August 27, 2016


The Gorbachev Files: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse (Christian Neef, 8/11/11, Der Spiegel)

Reading the documents feels like stepping back in time. All at once, they reveal the many problems of the calcified system, where farmers and miners alike were rebelling and intellectuals were demanding democratic elections. The people of the Baltic states, the Georgians and the Moldovans were revolting against the Russians, while the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine -- the Soviet Union foreign policy that countries could not leave the Warsaw Pact -- was looming in Eastern Europe.

Gorbachev, who had once been a provincial official in Stavropol, stood at the helm of this country, watching it suffocate as a result of its sheer size and the refusal of its bureaucracy to change course. The documents also show that even under Gorbachev, the bureaucracy was as inefficient as ever.

Gorbachev's aide Anatoly Chernyaev, for example, complains about incompetent leaders in the global communist movement, like French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais ("a dead horse") and Gus Hall, the chairman of the Communist Party USA ("a philistine with plebeian conceits"). Nevertheless, Moscow was still paying millions to support its representatives around the world.

At this time, shops in the Soviet Union had run out of eggs and sugar, and even vodka was in short supply. Conditions were so bad that, in September 1988, Chernyaev had to submit a written request to get a telephone connection in the apartment of his driver Nikolai Nikolayevich Maikov, so that the general secretary could reach him. [...]

Gorbachev later used some of the documents in his books, much to the chagrin of the current Kremlin leadership. But many of the papers are still taboo to this day. This is partly because they relate to decisions or people that Gorbachev is still unwilling to talk about. But most of all it is because they do not fit into the image that Gorbachev painted of himself, namely that of a reformer pressing ahead with determination, gradually reshaping his enormous country in accordance with his ideas.

During a research visit to the Gorbachev Foundation, the young Russian historian Pavel Stroilov, who lives in London today, secretly copied about 30,000 pages of the material archived there and made them available to SPIEGEL.

The documents reveal something that Gorbachev prefers to keep quiet: that he was driven to act by developments in the dying Soviet state and that he often lost track of things in the chaos. They also show that he was duplicitous and, contrary to his own statements, sometimes made deals with hardliners in the party and the military.

In other words, the Kremlin leader did what many retired statesmen do: He later significantly embellished his image as an honest reformer.

The West has praised Gorbachev for not forcefully resisting the demise of the Soviet Union. In reality, it remains unclear to this day whether the Kremlin leader did not in fact sanction military actions against Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Lithuanians, who had rebelled against the central government in Moscow between 1989 and 1991. When Soviet troops violently quelled the demonstrations, 20 people were killed in Georgia, 143 in Azerbaijan and 14 in Lithuania, not to mention the wars and unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester and Central Asia.

Many have not forgotten the tragedy that unfolded in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the night of April 8-9, 1989, when Russian soldiers used sharpened spades and poison gas to break up a protest march in the city.

Gorbachev claims that he was not made aware of the incident until six hours later. He had not given the military or the intelligence service clear signals to exercise restraint in the smoldering conflict, even though he knew how fragile the relationship was between Russians and Georgians. He also did not call anyone to account later on. Even today, he still says that it was "a huge mystery" as to who gave the orders to use violence in Tbilisi.

But when Gorbachev met with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the then-floor leader of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), on April 11, two days after the bloody suppression of the protests, he sought to justify the hardliners' approach. He later had the following passage deleted from the published version of the Russian minutes of the conversation with Vogel:

You have heard about the events in Georgia . Notorious enemies of the Soviet Union had gathered there. They abused the democratic process, shouted provocative slogans and even called for the deployment of NATO troops to the republic. We had to take a firm approach in dealing with these adventurers and defending perestroika -- our revolution.

The "notorious enemies of the Soviet Union" were in fact peaceful civilians. Of the 20 Georgians killed in Tbilisi, 17 were women.

A remark made at a politburo meeting on Oct. 4, 1989, in which Gorbachev learned that 3,000 demonstrators had been killed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that June, shows that he was prepared for resistance to his reform plans and was not necessarily ruling out the need for violent action. Gorbachev said:

We must be realists. They have to defend themselves, and so do we. 3,000 people, so what?

Although the minutes of the meeting were later published, this passage was missing.

Gorbachev: the wrong man for Andropov's reforms (ANDREI KONCHALOVSKY, 30 March 2011, Open Democracy)

Paradoxically, however, there was a kind of democracy flourishing in the USSR, and that was inside the narrow circle of Politburo members -- the governing body of the Central Committee (CC). All Politburo meetings were strictly secret, but the archives reveal that there were fairly heated discussions and confrontations between opposing points of view. No one was subsequently held responsible, or punished: people simply said what they thought. These Politburo discussions sometimes got as far as the CC itself, if it was necessary to publicise a new tendency. 

