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1 September 2022

Gorbachev’s magnificent failure

The last Soviet leader, who died this week, accelerated the decline of the Soviet Union – but did so by trying to achieve socialism in a more liberal way.

By John Lloyd

I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev in 1998, seven years after his fall from the presidency of the Soviet Union – for a 24-part series commissioned by Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, and directed by Jeremy Isaacs, the first chief executive of Channel 4. It was an ambitious attempt to map the beginning, long middle and swift end of a global stand-off which had defined, for the first time, the world into two hostile blocs. Each had its master – the Soviet Union leading for communism, the US for democracy – each had its long tail of allies, each fished among the neutrals in mainly “developing” countries, each had leaders who inherited the great enmity, some with reluctance, others with relish.

By 1998, Gorbachev was, as many had found, not an easy subject to interview: because my Russian had decayed a bit since I had ended a four-year tour as the FT’s Moscow bureau chief more than two years earlier, I struggled to interrupt the flows. He was known to be garrulous, and his answers were rarely compact, nor did they stick to the subject posed by the question. He was most animated when asked to talk of Ronald Reagan, whose US presidency ran from 1981 to 1989 and who was credited with ending the Cold War in partnership with Gorbachev (general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union then its president, from 1985-91). I had expected some warmth from the Russian to the American. But instead he shook his head and said how tedious the latter was, how he kept bringing out a Russian proverb he had been taught – “doveryai, no proveryai”: “trust, but verify”, repeating it each time they met. “It was terrible, terrible, to have to agree and smile to this,” he said.

For the latter part of his relationship with Reagan, Gorbachev was increasingly desperate to get an agreement with the West to decelerate the arms race, on which the USSR was spending around 15 per cent of its GDP on defence. That expenditure was squeezing the country’s little-regarded consumer industries and perpetuating the low quality and scarcity of food, clothing and household goods that he was equally desperate to improve. In doing so, Gorbachev would be able to show the success both of his industrial restructuring and very partial privatisation (perestroika), and of his much more successful openness in culture, speech and media (glasnost). His irritation with Reagan stemmed, I later thought, from this anxiety to get a distrustful West fully on his side, agree to lower defence spending, and later to provide substantial financial backing to have his programme succeed. 

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

In that meeting, the first of any substance I had had, I noted the famous charm of the man, his Bill Clinton-like jovial ease with everyone in the half-dozen TV team around him, wholly unlike the stiffness of most of the Russian high officials I had encountered earlier. Though practised, it was not copied from Western politicians accustomed to a democratic homeliness (which can be forced), whom he had met in his several trips abroad before gaining the supreme post. It was a natural habit of life, a refusal to act the grandee.

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Gorbachev was remarkable in this: he judged events and people not so much by deploying the grim calculus of their use or danger to a party-state system of enforced equality, but by humane, even liberal or social democratic standards. He could not, of course, have risen so far and so fast – in the Politburo by his early fifties – by ignoring the demands of the party-state. But even as a young first secretary, from the Stavropol region of south-western Russia, he was exploring new friendships – with Eduard Shevardnadze, the first secretary in Georgia, later his foreign minister; and with Alexander Yakovlev, whom he brought back from the USSR’s Canadian embassy (an exile earned by being too ardent a supporter for loosening state discipline in the Brezhnev era) to oversee the media and propaganda in the new glasnost way of achieving socialism. They too saw the need for greater personal and civic freedoms: however, in his friendship with the Czech communist official Zdeněk Mlynář, a bold reformer punished – less comfortably than Yakovlev – for his fervour for change, Gorbachev saw the dangers of haste: those not brought along could round on the reformers and squash their plans. Yet he too fell to hurrying and cutting out the doubters.

He did, of course, wish to achieve socialism, which he thought for much of his career to be both the most moral political system, and (as Marx had claimed) the one that the movement of the world’s nations and the rapid development of technologies decreed. This was to be the last great global civilisation, the real end of history, in which the working class and those who allied with them would rule. It was what he argued in his lengthy sessions with Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister at the time, and what he continued to try to defend against the, ultimately fatal, attacks on him by the Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin, whose embrace of market economies, civic freedoms and disdain for the Communist Party, if opportunistic, nevertheless cut the already shaking ground beneath the Soviet leader’s feet.

Watching this with close interest were the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party – uneasy allies, made more so by their growing fear of, and contempt for, the “adventurism” of their Soviet comrade. His failure underscored their growing determination to eschew any such “democratising”, giving rise to the largest and still relatively economically successful fusion of authoritarian, even despotic communism overseeing a successful, carefully monitored capitalism.

Could Gorbachev have done the same? The early and heady success of glasnost, his own relative liberalism (not without recourse to some repressions, minor by past practice, of uprisings in Lithuania and Georgia), made a return to tight central party control hard – the more so, since he had so demoralised the party, whose leading malcontents tried, chaotically and latterly drunkenly, to remove him. He thus passed into an active, talkative, retirement, lauded abroad and excoriated at home for the poverty he was blamed for unloosing and the collapse of the Soviet empire, which he certainly accelerated. His greatness, real enough, lies in what he meant to achieve: Vladimir Putin, after the rackety, free but ruthlessly capitalist years of President Yeltsin (1991-99), both blames him for making the Ukrainians believe they had an independent state, and is determined to reassemble as much of the old USSR into a renewed Russian empire. For this, Gorbachev must bear some responsibility: yet for democrats, his conversion to political, civic and personal freedoms still seems magnificent.

[See also: A new age of global war]

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