RIP Gorbachev: The fate and legacy of a Communist leadertext_fields
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the only one among Russian leaders in the 20th century to allow freedom. In Russia, there is a notion that oppression is sound governance. Gorbachev opened the slave labour camps. He freed tens of thousands of political prisoners. He closed the torture chambers. He allowed free media. He allowed religious liberty. He allowed the free market. He allowed people freedom of movement. He said that he would not shoot dead unarmed protesters. Gorbachev permitted Eastern European countries to plough their own furrough. After him, they were no longer militarily occupied against their will. He was also a peacemaker in Afghanistan. No wonder Putin reviles him.
In 1931 Gorbachev was born into a poor farming family in a village in southwest Russia. Both his grandfathers were accused of being too successful at farming. They spent years in labour camps. It was the time of the famines that were purposively caused by the Soviet regime.
M S Gorbachev thrived at school. He was allowed to join the Communist Party. Only clever and reputable people were allowed to do so. This bright boy went to Moscow State University to read law. Back then a tiny percentage of Soviets went to university. The USSR was a land of poverty. In his five years at university, Gorbachev had only one pair of trousers.
At university MSG once met a Czechoslovak undergraduate. The Czechoslovak returned home after some time. MSG sent a postcard to his friend in Czechoslovakia. The secret police came and interviewed him about it. Sending a postcard to a friend even in a communist country invited suspicion.
After graduation, Gorbachev rose up the ranks of the government. He was a lawyer – a profession then held in low esteem. Engineering was the profession of choice.
Soon after finishing university Gorbachev wed Raisa. She was the love of his life. No one ever suggested he strayed from her. Long after she died in 1999 he pined for her. The progeny of their union was a daughter who became a doctor and later the mother of two.
Before long Gorbachev was back in his native Stavropol District. He eventually was appointed chairman of the party there: in effect governor.
In the 1970s Gorbachev came to the notice of Moscow as an effectual and incorruptible party boss. He was made a candidate member of the politburo (i.e. cabinet). Politburo is short for the political bureau. There were about a dozen members at a time. After several years as a candidate member, he was raised to full membership of the politburo.
In the late 1970s, Gorbachev was Agriculture Minister. Farming in the USSR was very unproductive. How was it that with the largest land mass on earth the USSR could not feed itself? The USSR had 12% of the world's land area and 4% of its population. Much of the land was super fertile. How was it that the USA with a much smaller land area and a larger population could feed itself and have ample food left over for export? The USSR was supposedly run for the benefit of the common people. The United States was run for the benefit of the super-rich. Yet in the USA the common man lived far better than in the USSR. The average American had a car but the average Soviet did not even have a bicycle.
The USSR had to purchase grain from the United States in the 1970s. Soviet oil production was booming. After the oil shock of 1974 oil prices were sky high. Therefore, the Soviets could easily afford to buy foodstuffs from abroad. Many construction projects were undertaken in the 1970s. It was the most prosperous period in Soviet history.
Gorbachev noticed that many tractors were never used. Tonnes of food rotting in warehouses because it was not distributed in time. Soviet citizens had to queue for hours in the snow to wait to buy basic foods. In a shop a person had to queue thrice: one to choose an item, once to pay for it and once to collect it. It was egregiously inefficient.
The communist elite was the new aristocracy as they even said in private. Nikolai Patrushev later said publicly that intelligence officers were the new nobility. The nomenklatura (the select few favoured by the government) did not have to wait in long lines to buy food. They were allowed into plentifully stocked shops to buy whatever they wanted. They lived in superior housing, they had cars, they had plenty of clothes, and they had access to the finest healthcare and a first-class education. They were allowed to travel even to Western countries.
Communism had overthrown capitalism in the name of liberating the working class. Yet communism was not emancipatory. The communist leaders had become the new ruling class. They exploited and discriminated against the working class who were 95% of the population. The communist elite was ruthlessly oppressive. The elite largely excluded those who were not ethnically Slavic.
The USSR was heavily oppressive. People needed permission to travel even around their own union republics. The Soviet regime was cruelly intolerant of even the mildest dissent. In 1980 John Lennon died and some students in Moscow foregathered to commemorate the British musician. The students were arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting. In the USSR people had no rights. They were guaranteed an unfair trial.
