Editor's Note: Seventeen years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later the Soviet Union broke apart. More than 1,400 minutes published earlier this month in Russia from meetings that took place behind the closed doors of the Politburo in Moscow read like a thriller from the highest levels of the Kremlin. They reveal Mikhail Gorbachev as a party chief who had to fight bitterly for his reforms and ultimately lost his battle. But in doing so, he changed the course of history and helped bring an end to the Cold War. Christian Neef, 54, who served as DER SPIEGEL's correspondent in Moscow until 1996, explains why the "Kremlin minutes" may polish Gorbachev's image in the history books.
As has so often been in the case in history, there was little separating victory and defeat, joy and fear, euphoria and depression. And yet there couldn't have been a greater difference between the events in Berlin and in Moscow in October 1990.
The Presidential Council, a key group of advisors to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, met at the Kremlin at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17. It was a sunny day. But it was far from a routine meeting. As Anatoly Chernyayev later said, it reminded him "of the situation in October 1917 in St. Petersburg, when the Bolsheviks were threatening to storm the Winter Palace." In 1990 foreign policy expert Chernyayev was something on the order of Gorbachev's Henry Kissinger.
A storm also seemed to be on the horizon on that Oct. 17, but this time it was Gorbachev's archenemy, Boris Yeltsin, who was behind the sense of foreboding. Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession.
The Presidential Council fell into a state of panic. "Dissolution is in full swing!," Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Soviet Union's clever premier, warned. "All mass media are working for the opposition! Even the central council of trade unions! Even the party!" Vladimir Kryuchkov, the pale head of the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, agreed. "This is a declaration of war against the central government," he said, "and if we don't do something about it we will be thrown out."
Chernyayev, who described the scene in his notebook, recalls: "There was fear and hatred on everyone's face. It was ridiculous, bitter and shameful to observe this high council of the state. These people were neither able to think nor behave as statesmen." It was a harsh judgment of that small group of men at the helm of a giant communist superpower, a group that was to decide the fate of half the world.
Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he "listened, depressed and moved at the same time." But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: "They ought to be punched in the face." But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end.
At the same time, a completely different picture was taking shape 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) to the west.
All of Germany was caught up in the thrill of reunification as the East joined the West. Two weeks earlier, East Germany had agreed to submit to the "jurisdiction of the (West German) constitution." To the sounds of the freedom bell and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, sung to the words of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy," the Germans raised the black, red and gold flag of West Germany in front of Berlin's Reichstag building. From then on, the country erupted in a series of celebrations.
The Germans expressed words of gratitude to the victorious Allies who had given Germany its sovereignty back. Gorbachev, who, after prolonged hesitation, decided to stay home, sent a message to Berlin. He wrote that it was a "great event, and not just for the Germans," that German reunification was taking place at the "boundary between two epochs," and that it would become a "symbol" and certainly a factor in "strengthening the general order of peace."
They were great words, the words of a man who, with his policies of change in his own country, had made the liberation of Eastern Europe possible in the first place: exiled former Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek's triumphant return to Prague, the overthrow of the communist old guard in Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But at home Gorbachev's reforms became a millstone around his neck.
At home in Moscow, Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev, who had launched a campaign to rejuvenate the Soviet realm five and a half years earlier, was faced with the ruins of his policies on that October day. While the government in Bonn announced that German reunification would "largely pay for itself," that is, without the need for tax increases, Gorbachev was forced to introduce food rations in Leningrad. Lithuania and Kazakhstan had cut off grain shipments and milk and meat were scarce.
The Communist Party, which Gorbachev still headed, opposed the introduction of a market economy. Only a few weeks later, 15 provincial secretaries would publicly demand Gorbachev's resignation, and his silver-haired, pleasantly smiling foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, would throw in the towel. And only a few weeks later, the wave of liberation Gorbachev had triggered himself would sweep back into the Soviet sphere of power, prompting Moscow to roll out its tanks to restrain the rebelling Lithuanians and Latvians. And just over a year later, the Gorbachev era would come to an end.
Revolution devours its fathers. ( Click here to read a timeline of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)
What really happened then in the Politburo, that secretive controlling body Lenin created shortly before the October Revolution, a body whose sessions could not even be recorded by stenographers, has been a mystery since the demise of the Soviet empire 15 years ago. Until recently, no one knew what was discussed every Thursday by 13 men in gray, the eldest of whom was 80 and Gorbachev, at 54, the youngest.
The real Gorbachev has also remained a mystery. Was he the politician who made such an excellent impression when he visited the United States in May 1990, an accomplished statesman and an independent, reasonable leader who had the courage and clear-headedness to negotiate decisions over the status of a future Germany with then-president George H.W. Bush?
Or was he the man who, a short time later, sat silently and anxiously at the Communist Party convention in Moscow, was forced to listen to his comrades' derisive laughter and ultimately could only manage to counter their criticism with the cumbersome, confused and hackneyed arguments of a provincial official?
Now, for the first time, a collection of authentic minutes of meetings at the Kremlin may help solve these mysteries. Beginning in 1985, three close advisors to Gorbachev recorded much of what happened at top secret meetings of the Politburo, the Presidential Council and the Council of Ministers, and of what Gorbachev discussed in smaller groups, including some one-on-one meetings with these advisors. They were Anatoly Chernyayev, Gorbachev's advisor on international issues, Vadim Medvedev, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and an expert on ideology, and Georgiy Shakhnazarov, an expert on socialist countries (* see accompanying box for bibliographical details).
The minutes, more than 1,400 pages of close-printed material, the second part of which deal exclusively with the German question and was published earlier this month, are a reflection of an era Chernyayev calls an "enormous historic tragedy.**" Any information that did manage to seep out from the deliberations of the party's innermost bodies in those six and a half years was at best reflected in the Communist Party-controlled publication Pravda. But what appeared in Pravda made it seem as if the country's top bureaucrats had discussed nothing but ordinary, run-of-the-mill business in their meetings.
The newly released documents paint a completely different picture from what was previously known. Under Gorbachev, the Politburo was a place of bitter polemics, arguments and accusations, straight talk and virulent personal attacks. Particularly the minutes involving the fate of the Soviet realm read like a thriller populated with characters from the Kremlin's innermost circle. They reveal that Gorbachev was everything but a dreamer, and that he was every bit the engine of perestroika. They also show how skilled he was at imperiously and sharply prevailing over his comrades.
But these minutes also uncover a tragic contradiction, an enormous gap between the courage Gorbachev exhibited within this small group of men at the Kremlin and the public speeches he believed he could impose on his country. According to the minutes, it was not Yeltsin who first launched the struggle against the privileges of the political establishment in 1987, but Gorbachev, who did so two years earlier in the Politburo. It was an achievement he never publicly acknowledged.
When it comes to foreign policy, the minutes describe a man who was the victim of internal and external forces, but who was also adept at developing original plans and willing to abandon hopeless positions in difficult situations.
The minutes are a diary that describes the high and low points of Soviet policy. They reveal the background behind the concept of Gorbachev's spectacular summit meeting with then US President Ronald Reagan, how Moscow managed to bring itself to reveal the truth about the Soviet Union's missile potential and how desperate the Soviets were over the situation in Afghanistan.
Gorbachev's characterizations of the leaders of other nations are also telling. Of then East German leader Erich Honecker, he said: "react calmly, whatever he says about us." Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu he described as "mentally confused, nothing but mush; to hell with him," and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as an "adventurer who acts as if he were the head of global revolution -- we will certainly not embark on a third world war for his sake." Gorbachev's comments about the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the Soviet Union's gulags and his military's adventurous efforts to strike out on its own are all telling.
His ideas on how to deal with the Germans are enlightening.
