even though the extent of his innovative views remains concealed behind the outward conformity of “collective” leadership. In various public and private ways, Gorbachev has indicated a preference for several of their proposals. According to reports, he has even privately expressed interest in Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which “marketised” the entire Soviet economy of the 1920s. Changes of that kind, introduced in Eastern Europe since the 1950s and now underway on a massive scale in China, are the real goal of many Soviet reformers.

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But it is Gorbachev’s unusual political career that really captivates reformers. With degrees in both law and agronomy, he is, at least formally, the best educated member of the Soviet leadership since the 1920s. More important, his rapid rise to the top has been spectacular in a system where snail-like ascents through the bureaucracy are now the custom and where able 60-year-old officials languish in subordinate posts.

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Until 1978, when he was suddenly brought to Moscow to be a national secretary in charge of agriculture, Gorbachev was an obscure party boss in his native province of Stavropol. Within two years, he had become, at 49, the youngest full member of a Politburo whose median membership age was over 70. His range of top-level duties continued to expand during the last years of Leonid Brezhnev and the short tenure of Yuri Andropov, even though responsibility for the chronically ill farm sector had been the ruin of other rising politicians.

Andropov’s death, in February, left a leadership composed almost equally of the Stalinist and post-Stalin generations. The emergence of the septuagenarian Chernenko as the new General Secretary clearly involved a generational compromise making Gorbachev the second ranking member of the Secretariat. Full membership on both the Politburo and the Secretariat has always been a prerequisite for becoming General Secretary. Since only one other oligarch, 61-year-old Grigory Romanov, currently has that qualification, Gorbachev is in a strong position to become the next Soviet leader.

[See also: Mikhail Gorbachev: “It is totally wrong for one leader to be in place for 25 years”]

But the risks inherent in the position are almost equal to its powers. Number Two Soviet leaders have fared less well than have American vice-presidents. Neither Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, nor Andropov ever occupied that position. And though Brezhnev became Khrushchev’s heir apparent, he succeeded only because others had fallen by the way and because he supported Khrushchev’s overthrow.

Not surprisingly, Gorbachev is already the target of rival pretenders and powerful groups with different policy interests. His opponents managed, for example, to downplay his pivotal role at the Central Committee meeting that selected Chernenko. And he did not even address the Central Committee plenum on agriculture in October, which endorsed policies unlike his own. Anti-Gorbachev forces, it seems, are rallying behind Romanov, a more conventional, hardline politician with strong ties to the military-defence industry lobby, and who is widely disliked by reformers.

Even if a reform-minded Gorbachev does one day emerge as General Secretary, he will not automatically have the power to carry out real economic changes against conservative opposition dug in throughout the system. Unlike American presidents, every General Secretary has needed at least five years just to consolidate power and to build personal authority. And no Soviet leader since Stalin has ever been able to impose his personal policies on the Politburo, which has grown into an executive council representing a variety of vested interests, nor on the recalcitrant administrative bureaucracy that must implement any policy changes.

Nor will Gorbachev actually have the full support of his generation. Because of the extreme aging of the governing elite during Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, generational conflict is playing a far greater role in Soviet politics today than ever before. But there is no united political generation, in the Soviet Union or elsewhere. Generations may rise to power, but once there, they are always divided by conflicting ambitions, values and perspectives on the status quo.

The post-Stalin generation, which actually found a patron in the much older Andropov, will be no exception, only more vigorous. A recent Western study found, for example, that Gorbachev’s contemporaries at the level of provincial party secretaries, from whom will come the next ruling elite, are “polarised” between those who are complacent and those who are impatient with existing policy – that is, between conservatives and reformers.

None of this means that another era of reform from above, as occurred under Khrushchev, is impossible. Only that the solution does not lie in generational change alone, and that like the chimerical saviour in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, change may not come.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: Could the far right win in Sweden? With Dominic Hinde]

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