Gorbachev’s Revolution

Gorbachev’s Revolution

Gorbachev represented a unique change in Soviet statesmanship; two books examine him and the end of the Cold War.


In speeches delivered to the State of the World Forum in September 2000, Mikhail Gorbachev blamed the United States for squandering unique post-cold war opportunities to bring "new thinking" (novoe myshlenie) to the problems of globalization, arms reduction and nuclear disarmament. He's entitled. For, paradoxically, it was Gorbachev–the product of an ostensibly moribund, so-called totalitarian regime–whose idealism and dynamism went farthest in demilitarizing the cold war, assuring its peaceful resolution and ushering in those very opportunities.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev erred when he blamed the United States. In fact, it appears that the United States "won" the cold war (this month marks the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union) without ever recognizing, let alone understanding, the indispensable role played by Soviet ideas. Thus, a corresponding paradox: Vibrant, dynamic, democratic America had no new thinking to squander.

Such conceptual disarmament can be traced to the US political leadership's cold war embrace of the concept of totalitarianism to explain Soviet behavior, and to the post-cold war support it found in the work of the "totalitarian school" thinkers. Apparently it mattered little to them that Richard Pipes and Martin Malia, two of the school's most prominent members, could not even agree on the origins of Soviet totalitarianism: Pipes indicted virtually all of Russia's history by finding fully developed totalitarianism to be the legacy of "patrimonial" rule under the czars, with the addition of Lenin's militarized lust for dominance. Malia simply blamed socialist ideology.

Having learned from Merle Fainsod that "the totalitarian regime does not shed its police-state characteristics; it dies when power is wrenched from its hands," both historians denied the very possibility of systemic change from within and, consequently, credited pressure from the West, best symbolized by the Star Wars program of the Reagan Administration, for precipitating the collapse of Soviet Communism.

If a flawed idée fixe like this could capture such erudite Russia scholars, imagine the blank spots that impoverished the thinking of lesser "totalitarian school" Sovietologists, especially those primarily concerned with national security problems. Suffice it to say that these scholars' intense search for the slightest improvements in Soviet weaponry obscured much bigger developments: the mellowing Soviet leadership identified by George Kennan, the "friends and foes of change" detected by Stephen F. Cohen and the potential implicit in generational change in the Soviet leadership suggested by Jerry Hough and Archie Brown. Imagine how much worse were the unschooled cold war politicians of both major political parties, who further militarized and coarsened the worst of cold war scholarship–which continues to this day, in some cases.

Serious and comprehensive early post-cold war scholarship by Raymond Garthoff and Archie Brown properly credited Gorbachev. Garthoff concluded that, "in bringing the cold war to an end…what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else." Brown, in addition to proclaiming Gorbachev "the individual who made the most profound impact on world history in the second half of the twentieth century," explicitly rebutted the totalitarian argument by concluding: "From the spring of 1989 [thus, well before its collapse] it is scarcely meaningful to describe the Soviet Union as a Communist system."

The publication of Gorbachev's memoirs should have deflated the Star Wars claims made by Pipes, Malia and others. Rather than compelling the Soviet leaders to undertake the reforms that precipitated the regime's collapse, as they claimed, Star Wars was actually trumped by a comparatively cheap asymmetrical response–the Soviets' development in the mid-1980s (and deployment in the late 1990s) of the Topol-M ICBM. It remains capable today of penetrating any foreseeable missile defense system the United States might deploy. Gorbachev advised Reagan about his countermeasure in late 1985, but neither Reagan nor the totalitarian school paid much attention.

In 1999 Matthew Evangelista, in Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, dealt another blow to the totalitarian interpretation when he demonstrated the emergence, early in the post-Stalin period, of influential, dissenting Soviet "policy entrepreneurs" whose sources of information were often Western colleagues in transnational organizations. Evangelista's evidence thus demonstrated that Gorbachev's "new thinking" had deeper intellectual roots than is commonly assumed. Now Robert English confirms in his impressively researched new book, Russia and the Idea of the West, that the sources of Gorbachev's novoe myshlenie date back to the early post-Stalin period, when liberal, "Western" thinking began its slow but steady proliferation.

Before turning to those sources, however, English explains the origins and nature of Soviet "old thinking" from which it departed. Beginning with Peter the Great's compulsory Westernization of the Russian nobility, English examines the impact of Western influence in such events as the Decembrist revolt and Great Reforms of Alexander II, during the early and mid-nineteenth centuries, until he reaches the pinnacle of such influence in Russia's intellectual history, at century's end. Western inroads then, of course, brought Marxism, which appealed to many Russian intellectuals who sought absolute answers to life's fundamental questions. (English claims that an "Asiatic" disposition distinguished the Bolsheviks from other Marxists; a dubious assertion, but it scarcely detracts from his most critical conclusions.)