It turns out that six days before the opening of the border in Berlin, the comrades in Moscow were considering demolishing the Berlin Wall themselves before others could beat them to the punch. They also speculated over whether East German Hans Modrow, a member of the SED/PDS (Socialist Unity Party/Party of Democratic Socialism), could be inserted into the East German version of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- naturally as its future leader. In the end, the minutes reveal, Chernyayev urged his boss to finally abandon his opposition to a united Germany's membership in NATO.
The collection of minutes has been published by Moscow's Gorbachev Foundation, and the man behind the effort was former Gorbachev advisor Chernyayev, who is now 85. In addition to keeping a diary, the man who served for 20 years in the international division of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party before Gorbachev appointed him to the position of advisor in 1986 was also probably the most assiduous keeper of notes in the Politburo and during meetings with other heads of state. Whenever keeping notes was not an option, Chernyayev would write his accounts from memory.
"We wanted to tell the truth," he says, explaining his reasons for releasing the documents. But can one of Gorbachev's closest advisors be a truly unbiased observer of the times?
Chernyayev certainly has the right qualifications. A political scientist and historian, he managed to preserve a critical perspective on the meteoric rise of Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, over a period of three decades.
The two met in 1972 when Gorbachev was the party secretary in Stavropol Province. Chernyayev accompanied Gorbachev on one of his first trips abroad, even managing to convince the future president to visit an X-rated movie theater in Amsterdam ("he became visibly embarrassed"), he attended Gorbachev's election to the post of General Secretary ("to thunderous applause") and he later accompanied Gorbachev on state visits with Bush, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Chernyayev even stood by Gorbachev when he was detained for three days in the Crimea during the August 1991 Moscow coup.
He respected the president and yet was deeply disappointed by him later on. Chernyayev opted not to attend the Caucasus summit meeting in July 1990, in which Kohl and the Russian leader negotiated the terms of German unity, because he had since developed "an aversion to Gorbachev."
Gorbachev had ignored Chernyayev's advice and remained General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, even after it had become the most dangerous opponent of perestroika -- one which Gorbachev had taken to calling a "mangy, rabid dog." One Gorbachev felt he needed to keep on a short leash. According to Chernyayev, Gorbachev "literally clung to the highest post in a party that was hostile to him."
In Chernyayev's eyes, that was the end of perestroika.
Gorbachev set the course of his foreign policy about three months after his election to the post of General Secretary in early July 1985 -- by replacing the foreign minister.
He reassigned the sullen, by then almost 76-year-old Andrei Gromyko, who, in his 28 years as foreign minister, had earned the nickname "Mr. Nyet," to the position of nominal head of state. The person he proposed to succeed Gromyko, Georgian Communist Party leader Eduard Shevardnadze, was a man with a "sense for new things" and an "independent approach." He wanted Shevardnadze to break down the barriers between East and West and provide Moscow with an attractive foundation for change from within.
Gorbachev launched a charm offensive. He announced a unilateral halt to nuclear weapons testing, made it a matter of course that his wife should accompany him to Paris for his virgin trip to the West, and reignited stagnating East-West negotiations at Soviet-American summit meetings in Geneva and Reykjavik.
But the approach was ineffective with the Germans, and for the first two years of Gorbachev's term as General Secretary relations between Moscow and Bonn remained noticeably frigid.
The Soviets' problems with Germany were attributable to vestiges of the Cold War, Bonn's support for the Americans' SDI missile defense program and an appalling faux pas on the part of Helmut Kohl. In a Newsweek interview, the German chancellor had compared Gorbachev to Hitler's propaganda chief Josef Goebbels -- one "of those responsible for the crimes of the Hitler era." Gorbachev, who close associates say is a sensitive and thoroughly egocentric man, never forgave Kohl for that statement.
The Moscow documents reveal how the Soviets deliberately snubbed the German chancellor for almost two years. In Politburo meetings in 1986, Gorbachev ordered a "course of limiting political dialogue with Kohl (and) no high-level contacts at present with the Federal Republic (of Germany)." According to Chernyayev's unofficial minutes, Gorbachev said: "The chancellor must learn his lesson. We must cut him off. But we cannot allow the situation to reach an extreme. Kohl is already beginning to get nervous."
Soviet-German relations only began to thaw in the summer of 1987, more than two years after Gorbachev came into office. From his viewpoint, a closer relationship with the "most important country in Western Europe" was only a trump card in the Soviets' poker game with the Americans ("The Americans will go crazy the minute we establish contact with Western Europe").
Besides, Gorbachev needed Bonn -- especially when it came to economic relations. On July 16, 1987 he told his comrades at the Politburo: "It appears that we have reached the low point in our cooling of relations with the Federal Republic."
A meeting with then German President Richard von Weizsäcker in Moscow a short time earlier was responsible for the breakthrough, and Gorbachev quickly secured the Politburo's approval for his plans to launch a "grand dialogue" with Bonn. Citing another reason for his change of heart, Gorbachev said: "We cannot leave West Germany to (the East German leader Erich) Honecker."
The Kremlin minutes confirm that Gorbachev's problem was that he was not particularly fond of either Kohl or Honecker. Although he was later on better terms with the German chancellor, even going so far as to address Kohl as "Helmut," Gorbachev's relationship with the leader of Germany's communist party, the SED, consistently declined. Honecker, a traditional communist, felt threatened by the young Soviet General Secretary's reforms. On Jan. 29, 1987, Gorbachev told the Politburo:
Honecker, Kádár (the Hungarian party leader) and Shivkov (the Bulgarian party leader) are distancing themselves from us. Honecker compares our self-administration with that of Yugoslavia. How poorly we know each other. He interprets Shatrov's little game (together with a critical assessment of Lenin's role) as an effort to turn his back on the traditions of October. He also disapproves of our position in the matter of (exiled nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei) Sakharov. We cannot react to these antics by turning off the taps (for natural gas and oil). Honecker and Kádár do not believe that the development here is irreversible. We must remain friends. And we must react calmly, whatever Honecker says about us.
The Moscow minutes reveal that Honecker was indeed a humorless and stubborn man who saw himself as the guardian of the communist world movement. Instead of sticking to his behind-the-scenes intrigues, he attacked Gorbachev in face-to-face meetings, not even hesitating to bombard his Russian counterpart with Marx and Lenin quotes. He explained to Gorbachev that he, Honecker, had personally played a role in the development of socialism in the Soviet Union, and that he had no intention of allowing his image of the Soviet "brotherland" to be destroyed. During a visit to Moscow in September 1988, the East German leader made himself out to be the advocate of a people that had in reality long since become supporters of perestroika:
Some of the stories that have been printed in your press are inconsistent with your speeches. The Soviet Union has always been a guiding light for millions of our people. It is disconcerting to see the achievements of the October Revolution being questioned. We view the problems of the Soviet Union as our own and we will continue our ideological struggle against the hostile attacks of the West. We are currently in the midst of elections for our party organizations, and 94.8 percent of communists are taking part in the meetings!
Gorbachev's response was laden with irony:
If you have any difficulties explaining our policies, please call me. I will come to you and together we will go to the masses and explain to them what is happening in our country -- and whether or not this is socialism.
But despite his open criticism of Gorbachev and his policies, even Honecker was forced to grovel, especially in light of East Germany's economic woes:
I grew up in the Soviet Union, and it is my second home. But of course, despite all that, I love East Germany Allow me to raise an issue. Wouldn't it be possible, perhaps by economizing in the Soviet Union, to increase oil deliveries to East Germany by 2 million tons, as we agreed before you cut back your deliveries?
Of course, the Kremlin leader's scouts had long since provided him with their assessment of the situation in Honecker's realm. After a visit to Berlin, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze reported to the Politburo, in February 1987: "speculators (in East Germany) are selling the Gorbachev speeches for a good price on the black market. Honecker's people are afraid of him. Everything he says is the truth. He is the final authority on everything."
