Dale R. Herspring
While much attention lately has focused on Vladimir Putin and Russia’s recent elections, Russians also have been re-evaluating Mikhail Gorbachev and his role as the last president of the Soviet Union.
When Gorbachev’s presidency was ending, Russia appeared to be coming apart. Farmers and miners were rebelling and intellectuals were calling for democratic elections. Also, together with the Baltics, the people of Georgia and Moldava were revolting against the Russians.
Soviet military commanders were laboring — and not very successfully — to convince soldiers that they were Soviets first and representatives of their ethnic groups second. What’s more, the Brezhnev Doctrine — the order that no country of Eastern Europe could leave the Warsaw Pact without Moscow’s permission — was beginning to unravel. In other words, both Russian foreign and domestic policies were beginning to fragment.
It was not as if Gorbachev did not understand what was going on. He did. In fact, he introduced his policies of glasnost and perestroika to try to reverse Russia’s seemingly hopeless drift into chaos. Perhaps the most intransigent problem involved the Soviet bureaucracy. Inefficiency was rampant. Little was done on time and quality was abysmal — generally so low that one would be hard pressed to give Russian products away in the West. To make matters even worse, shops in Moscow had run out of eggs, sugar and, inconceivably, vodka.
Gorbachev was under extreme pressure from the security service and Communist Party hardliners. They wanted him to either declare martial law or to step down so that someone prepared to use force to restore order could take over. Based on documents we now have, Gorbachev was in a quandary. He admired the ideology that had sustained communism and the U.S.S.R. for 70-odd years. The ultimate goal, equality for everyone, was inspiring. Who would not be in favor of such a utopia?
However, like most Russian leaders, Gorbechev probably feared disorder most. If the masses (who are assumed to be unwise and easily mislead) get out of line, the entire Soviet experiment would fall apart.
This raises one of the great ironies about Gorbachev. How could someone cognizant of the danger of disorder introduce policies like glasnost (which permitted the public to criticize the government) and perestroika (which called for a restructuring of Soviet society, industry and just about every other part of life)?
The answer is relatively simple. Gorbachev naively believed he could maintain control while repairing the system. After all, wouldn’t citizens feel better if they could criticize the government, point out its inefficiencies, expose bureaucrats who were holding up progress? Likewise, wouldn’t the system work better and citizens work better if the parts of the structure that did not work were changed until they did?
Unfortunately, Gorbachev did not realize that the incompetent group of conspirators who tried the coup against him were right about one thing: If you take a highly centralized political system, and begin decentralizing it — and permitting more and more freedom — you will quickly lose control. Gorbachev thought the masses would only criticize the system, not try to tear it down. The same was true of perestroika. Who in his right mind would want to tear down the communist system? Reforming it to get rid of the bureaucratic dictatorship was enough.
When he realized his mistake, he switched his approach toward modernizing communism (as practiced in the U.S.S.R.) — a noble undertaking. Several Russian friends who worked for Gorbachev said they could not convince him that once he opened the door to decentralization and open criticism, there was no turning back.
Most Russians I have dealt with say they are bitter about Gorbachev because he destroyed the U.S.S.R. — took it and turned Russia into a beggar state. His approval rating is somewhere around 5 percent. Yet those who criticize him need to answer two questions. What was the alternative and how else could the country be decentralized?
I find it amazing that he did what he did while avoiding an outside conflict. There were times when some felt the United States and Russia could easily have slipped into armed conflict. Thank God, and perhaps Gorbachev, that we did not.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.