World War I precipitated the Russian Revolution and eventual seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, which in turn virtually guaranteed civil war and foreign intervention. In the wake of that extremely brutal civil war, the ranks of the Bolshevik Party swelled with half-worker, half-peasant "sovietized workers" who were "ill-educated, xenophobic and militant." They viewed the civil war as a heroic struggle against Western invaders and preferred the war's harsh, ad hoc system of requisition and supply (dubbed "War Communism") to the subsequent, if temporary, compromise with capitalism–the New Economic Policy.

Purges of Westernized, non-Marxist scholars and intellectuals only increased their influence, leading English to the critical conclusion that "their 'puerile' views of socialism, 'warfare' ethos, and crude anti-Westernism changed the Bolshevik Party radically."

Stalin exploited these beliefs by manufacturing the War Scare of 1927, decrying "hostile capitalist encirclement," exposing the "wrecking" by domestic and foreign subversives, substituting relentless propaganda for outside sources of information, rooting out ideological nonconformity and orchestrating the great purge trials of the late 1930s. Such measures not only secured Stalin's undisputed political power but also embedded what English labels "hostile isolationism" into Soviet life. Such was the "old thinking," which was not surmounted until Gorbachev came to power.

English correctly identifies the thaw era following Stalin's death in 1953 as "a critical turning point in Soviet history." Highlighted by Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, which denounced Stalin's crimes, it "led to freedom and rehabilitation for millions, economic changes to benefit society instead of the militarized state, a cultural rebirth, and considerable truth-telling about Soviet history, politics, and the world."

Less noticed was Anastas Mikoyan's speech at the Twentieth Congress, which led to the creation of new research centers that became "oases of creative thought." A special oasis, however, was the journal Problemy Mira i Sotsializma (Problems of Peace and Socialism), based in Prague. In the early 1960s, its staff variously included talented young liberals, including Georgy Arbatov, Anatoly Chernyaev and Georgy Shakhnazarov, who were to play an important part in articulating and implementing Gorbachev's reforms two decades later.

The creation of new Central Committee consultant groups provided a pipeline for the "Praguers" and other liberal thinkers to move into the party apparatus, thereby enabling a critical mass to develop within the broader rebirth of the Russian intelligentsia. From that time forward, it challenged the legions of "proletarian intelligentsia" molded by Stalin.

According to English, on the literary front, it was not only questions raised about the Stalinist system by Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Vladimir Dudintsev's Not By Bread Alone but the work of the literary avant-garde of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina and Vasily Aksenov, who increasingly brought a Western orientation to their work.

In philosophy, for example, a "revolt of the young" questioned limitations in the thought of both Lenin and Marx. In history, Mikhail Gefter was calling for a "'perestroika' of Soviet historiography" and subsequently established a section on methodology at the Institute of History. His seminars, which attracted scholars from many fields, were devoted to reconsidering "fundamental issues of the world-historical process." In economics, we have the word of Otto Latsis, who recalled "that by the early 1960s 'the urgent necessity of market reforms [was agreed on by] all serious economists.'" New and influential institutions like the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics and Industrial Organization and the Central Economic-Mathematical Institute were established in the early 1960s. Both became centers for liberal and reformist research.

Finally, English addresses the evolving views of the mezhdunarodniki, the scholars, analysts, journalists and practitioners particularly concerned with foreign affairs. Compelled to re-evaluate foreign policy as a consequence of Khrushchev's substitution of "peaceful coexistence" for Stalin's "inevitability of war," reformist impulses were abetted by the need to obtain accurate information about the West, especially the United States, in order to successfully manage arms control negotiations.

Borrowing from the work of Evangelista, English also notes how leading Soviet scientists utilized information provided by their Western colleagues to rethink "international confrontation, especially when the Soviet leadership entered serious arms talks."

After Khrushchev's forced retirement in 1964, a mild retreat toward Stalinism was followed by more forceful repression after Soviet tanks crushed the "Prague Spring" in 1968. Yet a Brezhnev "thaw" accompanied the SALT and ABM treaties, the Helsinki Accords and the joint Apollo-Soyuz space flight under détente, resulting in expanded Soviet-Western contacts.

English describes much of the liberal intellectual activity during Brezhnev's rule as one of "public conformism, private reformism." Privately, the intelligentsia pursued a "much more serious study of the outside world…that went well beyond that of the thaw era." Inspired by Andrei Sakharov's 1968 samizdat work Reflections on Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, they came to embrace "universal human" values and repudiate their class-based worldview–years before détente flourished and more than a decade before Gorbachev made it the foundation of his new thinking.

But implementation required not only Gorbachev's selection as Soviet leader–by no means a sure thing during the period 1980-84, when the new thinkers, armed only with the power of their ideas, waged an uphill battle against the entrenched power of the conservatives, who were aided by the arms buildup and bellicosity of the Reagan Administration. According to English, implementation also required Gorbachev's deeper immersion into such thinking before the Soviet Union could finally escape Stalin's "hostile isolationism" to undercut America's militarized Soviet policy.

Anatoly Chernyaev's diary-memoir, My Six Years With Gorbachev, provides invaluable evidence of that very immersion. Chernyaev served as Gorbachev's top foreign policy aide from February 1986 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His account of those years pulls no punches.

The reduction of cold war tensions was considered an indispensable condition for undertaking urgent domestic restructuring, or perestroika. By 1986, according to Chernyaev, Gorbachev had "decided to end the arms race no matter what." Consequently, he aimed his January 15 proposal for a nuclear-free world by the year 2000 directly at Reagan's professed desire to render all nuclear weapons "obsolete."

Gorbachev subsequently introduced his new thinking, including "reasonable sufficiency" in military expenditures and "mutual security," based upon universal human values rather than class conflict, to the participants at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress. Chernyaev, however, had his doubts: "As for guiding reform and guaranteeing its success, this role is still reserved for the Communist Party…. It never occurred to him that changes might bog down because of the system itself, even if people became more active."

Nevertheless, when Gorbachev met President Reagan at Reykjavik in October of 1986, the Soviet delegation was prepared to "sweep Reagan off his feet" by appealing to his antinuclear sentiments. Sure enough, an ill-prepared and overwhelmed Reagan ultimately suggested the elimination of all nuclear weapons–which Gorbachev eagerly embraced. Only a disagreement over Star Wars and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty prevented two antinuclear radicals from formalizing an agreement to eliminate the very weapons that, in many Western minds, deterred a Soviet invasion of Europe. Margaret Thatcher likened Reykjavik to "an earthquake." Senator Sam Nunn observed that, had the negotiations not broken down over Star Wars, "it would have been the most painfully embarrassing example of American ineptitude in this century, certainly since World War II."

Chernyaev correctly placed some blame for Reykjavik's collapse on Gorbachev. Like Reagan, he wouldn't budge on Star Wars. Nevertheless, Reykjavik convinced Gorbachev that Reagan was a fellow nuclear radical who intuitively "felt the challenge of the times."

Gorbachev and Reagan brought starkly different approaches to Reykjavik, though. As Chernyaev's pre-Reykjavik Politburo notes clearly demonstrate, the concept of "mutual security" guided Gorbachev's plans: "We are by no means talking about weakening our security. But at the same time we have to realize that if our proposals imply weakening U.S. security, then there won't be any agreement." For contrast, note the questions that an exasperated US representative, Max Kampelman, asked a fellow member of the Reagan team: "Then why do we do this? Why propose something he'd [Gorbachev] never accept, something even we might not want?" The approaches demonstrate why Gorbachev was so instrumental in bringing the cold war to a peaceful conclusion, and why the United States still embraces the state-centered "realism" and unilateralism that guarantees an adversarial relationship, fifteen years later.

Although this watershed event opened the floodgates for subsequent foreign policy successes, it had little effect at home. Chernyaev still doubted Gorbachev's willingness to undertake economic reforms that would "change the system's essentials." He observed too much talk and too little action. Worse still, the actions taken were disastrous; an anti-alcohol campaign that cost him much popular goodwill and "predetermined much in the tragic course of perestroika," and a law on enterprises in 1987 that "was probably the first step toward the economy's collapse."

Nevertheless, by the middle of 1986, Gorbachev had "begun referring to the ills of 'the system,'" prompting him, at the January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee, to deliver a blistering critique of the party. Gorbachev used that plenum to schedule what would prove to be an extraordinary Nineteenth Party Conference during the summer of 1988.

Soon after that January 1987 plenum, Andrei Sakharov persuaded Gorbachev that Star Wars was a "Maginot line in space–expensive and vulnerable to counter-measures" that should not prevent the Soviet Union from concluding arms reduction agreements with the United States. A late-March meeting with Margaret Thatcher, to which Chernyaev devotes considerable attention, succeeded in persuading Gorbachev that Europe genuinely feared Soviet military power. Consequently, when Mathias Rust's Cessna aircraft landed in Red Square in late May, Gorbachev seized upon the ensuing scandal to replace his defense minister, the head of the air defense forces, and approximately 100 generals and colonels who opposed Gorbachev's mutual security initiatives.