But Shevardnadze also returned to Moscow with another conclusion:
The idea of a united German nation exists in the minds of the communists there. They seek contact with West Germans and they don't criticize West Germany. We must seriously and academically examine the idea of a unified Germany.
Shevardnadze's boss apparently agreed:
Honecker always becomes very monosyllabic whenever we attempt to discuss the Wall with him. This is why we must be very tactful when discussing processes that are unavoidable.
Gorbachev and Honecker were two men who truly had little in common. On a psychological level, this helped the Kremlin leader to complete his intended change of policy toward Bonn. The news that a man was now in power in Moscow who, while adhering to the theory of two German states, spoke of a single German nation and made it clear that he believed reunification was historically possible, had its intended effect.
By this time, anyone who had the opportunity to pay an official visit to Moscow was eager to make the pilgrimage. During talks at the Kremlin negotiating table, with its trademark green tablecloth, the Germans flattered the new party leader, feeding him information, maneuvering and persevering. And everything that was said at these meetings was recorded and eventually found its way into an archive.
One of Gorbachev's visitors was Johannes Rau, the premier of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who planned to run for chancellor in Germany's 1987 elections. "If you visit us next year," he told the Russian leader, "I may be at a different address." Other visitors to the Kremlin included Lothar Späth, the premier of the state of Baden-Württemberg, Egon Bahr, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Martin Bangemann, the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Hans-Jochen Vogel, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was especially adept at the game of flattery ("Thatcher made a point of telling me that there are only two men she likes outside Great Britain: Gorbachev and (former German Chancellor Helmut) Schmidt." Then Bavarian premier Franz Josef Strauss paid his respects in December 1987, when he told Gorbachev: "I was in the USSR once before, as an officer in the German army (under Hitler) -- in Lvov, Kharkov and Rostov."). Strauss and the Kremlin leader embarked on a lengthy conversation about Marxism and world revolution, and Strauss ended the meeting by inviting Gorbachev to visit him at home ("You will definitely like Bavaria -- it's a bit like Georgia or the region around Stavropol"). Gorbachev, who had a weakness for sharp-edged personalities, later described Strauss as a "very interesting conversation partner" and a "realist" -- the kind of praise he otherwise reserved for Margaret Thatcher.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl finally visited Moscow in October 1988. The icy relationship was beginning to thaw.
Kohl's appearance in Moscow was the beginning of the end for Honecker. For years, Gorbachev had noted with mistrust that the East German leader was pursuing his own policy toward the West and was trying to distance himself from the Russians in the process. In a report about reactions in Western Europe to the German chancellor's Moscow visit, Chernyayev made a point of warning Gorbachev against giving Honecker too much information about his policies toward Germany. "We pursue our policy, which is by no means identical to Honecker's." ( Click here for a related excerpt: "Why Commit Ourselves?")
Kohl was astute enough to take advantage of the growing differences between the Russians and the East Germans, repeatedly complaining about the stubborn East German leader and portraying himself as Gorbachev's true German counterpart. When the Soviet Communist Party leader visited Bonn in June 1989, Kohl told Gorbachev:
Honecker shows no interest whatsoever in any changes or reforms. You wouldn't believe the reaction we had here when the East German government banned the sale of the Soviet magazine Sputnik. Everyone was laughing. But I was less than amused. I can tell you quite frankly that we now understand Moscow far better and feel much closer to it than Berlin. But I will not do anything to destabilize the situation.
Two days later, Kohl said:
I say to you quite openly that Honecker leaves me no peace. His wife has just called upon the East German youth to defend the achievements of socialism against external enemies, with weapons in hand, if necessary. It is completely obvious that these external enemies are those socialist countries that are introducing reforms. Most of all, of course, Poland and Hungary.
Gorbachev, the great tactician, sidestepped Kohl's comments. By that time the fall of the Berlin Wall was less than five months away.
