The Kremlin Minutes Diary of a Collapsing Superpower


Part 5

In the fall of 1988, Najibullah requested a Soviet bombing attack on mujahedeen leader Massud and found supporters for his plan in Moscow. Gorbachev only managed to prevent yet another bloodbath by sending an angry memo to the members of the Politburo.

The withdrawal of the last Russian regiment in Afghanistan

The withdrawal of the last Russian regiment in Afghanistan

On a March evening in 1989, the general secretary summoned the Politburo to his country house because Najibullah had urgently requested air support once again, this time near Jalalabad. And some members were once again in favor of granting the request. "The majority is categorically against direct participation in combat operations," he barked at the assembled group.

What the minutes report in March 1990 was paradoxical but true. By that time the last Soviet soldier had already returned home. The mujahedeen were advancing on Kabul and Najibullah wanted the Russians to bomb the airport at Bagram, which the enemy had already captured and from which they were threatening the president with the "Romanian solution," -- a reference to the Christmas day, 1989 killing of Communist Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Even though everything was over, the old guard in the Politburo tried once again to outflank Gorbachev:

Belousov (deputy premier for the weapons industry): We could send airplanes. It would provide powerful support. And we could send Najibullah more weapons.

Shevardnadze: I rule out any military involvement.

Saikov (deputy head of the defense council): But if Najibullah falls, the people will ask us: What did we fight for in the first place?

While many of the Soviet military leaders ended up being in favor of ending the pointless campaign in faraway Afghanistan, Gorbachev’s plan for disarmament encountered much stronger resistance among the generals.

Especially galling for the leaders of the 5 million-strong Soviet army was Gorbachev’s desire -- proposed just a few weeks after he took office -- to meet with Ronald Reagan. The American president, after all, had characterized the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" and was in the midst of promoting his gigantic Star Wars project. In August 1986, a member of the top military leadership confirmed publicly, for the first time, that there were differences of opinion between the military and civilian leaders of the Soviet Union.

It was clear to Gorbachev that when it came to military strength, Moscow had been bluffing the Americans for a long time. The Russians could not compete with Reagan's space defense program and the deployment of the SS-20 medium-range missiles, aimed at Western Europe, had been a stupid mistake.

On Oct. 8, 1986, shortly before the second summit meeting with Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev discussed the missile issue in the Politburo.

Gorbachev: We have to make concessions on the medium-range missiles. We must do something in Reykjavik if we hope to make any headway. The US wants the negotiating machinery to run dry, but the arms race is overloading our economy. We need a breakthrough.

Gromyko: We cannot just flip-flop 180 degrees. But the deployment of the SS-20 was a major error in our European policy.

Gorbachev: We can no longer treat our security from a purely arithmetical standpoint. If they force a second arms race on us, we will be finished. The loss of our submarine (a Soviet nuclear submarine had just sunk off the Bermuda Islands) has revealed to everyone the condition we are in. And we are now supposed to panic and shout: "We are falling behind, let us rearm"?

Gorbachev was clearly referring to the military. During the Vienna negotiations on reducing conventional military forces in Europe, the Gorbachev team constantly found itself attacking the military faction. The following transcript of a Politburo meeting on May 8, 1987 illustrates this friction between the civilian and military leadership:

Shevardnadze: I am in favor of revealing the truth about our troop numbers in Central Europe.

Gorbachev (addressing Defense Minister Marshall Sokolov): When you go in somewhere, you also have to think about how you'll get be getting yourself out again …

Sokolov: We in the Warsaw Pact now have 170,000 more troops than NATO, and 70,000 of those are Soviet troops. Why reduce the number of troops? If we do so, how will we preserve what we have fought for? Troop withdrawal would be a political mistake.

Chebrikov (the chairman of the KGB): We will simply take the region from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains. Then there will be no imbalance.

Dobrynin (secretary of the Central Committee): If honesty is the objective, we must say that we have more troops in Central Europe than the others. Otherwise we can forget about Vienna. We have been pretending for 13 years.

Gorbachev: The West already knows that. The public statements our generals have made in our military publications have made the West take notice, and these statements only increase their mistrust of us. If we continue this counting game -- one weapon for you, one for us -- we might as well abandon the idea of advancing socialism. Do we really want to transform the country into a military camp?

At a summit meeting in Washington a little more than six months later, Gorbachev signed a treaty to completely eliminate medium-range nuclear missiles. It was a breakthrough for Gorbachev, after years of tough negotiations. But at home it hardly mattered anymore. Three months later, in February 1988, the first waves of national unrest began in Gorbachev's realm, when Azerbaijanis launched pogroms against ethnic Armenians, their traditional enemies. Opponents of the party also began to mobilize, and the first article critical of the Kremlin reformer appeared in the Russian Republic's highest-circulation newspaper -- a piece which was inspired by his deputy.

