Gorbachev on 1989
On September 23, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a contributing editor, interviewed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at his foundation in Moscow. With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, we believed that the leader most responsible for that historic event should be heard, on his own terms, in the United States. As readers will see, the discussion became much more wide-ranging. --The Editors
Historic events quickly generate historical myths. In the United States it is said that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of a divided Europe was caused by a democratic revolution in Eastern Europe or by American power, or both. What is your response?
Those developments were the result of perestroika in the Soviet Union, where democratic changes had reached the point by March 1989 that for the first time in Russia's history democratic, competitive elections took place. You remember how enthusiastically people participated in those elections for a new Soviet Congress. And as a result thirty-five regional Communist Party secretaries were defeated. By the way, of the deputies elected, 84 percent were Communists, because there were a lot of ordinary people in the party--workers and intellectuals.
On the day after the elections, I met with the Politburo, and said, "I congratulate you!" They were very upset. Several replied, "For what?" I explained, "This is a victory for perestroika. We are touching the lives of people. Things are difficult for them now, but nonetheless they voted for Communists." Suddenly one Politburo member replied, "And what kind of Communists are they!" Those elections were very important. They meant that movement was under way toward democracy, glasnost and pluralism.
Analogous processes were also under way in Eastern and Central Europe. On the day I became Soviet leader, in March 1985, I had a special meeting with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries, and told them: "You are independent, and we are independent. You are responsible for your policies, we are responsible for ours. We will not intervene in your affairs, I promise you." And we did not intervene, not once, not even when they later asked us to. Under the influence of perestroika, their societies began to take action. Perestroika was a democratic transformation, which the Soviet Union needed. And my policy of nonintervention in Central and Eastern Europe was crucial. Just imagine, in East Germany alone there were more than 300,000 Soviet troops armed to the teeth--elite troops, specially selected! And yet, a process of change began there, and in the other countries, too. People began to make choices, which was their natural right.
But the problem of a divided Germany remained. The German people perceived the situation as abnormal, and I shared their attitude. Both in West and East Germany new governments were formed and new relations between them established. I think if the East German leader Erich Honecker had not been so stubborn--we all suffer from this illness, including the person you are interviewing--he would have introduced democratic changes. But the East German leaders did not initiate their own perestroika. Thus a struggle broke out in their country.
The Germans are a very capable nation. Even after what they had experienced under Hitler and later, they demonstrated that they could build a new democratic country. If Honecker had taken advantage of his people's capabilities, democratic and economic reforms could have been introduced that might have led to a different outcome.
I saw this myself. On October 7, 1989, I was reviewing a parade in East Germany with Honecker and other representatives of the Warsaw Pact countries. Groups from twenty-eight different regions of East Germany were marching by with torches, slogans on banners, shouts and songs. The former prime minister of Poland, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, asked me if I understood German. "Enough to read what's written on the banners. They're talking about perestroika. They're talking about democracy and change. They're saying, 'Gorbachev, stay in our country!'" Then Rakowski remarked, "If it's true that these are representatives of people from twenty-eight regions of the country, it means the end." I said, "I think you're right."
That is, after the Soviet elections in March 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable?
Did you already foresee the outcome?
Everyone claims to have foreseen things. In June 1989 I met with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and we then held a press conference. Reporters asked if we had discussed the German question. My answer was, "History gave rise to this problem, and history will resolve it. That is my opinion. If you ask Chancellor Kohl, he will tell you it is a problem for the twenty-first century."
I also met with the East German Communist leaders, and told them again, "This is your affair and you have the responsibility to decide." But I also warned them, "What does experience teach us? He who is late loses." If they had taken the road of reform, of gradual change--if there had been some sort of agreement or treaty between the two parts of Germany, some sort of financial agreement, some confederation, a more gradual reunification would have been possible. But in 1989-90, all Germans, both in the East and the West, were saying, "Do it immediately." They were afraid the opportunity would be missed.
A closely related question: when did the cold war actually end? In the United States, there are several answers: in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down; in 1990-91, after the reunification of Germany; and the most popular, even orthodox, answer, is that the cold war ended only when the Soviet Union ended, in December 1991.
No. If President Ronald Reagan and I had not succeeded in signing disarmament agreements and normalizing our relations in 1985-88, the later developments would have been unimaginable. But what happened between Reagan and me would also have been unimaginable if earlier we had not begun perestroika in the Soviet Union. Without perestroika, the cold war simply would not have ended. But the world could not continue developing as it had, with the stark menace of nuclear war ever present.
Sometimes people ask me why I began perestroika. Were the causes basically domestic or foreign? The domestic reasons were undoubtedly the main ones, but the danger of nuclear war was so serious that it was a no less significant factor. Something had to be done before we destroyed each other. Therefore the big changes that occurred with me and Reagan had tremendous importance. But also that George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, decided to continue the process. And in December 1989, at our meeting in Malta, Bush and I declared that we were no longer enemies or adversaries.
So the cold war ended in December 1989?
I think so.
Many people disagree, including some American historians.
Let historians think what they want. But without what I have described, nothing would have resulted. Let me tell you something. George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, came to see me two or three years ago. We reminisced for a long time--like old soldiers recalling past battles. I have great respect for Shultz, and I asked him: "Tell me, George, if Reagan had not been president, who could have played his role?" Shultz thought for a while, then said: "At that time there was no one else. Reagan's strength was that he had devoted his whole first term to building up America, to getting rid of all the vacillation that had been sown like seeds. America's spirits had revived. But in order to take these steps toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and toward reducing nuclear armaments--there was no one else who could have done that then."
By the way, in 1987, after my first visit to the United States, Vice President Bush accompanied me to the airport, and told me: "Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him, and when he says that something is necessary, they trust him. But if some Democrat had proposed what Reagan did, with you, they might not have trusted him."
By telling you this, I simply want to give Reagan the credit he deserves. I found dealing with him very difficult. The first time we met, in 1985, after we had talked, my people asked me what I thought of him. "A real dinosaur," I replied. And about me Reagan said, "Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!"
A dinosaur and a Bolshevik?
And yet these two people came to historic agreements, because some things must be above ideological convictions. No matter how hard it was for us and no matter how much Reagan and I argued in Geneva in 1985, nevertheless in our appeal to the peoples of the world we wrote: "Nuclear war is inadmissible, and in it there can be no victors." And in 1986, in Reykjavik, we even agreed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. This conception speaks to the maturity of the leaders on both sides, not only Reagan but people in the West generally, who reached the correct conclusion that we had to put an end to the cold war.