Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–2022)

Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at the age of 91, ruled the Soviet Union for nearly forty years. It has become a cliché to point to his decades in power and his reforming zeal—as well as his capacity for targeted brutality—and compare him to Peter the Great. The announcement of his death, in a laconic update on the Central Committee’s website, has been followed by displays of extravagant and seemingly sincere public mourning across the USSR and the whole Sino-Soviet bloc. It is understandable that some commentators, looking at these scenes and at the wider cult of Gorbachev’s personality that has characterized Soviet life in recent years, should have decided that his reforms to the way Russia is governed were spurious. He has even been called a second Stalin. And yet Gorbachev’s reforms were real. Among the celebrities and generals paying tribute to him has been the leader of the opposition, Boris Kagarlitsky: such a thing would have been inconceivable under any of Gorbachev’s predecessors. Nonetheless, the tribute was a fulsome one, and Mr Kagarlitsky’s five members in the Congress of People’s Deputies have never caused the Kremlin much loss of sleep; Gorbachev’s reforms were not unlimited. It is for his achievements in foreign policy—the dramatic retrenchment in Eastern Europe, the rebuilt alliance with China, the ‘war on reaction’ in the first decade of the new century, and the present cautious moves towards détente—that he will above all be remembered.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 to a peasant family in Russia’s Stavropol region. He secured a coveted place to read law at Moscow University, although he never completely shed the southern accent that marked him out among educated Muscovites—and may have encouraged them to underestimate him. (Eventually, at the height of the Gorbachev cult, some metropolitan intellectuals would come to affect a slight Stavropol burr themselves.) It was in Moscow that Gorbachev met Raisa Titarenko, a philosophy student from Siberia: they were married in 1953, and after her death in 1999 he never married again. Gorbachev graduated with a distinction in 1955 and returned to his home region, where he almost immediately embarked on his career as a full-time Communist Party official. It was a career that brought him to the heights of power in the ‘stagnation’ years of the 1970s; and Konstantin Chernenko’s death in 1985 left Gorbachev the obvious successor to the General Secretaryship.

One of the first issues he addressed was the Sino-Soviet split. The world’s two communist great powers had been bitter enemies since the late 1950s, and in 1969 they had even fought an undeclared border war on the Amur river: Gorbachev was determined to restore friendly relations with China. His charm offensive began in 1986 with a speech in Vladivostok, where he offered unilateral concessions to the Chinese on the border issue; and in 1989 he became the first Soviet leader in thirty years to visit Beijing. Western commentators’ attention, however, was drawn more to developments in central Europe. Gorbachev did not intervene as the Berlin Wall fell, Germany reunified, and several other Soviet satellites (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia) opted for the neutral status they still enjoy. Some Western observers even allowed themselves to hope that these events were about to be replicated in the USSR itself, with a liberal Russian Federation taking its place alongside independent states in Byelorussia, Georgia, and the Ukraine. It was a fantasy, of course.

But when the eventual crackdown came in August 1991 it began, curiously, in Gorbachev’s absence: he was at his dacha in the Crimea, recovering from a (perhaps diplomatic) illness, when a state of emergency was suddenly declared. Thousands of arrests are believed to have followed. Some sixteen years later, a one-line statement from the official news agency TASS announced that Boris Yeltsin—briefly the head of the Russian Republic—had died in a remote penal colony. It was the first time he had been mentioned in public since his detention.

This return to the past was only partial, however. The Soviet leader, bolstered by the enhanced presidential powers set out in the Gorbachev Constitution of 1992, pushed ahead with his agenda of gradual market reform—both for domestic reasons and also to strengthen the alliance with Beijing that increasingly formed the cornerstone of his policy. He was certainly never the ‘Europhobe’ and ‘pan-Asianist’ of right-wing rhetoric; neither was he, in truth, the passionate anti-colonial militant depicted in his own propaganda. He simply recognized that a willing China was worth a good deal more to his country, as an ally, than a doubtfully willing Czechoslovakia. In 1995, a declaration jointly signed by Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, and the Yugoslav leader Ivica Racan affirmed that the divisions in the communist movement were now a thing of the past. Various groups claiming the mantle of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International instantly descended into factional warfare over whether or not they would be willing to co-sign the declaration; it is not recorded that they had been asked.

Success in foreign policy was a welcome distraction from the state of the economy. The first half of the 1990s saw a return to modest growth—fuelled by rapidly expanding trade with China—after several years in which the economy seems not to have grown at all; but productivity remained stubbornly low. Gorbachev set up a special commission under Professor Boris Berezovsky, an academic in the field of cybernetics and optimization, to streamline and re-centralize the planning mechanism: but the results were uninspiring, and even today the Soviet Union’s economy lags behind the West on almost every indicator.

Probably Gorbachev’s greatest challenge came on 11 September 2001, when terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden—a veteran of the mujahideen campaign in Afghanistan—hijacked three Aeroflot passenger planes and flew them into buildings in Moscow and Leningrad. Thousands were killed. A fourth airliner crashed in the southern USSR, between Gorbachevsk and Lugansk; speculation that its intended target was the leader’s Crimean dacha was never confirmed, and any hint that Soviet air defences themselves had downed the aircraft to protect Gorbachev was firmly rejected. In an emotional speech to the Congress of People’s Deputies, Gorbachev blamed the attacks on the United States and the Arab monarchies: Washington and Riyadh, he said, constituted an ‘axis of counterrevolution’ whose members had armed and funded the mujahideen and were still conspiring against the Sino-Soviet peoples. For a time the world stood on the brink of war. Soviet warships blockaded Arabian ports to disrupt the flow of oil; economic sanctions imposed by the Sino-Soviet bloc tipped the USA and its allies into what has been remembered as the Great Recession. Radical Arab states like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen were meanwhile awash with military assistance intended for the ‘liberation of the peninsula’. Money and weapons flooded to opposition groups under the monarchies. In Oman, where civil war erupted first, it dragged on for several years before the rebels—stiffened by contingents of Venezuelan and Azanian ‘volunteers’—were able to claim victory; but a series of briskly-conducted military coups soon toppled the remaining thrones. (KGB involvement in what Moscow called the ‘Arab spring’ was never conclusively proved.) And by 2013 Gorbachev was able to visit Riyadh, or at least its heavily-guarded ‘red zone’, as a guest of the Arabian Federative People’s Republic.

In his last years Gorbachev made only occasional and carefully-staged public appearances: opening the Thirty-Fourth Congress, or reviewing the parade for the centenary of the revolution, or congratulating the first team of cosmonauts to take up residence on the Mir-7 station in Mars orbit. But his name, and his portrait, were everywhere; and his authority in the country and the bloc were unchallenged.

His successors should not assume the same will automatically be true for them. Xi Jinping always treated the older man with deference; but he will almost certainly expect the new Soviet leadership to take due account of China’s real preeminence in the communist world. If there is another ‘leader and guide of the liberated peoples’ after Gorbachev, it will not be a Russian. And history suggests Russia’s own rulers may not remain forever the ‘loyal fighters for Gorbachevist perestroika’ they now proclaim themselves.

Gorbachev, perennially bracketed with Lenin in official rhetoric, now joins him in the mausoleum on Red Square; but nobody can be certain how long he will stay there.

Tuesday, 30 August 2022