March 31, 2011


Gorbachev: the wrong man for Andropov’s reforms: Gorbachev is hailed for doing away with Soviet totalitarianism, yet his predecessor Andropov was the man actually responsible for preparing liberal reform some twenty years earlier. With Gorbachev hopelessly unaware of the forces he was unleashing, failure was inevitable, argues Andrei Konchalovsky (Andrei Konchalovsky, 30 March 2011, Open Democracy)

The idea of reform and liberalisation was entirely Andropov’s. As head of the KGB, he was better informed than anyone else about the catastrophic economic situation in the USSR. When he became head of state, he was able to start putting into effect the plan he had been hatching for a long time. I don't think Andropov completely trusted Gorbachev. He, Andropov, belonged to the older generation and was not intending to dismantle the system; the maximum he was prepared to consider was that a new type of person should be able to rule the country.

In many ways Heydar Aliyev was Andropov's more obvious successor and student. It was Aliyev that Andropov counselled to embark on reforms in his country, Azerbaijan, without worrying about the Soviet leadership. He also recommended to Aliyev that he should study the Hungarian economy and visit Hungary more often. There, economic reforms were in full swing after the 1958 uprising and there were even private companies and banks, something quite unimaginable in the USSR.

Andropov rang Aliyev and invited him to Moscow as First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers (Sovmin), which was an important economic post. To my mind this offer of an All-Union [central] position meant significantly more than we can imagine.

Perhaps Andropov realised Gorbachev did not have the required authority to introduce reforms in the empire that was the USSR. Perhaps he understood what was needed was a politician of a different calibre. I've heard many times from friends of Aliyev that the terminally ill Andropov was torn with uncertainty over whom he should appoint as his successor. Many thought it might be Aliyev who would become the head of this great state. But Aliyev himself realised the impossibility of this for a non-Russian. After Stalin, the Russian people would not have wanted to see an Azeri from an Islamic republic as their head of state.

Thus there were two fairly strong political figures in the CC Politburo when Andropov left the scene: Heydar Aliyev, believer in a strong state and national hero of Azerbaijan; and Mikhail Gorbachev, young and raring to go out and make historic changes. Gorbachev denies that he did everything to ensure Aliyev was not part of a possible leadership battle. At the same time, Heydar Aliyev told me himself that when he had a heart attack in 1987, Gorbachev failed to visit him in hospital, and even ignored repeated requests to meet once he had recovered. This belied the fact that Aliyev had been one of Andropov's closest disciples and had many times spoken out in favour of Gorbachev. The battle between these two powerful figures ended when Gorbachev achieved supreme power, while Aliyev was left under a cloud and forced to retire from the scene.

As a “new man”, Gorbachev (who was born in 1931) probably thought he could free the Soviet system from all its economic and ideological encumbrances. He probably hoped that this would guarantee unprecedented economic growth and inspire the people to new heights of achievement in the field of labour and so on. But it didn't happen. What happened was exactly the opposite.

Gorbachev certainly didn’t expect the course that events took, and for most of his time in power he was completely lost. The simple reason is that he didn't have (nor could he have done!) any real political experience which would have enabled him to perceive the results of his actions. It's unlikely that he could have imagined dismantling the system without being buried in the resulting wreckage. His lack of experience, education and intellectual potential meant that he had no idea of what was needed to embark on such a grandiose plan.

Posted by at March 31, 2011 5:36 AM

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