In the midst of what looks very much like another Cold War, it seems remarkable that just three decades have passed since the beginning of the end dawned for the last one. It somehow feels more distant than that, almost like a different lifetime.
It was, however, on March 11, 1985 that the Kremlin suddenly ceased to resemble a geriatric ward. The new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the youngest member of the Politburo.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to that key post wasn’t a huge surprise. His candidacy had been mooted the previous year when Yuri Andropov died barely 15 months into his tenure, having succeeded the long-serving but also long-ailing Leonid Brezhnev. Instead, the ruling party absurdly opted for Konstantin Chernenko, who was even older than Andropov and clearly not in the best of health.
By the time he died 13 months later, Chernenko has probably spent more time being tended to by doctors than attending to affairs of state. During that period Gorbachev was seen as effectively the second in command and the obvious successor. He was nonetheless something of an anomaly, and it was no doubt partly to allay alarm among the septuagenarians in the hierarchy about the new kid on the block that Andrei Gromyko, serving at the time as the ceremonial president, declared that there were teeth of steel behind the new general secretary’s charming smile. He wasn’t entirely wrong. Gorbachev was a determined man. But his chances of rising to the top would almost certainly have been stymied had the nature of his determination been evident back then.
Gorbachev had decided that the Soviet Union could no longer continue along the unimaginative trajectory that had become the default following the overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev two decades earlier. The woes of a faltering economy had been compounded by the consequences of the stupid decision to invade Afghanistan, which inevitably included heightened tensions with the West.
“We cannot,” he had resolved, “go on living this way.” Inevitably, there was considerable resistance to reform on both the political and the economic fronts. In some ways, though, the former yielded more dividends than the latter. Breaking up the Communist Party’s monopoly on power proved to be a broadly popular endeavor, notwithstanding the nomenklatura’s undisguised dismay at the erosion of its hitherto barely challenged powers. Pluralism began to take root. With glasnost, the blank pages in Soviet history began to be filled. The 1917 slogan “All power to the soviets” was revived as a means of deflating the party.
In economic terms, however, a feasible alternative to state-run enterprises proved harder to figure out. Privatization was anathema to all too many people, often for perfectly valid reasons — as the post-Soviet experience demonstrated. Workers’ democracy was not the sort of concept that could be introduced by decree. There was talk of “market socialism,” and Gorbachev eventually evinced considerable interest in the Swedish model of a mixed economy. But not much good came of it all.
The pace of reform, meanwhile, emerged as key bone of contention, with rival wings represented by Yegor Ligachev on the conservative side and the rather more popular Boris Yeltsin, who was more than a bit bolshie back in the day, demanding rapid change — albeit not from the neoliberal point of view he subsequently embraced. Gorbachev strove for a balance, but it wasn’t easy to strike. Eventually a pincer movement of sorts doomed his project to failure. The conservatives conspired to stage a coup, but it was a crude attempt and Muscovites in their hundreds of thousands demonstrated their unwillingness to accept any kind of regression. With Gorbachev under house arrest in a Crimean dacha, it was Yeltsin, by then the Russian president, who emerged as a heroic figure, buoyed by western support, and thereafter proceeded to negotiate a federation treaty that sealed the Soviet Union’s fate.
The USSR’s demise was an unintentional consequence of the forces Gorbachev had set in motion. His domestic popularity had substantially diminished by then, but remained high overseas. There are two aspects to this.
Viscerally anti-Soviet western leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher saw in his ascendancy an opportunity for undermining their most formidable foe. Ordinary westerners, on the other hand, were thrilled by a Kremlin boss who exuded charm, seemed amenable to reason and rendered meaningless the concept of a communist military threat. The extent of his popularity gained a name: Gorbymania. And the spurts of excitement wherever he put in a public appearance became known as Gorbasms.
The idea of socialism with a human face attracted widespread appeal. That wasn’t the outcome, though, either in Russia and other former Soviet states, or in the Eastern European satellites where, in the late 1980s, communist regimes fell like dominoes. But much of this occurred without a great deal of violence, which seemed like a blessing. Who could have thought that 25 years later eastern Ukraine would be a war zone?
It’s easy in hindsight to criticize the serious shortcomings of Gorbachev’s transformative project, but there are no conclusive answers to the question of exactly what he could have attempted instead, short of persisting with an untenable status quo. Gorbachev’s popularity in the West offers an obvious contrast with the demonization of Vladimir Putin — a leader whom Gorbachev commended early on, not least as an alternative to the highly unreliable Yeltsin, but subsequently changed his mind about.
An opinion poll reported in The Washington Post on Monday suggests that hostility toward America has never been so widespread among Russians since the Stalin era. Western distrust of Moscow, meanwhile, has also reached levels hardly witnessed in half a century. Whether this can be characterized as unfinished business from the Soviet era or a different phenomenon altogether remains an open question.