June 21, 2011


The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev: A cautionary tale about what happens when you fail to see the revolution coming. (ANNE APPLEBAUM, JULY/AUGUST 2011, Foreign Policy)

In fact, Gorbachev did not intend for things to end up the way they did. But then, Gorbachev never set out to become one of the founding fathers of modern Russia either. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary; his intention, when he became leader of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, was to revitalize the Soviet Union, not undo it. He knew that the system was stagnant. But he didn't understand why. Instead of abolishing central planning or calling for price reform, he announced a drastic anti-alcohol campaign: Perhaps if the workers drank less, they would produce more. Two months after taking power, he put restrictions on the sale of alcohol, raised the drinking age, and ordered cuts in production. The result: enormous losses to the Soviet budget and dramatic shortages of products, such as sugar, that people began using to brew vodka illegally at home.

Only after this campaign failed -- and only after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster brought home to him the real dangers of secrecy in an advanced industrial society -- did Gorbachev make his second attempt at reform. Like the anti-alcohol campaign, glasnost, or openness, was originally meant to promote economic efficiency. Open discussion of the Soviet Union's problems would, Gorbachev believed, strengthen communism. He certainly never intended his policy to change the USSR's economic system in any profound way. On the contrary, not long after taking power, he told a group of party economists, "Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers, but about the ship, and the ship is socialism."

Of course, Gorbachev later wound up changing his ideas, in economics and many other areas. Indeed, this pattern would repeat itself many times. Determined to save central planning, he told people to talk openly about it -- as a result of which they concluded that it didn't work. Determined to save communism, he let people criticize it -- as a result of which they decided they wanted capitalism. Determined to save the Soviet empire, he gave Eastern Europeans more freedom -- which they used to wriggle out of the empire's grasp as quickly as possible. He never understood the depth of cynicism in his own country or the depth of anti-communism in the Soviet satellite states. He never understood how rotten the central bureaucracies had become or how amoral the bureaucrats. He always seemed surprised by the consequences of his actions. In the end he wound up racing to catch up with history, rather than making it himself.

In fact, all of Gorbachev's most significant and most radical decisions were the ones he did not make. He did not order the East Germans to shoot at people crossing the Berlin Wall. He did not launch a war to prevent the defection of the Baltic states. He did not stop the breakup of the Soviet Union or prevent Yeltsin's rise to power. The end of communism certainly could have been far bloodier, and if someone else had been in charge it might have been. For his refusal to use violence, Gorbachev deserves Anka's corny serenade.

But because he did not understand what was happening, Gorbachev also did not prepare his compatriots for major political and economic change. He did not help design democratic institutions, and he did not lay the foundations for an orderly economic reform. Instead, he tried to hold on to power until the very last moment -- to preserve the Soviet Union until it was too late. As a result, he did not politically survive its collapse.

Posted by at June 21, 2011 6:10 AM

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