Last Leader of the Soviet Union
Mikhail Gorbachev, Geneva, 1985 (CC)
by Mark J. Conversino
The New Russia
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. 400 pp
Mikhail Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in ending the Cold War on largely peaceful terms marks him as undoubtedly one of the most influential figures of the late twentieth century. His second book of memoirs takes up roughly where his first, Memoirs (1995), published nearly a quarter century ago, left off. In this volume, Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, considers the events that have shaped Russia and the world since his abrupt departure from the Kremlin in late 1991. Like most memoirs, this is not just the author’s telling of events as he witnessed them but also an attempt to explain how he shaped those events and to plead his case, so to speak, before the court of public opinion. While Gorbachev remains a highly regarded figure outside his own country, how Russians will remember him—and how “history” will treat him—remains an open question.
He begins this volume by declaring that this book is “about the relevance of the past…. Today, more than two decades separate us from that time [perestroika], but it is probably still too early to attempt any final assessment” (p. ix). The work is arranged in three sections: “After Perestroika,” “Whither Russia,” and “Today’s Uneasy World.” Gorbachev strives to remain upbeat and hopeful about Russia’s future and global affairs more generally; indeed, the title of the final chapter is “Reflections of an Optimist.” Nevertheless, at the outset and throughout the pages of this memoir, he expresses concern about contemporary Russia’s “dead-end political situation, economic stagnation,… unresolved social problems, [and] violation of the rights and dignity of citizens” (p. ix). In short, Russia under Vladimir Putin, now in his fourth (and supposedly final) term as president, finds itself in a situation similar to the one Gorbachev confronted when he became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Still, he expresses the hope that Russia’s future course, and its relations with the United States and the West, can change for the better. Throughout this work, however, the reader will find repeated expressions of disappointment, exasperation, and bitterness, together with a healthy dose of hubris on the part of this distinguished statesman.
This is a wide-ranging work, touching on everything from aspects of the author’s private life and the work of his foundation to the collapse of Russia’s economy, the rise of Putin, and even climate change. The narrative is generally chronological within each of the three main sections noted above. If there is a theme to this work, it is that contemporary Russia’s problems can be traced to the manner in which the Soviet Union dissolved, what he calls “the Belovezha plot” (p. 9); the premature end of perestroika; and, not surprisingly, the actions of his former nemesis, the late Russian president Boris Yeltsin. He marks Russia’s accelerating “return” to authoritarianism from Yeltsin’s October 1993 declaration of a state of emergency and subsequent armed response to the resistance he faced from members of Russia’s parliament.
While he is rightfully indignant at efforts under the Yeltsin regime to make him a scapegoat for the country’s spiraling economic and social crisis in the early 1990s, Gorbachev also takes responsibility for his role in the Soviet Union’s demise. He includes a passage from a speech he gave in 1996, stating rather plainly, “Yes, I know what I was unable to do. I know where I miscalculated and that no one can absolve me of responsibility for that” (p. 109). Indeed, once in power, Gorbachev correctly diagnosed the reasons for the Soviet Union’s social and economic stagnation: “The cause was already clear: society was suffocating in the clutches of a bureaucratic command system. Doomed to serve ideology while bearing the terrible burden of the arms race, it was close to the breaking point” (p. 6). On the other hand, despite recognizing these very deep-rooted national pathologies, his prescriptions for tackling Russia’s problems are rather superficial. In a section chronicling the early days of the Putin regime, he asserts that “Russia needs the ideas and policies of social democracy” (p. 152). Several pages later, while noting the starkly negative trends emerging under Putin’s rule, he declares that “the only way to combat these negative trends [the rise of new mafias and a mushrooming and corrupt bureaucracy] was by developing democracy” (p. 175). Citing the text of a 2011 speech, Gorbachev concludes that “every aspect of society needs transformation” (p. 261). Few reasonable observers of Russian (or international) affairs would argue with these rather obvious and common-sense statements. While he expresses hope that Russia and its people can ultimately address the country’s ills, he also laments “just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality” (p. 15).
This volume contains lengthy excerpts from past speeches, newspaper articles, interviews, and letters, providing evidence of his contemporaneous views on a wide variety of issues. These demonstrate that his observations in this book are not simply the banal products of hindsight. He also includes collections of letters from both Russians and international colleagues, praising or expressing sympathy for him. The self-promotion evident in all of these devices stands in contrast to his repeated complaints about being ignored by those who hold real political power. Gorbachev repeatedly grouses that both Russian and Western, especially American, leaders, as well as the media, simply disregarded his advice and opinions on matters of national and international importance. Despite—or perhaps as a result of—repeated references to his many conference appearances, awards, and meetings with these same Russian and foreign dignitaries, the reader might be forgiven for concluding, Gorbachev today possesses little beyond the appearance of real influence.
Notwithstanding the commentary above, Gorbachev’s reputation, in the West, at least, is that of a man of peaceful intent, possessed of humanitarian and democratic impulses. Yet his views on Russia’s most significant post-Soviet military adventures may surprise many readers. For example, he condemns Yeltsin’s “political bungling” that led to the first Chechen war, a war, Gorbachev claims, that “could have been avoided” (p. 90). While rightly noting that “Putin inherited chaos,” including a Caucasus that was “ablaze,” he endorses Putin’s decision to restart the war in Chechnya. This is, to be fair, a complex matter. By 1999, Islamist radicals had spread violence not only to the regions neighboring Chechnya but to Moscow and other Russian cities as well (conspiracy theories that the Russian security services were themselves behind these attacks, notwithstanding). One must assume any leader, Russian and non-Russian alike, would move to “destroy the hotbed of terrorism in Chechnya” (p. 142). He admits that his stance shocked many of his friends. Apart from the criticism he levels at the Russian authorities for the bloodshed resulting from the Beslan operation in 2004, however, Gorbachev fails to condemn Moscow’s brutality in Chechnya, writing that “these people must be severely punished. They must either submit or be struck down” (pp. 182, 142). Likewise, one will look in vain for any reference to, much less criticism of, the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, Moscow’s authoritarian satrap in Chechnya and a man accused of a long list of human rights abuses, including political assassinations.
Gorbachev also expresses support for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, pinning the blame entirely on former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for triggering what he called the Russian “incursion,” a move ostensibly taken in defense of innocent civilians. While many post-conflict analyses of the Russo-Georgian war consider Georgian actions responsible for sparking it, Gorbachev ignores the years of regional tensions caused by Moscow’s meddling and previous Russian incursions and provocations, though he does note talk of membership for Georgia in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the assumption of American support as contributing to Saakashvili’s bellicosity. He does not, however, endorse Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Nonspecialists in Russian/Soviet or Cold War history may lack the context necessary to adequately frame and evaluate some of Gorbachev’s positions. For example, he is highly critical of the Yeltsin administration’s economic “shock therapy” of the early and mid-90s. Yet Gorbachev himself embraced an approach similar to Yeltsin’s economic policies, backing a plan in 1990 to create a market economy in five hundred days. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, Gorbachev then abandoned radical reforms and turned for support to the conservative Communists that he rails against for their role in derailing perestroika. He even appointed hard-liner Boris Pugo as interior minister (Pugo would later play a key role in the abortive coup against Gorbachev in August 1991.) This was typical of what Daniel Treisman called Gorbachev’s “characteristic dance”: bursts of energy and enthusiasm followed by indecision and half-measures. Gorbachev claims: “I fought to preserve the Union state with all the political, and I stress, political, means at my disposal” (p. 403). In making this claim, he ignores his own decisions in January 1991 to allow Soviet security chiefs, including Pugo, to take any measures necessary to halt the movement of Soviet republics toward sovereignty and independence. The resulting actions led to fifteen deaths in Vilnius, Lithuania, and another four in Riga, Latvia. The fact that the bloodshed was relatively limited is attributable to his indecision, fear of a Western backlash at a time when Gorbachev believed he needed American and European support, and the center’s growing exhaustion. Gorbachev’s half-measures could not squelch the rising tide of anger in the republics, and it arguably exacerbated the chaos that was spreading across the Soviet Union.
While Gorbachev bemoans the current state of affairs between Russia and Ukraine, he says absolutely nothing at all about Moscow’s annexation in 2014 of Crimea, its role in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, or Russia’s continuing military involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine. Blaming former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych for placing his own interests over those of his country and people, Gorbachev also blames Ukrainian “radicals, extremists, and provocateurs” for the current states of affairs, within Ukraine and between the two countries (pp. 401-2). Russia, and Putin in particular, in his assessment, is not to blame: he declares that this “conflict was not of Russia’s making,” and he sees the “main, deep cause of the Ukrainian events in the disruption of Perestroika and the mindless, reckless ‘disbanding’ of the USSR” (p. 403). He is not alone in that assessment, even in the West, where some consider past and projected NATO expansion and a general disregard for Moscow’s legitimate security interests as the true underlying cause of Russia’s violent reaction when it appeared Ukraine would slip westward, moving forever beyond its sphere of influence.
