Was Mikhail Gorbachev the greatest reformer of the 20th century? Or did he rise to the position of Communist Party leader more or less by accident, only to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union through indecision and fear? Twenty years after perestroika, the politician's legacy is still disputed.
This is the second part of a SPIEGEL series looking at the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Read part one here and SPIEGEL's exclusive interview with Gorbachev here.
Let's assume Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika policy had succeeded and the USSR hadn't disintegrated. The Soviet Union would still be the Soviet Union. It might now be a country with a number of vibrant political parties, where different coalitions shared power in Moscow.
Its booming economy might have outstripped China's. German tourists wouldn't just go skiing in the Alps; they'd go to the Caucasus too and they wouldn't need a visa. And Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko would still be working on a collective farm somewhere near Minsk.
But you can forget all that because the huge country of 15 republics and 290 million people imploded 20 years ago. And Gorbachev remains today the person he was, in the eyes of his closest confidant Anatoly Chernyaev, on the day of his resignation on December 25, 1991, when he addressed his people from the Kremlin for the very last time to bemoan their country's demise.
Chernyaev wrote in his diary that Gorbachev spoke fluently, without notes, "with calm, dignity and grandeur. But of course he is a tragic figure, even if I find it hard to apply that word to him as someone who saw him every day."
How could someone whom many consider the greatest reformer of the 20th century be a tragic figure? Someone whom Germans to this day turn out to cheer whenever he visits their country? A man who could bring together 4800 guests at the Royal Albert Hall in London for his 80th birthday this March and who shared a stage with Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger?
There are two photographs of Gorbachev which capture the full sweep of his political career. In the first, dating from 1985, we can see the newly elected general secretary of the Communist Party giving one of his first speeches at the Kremlin, the CPSU insignia visible on the lapel of his plain blue suit. In the other, dating from 2007, he is an advertising icon, being chauffeur-driven past the remains of the Berlin Wall in a black trench coat and pinstripe suit, with a Louis Vuitton luxury travel bag by his side.
What has happened to Gorbachev in the more than 20 intervening years? Why was there such acclaim at the Royal Albert Hall yet not a single representative from the Kremlin at his birthday celebrations in Moscow? Is it fitting that the West fawns over the former Soviet leader? And are Russians, Ukrainians and Uzbeks wrong to see Gorbachev as supremely corrupt because he gambled away their great empire?
The Russian market is currently awash in a wave of new books. They bear titles such as "The End of the Soviet Empire" and "The Contract Killing of the USSR. The True Story of a Catastrophe."
Some books claim that Gorbachev was an American agent tasked with bringing about the collapse of the communist world, a mission he successfully accomplished.
Other pro-Gorbachev titles cultivate legends about the reforming politician, depicting him as a messiah. They are equally guilty in misrepresenting the man with the famous birthmark on his forehead.
At first glance, it seems easy to outline Gorbachev's achievements: He gave his countrymen the right, at long last, to express their opinions openly. He released Andrei Sakharov from internal exile and opened the borders. He calmed fears of a nuclear holocaust. He gave the 100 million inhabitants of the Eastern bloc their independence back. He improved his country's relations with China and Israel.
None of that is controversial, at least not in the West. The only question is which of those things came about as a result of his political will. Who was and is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev really?
The Legend of the Early Communist Reformer
Was it Zdenk Mlyná who set the story of Gorbachev the dissident in motion? Mlyná was a student friend of Gorbachev's from Prague who worked as central committee secretary under Czechoslovakia's leader Alexander Dubek at the time of his ill-fated Prague Spring reforms in 1968. Mlyná later fled to the West. He had studied law with Gorbachev in Moscow in the early 1950s and said later that his Russian friend had displayed bravery and considerable rebelliousness very early on, had expressed doubts about the Soviet command economy from the outset and had revolutionized agriculture in his home region of Stavropol.
To date, there is an assumption that the arrest of Gorbachev's grandfather Andrei in 1934 on suspicion of being a kulak turned Mikhail Gorbachev, the son of a peasant, into an enemy of the regime; he is also said to have harbored reformist ideas from an early age. It is a myth.
Gorbachev was born in the southern Russian village of Privolnoye near Stavropol in 1931. He experienced the German invasion first hand, and his father served as a soldier in the war. The young Gorbachev drove combine-harvesters after the war was won. He studied, moved back to Stavropol, and became an official in the Communist Party's youth division, Komsomol. He was local party leader by 1970, having been a Communist Party member since his school days.
And thus continued Gorbachev's progress, mired neither in conflict nor scandal. In the words of Russian historian Roy Medvedev, Gorbachev's political biography was "markedly uneventful" until 1985. As a loyal party member, he fought against suspected opponents of communism, as one incident described by György Dalos in his biography "Gorbachev. Man and Power" demonstrates. Social scientist Fagim Sadykov, head of the Agricultural Institute in Stavropol, wrote a doctoral thesis advocating autonomy for kolkhoz farmers. The thesis was officially banned, and Gorbachev himself also savaged it. The dissertation defense was canceled. Sadykov lost his post and disappeared from Stavropol.
Gorbachev later said he felt "pangs of remorse" that he had acted this way against someone with a dissenting view. "I was a product of the system," Gorbachev himself said. In the majority of his speeches prior to 1985, Medvedev says there is "not a single original idea that you could quote."
It was more or less chance that led to Gorbachev coming to the attention of Moscow party headquarters and being made the Central Committee's agricultural secretary: Stavropol was close to the Caucasus resorts where the Moscow party elite liked to recharge their batteries and it was, of course, part of the regional party secretary's job to look after important guests. Gorbachev was pleasant to deal with and "had a way with words", according to one assessment -- all of which pleased his future patron, the head of the KGB.
Even when in Moscow, Gorbachev continued to be fairly insipid politically. The agriculture position was regarded as a kind of political hot seat whose occupant could easily lose his job. And so the newcomer proceeded with caution and loyalty. But the fact that he would be considered for the post of general secretary just a few years later came down to his age and eloquence, which was completely exceptional in party circles. He was just 54, and the youngest Politburo member, when Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko died at the age of 73, the third death of a party leader to befall the country in 28 months.
His greatest deficiency was that he wouldn't bring much experience to the top job. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, even his close colleagues knew neither his political views nor his political goals. At the time, he probably didn't even know them himself.
"We can't go on like this." That was his only slogan. Yet even that sounded like a revelation to his people, who began to expect great things of him. It was Gorbachev's job to modernize a sclerotic regime whose recent leaders had ended up ruling from their sick-beds.
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.
Gorbachev Refuses to Accept RealityThe 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?
A Spurned MessiahGorbachev now hated his successor to such a degree that he publicly likened him to Stalin. But that was really just a reflection of what was playing out deep in his psyche at the time. Fundamentally, he was rebelling against the qualities which he didn't possess, but which Yeltsin did -- and in abundance to boot. The new man in the Kremlin liked to take risks, and made decisions quickly and uncompromisingly. In the eyes of most Russians, Yeltsin was a muzhik, a "real man."
But Gorbachev thought he was the better politician. In the spring of 1996, Gorbachev stood in the yard of his childhood home, a humble brick building in Privolnoye in the foothills of the Caucasus. He met with people from his own region. He wanted to get back to his roots. The break-up of the Soviet Union "is the pain and cross I shall have to bear until the end of my days," he told them. But even here he was met with boos. "You were like sheep that patiently ate grass in the meadows," he shouted at the villagers. He added that he would "fight on to the bitter end, even if you crucify me". And then he compared his journey to Jesus's journey to Calvary, when once before, "people had spat on their redeemer."
He concealed his pain with a dash of megalomania. A painting by Russian artist Andrei Myagkov hung in Gorbachev's dacha outside Moscow where only a few friends were welcome. It showed Gorbachev as a shadow of the savior: Jesus has Gorby's birthmark on his right hand, which is bleeding.
Russia was too small for him now. He set to work on a "new civilization," founded his environmental organization Green Cross International and advocated saving the planet. But there was one thing the "idealist" couldn't see, namely that the ongoing worldwide interest in him was more about him than his political concerns. And because the general public was often unaware of those concerns, his countless appearances as part of publicity campaigns tended to seem a little off-putting.
In the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, Gorbachev opened a heating plant. He spoke about a "united Europe" at the Volksbank bank in the small western German city of Paderborn. He made commercials for computer manufacturer Apple and for the Pizza Hut chain. He appeared on talk shows discussing trivial issues. And in 2004, he won a Grammy music industry award for an audio book version of "Peter and the Wolf" which he had recorded with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren.
Gorbachev Looks Back on His Life
SPIEGEL meets Gorbachev in his Moscow office on a late July day. It is 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and he is not feeling his best. He has just had a major operation.
Behind him there is a large portrait of his wife Raisa; there are photographs of her on his desk and a particularly nice one of her in the hallway taken by an American. Raisa Maximovna was the love of his life. Two years ago, he sang seven "Songs for Raisa" for an album he recorded together with Andrei Makarevich, the lead singer of the veteran Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni.
"She couldn't cope with the stresses and strains of those years," Gorbachev says, looking up at the sky outside his window. "She already passed on in 1999." But then he quickly returns to his old self: cheerful, punchy, ironic. But is he really still his old self?
He now speaks of mistakes he made as Soviet leader for the first time, of misgivings, of fatigue. His duties took him "to the limit," he says. And he can now even joke about the dreaded monologues that used to annoy those around him back then.
Gorbachev, the man who wanted perestroika to set the ball rolling, not release an avalanche, can see things more clearly now. He has come into his own. He knows that he brought his people freedom but also that he couldn't keep his main promise from back then, namely that his people would finally have a better life.
Gorbachev was too weak for the battles of those years. It is true that were it not for his actions, the Soviet Union wouldn't just have disintegrated as it did. Not at the same speed. From another perspective, maybe the country really could have been reformed if a firmer hand had been on the rudder.
How does he deal with the hatred that so many Russians still feel for him to this day? "I'll have to die first before they'll say anything good about me," Gorbachev says dismissively. He has accepted that much by now.
What is his legacy? Moscow-based political scientist Lilia Shevtsova says that he has bequeathed a new country to the Russians, "even a new world." It's not his fault, she adds, "that we haven't yet learned how to live in it."
Gorbachev is the only Russian in the world with any moral authority, she says. "The fact that we Russians ignore him casts a bad light on us," she concludes. "Not on him."
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission