Mikhail Gorbachev: The West Could Have Saved the Russian Economy

The former Soviet premier on post-Cold War mistakes, the reason Russia never followed China's pragmatic route, and the importance of trust among nations


Reuters/Grigory Dukar

Mikhail Gorbachev should never have become the Soviet premier. When he was six years old, his grandfather was taken in the middle of the night, a victim of one of Stalin's purges. And he grew up in Stavropol region of the Soviet East, which was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, when Gorbachev was eleven. Both facts should have stunted his climb through the Soviet ladder, but he clawed his way into the ruling Politburo nonetheless.

"Russians speak of 'two Gorbachevs,'" wrote Robert Kaiser, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, in his 1991 biography: "the apparatchik and the reformer." The duality seems to remain. He maintains his penchant for long, winding speeches, honed in the Soviet days. The first time I heard him speak, he concluded by noting that his beloved daughter, Irena, who almost always travels with him, had put her hands together, a signal that he should conclude his remarks. I was certain it was a joke; I was assured it was not. His high-school girlfriend, Yulia Karagodina, recalled the bipolarity in Gorbachev even as a teen. "Once at a Komsomol meeting, in front of everyone at the local movie house," she told the Post's David Remnick, speaking about the local branch of the communist youth that Gorbachev led, "he reprimanded me in front of everyone, saying that I'd failed, that I was late. He was shouting a bit, disciplining me. Then afterward, it was as if nothing happened. He said, 'Let's go to the movies.'"

Gorbachev was born in a two-room house with a dirt floor in 1931, and, as a boy, spent summers working on a collective farm. In the 1930s, 5 million Soviets died of starvation while Joseph Stalin sold grain abroad to finance his rapid industrialization. Gorbachev recalled in a memoir that, in a single year, 1933, "nearly half the population of my native town, Privolnoye, starved, including two sisters and one brother of my father."

Gorbachev's first indication of the chasm between Soviet rhetoric and reality came when he traveled to Moscow to attend university. He found a striking disparity in wealth between his home and the capital city. And the idyllic portrait of collective farms peddled in Moscow was a great distance from the reality Gorbachev knew well. Still, he remained committed to the Soviet ideology. Stalin died in 1953, after more than 30 years as the Soviet general secretary. "All night long we were part of the crowd going to see his coffin," Gorbachev recalled later.

After graduation, he returned to Stavropol with his young wife, Raisa, who had been his philosophy instructor at Moscow State. He began his career as an administrator for the Komsomol -- the omnipresent communist youth branch -- and rose quickly through the party hierarchy, advancing to agriculture secretary. He benefited greatly from the patronage of several prominent Soviets who vacationed at the Crimean beach resorts and spas in Gorbachev's province. Yuri Andropov, who led the KGB, was perhaps the most important.

Despite several failed harvests in his region, Gorbachev ascended to the 14-member ruling Politburo in Moscow at 47. It was a clique of geriatrics. Gorbachev was nearly a decade younger the than next youngest member, and 21 years younger than the group's average age. His patron, Andropov, became premier in November 1982, but died 14 months later. The energetic and charismatic Gorbachev was passed over; the feeble Konstantin Chernenko, though, would haven an even shorter tenure than Andropov.

Gorbachev would not miss a second opportunity to seize power. He returned home to his dacha at 4 a.m. on March 11, 1985, and found Raisa waiting up for him. Wary of KGB listening devices in their house, they went for a walk as the sun rose. "We can't go on living like this," he told her.

In Washington, Reagan was awoken and told of Chernenko's death. "How am I supposed to get anyplace with these Russians," he asked his wife, Nancy, "if they keep dying on me?"

Gorbachev knew better than nearly anyone how far the Soviets lagged behind. As a young party official, he had traveled to Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and West Germany. He had taken three trips to France and spent several weeks driving around the country in a rented Renault with his wife and two other couples in 1966. In Alberta, Canada, in 1983, he met a wealthy farmer whose dairy cows yielded an average of 4,700 kilograms of milk each year; the Soviets drew less than half of that. Gorbachev was confounded.

He recognized that political changes had to come first. Gorbachev the reformer dashed forward, calling for glasnost -- an openness of critical thought, conversation, and dissent, notions the Russian people had never known. He brought the quiet discussions that had happened in Soviet kitchens for years squarely into public. As he pressed forward, Gorbachev was keenly aware of the ill-fated reform efforts of Nikita Khrushchev during the early 1960s, whose work was brushed aside by party stalwarts.

Gorbachev the apparatchik, though, was too cautious to move with economic reforms. In the summer of 1986, during his second year as the Soviet premier, he launched a crackdown on private farming and other "unearned income." It became known as the tomato war. Amid the near-perpetual Soviet food shortages, greenhouses were smashed and backyard gardens uprooted; confiscated tomatoes were run over with trucks. The Lituraturnaya Gazeta, a weekly journal of political news, published a long story titled "The Criminal Tomato."

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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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