Harbinger of peace or chaos?
Tanya Vatsa looks back on the life and mixed legacy of the late – and last – leader of the Soviet Union
In March 1985, following the demise of Konstantin Chernenko, General Secretary of the Communist party,Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko famously said: ‘Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he has teeth of iron.’
He was referring to Chernenko’ssuccessor,Mikhail Gorbachev.
On 30 August this year,Gorbachev, last leader of the mighty USSR and often remembered as the man who enabled the historic alteration of the map of Eastern Europe, passed away. ‘Gorby’ was a popular figure in the West, hailed for his attempts to initiate liberal reforms in a staunchly communist nation. To appease both the Western and Eastern camps during the Cold War would have required super human ability, and Gorbachev’s domestic popularity saw several crests and troughs, until the fall of the Soviet Union dealt a fatal blow to his leadership. While diversity of opinion still exists, the last leader of the Soviet Union was remarkable for his daring endeavours, and a vision that created history.
A firm beginning
Gorbachev hailed from a village in Stavropol Krai in Russia, and began his political lifewith the local Komsomol youth organisation. His unprecedented rise through the party ranks – under General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who brought young reformers like Gorbachev to the political fore –saw him become the youngest member of the Politburo, Central Committee Secretary and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Supreme Soviet. After the death of Chernenko, there were two major fronts in the Communist party: the old guard from the Brezhnev clan, supported by the ministries and bureaucracy, versus Andropov’s young leaders, supported by the KGB.
Under Andropov, Gorbachev wielded considerable control over ideology, party machinery, the economy and agriculture. The Chernenko years had been a difficult time for the Soviet economy, and they gave Gorbachev ample time to hone his leadership skills without assuming responsibilities. Although he has often been hailed as a leader different from his predecessors – and this may be true vis-à-vis his distinct vision for a prosperous Soviet future –he nonetheless continued the ‘personality cult’so prevalent amongst Soviet leaders, along with a quick consolidation of absolute power. The forced retirement of his nemesis Grigory Romanov, the appointment of trusted confidantes to key positionsand the total wipeout of opposition made him an imposing authoritarian. His phenomenal oratory skills, however, combined with his charismatic interactions with the people (a first in the USSR), set him apart from the previous long line of stern-faced dictators.
Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged several prominent changes to the then Soviet structure. The most significant were on the economic front. Stalin had believed in an economy predominantly driven by defence and heavy industry, which made no provision for social security or welfare. A similar model continued to be propagated by Brezhnev, with a centralised economy with minimum administrative reforms creating an illusion of efficiency. Gorbachev differed from them in his belief that it should be economic, not military strength which guaranteed national security. He wanted to give priority to light and consumer goods industries as prime movers of the economy.
Immediately after his appointment as supreme leader, Gorbachev became noted for his campaign against corruption and alcoholism. The intent here wassimultaneously toenable a favourable political reshuffle, and transform a society governed by the privileged into a more meritocratic one – a largely benign aim, though with a hint of power consolidation. In a major acknowledgment of past failures, Gorbachev took a step towards opening up the Communist Party and its institutions to criticism.This, along with his emphasis on the people’s social needs, saw wide-scale confrontation from within the party. The Communists were against the propagation of populist elements, and the Soviet elites were threatened by a self-reliant leader who did not depend on the bureaucracy or collectively sanctioned empty jargon.
Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was known for its revolutionary reforms. He was the man behind the famous (or infamous) concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). His desire to pull the USSR out of its political and social stagnation marked the initiation of a reformative drive, the consequences of which were foreseen by neither the leader himself, nor his most vocal opponents. Gorbachev was also noted for calling for nuclear disarmament, and signing the nuclear treaty with US President Ronald Reagan, for the purpose of banning intermediate range nuclear missiles. Indeed, the liberal components of his reforms included mending relations with the United States, an entirely new chapter in the Soviet Union’s historical trajectory.
End of an era and an empire
Another consequence of Gorbachev’s Western inclination, liberal mindset and global popularity was the fate of Germany.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent reunification of Germany in October 1990, caused disaffection among the Soviet people, given the loss of the lucrative East German market. Reunification was attributed to Gorbachev’s desire to appease the West, and it was a turning point for his domestic reputation. The smooth merger of Germany, without Russian military intervention, earned Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. But the Soviet people did not hold the honour in high esteem. According to Gorbachev’s own memoirs, the award was seen as a stamp of approval from Western imperialists, and the Russian leadership was particularly hostile.
Between 1988 and 1991 was a period Gorbachev referred to as ‘democratisation’, during which he aimed for a radical reconstruction of the political system, with the introduction of free elections, parliament, and a multi-party system, in order to restore political freedom. It was this ambition that resulted in several Soviet republics declaring independence from the Central Russian yoke, starting with Lithuania and the other Balticstates. Finally, the suspension of the CPSU was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet structure. When the Russian parliament declared independence under Boris Yeltsin, it was time for the last leader of the fallen Soviet Union to reluctantly step down in December 1991.
Bidding farewell to Gorbachev
Despite Gorbachev’s economic reforms being growth-oriented, his steps towards decentralisation and recourse to a market economy were seen as weakening the Russian foothold. The USSR was not a homogenous country, but a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national empire. Gorbachev’s reforms may have been well-meaning, but an archaic, deprived society was not ready for modernity at such breakneck speed. The Soviet Union did not have institutions in place for the inception of democracy, and its long dependency on the Communist Partystymied the formation of any other relevant governing body.
Except for a handful of liberals, most of Russia today holds Gorbachev responsible for the fall of the once giant USSR. The West, however, hails him as the man who ended the Cold War, with the reunification of Germany and dismantling of the Soviet Union. While the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a tragic outcome ofSoviet disintegration,historically, it was the most peaceful transfer of power following the breakdown of an empire.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev wrote that ‘perestroika did not give people prosperity but I did not promise that. I urged people to use this new-found freedom to create prosperity, personal and social, with their own hands and minds, according to the abilities of each’.
The chaos that created history was, at its heart, wellintentioned, if not well planned. Mikhail Gorbachev will always be remembered as a man of great political stature. Whether one admires or loathes him, his legacy cannot be ignored.
Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti