The Mystery of Mikhail Gorbachev's Ambiguous Legacy
Part 2: Why Perestroika Was Over Only Two Years After It Began
In April 1986, Gorbachev flew 800 kilometers to the southeast, to the automobile-manufacturing city of Tolyatti on the Volga and then on to Kuybyshev where, according to his advisers, he encountered "a sense of hope the likes of which hadn't been seen since the end of the war." He was mobbed on the streets. He then visited two factories and could not disguise his horror, comparing it to "a factory from the 18th century." Then there was the housing shortage "which was crying out to be solved. There were 17,000 too few places in kindergartens. And in a city of 600,000 people there was only one movie theater and no storage space for vegetables." But members of the nomenklatura, the elite class of senior officials, were catered for in special stores, Gorbachev noted with irritation.
That someone from the Kremlin was not only talking openly with the population but actually discussing matters with them hadn't been seen since the time of Lenin himself in the 1920s. "At last we have a leader who wants to drag the country out of the quagmire, who is willing to take risks," Anatoly Chernyaev enthused.
But the first decisions taken by Gorbachev led to disaster.
He began by attempting -- of all things -- to relieve the populace of one of its worst vices: alcoholism. It was true that there were at least 20 million alcoholics in the country, a quarter of whom were women. People were spending more than 50 billion rubles a year on vodka and 4 million Russians were already undergoing forced detoxification. But did that make an anti-alcohol campaign a good place to start?
Gorbachev limited sales to one liter of vodka per person. The result was that sugar disappeared from the shops as people began to brew at home, the state coffers lost billions in revenue and hundreds of thousands of people were prosecuted for bootlegging. The country was seething but it took the party leadership three years to correct its error.
His campaign against "unearned income" was equally disastrous. He was trying to be fair, but ended up impacting unofficial taxi-drivers and women who sold home-grown cucumbers at the market -- in other words, people whose labor helped alleviate the problems of the shortage economy.
The effects were clear: Gorbachev's perestroika, the much heralded restructuring of society, wasn't providing clear answers to people's everyday problems.
Instead of boosting trade and agriculture, getting goods into stores and raising the salaries of teachers and doctors, the Kremlin promoted a strategy of "acceleration." The country pressed ahead with a number of massive communist infrastructure projects -- such as the Baikal-Amur railroad -- while the majority of the population continued to live in poverty.
Gorbachev had a limited understanding of economics and also failed to enlist the right advisers. Rather than putting an end to central planning and decontrolling prices, he established new super-ministries and continued to subsidize a number of goods. He only gradually allowed co-operatives to form which would plant the seed for the re-establishment of private property.
The party leader failed to understand why the system was stagnating and kept poring through Lenin's works to find evidence that there was such a thing as "socialism with a human face". His own prime minister would later complain of the "absurdity of Gorbachev's ideas."
And thus the perestroika policy, which had only been launched in 1987, was shelved a mere two years later. When the oil price fell dramatically, causing problems for the state budget, soap and washing powder were added to the list of rationed goods alongside eggs and butter. But the population was no longer willing to put up with such conditions. The most serious wave of strikes in the history of the Soviet Union broke out -- and didn't abate until the country collapsed.
The Truth Behind Gorbachev's Overseas Offensive
But was Gorbachev more of a visionary when it came to foreign policy?
When he undertook his first overseas trip as party leader to France in October 1985, the newspaper Le Quotidien de Paris still greeted him as "GULAGchev". But soon the French also succumbed to the Soviet charm offensive. The Communist Party leader stayed for four days, holding talks, meeting the Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, and visiting the Opéra Royal in Versailles.
He also had his wife Raisa by his side; she was a philosopher who visited the salons of Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent. She fitted her husband out in Western chic. But if you looked closely enough, you could see the price tag which had unwittingly remained stuck to the sole of Gorbachev's new shoes as he sat on the stage at a joint press conference at the Élysée Palace with François Mitterrand.
The Soviets were still frustrated by the "irony, distance and arrogance" of their Western partners. But Gorbachev surprised them by suggesting halving strategic nuclear weapon arsenals and scrapping Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles.
Was it all just bluff, as the Americans believed for a long time? At the time, nobody knew, not even those in Gorbachev's closest circles. But Gorbachev had already revealed his strategy to the long-serving Soviet ambassador in Washington: "We cannot 'defeat imperialism' via the arms race, and what's more we can't hope to solve any of our domestic issues until we give up on that idea." Within a matter of weeks he had replaced the notorious naysayer Andrei Gromyko, who had spearheaded Soviet diplomacy for 28 years.
Gorbachev biographer Dalos characterized the Kremlin boss's foreign policy right from the outset as "honesty," and it is true that he was more straightforward in this area of politics. Seven months after coming to power, he presented his proposal to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan to members of his close circle. Then he began his overseas offensive to give perestroika breathing space. He made visits to Delhi, Madrid and Rome, and he met with then-US President Ronald Reagan in Geneva, Reykjavík, Moscow and Washington. The rapprochement between the Soviets and the West took place at breathtaking speed within the space of just four years.
At the US-Soviet summit held on the Maxim Gorki cruiser rocking in stormy conditions off Malta in December 1989, Gorbachev announced: "We have to stop viewing each other as enemies." President George Bush stood up, went over to his Russian counterpart and stretched out his hand; the photographers had a field day. Gorbachev had also dispensed with the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty for the Eastern Bloc states. The Cold War was over.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, NATO expansion -- the Communist Party leader ticked off all those momentous events almost unperturbed. He had more important matters to attend to at home. He was pursuing a foreign policy which he hoped would reap him rewards domestically; the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact was practically a relief. The Eastern Bloc states had become a burden.
The speed with which his foreign policy had brought about change made him a traitor in conservatives' eyes back home. But it is not inaccurate to say that Gorbachev basked too much in his foreign policy successes and was not always aware of all the consequences of his actions.