Gorbachev devotes a good deal of the volume to criticism of the Putin administration, though he avoids hyperbole and largely steers clear of direct personal criticism of the current Russian president himself. He remains hopeful that the West and Russia will move past the current stalemate in Ukraine and focus on issues of mutual concern, such as climate change. This hope seems less unrealistic if one ignores, as he does here, Russian aggression and the forcible seizure of a neighboring state’s territory, acts that run contrary to Gorbachev’s own foreign policy principles embodied in his concept of “New Thinking” (p. 295).
Perhaps one should not be surprised by Gorbachev’s stance on Chechnya, Georgia, or Ukraine, given his repeatedly stated devotion to maintaining the territorial and political integrity of the Soviet Union. Swirling about these and a variety of other foreign policy issues is the post-Cold War expansion of NATO. He accepts that the states of Central and Eastern Europe, “knowing their history,” might not have had a “balanced and rational approach to the question after lacking independence for decades” (p. 307). Of course, their loss of independence came at the hands of the Soviet Union and, before that, in many cases, the Russian Empire. The expansion of NATO took place entirely after Gorbachev left power (with the exception of the Federal Republic of Germany absorbing the former Soviet satellite state of the German Democratic Republic [GDR]). As the alliance’s growth sparked a domestic backlash in Russia, Yeltsin, together with other prominent Russian politicians and public figures, blamed Gorbachev for failing to take the necessary measures to prevent NATO’s eastward movement. He rightly dismisses these charges as “absurd.” Notably, Gorbachev stops well short of claims made elsewhere that American leaders promised him that NATO would expand no further than the eastern borders of a newly unified Germany. The debate still surrounding this issue, given new life by Russia’s assault on post-Maidan Ukraine, warrants the inclusion here of passages from Gorbachev’s own writing on the subject. Gorbachev responds to charges that he failed to reach a durable agreement precluding NATO enlargement by noting that the Warsaw Pact still existed at the time of German reunification and “to demand that its members should not join NATO would have been laughable. No organization can give a legally binding undertaking not to expand in the future.” He claims that the final settlement with Germany “stated that no additional NATO troops would be deployed on the territory of the former GDR, neither would weapons of mass destruction. That meant that NATO’s military infrastructure would not move eastwards.” This hardly constitutes a promise, formal or otherwise, that NATO would not expand eastward. But if we are to believe what he writes here, Gorbachev clearly concluded, based on his discussions and negotiations at the time with Western leaders, that in theory, as noted above, NATO had the option to expand its membership but that in fact, it would not. He considered NATO’s subsequent expansion as “contrary to the spirit of those undertakings,” even though, until Russian actions in and against Ukraine shook the West, NATO troops and “NATO’s military infrastructure” had not moved eastward (p. 308). This is a far cry from the assertions made, both in the West and Russia, that the United States and its main European allies gave ironclad assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand beyond eastern Germany.
On balance, The New Russia provides a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of one of the twentieth century’s pivotal figures. Gorbachev’s condemnation of NATO’s actions in the Balkans and his critical view of America’s post-9/11 hubris and overreach are positions that, yet again, put him in the company of many mainstream Western political and thought leaders. Certainly, this man had it in his power to make the ending of the Cold War a time of great violence and bloodshed. No matter what else remains to be written about Gorbachev, his choice to leave power peacefully saved his country from civil war and the world from unimaginable chaos. While his frustration and bitterness are often apparent in his recounting of the turmoil of the Yeltsin years and the West’s often-dismissive treatment of Russia after 1991, Gorbachev remains hopeful that his country will find a peaceful and prosperous future, one befitting an important country and its rich culture. While concluding this volume of his memoirs as an “optimist,” the authorities in Moscow would do well to heed the warnings contained in the book’s preface: “I am currently convinced that all they are doing is playing for time, clinging to power for its own sake, clutching at the benefits that a minority is able to extract from the current state of affairs…. But people are not blind and their patience is not limitless” (pp. 430, x). If genuine change does not come, he continues, past protests “will not just become repeated but will become more radical. This would be dangerous and must be avoided. Russia really does not need more turmoil” (p. xi).
 Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev (New York: Free Press, 2011), 19.
 Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 38-39.
 See, for example, John Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6 (2014): 77-89. Readers should also consider former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s rejoinder to Mearsheimer: Michael McFaul, “Moscow’s Choice,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6 (2014): 167-71.
About the Author
Mark J. Conversino is Chief Academic Officer at Air University.
First published at H-Net. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.