As the US looks to push through 1980s-style missile defence shields in Eastern Europe, the last Soviet Cold War leader blamed the downturn in the world economy on increased American military spending. Writing in the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Mikhail Gorbachev said the US has primarily addressed its problems through “threats and pressure” and needed an alternative approach to international action. According to Gorbachev the current talks on North Korea's nuclear disarmament is an example of an alternative, more effective policy, which, he said, Washington finally started “after several years of belligerent rhetoric”.
Gorbachev is certainly someone who deserves to be listened to. His leadership of the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991 not only halved the number of strategic nuclear weapons but also hastened the end of what Eric Hobsbawm called the shorter twentieth century (1914-1991). His was a short but an extraordinarily active regime which tried to transform the USSR economically and socially. His slogans for economic reform ("perestroika") and the end to censorship ("glasnost") became known the world over. What it set in motion spun out of control politically and ended with a Nobel Peace Prize, the destruction of the Warsaw Pact, the defeat of Communism, and its own state disintegrated into 15 constituent republics.
All these events seemed an unlikely prospect when Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985. Gorbachev was then 54 years old. While that might regarded as peak political age in the West, the Soviet Union was a gerontocracy and Gorbachev was one of the youngest members of the ruling Politburo. But what went in his favour was the death of the three previous party secretaries in less than three years, Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982, Yuri Andropov in February 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985. Their deaths left a large vacuum at the top and it was the protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev, who rose to fill it.
Both Andropov and Gorbachev had been promoted to the inner sanctum of the Politburo at the same time in 1980. Both men were natives of the southern city of Stavropol and knew each other well. However the KGB leader was 17 years Gorbachev’s senior and it was he who anointed boss when Brezhnev’s long and undistinguished reign came to an end in 1982. Under Andropov, the younger man shined as the new leader tried to shrug off the lethargy that had dogged the Communist nation through the 1970s and early 80s. But just as Andropov was about to implement drastic changes, he died suddenly of acute renal failure. Konstantin Chernenko, Brezhnev’s backroom fixer, took the reigns and reversed all the previous reforms.
Gorbachev, an ally of the former leader, was on the outer, but remained on the Politburo. He gained fame in the West with two overseas trips in 1984. In June he attended the funeral in Rome of Enrico Berlinguer, the Italian Communist leader. There he told bewildered local Communists looking for direction from Moscow that they were free, independent and “there was no centre”.
Later than year Gorbachev led a Soviet parliamentary delegation to the UK and met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He began by telling Thatcher he admired her values and principles but was of the same ilk. He assured her he was no under instruction to persuade her to join the Communist Party. She burst out laughing and the pair began to strike up a good relationship.
But greatness still lay ahead for Gorbachev as the new year dawned in 1985. Chernenko proved no healthier than Andropov and died in March, aged 74. Gorbachev was quickly appointed his successor despite grumblings from Politburo member and Council of Ministers chair Nikolai Tikhonov, who six years older than Chernenko. Gorbachev moved quickly in the new role to institute reform. The CPSU adopted a course towards “acceleration of the social and economic development of the country”. Gorbachev opened up competition in industry and allowed farmers to buy out their land plots. His reforms were supported by the general population but caused outrage among vested interests and party bosses.
His reforms also ran into stormy waters as food prices increased. Gorbachev abolished wage controls and many salaries rose unduly. Too much money was printed and destabilised the consumer market. As a result, basic consumer items such as sugar, tobacco, soap and washing powder disappeared from supermarket shelves. The results made Gorbachev look for even more rapid reforms. A new theme of openness would be needed and took its name from the Russian word for transparency: “glasnost”.
But Glasnost worked both ways and allowed others to be open in their criticism of the regime. Slowly but surely dissident voices, which had previously lurked in Soviet corners, came out to denounce Communism and all who sailed in her; even those like Gorbachev who sailed her into very stormy waters. Intoxicated by the new freedoms, many were quick to denounce the current government as the inheritors of the tradition of terror most associated with the Stalin regime but never dismantled under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The tragedy of Chernobyl added to the country’s economic stagnation and made it easier to condemn the man than allowed himself to be condemned.
While troubled stirred at home, his reputation flourished abroad. To most people in the West, it was obvious Mikhail Gorbachev was the genuine article and represented the best chance to end the Cold War in a generation. The US then, as now, had grandiose plans to install a missile shield. Then it was Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars, as it was dubbed. But Gorbachev formed substantial relations with Thatcher, Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and finally Reagan as they met in Reykjavik and Geneva. Their arms talks made significant breakthroughs in nuclear arms and set about the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In 1988, Gorbachev rolled back the Brezhnev Doctrine and allowed Eastern European countries to determine their own internal affairs. The floodgates opened in 1989 as a string of mostly peaceful revolutions overthrew the Communists in all the satellite states. When the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev ensured that all the Soviet troops in East Berlin remained consigned to barracks and did not interfere.
But the stones were loosening at home too. The Baltic nations were first to demand independence. Then Russia herself said it was no longer part of the Soviet Union. Led by the pugnacious former Mayor Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, it worked actively to smash the Union from the inside. Old-style Communists inside the Kremlin were alarmed and launched a coup against Gorbachev while he was on holidays in the Crimea in August 1991. For three tense days, the coup leaders pretended Gorbachev was too ill to rule as they tried to consolidate their power. But Yeltsin led the fightback from the Russian White House and the coup plotters surrendered.
Gorbachev returned to Moscow in what would prove to be a short-lived triumph. Yeltsin now had the taste of power and wanted more. As 1991 went by, he formed an alliance with the leaders of the Ukraine and Belarus to bypass the power of the Soviet Union. By December the writing was on the wall for Gorbachev. He was gradually squeezed out of power and resigned on Christmas Day. He handed over control of the Soviet military might that day to the Russian leader Yeltsin. The Soviet Union was no more.
Over the new few years, Gorbachev was persona non grata in the new country. Yeltsin used the state-controlled media to launch a personal campaign against him. The coup plotters against him were eventually all released without charge and Gorbachev had to rely on his huge reputation abroad to make a living on the circuit tour and from his books. It was not until the late 1990s that Gorbachev could speak freely in his native land. While his reputation has been mostly restored today, he remains a greater presence in the West than in Russia. More than most, he will look wryly at Russia’s burgeoning oil-fuelled wealth today and its desire to reclaim its military might.
While reminding the US of its obligations, Gorbachev is not frightened to do the same to Medvedev’s Russia. Writing in The Times after the new president's election in March, Gorbachev said Russia need to take advantage of the stability and confidence it achieved in the past few years and “move decisively on the path of modernisation”. He said Russia needed to modernise governance, as well as “create an innovative economy, re-emphasise education and health and, as top priority, work to narrow the gap between rich and poor while fighting corruption and bureaucracy.” Gorbachev prescribed a course of more democracy for Russia. But the practical-minded Putin and Medvedev are only too aware of what happened when their brilliant predecessor ordered more democracy for himself. It was always going to be the tragic fate of Gorbachev to fall on his own sword.