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.”
Gorbachev was, in effect, crushing one of the few entrepreneurial instincts in the stagnant nation. “The Achilles heel of socialism,” he said years later, “was the inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individual.”
A plan to introduce capitalism in 500 days was drawn up but discarded. How, Gorbachev reportedly asked, would the vast middle level—the administrative bureaucracy in the ministries and enterprises that had always blocked reforms in the past—be persuaded to go along with really significant changes?
British Prime Minister John Major arranged for Gorbachev to attend the G7 in London in July 1990. He came not as the representative of a dominant power but, rather, with hat in hand, searching for financial support to ease the economic transition. He sought $50-70 billion, what the group had summoned to save tiny Kuwait the same year from Saddam Hussein by waging the first Gulf War.
The meeting, Gorbachev's translator Pavel Palazchenko recalls, “seemed like an interrogation.” Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu suggested that Gorbachev's plan to free 70 percent of the prices set by the state by the end of the year “was not enough.”
Gorbachev left with nothing. “Only [Margaret] Thatcher,” he would recall decades later, who had been deposed by her party six months earlier, “said: ‘listen, you've got to support him.’”
In August 1991, hardliners launched a putsch against Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin had been elected Russian president in June, two months before, a position still beneath the Soviet Union command. His political star was rising, though, just as Gorbachev's fell. The pair vehemently disliked one another but had made overtures toward accommodation earlier in the summer. Gorbachev, locked in his dacha, told an adviser: “This may not end well. But you know, in this case I have faith in Yeltsin. He will not give in to them.”
Days later, when the hapless coup failed, Gorbachev returned to Moscow. His wife, Raisa, had suffered a mild stroke and his daughter, Irena, had a nervous breakdown as they traveled home. He quickly found that his power had evaporated. In the week following the coup, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and several other republics left the union. A month later, in December, Gorbachev reluctantly relinquished the nuclear football to Yeltsin.
The Soviet Union had collapsed.
Yeltsin, in a matter of months, freed prices, property, and trade—all of which had been controlled by the by Soviet bureaucracy, rather than supply and demand—nearly all at the stroke of a pen. The moves Gorbachev had been too timid to authorize for six years were executed overnight. It was termed “shock therapy.”
But Yeltsin failed to build the requisite institutions and laws to accommodate such steps, and the economy was ravaged by a handful of oligarchs. They built massive empires of corruption and crime, and now, two decades later, Russia still grapples with the mafia capitalism that took hold.
Brian Till: Almost everyone I've interviewed agrees that, in the long lens of history, the first post-Cold War leaders will be judged harshly for not seizing that moment from 1989 to 1991 to reimagine the world, for not better handling the twilight of the USSR. Given that the fall of the USSR was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, decline of a superpower, what lessons should my generation pull from this?
Mikhail Gorbachev: Western leaders could have moved more quickly and recognized the changes we were implementing and provided the Soviet Union with serious financial assistance that would have made it easier for us to make structural reforms in the economy.
But that did not happen. There was a critical year during the Bush administration between 1989 and 1990 when substantial aid from the United States could have made a difference. At the time, we were not asking for subsidies or handouts. I am sure that we would have been able to avoid economic collapse and repay any loans. But Western leaders stood on the sidelines, remaining forever skeptical. Doubtlessly, the reason was lingering suspicions from the Cold War.
And when Yeltsin adopted the “shock therapy” approach in the early 1990s and Russia's economy collapsed, with the country's most precious assets plundered, the West seemed to enjoy that. They offered us a lot of economic advice, much of which was, frankly, useless because it was not adapted to our unique circumstances. I remember when Bill Clinton first came to Moscow as president of the United States. He asked me what kind of advice I had for him. After everything that I had experienced during the previous few years, my answer was simple: Treat Russia with respect because Russians do not appreciate it when someone pats them on the back in a condescending way.
Till: You have said that reforms of the Soviet system that you initiated really should have taken 20 or 30 years, but that “passions took hold.” If you were to live once more having the hindsight of history, would you have focused on the economic side, choosing a path closer to Deng Xiaoping? Would you make more room for small businesses and the entrepreneurial ideas and instincts that had been denounced for so long?
Gorbachev: It is said that one of the great historical mysteries of the 20th century is why Soviet reformers did not consider pursuing a more pragmatic path, similar to the one followed by the Chinese. This would have meant dismantling the economic structure of state socialism while keeping the political system as it had always been.
But, in order to reform our country “the Chinese way,” we would have had to have a different country—probably populated by the Chinese.
In China, economic reforms faced no resistance from the party bureaucracy. In the Soviet Union the nomenklatura—the party and economic bureaucracy—was extremely strong; they had stopped previous attempts at reform.
Of course, we had to consider the will of the people. Our people needed to breathe. They were suffocating without freedom. They needed to be part of a discussion about how they wanted to live.
Of course, we could talk all day about the errors and mistakes we made; whether I should have moved sooner, or faster, or perhaps gone slower on some things. The most critical decision was to begin the process of change. And, you must understand that there is no country more difficult to reform than Russia. We were able to take the process far enough to the point of no return, so that no one could turn back the clock.
A systemic transformation was achieved in just a few years and practically without bloodshed. I think we can be proud of that.
Till: We, as a planet, find ourselves heading toward an iceberg ecologically. Arable land, fresh water, oil, climate change—these are all imminent problems, but our governments are, frankly, stymied. Is liberal democracy compatible with the challenges of this century?
Gorbachev: The philosopher Goethe once said, a person can be considered to have accomplished something if he can catch the flying history by its coattails.
Having said that, I understand, perhaps better than anyone else, the enormous changes that must take place if our planet is going to survive. But I don't believe that a new world order can be primarily constructed by only leaders, diplomats, or negotiators. If we have any chance of making the necessary changes that we have to, particularly in regard to the environment, it is going to be up to common citizens to become more involved in these issues. We must rely upon the human being—what I call the human factor—to act as the driver of change. For starters, we need to get rid of all the suspicions that exist between different nations. We need to build trust. If we join forces, we can change things for the better.
Do you realize that the first United Nations conference on the environment took place in Stockholm in 1972? And where are we? It's clear that politicians are lagging behind the pace of change, and that no one country, even the most advanced democracies, has all the answers. If you think you do and that everything has been decided correctly here, you could not be more wrong. All democracies have to be forever nurtured further and further. And in the end, it will be up to the people of each country to really force their leaders to come to terms with the great crises that our planet faces.
I have said that the United States, too, needs its own perestroika. When I first said so, to an audience of thousands in a big Midwestern city, they gave me a standing ovation. It's because so many Americans feel there is something wrong about a system based on over-consumption and hyperprofits at any cost without regard to social or environmental needs.
This post was adapted from Brian Till's new book, Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership.