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Mikhail Gorbachev (March 2 1931 – August 30 2022)

Last leader of the Soviet Union prior to its collapse in 1991

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, who died on Tuesday aged 91, was the last leader of the Soviet Union and as such one of the most consequential political figures of the 20th century.

Elected as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985 with a commitment to lead the renewal of socialism, he in fact presided over its collapse both in the USSR and across eastern Europe.

At one point Gorbachev achieved the feat of being regarded with enthusiasm by the broad mass of Soviet people, the international left and the leaders of the Western powers at the same time.

At the time of his death, however, the Russian people viewed him as their worst 20th-century leader while the most heartfelt eulogies came from the imperialists.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born into a farming family in Stavropol, southern Russia, in 1931 at a time when the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture had upended village life and the transition to a socialist countryside was accompanied by great privation.

His childhood was by his own account a happy one, despite being in the shadow of the purges of the late 1930s, which saw both his grandfathers imprisoned, and of the great patriotic war, when his father was inaccurately reported as killed. He briefly experienced Nazi occupation.

He graduated from the prestigious Moscow State University, where he met his wife Raisa and joined the CPSU. He returned to Stavropol first of all as an official of the Komosmol, the Young Communist League.

Gorbachev was soon caught up in the political changes initiated by the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, at which first secretary Khruschev made a secret speech denouncing Stalin’s rule.  

In the Stavropol countryside, one of Gorbachev’s biographers reports, he faced a challenge in convincing people of the new line, since most simply refused to accept the condemnation of Stalin.

Through the 1960s and ’70s Gorbachev rose in the apparatus of first the Komsomol and then the CPSU itself in Stavropol. Along the way he impressed Soviet leaders who passed through the region.  

Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin and party secretary Mikhail Suslov, two leaders of the Brezhnev era known for their integrity, were among them. 

Their sponsorship undoubtedly expedited Gorbachev’s return to Moscow in 1978 as central committee secretary responsible for the struggling agricultural sector. This stimulated his interest in reform of the Soviet system.

In 1980, Gorbachev joined the politburo of the CPSU, the country’s leadership. He was by some considerable margin the youngest member of that body. Supposedly in the interests of stability, Soviet leaders served well into their seventies and beyond.

Brezhnev, the party and state leader, was by then in an advanced state of decrepitude but remained propped up in office. The Soviet economy was showing signs of stagnation and international tensions were acute.

Yuri Andropov briefly succeeded Brezhnev and seemed intent on revitalising Soviet society. He made Gorbachev his closest political ally, the party’s second secretary. However, Andropov was followed in office by the much less impressive Konstantin Chernenko.

All this merely postponed the inevitable and upon Chernenko’s own death in 1985 Gorbachev was chosen as the party’s general secretary, on the recommendation of veteran foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

He then embarked on the dramatic political journey which would lead, in just six years, to the liquidation of both the CPSU and the USSR itself.

Initially, Gorbachev appeared as a breath of fresh air. Open to dialogue and new ideas, he was far more informal in his encounters with Soviet people than his predecessors had been. He proposed to grapple with the formidable problems confronting Soviet society.

Internationally, he also held out the promise of an improved atmosphere. He had already led a Soviet parliamentary delegation to London, where Margaret Thatcher famously declared him someone she “could do business with.”

Rapidly installing a new team of younger leaders around him, Gorbachev made two Russian words world-famous: Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). 

The first indicated a more democratic spirit and less dogmatic approach to cultural and historical questions, and was a prerequisite for addressing society’s ills.

The second was, as it turned out, far less thought through. What did restructuring actually mean? Gorbachev never actually presented a comprehensive and worked-out plan, reflecting his own lack of grasp of economics.

The titles of some of his contemporary speeches give a clue as to objectives — “On to Full Cost Accounting” and “Goal: World Technological Standards” but introducing these developments into the centrally planned socialist economy was to prove elusive.

As far as international politics went, I recall visiting officials in the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow in 1986 and asking if they foresaw a return to detente with the West. No, they replied, something much more far-reaching was envisaged.

This turned out to be the prioritisation of “universal human values” over class considerations in international affairs — not just peaceful coexistence but a deeper level of co-operation between socialism and imperialism.

Gorbachev’s speeches on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1987 and at the United Nations the next year highlighted his de-ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy and its effective reconciliation with capitalism.

In meetings with US president Ronald Reagan — who Gorbachev respected much less than he did Thatcher — the two governments agreed to significant reductions in nuclear weaponry and a marked lowering of cold war tension, although this was compromised by Washington’s insistence on pursuing its “star wars” initiative.

Gorbachev also ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, ending the debilitating confrontation with CIA armed and financed rebels there. He was among the high officials who had regarded the military intervention as a mistake from the beginning.

Domestically, however, the wheels started falling off the wagon by 1988. Crises developed along three lines.

First, Gorbachev incrementally dismantled the instruments of planned economy without having alternative mechanisms in place.  

Mounting autonomy of enterprises only served to disintegrate the economy and incubate elements of a new bourgeoisie. Shortages of basic goods — not unknown before by any means — grew sharply and living standards fell. 

Secondly, the national question within the diverse Soviet state became acute, as the ending of the bland propaganda of accomplishment revealed festering divisions in many parts of the country. 

The Baltic republics were the first to seek independence, but major inter-ethnic disputes erupted elsewhere, notably in Azerbaijan.

Too often an increasingly isolated and arrogant Gorbachev seemed to believe that making lengthy speeches were a sufficient response to events. He was reluctant to use the powers he had to ensure social stability.

Thirdly, the countries of eastern Europe began to move away from socialism, in part as a consequence of Gorbachev’s “Sinatra doctrine,” leaving each to do it their own way.  

Many in the West, as well as on the Soviet side, were astonished that he let the Soviet strategic position deteriorate, in Germany above all, while seeking so little in the way of reciprocal guarantees.

The Communist Party’s role also weakened as Gorbachev strengthened his personal position, becoming the country’s first president in 1990. Hitherto, the head of state had merely been the chair of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

By 1991 the Soviet Union was bankrupt, in economic free-fall, falling apart at the internal seams and collapsing on the international stage. The entire leadership of the Soviet state moved against Gorbachev in August, seeking to depose him in a state of emergency.

This speedily collapsed in the face of resistance from Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev himself, internal divisions and the reluctance of the army to act. 

Gorbachev was restored to office but not power, and had to witness the banning of the CPSU and the agreement of the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to liquidate the USSR. His leadership ended catastrophically, since none of these outcomes were what he had sought.

The last 30 years of his life saw Gorbachev lionised abroad and ignored or derided at home. An attempted political comeback ended in humiliation in 1996, when he secured 0.5 per cent of the vote in the presidential election.

In interviews, he always insisted that following the Chinese path to reform, which has evidently worked far better, would not have been appropriate for the USSR.

He spelt out his own ideological position in his memoirs: “It is scarcely valid or productive to strive towards a society with exclusively ‘socialist’ features … in any developed and dynamic society there are elements of conservatism and radicalism, individualism and collectivism, liberalism and socialist values, without which the very existence of the world community would be impossible.”

These words are a long way from the Mikhail Gorbachev who wrote applying for membership of the CPSU in 1950: “I would consider it a high honour to be a member of the highly advanced, genuinely revolutionary Communist Party of Bolsheviks. I promise to be faithful to the great cause of Lenin and Stalin, to devote my entire life to the party's struggle for Communism.”

An engaging and personable man, he changed the world more through his failures than his successes. His legacy, alas, is being written on the bloody battlefields of Ukraine, as the citizens of the country he unwittingly destroyed confront each other as enemies.



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