It was Oct. 5, 1989, a Thursday. Anatoly Chernyayev made an entry into his diary that day, and it too is stored in the archives, under Fund No. 2, Directory 2. In it, he writes:
M.S. (Gorbachev) is flying to East Germany tomorrow, for the country's 40th anniversary. He is completely indifferent. He has already called twice today to tell me that the text of his speech must be polished, down to the last letter. It will be scrutinized very closely. "I will not utter a single word of support for Honecker. I support the republic and the revolution." Twenty thousand people took to the streets in Dresden today, and just as many in Leipzig yesterday.
Gorbachev, reluctant as he was, made the trip to Berlin. Honecker, who had just recovered from a serious illness, greeted him at Berlin's Schönefeld Airport with a kiss on the cheek. But the state visit that followed was anything but ordinary, from a ghostly torchlight procession along the city's Unter den Linden boulevard to Gorbachev's meeting with Honecker at Niederschönhausen palace and the Russian-German dialogue before the members of the SED's politburo, made all the more difficult because of its odd disconnect from the realities of the day. Indeed, in a confidential conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti only a few days later, Gorbachev described the East Germans as "yesterday's politicians."
Gorbachev flew home, deeply troubled. Although no one could predict what would happen in East Germany, it was already clear that the Russians would be sucked in. But two days after Gorbachev's Berlin visit, it was clear to the Russians that German reunification was at the top of the agenda. On Oct. 9, Chernyayev wrote in his diary:
All of Europe is enthusiastic about M.S. in Berlin. And many are whispering to us: It's a good thing that the USSR, albeit discreetly, has voiced its opposition to a current "German reunification." (Gorbachev advisor) Sagladin has just traveled throughout France. He sent encoded telegrams back to Moscow. Everyone, from (French President Francois) Mitterand to the mayors, is saying: No one needs a unified Germany. In a conversation with M.S., Thatcher suddenly said: "Off the record, I am decidedly against a unified Germany. But I cannot state this at home or within NATO." In other words, they want us to be the ones to prevent it from happening.
By this point, Gorbachev no longer trusted his new friend Helmut Kohl, whom he suspected of attempting to force things to a head in East Germany without consulting the Russians. He sensed a concern in the West, especially among the Americans, "that the Soviet Union is becoming the godfather of German reunification," as Gorbachev complained to former chancellor Willy Brandt, the honorary chairman of Germany's Social Democrats, when Brandt visited Moscow a short time later. Brandt responded: "Reunification signifies a return to the past, which, first of all, is not possible and, second, cannot be our goal."
Meanwhile, time was rushing on -- much faster, in fact, than the Russians imagined behind their Kremlin walls. Experts on Germany had long since set their sights on the Berlin Wall. But did the composure of Egon Krenz, the since-toppled Honecker's successor, eliminate the need to bring down the Wall? During his first official visit to the Kremlin on Nov. 1, Krenz told Gorbachev:
We are taking steps against a mass breakthrough in the Berlin Wall. There will be police there. If there are attempts to break through to West Berlin, we will have an extremely difficult situation, and we will be forced to declare a state of emergency. However, I do not believe it will come to that.
But the Russians weren't so sure and were unwilling to depend on Krenz. In a meeting of the Soviet Politburo on Nov. 3, Gorbachev asked KGB leader Vladimir Kryuchkov how much longer Krenz could last, given the ongoing demonstrations in Berlin. Kryuchkov had no answer. It was then that Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, the man with the "sense for new things," made an outrageous suggestion. "We should," the minister said, "demolish the Wall ourselves." ( Click here for a related excerpt: "We Should Demolish the Wall Ourselves")
But the idea was too offbeat for Shevardnadze's colleagues. Still, Gorbachev made it clear that East Germany could no longer continue to exist without assistance from Bonn. It would take another six days before the border was actually opened -- the result of a clumsy maneuver on the part the East German Communist Party leaders themselves. Perhaps this early history from Moscow's Politburo explains why, of the four victorious powers, the Soviet Union seemed the least agitated over the dramatic collapse of communist authority in East Germany that began after Nov. 9.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev uncharacteristically lost his composure one month later when Helmut Kohl presented his now-famous ten-point plan for "regaining Germany's national unity." Foreign Minister Genscher bore the brunt of Moscow's wrath -- as the minutes of an especially thrilling encounter reveal -- for not having distanced himself from Kohl.