Thus, by the summer of 1987, it was discontent with domestic perestroika (and not Reagan's Star Wars fantasy) that prompted Gorbachev's threat of harsh measures. For example, Chernyaev recounts one Politburo meeting where Gorbachev furiously tossed a "big stack" of letters on the table at which his colleagues were seated, before remarking: "They write many different things, but it all comes down to one and the same. What's this perestroika? How do we, ordinary people, benefit from it? We don't…. Here, in our Soviet state, big bosses enjoy every luxury and remodel their apartments at government expense. They couldn't care less about the people…. I'm warning you–this is our last conversation about such issues. If nothing changes, the next time I'll be talking to different people."

Gorbachev replaced rhetoric with action in the wake of the "Nina Andreyeva affair"–an ill-disguised but more formidable attempt by second-in-command Yegor Ligachev to bring perestroika to a halt in the spring of 1988–by compelling the participants at the Nineteenth Party Conference to schedule both the overhaul of the Central Committee apparatus and elections to a Congress of People's Deputies. Once implemented, both actions would break the party's stranglehold on political life.

Chernyaev's May 1989 diary entry vividly captures the political turmoil wrought by these changes:


All around Gorbachev has unleashed irreversible processes of "disintegration"… the planned economy is living its last days and the 'image' of socialism is fading. Ideology doesn't exist anymore. The empire-federation is falling apart. The Party is in disarray, having lost its place as a ruling, dominating, and repressive force. Governmental authority has been shaken to the breaking point. And nothing has yet been created to take its place.


The disarray and shaken authority cost Gorbachev much of his domestic influence. Yet, according to Chernyaev, even as late as November 1990, "the disruptions and uncertainty of the domestic situation hadn't yet affected the authority of the Soviet Union as a great power." Gorbachev used it to conclude a treaty with Reagan on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in December 1987. In April 1988, the Soviets signed the Geneva accords for removing Soviet troops from Afghanistan. And in December, Gorbachev stunned the United Nations and the world by denouncing both the threat and use of force in international relations–moral idealism he subsequently and courageously lived up to in 1989, when faced with the revolution his actions sparked in Eastern Europe–and announcing that the Soviet Union would reduce its armed forces by 500,000 men, withdrawing many from Eastern Europe.

During that extraordinary period, America's conservatives vilified Reagan for signing the INF treaty. Later, as Frances FitzGerald has reminded us in Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger, William Safire and George Will seized upon Reagan's subsequent performance at the Moscow summit (May 1988) to accuse him of "creating a false 'euphoria' that would give a breathing space to the unchanging enemy." Finally, who can forget Will's memorable bouquet to the departing President: "Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West–actual disarmament will follow." Nevertheless, in January 1989 a nonplussed Reagan proclaimed, "The cold war is over."

And so it was–notwithstanding needless obstacles created by the first Bush Administration. For, as Chernyaev notes, "beginning in the summer of 1990…Gorbachev was paying attention only to the major areas of foreign policy and almost entirely from the point of view of their necessity for solving domestic problems." Meetings with foreign dignitaries "were increasingly of a ruminating, 'philosophical' character." Thus, during President Bush's visit to Moscow, in July 1991, Gorbachev not only suggested a new strategic paradigm to replace nuclear parity but also engaged Bush in discussions about the best approaches for advancing the interests and solving the problems of other countries. In a word, "mutual security."

The meetings with Bush marked the culmination of Gorbachev's efforts, but only because a failed putsch against him in August facilitated the countercoup by Boris Yeltsin, in December, that ended his political career. Few should dispute Chernyaev's conclusion that Gorbachev's "epoch stands out as one of the most remarkable of the centuries." Nevertheless, prior to September 11, 2001, America's post-cold war triumphalism–distorted by the totalitarian school's refusal to countenance the very possibility of meaningful change from within the USSR–prevented the cold war "victor" from embracing Gorbachev's revolutionary lead.

But triumphalism collapsed momentarily with the World Trade Center, thereby creating yet another opportunity for new thinking. And who, better than Gorbachev, to both suggest and remind us? "It is now the responsibility of the world community to transform the coalition against terrorism into a coalition for a peaceful world order. Let us not, as we did in the 1990s, miss the chance to build such an order," he wrote recently.

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