The country's internal course was, naturally, a matter of bitter dispute at Politburo meetings. Gorbachev and his supporters attempted to expose what was really happening in the country so that the corrective measures could finally be taken. They wanted to topple the totalitarian system Stalin had established and dismantle the provider state in favor of economic efficiency.

Excessive wage hikes had drained the national treasury and productivity was poor. On Dec. 4, 1986, Gorbachev wanted the Politburo to approve price increases, but his fiercest adversary, Yegor Ligachev, the second secretary of the Central Committee, and other comrades opposed the idea, arguing that there were 25 million people in the country earning less than 50 rubles a month. Gorbachev noted that there were "serious political differences of opinion," and the meeting ended in an uproar.

The Chernobyl disaster prompted a similar crisis. After the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant near Kiev in April of 1986, the relevant ministers in the Politburo all denied any responsibility. A sharp verbal exchange erupted. Gorbachev was outraged. "For the past 30 years, we have been told that everything was safe, and now you are blaming it all on local employees. We must be completely open with the general secretaries of our sister parties, instead of telling them what they can read in the newspapers. They build nuclear power plants on the basis of our projects, but in East Germany alone, 50 percent of the equipment we deliver is defective."

And then there were the gulags. In August 1987, a minister reported that there were still 1.3 million people in prison in the Soviet Union -- almost three times as many as in the United States -- and that 10,000 crimes were being committed each year in the prison camps alone. "Our prisons," an agitated Gorbachev commented, "are producing hundreds of thousands of thugs and furious opponents of Soviet power. Millions of people have passed through the camps -- the best sort of school for turning them into hopeless criminals."

At that point his perestroika had been going for almost two and a half years. And virtually nothing had changed. It was like tilting at windmills -- in a country that was being plagued with a new disaster on an almost weekly basis.

Gorbachev's propensity to address the symptoms while leaving both the sluggish party -- that "mangy, rabid dog" -- and the military leadership untouched was now coming back to haunt him. As the great upheavals began claiming human lives, Gorbachev could only look on in horror. Shortly after Soviet troops armed with spades and tear gas broke up a demonstration for Georgian independence in Tiflis -- a move that claimed 20 lives -- the Politburo met once again. Gorbachev, by this time the party leader, head of state and commander-in-chief of the military, knew that some members of his Politburo were feeding him brazen lies:

Gorbachev: When I receive the coded telegrams -- from military defense, or from the KGB -- I know immediately which parts are true and which ones are merely being touted as the truth. Yes, Vladimir Alexandrovich (Kryuchkov), I am watching you. Let us take a look at the events in Tiflis. I arrive in Moscow, and at the airport I am told that troops have marched into Tiflis. Of course, I did not comment on this publicly. But what is going on here? Was this truly necessary? Was the curfew truly necessary? Of course not. We should have gone directly to the people and talked to them.

Ryzhkov: I am the chairman of the government. And what did I know? I only learned that people were being killed in Tiflis when I read it in Pravda.

It was, in fact, the era of "glasnost," of a new "openness." But even then, the general public was kept completely in the dark over the debates within the highest echelons of government. What was actually happening behind the walls of the Kremlin during perestroika remained a mystery.

Only rarely did Gorbachev carry out drastic personnel measures. One such case happened when, in May 1987, German national Mathias Rust managed to penetrate Soviet air defenses and calmly land his Cessna on Red Square in Moscow to discuss peace with Gorbachev. The move made the Soviets a laughing stock worldwide. Gorbachev put 150 generals and officers on trial and, in a room called the "Nut Room," personally fired the defense minister -- and promptly replaced him with army general Dmitry Yasov. Yasov was also one of the men who would stage a coup against Gorbachev in 1991.

Fifteen years have passed since the end of the Soviet Union. Nowadays Gorbachev sees the defeats of the past in a softer light. "The thing is essentially done," he said in 1990, referring to the fact that he had abolished neo-Stalinist totalitarianism during his time in office.

When he appeared before television cameras on Dec. 25, 1991 to announce his resignation as president (a speech that not a single newspaper printed in its entirety), there was one thing he emphasized in speaking to his "beloved fellow Russians." He told them that he had never abused the position of general secretary to simply spend a few years ruling "like a czar."

But by then hardly anyone in Russia was listening anymore. Gorbachev, the man who was responsible for Soviet disarmament and for dissolving the empire that had emerged from World War II has been a persona non grata in his own country ever since. But in the West he remains a hero, a respected historical figure, a man who peacefully cut a superpower down to its true size.


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