What Genscher experienced was an angry Gorbachev striking out in desperation. The general secretary sensed that his influence was waning and that Helmut Kohl, and not the victorious powers, was the one shaping events. From then on, the Politburo's main goal was to cut its losses and derive as much benefit as possible for the Soviet Union.
A four-hour secret meeting of several Politburo members and advisors in the Central Committee building on Moscow's Old Square on Jan. 26, 1990 became the hour of truth for the Russians. ( Click here to read the related excerpt: "This Is not our Business.") KGB leader Kryuchkov said that the Russians might as well write off East German premier Hans Modrow and the SED. Premier Ryzhkov also believed that East Germany was irretrievably lost. What were the Soviets' options? Kryuchkov, the specialist when it came to infiltration, and advisor Jakovlev suggested installing SED member Modrow as the leader of the newly established East German SPD.
But they all knew that influence could only be exerted through Bonn. The question was whether that relationship should be conducted through Kohl or the SPD. Ultimately the Russians' distrust of the Social Democrats for their evasive tactics outweighed their displeasure with Kohl.
To save face and remain in the game, the men at the Kremlin came up with the idea of the "Two plus Four" negotiations, in which the four victorious powers and the two German states would come together to settle the future of the German people. Gorbachev:
This brings us back to the role of an active participant in settling the German question Whatever the ultimate goal may be called -- reunification, as far as I am concerned -- the most important thing now is to prolong the process.
But Gorbachev's approach was not entirely successful. Money had become the overriding issue in his negotiations with Kohl. By this point the Soviet realm was coming apart at the seams, and without Western loans Gorbachev could no longer survive.
The Soviet leader only continued to resist when it came to one issue. He was completely opposed to a united Germany becoming a member of NATO. On May 4, 1990, Gorbachev's right-hand man, Chernyayev, wrote him an instructive memo:
It is completely obvious that Germany will become a member of NATO. And we have no real bargaining chips to prevent it. Besides, why should we try to catch up with a train that has already departed, especially now that it's clear that we can no longer jump onto its locomotive? Whether German tanks or howitzers are stationed on the Oder-Neisse or the Elbe or anyplace else, this does not affect the real security of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Sergeyevich, you say: If all of Germany is accepted into NATO, we will stop the Vienna process and the negotiations over strategic nuclear weapons. But that would be a mortal blow to the entire policy of new thought.
Gorbachev resisted for another two months. Then he met with Helmut Kohl in the Caucasus Mountains. Although Moscow lost the race for German reunification, Gorbachev, the realist, prevailed.
The German question kept entire armies of Moscow experts on their toes. But the Russians faced even more calamities. Afghanistan was one of them. On Oct. 17, 1985, the party leader recommended to the members of the Politburo that the Russians end the war and bring home their troops, who had marched into Afghanistan a little less than six years earlier. By then, the war had become a fact of life. Every day, an average of 10 young Soviet soldiers were dying in a battle against the mujahedeen some 3,400 kilometers (2,113 miles) away. Moscow, it seemed, had become accustomed to the carnage.
Gromyko had been the one to initiate the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, even managing to implement the plan against the resistance of the military leadership, who believed it was unfeasible and pointless.
In October 1985, Gorbachev met secretly with Babrak Karmal, the General Secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the Russians' governor in Kabul. Gorbachev told Karmal that, beginning in the summer of 1986, he would be on his own when it came to warding off the mujahedeen. Karmal was taken completely by surprise. Convinced that Afghanistan represented a vital buffer zone for the Soviets along their southern border, he had not expected such a radical about-face.
Then Gorbachev took his plan to the Politburo. "We will do everything possible to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible," he told his comrades, "with or without Karmal."