The next period of tension between the so-called liberals and conservatives blew up at the beginning of the 1960s. In the corridors of Dom Kino [the building at the centre of the film industry], I remember, there were intense discussions of the rumours about ideological debates going on inside the Kremlin. The new ideological head of the Party, Demichev, attempted to loosen control over literature and art, but this provoked a violent reaction from officials in the Soviet republics. Everyone was discussing the news that the Georgian Ideology Secretary had leapt on to the stage and shouted "I was a Stalinist and I still am! We will not permit the Party to be deprived of its leading ideological role!" A direct challenge to the Politburo!  Clearly these were no longer Stalinist times, when disagreement with the proposed party course meant instant death. But it was a sign that no reforms would get through without difficulty and that the party bosses were not afraid to protect their own interests.

In 1957, Yuri Andropov was head of the CC international department under Khrushchev.  He was then appointed Secretary to the Central Committee, in charge of interparty relations within the Soviet Bloc.  I remember the time very well: Andrei Tarkovsky and I were friends with some young people who were working in Andropov's foreign policy consultancy group in the CC administration.  There was Kolya Shishlin, Sasha Bovin, Zhora Shakhnazarov, Arbatov.... Andropov had employed them so as to inject some flexibility into the work of the all-powerful but cumbersome party apparatus. For Tarkovsky and me, meeting these people was a complete revelation, because they were young, free-thinking, educated, polyglot intellectuals. The freedom of thought that we enjoyed during our discussions at the dinner table -- over lots of vodka -- made me think that Andropov was different from those that had gone before him. If the likes of these people were his consultants, it indicated a wide-ranging world view, which didn't fit neatly into the dogma of the official elite. 

I should add that both Bovin and Shishlin, as well as other like-minded people in the department, were also responsible for writing the Secretary General's speeches. They told me that they always tried to see the text last, just before it was put in front of Brezhnev, and each time they checked to see that their paragraph condemning the cult of personality had not been taken out. The Stalinists working in the editorial section never failed to remove any negative references to Stalin or to the cult of personality.  Every time, Andropov's people would promptly put the offending paragraph back into the text and "guard" it until it was time for the speech. This was a legitimate way of putting their anti-Stalinist ideas into action.

As far as I can see, Andropov symbolised a wing of the Soviet "liberals", to a certain extent anti-Stalinists, though of course he never revealed this publicly. He was interested in European communism, which was natural, as he had always had dealings with Western communists. At the time, Western Marxism was moving actively in the direction of revising Stalinist dogma.

This long preamble is motivated by a wish to remind readers that the ideas of liberalisation and reform began not just anywhere, but from the heart of the Central Committee, and were implemented by people I knew.

In the middle of the 1960s, and under constant pressure from the liberal wing, the party signed itself up to economic reform. Prime Minister Kosygin was charged with putting the reform into effect. Kosygin was an economist and was quite unenthusiastic about the reforms, knowing the resistance this liberalisation would provoke among the Stalinists.  Understandably, for at that time the party had the monopoly of hearts, minds and the subsoil - in short, the riches of the whole country. The party elite had unlimited control over everything that was produced at that time in the Soviet Union, so any liberalisation would deprive the communists of their monopolistic privileges.

I remember meeting my friend Kolya Shishlin as he was returning from talks between the leaders of the Communist Parties of Czechoslovakia and the USSR.  He came towards me with a tragic face. "It's all over", he said. "We spent 10 years 'creeping up' on the enemy (Stalinist) trenches and that idiot (Dubcek) got up and 'ran for it', giving us all away. We'll have to forget about reforms for another 20 years."
The reforms and all the liberalising tendencies came to a tragic end, however, for Alexander Dubcek, Czechoslovakia's communist leader, sensed an opportunity and decided to get in first.  His Prague Spring (1968) set in motion an active programme to reform state organisations and the party.  Dubcek's project to decentralise the economy was christened "socialism with a human face".  We watched what was happening in Prague with amazement and delight, in sharp contrast to my friends in the Central Committee, who were afraid that it could all come badly unstuck.  Which, in the end, is exactly what happened.  The Soviet Stalinists, exploiting the rapid growth of anti-Soviet attitudes in Czechoslovakia, sent in the tanks and immediately put paid to all reforms in the USSR.  The reason given was that reforms could result in a similar catastrophe: the turning of the Soviet people against the whole totalitarian system.

Wise Kolya turned out to be absolutely right. It was 20 years later, in the middle of the 1980s, that the idea of progress dawned again, when Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the scene as a reformer. He had been transferred to Moscow at the end of the 70s under the direct protection of Andropov, who often took his holidays in the south, where he had treatment for his kidneys and where Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee of the CPSU. Andropov took a shine to him and introduced him to Brezhnev, who also liked the young, educated, modern party activist. This was how Gorbachev came to Moscow in 1978 as CC Secretary of Agriculture.

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.  [...]

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. Of course, it's easy for us to say this now. Back then, few people had any understanding of how complicated everything was - the one passionate desire was to destroy everything "quickly and for ever". 

Posted by at August 27, 2016 7:05 AM