The Mystery of Mikhail Gorbachev's Ambiguous Legacy
Part 3: Gorbachev Refuses to Accept Reality
The year 1988 was a turning point. The period of promises was followed by plenty of drama. Gorbachev had pressed ahead with political reforms aimed at quelling his countrymen's dissatisfaction. More freedom, or so he thought, would mean things working better. But matters were at boiling point and it was all threatening to blow up in his face.
Soviet leaders condemned by Stalin were rehabilitated and the censors declassified thousands of books which had previously been hidden away. Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" was finally published. The intelligentsia was thrilled. But Gorbachev showed himself to have a lack of insight. He had underestimated the people's repudiation of the old system. He now found himself having to kill sacred cows and radically limiting the Communist Party's own power. He maneuvered. He schemed. And he dithered.
It is not true to claim that he only failed because of the hardliners. He brought about his own downfall by being too willing to compromise, by always being determined to achieve balance and by being afraid of making unpopular decisions. He thus ended up between two fronts. The right wing of the party was calling for counter-reforms. Meanwhile on the left, a splinter group was forming of people who felt that Gorbachev was proceeding too slowly. Their leader was Boris Yeltsin, who called for direct and secret elections.
The Communist Party soon had little control over what was happening in the country. Gorbachev, who still clung to the party, found himself without supporters. From this point on, the diary entries of his adviser Chernyaev took a very different tone. Gorbachev, he wrote, "is making one tactical error after another" and "has underestimated the opposition's moral strength." One entry reads: "Gorbachev is beginning to lose influence in the country. Is he a leader for perestroika or the nomenklatura?" And: "It's becoming clearer and clearer to me: Until he abandons his inner 'communist who's remained true and loyal to socialist values,' he won't be able to advance perestroika."
After his leader had appeared at the Russian Communist Party's congress in June 1990, Chernyaev noted: "He answered in a muddle, too verbose, unclear. He repeated clichés. He's playing two roles: He's one person abroad and another here. There it's healthy common sense. Here it's fear instincts. I think he'll abandon the market economy too, and that will be his ignominious end."
Gorbachev could sense that his allure had gone. He would sometimes sit in his office and read out to his colleagues letters from "working people" that he had been sent by the head of the KGB, where he was denounced as an imperialist puppet. He assumed this was the KGB's way of warning him.
It also became clear to the leader's confidant at that moment that "the great and noble idea of leading the country away from Stalinist totalitarianism toward the development of something new had proved to be impossible." He went on: "When the time came, the 'great man' couldn't keep up with the enormity of events."
The head of the presidential administration would later write that he had become fearful, unsystematic, a man of words rather than action, irritable: "He was like a flare: There are plenty of sparks, it smells, but the fire goes out before anything catches light."
The events of 1991 were just the epilogue. Boris Yeltsin, his power-crazed rival, would soon take over the reins of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The year would be remembered for their dueling.
Bizarre things started happening in Moscow right at the beginning of the year, on January 7th to be precise: Yeltsin reinstated Orthodox Christmas as a Russian public holiday on that day, meaning workplaces were shut. But the leadership of the Soviet Union as a whole didn't recognize the holiday; outside, the streets were empty but at Party Central Committee headquarters, everyone was at their desks, including Gorbachev himself. "Boredom," wrote his secretary, "a feeling of weakness and futility."
Gorbachev again summoned all his energy and hoped to save his huge empire with a so-called new union treaty, but the attempted coup in August 1991 threw a spanner in the works.
Was he simply a victim or also a perpetrator of the coup attempt? "I can't believe that Gorbachev didn't know anything," claimed former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. There is a rumor that persists to this day that the Communist Party leader collaborated with the putsch to give him an excuse to purge the party of its right wing after its expected failure. But ultimately Gorbachev was just a pawn in a complicated scenario, one which Yeltsin ended up taking advantage of.
On December 24th, Yeltsin came to the Kremlin. The two men spent eight hours together; one handed the reins of office to the other. From now on, only Russia itself would be governed from what had been Gorbachev's office. But the new master humiliated the old once again, granting Gorbachev only the very minimum for his retirement: a couple of bodyguards, a small dacha, a 4000-ruble pension and no immunity from prosecution.
To this day, Mikhail Gorbachev claims that the Soviet Union could still have been saved even after the coup. He hangs on to the illusion. To admit anything else would doubtless be too painful.
Gorbachev's Image as the Man who Saved the World
September 1992, Wolfsburg, Germany. For a moment it felt like going back in time: about 30,000 staff members crowded into the huge hall where wheel-rims were normally made. They wanted to shake Mikhail Gorbachev's hand or at the very least get a look at him. The Russian guest of honor could remember the scene from factory visits in the early years of perestroika. But that was in the Soviet Union.
Now, this was Germany. Back at home, Pravda, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party that Gorbachev had headed only a year earlier, was caricaturing him as an American lackey. But in Wolfsburg, in a Germany which had Gorbachev to thank for its reunification, his presence was still feted. Gorbachev thought they were right to celebrate him; in his mind, he was in no way yesterday's man.
"He loved power," his confidant Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of the masterminds behind perestroika, said at the time, "and now he's suffering at having lost it". The pain was such that Gorbachev would still claim to be having "negotiations" whenever he met leading politicians in Bonn. But there was nothing left to negotiate. He flew ceaselessly to Washington, Berlin and London, as if a full diary might create the impression that he was still the leader of a superpower. He would accept honorary doctorates and dozens of prizes in the following years; some were prestigious, such as the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, others -- such as the "Golden Hen" award from the popular Eastern German weekly magazine Superillu -- less so.
But back in Russia, almost nobody wanted to hear anything more of Gorbachev. Yeltsin had pushed him out of public life and tormented his predecessor whenever he could. In spite of rampant inflation, he refused to increase Gorbachev's pension. In 1994, it was equivalent to $1.30. Then he took away his diplomatic passport and temporarily barred his access to the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, which Gorbachev had founded himself.
But Gorbachev, who was just as bloody-minded, attempted a comeback by entering the 1996 presidential elections. Like Don Quixote, he battled his way around the country. But Yeltsin made sure that the factory gates remained shut and that not a single mayor turned out to meet him. Gorbachev dreamed of new political alliances, but was never able to bring them off. He talked of the runoff vote that would be held. But when the election was held, he only received 0.5 percent of the vote.
Had he really learned nothing from the personal catastrophe which had befallen him?
- Part 1: Gorbachev's Ambiguous Legacy
- Part 2: Why Perestroika Was Over Only Two Years After It Began
- Part 3: Gorbachev Refuses to Accept Reality
- Part 4: A Spurned Messiah