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Gorbachev on 1989 | The Nation

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Gorbachev on 1989

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KVH/SFC:

So Americans who say the cold war ended only with the end of the Soviet Union are wrong?

About the Author

Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His ...
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

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MG:

That's because journalists, politicians and historians in your country concluded that the United States won the cold war, but that is a mistake. If the new Soviet leadership and its new foreign policy had not existed, nothing would have happened.

KVH/SFC:

In short, Gorbachev, Reagan and the first President Bush ended the cold war?

MG:

Yes, in 1989-90. It was not a single action but a process. Bush and I made the declaration at Malta, but Reagan would have had no less grounds for saying that he played a crucial role, because he, together with us, had a fundamental change of attitude. Therefore we were all victors: we all won the cold war because we put a stop to spending $10 trillion on the cold war, on each side.

KVH/SFC:

What was most important--the circumstances at that time or the leaders?

MG:

The times work through people in history. I'll tell you something else that is very important about what subsequently happened in your country. When people came to the conclusion that they had won the cold war, they concluded that they didn't need to change. Let others change. That point of view is mistaken, and it undermined what we had envisaged for Europe--mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. All of that was lost because of this muddled thinking in your country, and which has now made it so difficult to work together. World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders.

KVH/SFC:

Is that why today, twenty years after you say the cold war ended, the relationship between our two countries is so bad that President Obama says it has to be "reset"? What went wrong?

MG:

Even before the end of the cold war, Reagan, Bush and I argued, but we began to eliminate two entire categories of nuclear weapons. We had gone very far, almost to the point when a return to the past was no longer possible. But everything went wrong because perestroika was undermined and there was a change of Russian leadership and a change from our concept of gradual reform to the idea of a sudden leap. For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, ready-made Western recipes were falling into his hands, schemes that supposedly would lead to instant success. He was an adventurist. The fall of the Soviet Union was the key moment that explains everything that happened afterward, including what we have today. As I said, people in your country became dizzy with imagined success: they saw everything as their victory.

In Yeltsin, Washington ended up with a vassal who thought that because of his anticommunism he would be carried in their arms. Delegations came to Russia one after the other, including President Bill Clinton, but then they stopped coming. It turned out no one needed Yeltsin. But by then half of Russia's industries were in ruins, even 60 percent. It was a country with a noncompetitive economy wide open to the world market, and it became slavishly dependent on imports.

How many things were affected! All our plans for a new Europe and a new architecture of mutual security. It all disappeared. Instead, it was proposed that NATO's jurisdiction be extended to the whole world. But then Russia began to revive. The rain of dollars from higher world oil prices opened up new possibilities. Industrial and social problems began to be solved. And Russia began to speak with a firm voice, but Western leaders got angry about that. They had grown accustomed to having Russia just lie there. They thought they could pull the legs right out from under her whenever they wanted.

The moral of the story--and in the West morals are everything--is this: under my leadership, a country began reforms that opened up the possibility of sustained democracy, of escaping from the threat of nuclear war, and more. That country needed aid and support, but it didn't get any. Instead, when things went bad for us, the United States applauded. Once again, this was a calculated attempt to hold Russia back. I am speaking heatedly, but I am telling you what happened.

KVH/SFC:

But now Washington is turning to Moscow for help, most urgently perhaps in Afghanistan. Exactly twenty years ago, you ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan. What lessons did you learn that President Obama should heed in making his decisions about Afghanistan?

MG:

One was that problems there could not be solved with the use of force. Such attempts inside someone else's country end badly. But even more, it is not acceptable to impose one's own idea of order on another country without taking into account the opinion of the population of that country. My predecessors tried to build socialism in Afghanistan, where everything was in the hands of tribal and clan leaders, or of religious leaders, and where the central government was very weak. What kind of socialism could that have been? It only spoiled our relationship with a country where we had excellent relations during the previous twenty years.

Even today, I am criticized that it took three years for us to withdraw, but we tried to solve the problem through dialogue--with America, with India, with Iran and with both sides in Afghanistan, and we attended an international conference. We didn't simply hitch up our trousers and run for it, but tried to solve the problem politically, with the idea of making Afghanistan a neutral, peaceful country. By the way, when we were getting ready to pull out our troops and were preparing a treaty of withdrawal, what did the Americans do? They supported the idea of giving religious training to young Afghans--that is, the Taliban. As a result, now they are fighting against them. Today, again, not just America and Russia can be involved in solving this problem. All of Afghanistan's neighbors must be involved. Iran cannot be ignored, and it's ill-advised for America not to be on good terms with Iran.

KVH/SFC:

Finally, a question about your intellectual-political biography. One author called you "the man who changed the world." Who or what most changed your own thinking?

MG:

Gorbachev never had a guru. I've been involved in politics since 1955, after I finished university, when there was still hunger in my country as a result of World War II. I was formed by those times and by my participation in politics. In addition, I am an intellectually curious person by nature and I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika--a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn't just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

I began to understand that society needed a new vision--that we must view the world with our eyes open, not just through our personal or private interests. That's how our new thinking of the 1980s began, when we understood that our old viewpoints were not working out. During the nuclear arms race, I was given a gift by an American, a little figure of a goose in flight. I still have it at my dacha. It is a goose that lives in the north of Russia in the summer and in the winter migrates to America. It does that every year regardless of what's happening, on the ground, between you and us. That was the point of this gift and that's why I'm telling you about it.

KVH/SFC:

Listening to you, it seems that you became a political heretic in your country.

MG:

I think that is true. I want to add that I know America well now, having given speeches to large audiences there regularly. Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: "The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?" I said, "Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me." But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.

KVH/SFC:

And do you think President Obama will be the leader of such an American perestroika?

MG:

As far as I know, Americans did not make a mistake in electing him. Barack Obama is capable of leading your society on a very high level and of understanding it better than any political figure I know. He is an educated person with a highly developed capacity for dialogue, and that too is very important. So I congratulate you.

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