That, though, was easier said than done.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority within the party leadership -- as revealed by the Politburo minutes -- suddenly began claiming to have seen from the start that the Afghanistan invasion was a risky adventure. But Gorbachev soon realized that there was also serious opposition to his plan for immediate withdrawal -- and that the Afghans themselves were unwilling to accept the departure of Soviet troops.
Gorbachev's first move was to replace Karmal with the more nationalist Mohammad Najibullah before then firing his ambassador in Kabul. Indeed, one need hardly look further than this episode to notice the change Gorbachev had brought to the Kremlin. On May 29, 1986, he told the Politburo:
Our ambassador says to Najibullah: "I have made you General Secretary." It is time to recall him. He is behaving like a general governor.
Afghanistan was now a permanent item on the agenda during meetings of the Kremlin's inner circle. Gorbachev's main concern was that the withdrawal be accomplished in an orderly fashion and that the United States and Pakistan not become involved. In other words, Gorbachev wanted to remain in control of the withdrawal. "The outcome must not look like a humiliating defeat. We have lost too many of our boys."
On July 11:
We are pulling out six regiments. In this way we demonstrate that the USSR does not intend to "break through to the warm seas." Najibullah must understand that we are serious about all of this. And that he must take the matter into his own hands. The Afghans should deal with their country themselves. And we ought to reduce the number of "advisors" we have there, 9,000 at present. It is time to put an end to our dominance there.
But little actually happened -- at least for the time being. Gorbachev knew that many around him interpreted the new way of thinking as little more than a tactical maneuver and that many of his military leaders still felt that the doctrine of a balance of power with the United States should remain their guiding light. Afghanistan was, for them, an absolute necessity.
The Kremlin leader soon realized that his approach was being resisted. In the ensuing months, there were fierce debates in the Politburo in which Gorbachev attempted, once again, to break through all fundamental opposition to his policy:
Gorbachev: We have been fighting there for six years now! If this continues, we will be doing so for another 20 or 30 years.
Shevardnadze: We must end the war, and we must set a deadline for troop withdrawal. Our people there do not understand that they are dealing with a sovereign state.
Gorbachev: Why don't you do all of these things? In which office were the decisions made that contradict our decisions here in the Politburo? There is no movement anywhere. We had set ourselves a clear goal, and that was to withdraw 50 percent of our troops within two years. After all, we don't want socialism there. We simply want to prevent the United States from developing a military presence there after we withdraw. (He turns, demonstratively, to KGB deputy chief Kryuchkov) So no objections? Then it's settled. ( Click here for the related excerpt: "Speaking Openly.")
But things did not improve. Najibullah was unable to gain a foothold and did not pursue the policy of "national reconciliation" demanded by Gorbachev, knowing full well that he had supporters in Moscow who felt the same way, including KGB leader Kryuchkov (who would stage a coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991).
"We must find a way not to lose Afghanistan," Kryuchkov said at a meeting in May 1987. "We cannot allow it to become a military staging ground for anyone else, be it Iran, Turkey or the fundamentalists. We cannot leave, walk away and abandon everything."
Once again, it was Gorbachev who launched a tirade against those seeking to boycott his policy. He spoke of the Afghan king, with whom he hoped the Russians could establish a relationship, of the fact that Afghan emigration had to be taken into account and that an Afghanistan without Islam was inconceivable and that, for this reason, the opposition had to be part of the government in Kabul. "It will not work with two or three percent of seats; it will have to be more than 50 percent of government posts." It was tantamount to blasphemy in a place where, only a few years earlier, precisely the opposite had been decided!
But the change in direction in Kabul came too late and was ineffective, as the mujahedeen began their siege of the capital. Najibullah's calls for military assistance grew louder and louder, but by April 1988 Gorbachev knew that this government could no longer be rescued.
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.
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, Gorbachevs plan for disarmament encountered much stronger resistance among the generals.
Especially galling for the leaders of the 5 million-strong Soviet army was Gorbachevs 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.