In 1985 Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Praesidium of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He was in effect the supremo. He tried to win the war against Afghanistan. Eventually, he realized that this was impossible and decided to withdraw.
In the economic sphere, Gorbachev realized that the USSR had overestimated the ability of the state or organize everything. In Moscow, calculations were made about how many socks were needed each year, for instance. How many pairs in each size and colour and how many each factory was to make and how many each shop was to stock. This was true of all items. But not enough of anything was made. Moreover, the goods were of very poor quality. There was terrible customer service. There was no incentive to produce alluring goods or provide good service.
Comarade Gorbachev began to cogitate. He became cognizant that the state should not control all sectors of the economy. He allowed some free enterprise. He found that vegetable patches produce food more efficiently than the state and the free market was better than the state and moving food around the country.
Gorbachev believed that communism was a moral imperative. He wanted to abolish pauperism. But he believed in a new, moderate and humane democratic communism. He considered elements of free enterprise to be compatible with communism.
In 1989 the Chinese regime shot dead hundreds of unarmed young protestors on Tiananmen Square. Moscow refrained from criticizing this. But in most other communist countries reform was far advanced. The one-party states in Eastern Europe were felled by peaceful demonstrations. Gorbachev declined to slay peaceful protest.
Gorby, as he was known, allowed religious people to be members of the Communist Party (CP). He also unbanned other parties. In Leningrad, democrats defeated communists in the election to the city council. Other communists told him to nullify the election. Gorbachev said no. The anti-communists had won. The people of Leningrad did not want communists running the city. Therefore the people would have what they wanted.
Hardliners in the USSR were aghast at the reforms. Some wanted to return to Stalinism.
Sessions of the CP voted for free market reforms and democratization. Even communists were turning against communism.
By 1991 Gorby was beginning to think he had gone too far. Some people were getting very wealthy. The country was disordered. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were agitating for independence. Azerbaijan was demanding secession. Armenians and Azerbaijanis had already started to fight over Nagorno Karabakh.
There were some young reformers who were eager to forge ahead with the marketization agenda. Gorby wanted to pull back. He considered reversing some of his reforms. But the transition to capitalism and democracy had taken on an impetus of its own. The genie was out of the bottle and could not be rebottled. The President of the Russian Federation was Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was the champion of the liberals. He had resigned from the CP.
In August 1991 Gorby took his customary holiday by the Black Sea. Some KGB troops then surrounded him and held him incommunicado at his dacha.
The State Committee for the Emergency Situation (SCES) announced that Gorby had been suddenly taken ill and had been relieved of all his duties with immediate effect. This octumvirate tried to rule in his stead.
SCES proclaimed martial law. They had released all the prisoners from a Moscow penitentiary so they could fill it with demonstrators. The KGB and elements of the military were on the side of the coupsters. So were other communist tyrannies. SCES was trying to preserve communism and to prevent any union republic from regaining independence.
Boris Yeltsin refused to give in. He gathered at the White House in Moscow. Thousands of truculent supporters were there.
SCES ordered soldiers onto the streets of Moscow. Three peaceful demonstrators were killed by soldiers.
Some soldiers defected to Yeltsin and the cause of democracy. Some tanks went to his side. Yeltsin famously stood on a tank and delivered an extemporaneous allocution against the junta.
The coup faltered. They could have ordered their men to gun down the thousands of protestors who filled the streets. But the junta's nerve failed.
Gorbachev got out of his dacha and flew back to Moscow. The coup collapsed and the coupsters were arrested. One committed suicide. The rest were tried and convicted of various offences.
Gorby was back as president. But Yeltsin was the hero of the hour. In the days after democracy was saved, all the union republics declared independence. The coupsters had achieved the exact opposite of what they desired.
In December 1991 Gorbachev stood down as president. He handed it over to Yeltsin. Yeltsin was then elected by popular vote. He was the only Russian head of state to ever win a real election.
Gorby retired. He made plenty of money speechifying and writing his memoirs.
M S Gorbachev is castigated for the chaos that followed. But much of that is down to Yeltsin who completed the sell-off of state assets. But Gorby was a convenient whipping boy. People scapegoated him because he was no longer in office. Unlike the others, he did not take bribes.
The author is a political analyst from the UK. You can watch him on YouTube George from Ireland