Mikhail Gorbachev, the fundamentally Soviet man

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow on Tuesday at the age of ninety-one. During the last two decades of his life, he rarely granted interviews. Thus, in 2010, when he agreed to speak to someone about a Moscow magazine that I edited, I felt both admiration and some apprehension: this was a unique opportunity that would almost certainly messed up. Gorbachev was a notoriously terrible interviewee. He wandered; he went off on tangents; he hardly ever finished a sentence. In a desperate move, my colleagues and I asked readers to send in questions. Someone asked, “What could bring you joy now?” This time Gorbachev was ready with a concise speech answer. “If anyone could promise me that in the next world I will see Raisa,” he said. “But I do not believe it.” Raisa, his 46-year-old wife, died of leukemia in 1999.

“I don’t believe in God,” Gorbachev continued. Raisa was not a believer either, but “she progressed faster than me in this direction”. What he seemed to mean was that Raisa had stayed in tune with his country, becoming a post-Soviet Russian, while Gorbachev remained a fundamentally Soviet man. It was the epitome of an apparatchik’s life story: snatched from rural southern Russia by the Party while still a high school student, college in Moscow, and a series of government jobs. Party that culminated in his appointment in 1985 to the post of General Secretary of the Central Committee, the highest office in the USSR. At the time, Gorbachev was fifty-four years old – scandalously young. He was surrounded by octogenarians who expected deference and gratitude. But he had a greater love in his life and a loyalty that superseded any debt he owed to the Party and its faltering leadership. Gorbachev lived and worked to impress Raisa. They had met when they were students at Moscow State University, where he was studying law and she was studying philosophy. Raisa’s classmates were an extraordinary cohort of post-war Soviet thinkers, and this, perhaps more than anything else, helped shape the policies that will forever be synonymous with Gorbachev’s name: glasnost and perestroika.

Within weeks of becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev announced his intention to reform and modernize the Soviet Union. In June 1987, he announced a new concept: perestroika, or restructuring, of Soviet policy in all areas. Although he did not say so explicitly, what he meant by restructuring was liberalization: the Soviet Union would legalize limited private enterprise and relax censorship, allowing public debate on topics that had previously been taboo. Censorship laws were never abolished, but the easing of restrictions – the explicit aim of Glasnost– produced an unprecedented explosion of writing, editing, film, performance and music. Obscure journals that published long, quasi-academic articles saw their circulation soar. People lined up to read new issues of newspapers like the Moscow New or to walk into a theater to see a newly staged play by, say, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The reason, more often than not, was that the diary, journal, and playwright were tackling the previously censored topic of Stalinist terror. For the first time since Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet citizens spoke publicly about their past.

Years later, Gorbachev wanted to preserve this part of his legacy. In 2008, in collaboration with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Gorbachev forms a task force to try to create a museum of Stalinist terror. As general secretary, he said, he had been given full access to the archives. It was then that he learned that the terror was truly random, that people had been arrested and executed not for wrongdoing, or because they were suspected of wrongdoing, or even on a specious accusation of wrongdoing, but simply because each local law enforcement entity had to meet its quota of arrests and executions. He had also learned that during the height of the terror, when thousands of people were being executed every day, the Soviet leadership had signed these executions to the page – with dozens of names per page. Gorbachev, who created a commission that eventually reviewed millions of Stalin-era cases and rescinded hundreds of thousands of guilty verdicts, seemed to quiver in disbelief as he spoke of the things he learned. This was another quality that distinguished him from any Soviet leader before him: he could be shaken. His view of the world could be questioned and changed; himself, it seemed, could change. The same could not be said of his successors: it soon became clear that the museum Gorbachev wanted to build could not exist in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, who was working to eradicate the memory of Stalin’s terror from his own version of the Russian history.

Gorbachev is both credited and reviled for dismantling the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But he never sought to change the world in this way. In 1987, he freed all the Soviet political prisoners, who then numbered several hundred. (Russia currently holds more political prisoners than it did in the 1980s.) Its policies of glasnost and perestroika have given voice to critics of the Soviet structure. Andrei Sakharov, a dissident elected to the Supreme Soviet after Gorbachev freed him from internal exile, argued against the Communist Party’s monopoly. Galina Starovoitova, an academic ethnographer turned politician, argued that the empire should be dismantled and proposed a treaty of union to replace the Soviet colonial structure. Gorbachev rejected both notions.

In 1989, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union loosened its grip on its European satellites – the countries that Moscow had effectively ruled since the end of World War II. One after another, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Romania and others overthrew their pro-Soviet governments. But when Russia’s internal colonies – countries that had been forcibly subsumed by the Soviet Union rather than simply dominated by it – gained independence, Moscow reacted violently. In April 1989, the authorities brutally suppressed pro-independence demonstrations in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, killing at least twenty-one people and injuring two hundred and ninety. In January 1991, Soviet troops killed pro-independence activists in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, after the Baltic countries, which had been occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II world, declared their independence. Many tributes to Gorbachev have credited him with presiding over the “bloodless” dissolution of the Soviet Union – forgetting that blood has been and, in some cases, continues to be spilled in the conflicts in Armenia , Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan and elsewhere. In March 1991, after not only the Baltic countries but also Russia and Ukraine – the largest Soviet republics – voted to secede from the Union, Gorbachev called a referendum on preserving the USSR . Six of the fifteen constituent republics declined to participate, but Gorbachev claimed that the other nine validated the empire’s continued existence.

In August 1991, a group of old hardliners attempted a coup. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer residence in Crimea and declared a state of emergency, restoring censorship. Three days later, the putsch had been foiled, but Gorbachev had returned to Moscow like a lame duck: he had been supplanted by Boris Yeltsin, the leader of an independent Russia. In December, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus negotiated the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned from his post at the head of a country that no longer existed. He had been willing to use violence and rigged votes to try to hold the country together, but he made no attempt to use such tactics to stay in power himself.

Gorbachev was that rare kind of politician who acted on the belief that the world and the people in it – including himself – can be better than they often seem. The ultimate tragedy of his political life is that for twenty-three years Russia has been ruled by the opposite kind of politicians. Vladimir Poutine believes that humanity is rotten to the core, and all of his actions, in one way or another, are designed to validate this worldview. Putin was a relatively junior KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, for most of perestroika. He wasn’t in Russia when the streets seemed to fill with the heady air of freedom, but he was in East Germany when Moscow gave up. He never forgave Gorbachev for abandoning KGB officers in Dresden, the satellite country itself, and the dream of a giant European empire. (Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, said, Tuesday evening, that the Russian president would offer his deepest condolences to the family.)

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