Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Thinking

The New Thinking

Mikhail Gorbachev set out to transform the Soviet Union from within. What happened?


In 1996, in what as of this writing remains the last competitive presidential election in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev decided to throw his hat in the ring. Boris Yeltsin was then in his fifth year in office, and the fledgling Russian Federation had descended into chaos. Yeltsin’s privatization reforms had led to widespread misery; he had shelled his own Parliament and launched a brutal war on Chechnya. Having started both the initial democratization and the economic reforms of which Yeltsin was at once the beneficiary and gravedigger, Gorbachev thought he could do better. And perhaps Russians might want him to return? After all, he had lost his presidency in a nontraditional manner—the country of which he was president had ceased to exist.

Plus, Gorbachev hated Yeltsin. The two were near contemporaries. They both had come from humble backgrounds and had risen through the party apparatus to the upper ranks of the Soviet system, only to find that they doubted the system could continue. Beyond these similarities, however, the two were polar opposites. Gorbachev was studious, calculating, and a talker; Yeltsin worked by instinct and was master of the grand gesture. Gorbachev had sought to reform the Soviet Union gradually, thereby saving socialism from itself; Yeltsin’s drive for power and reckless style of governance had destroyed socialism, the Soviet Union, and possibly even Russian sovereignty. Gorbachev’s hope was that his milder social-democratic vision might finally get a fair hearing.

It did not. Gorbachev was mocked and ridiculed everywhere he went. His old high school wouldn’t let him address its students. Some of this activity was encouraged by Yeltsin; some of it was spontaneous. In Omsk, a 29-year-old unemployed man dashed past Gorbachev’s bodyguards and slapped the former leader of the Soviet empire in the face. In the end, thanks possibly to some creative vote-counting, and definitely to hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal campaign funds from the oligarchs, an ailing Yeltsin was elected to a second term. Gorbachev received less than 1 percent of the vote.

In his thorough and highly readable new biography of Gorbachev, William Taubman does not dwell on the 1996 campaign. It strays perhaps too far from his central tale, which is of Gorbachev’s courageous and historic ending of the Cold War. But the story of the election does comport with another theme of Taubman’s book and Gorbachev’s life: the fact that the man who is lionized in the West as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century is treated at home with contempt. For Westerners, Gorbachev brought a period of peace, calm, and prosperity; for Russians, he surrendered the empire without 
a fight.

Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 in a village in the southern Russian region of Stavropol. His parents and grandparents were farmers, which in that era put them in the very crosshairs of Soviet power. One grandfather, who was relatively successful, was opposed to communism and refused to join a collective farm; the other, who was much poorer, helped start one of them. In the end, both were arrested: the anticommunist grandfather in 1934, for withholding grain from the regime, and the communist grandfather in 1937, during Stalin’s purges of Soviet officials.

Both survived and returned to their families, but it was Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather, the collective-farm chairman, who talked about his experiences. Weeping, he described to his family the torture meted out by his interrogators. He spoke about it only once, but the memory left an impression on the young Gorbachev. Collectivization had been both a political and an economic policy. Politically, it was meant to break the back of the independent peasantry; economically, it was meant to gather Soviet farmers on large mechanized farms so they could (in theory) produce food more efficiently. On both accounts, the results were catastrophic: Millions starved to death, and further famines were only prevented by an allowance for private plots. There may have been a short-term political gain for a new government that could shoot, starve, and exile so many of its supposed enemies. But in the long term, it was the grandson of one of these enemies who eventually destroyed the Soviet Union itself.

For the moment, though, Gorbachev remained a believer. He had a happy childhood; the hard times of the 1930s and ’40s were cushioned by his family’s relatively good position within the collective farm. His mother was a hard woman, but he was close to his father, who managed to return from the front despite a letter sent to his family informing them that he had died. Gorbachev was a good student, always reading, and a hard worker: At the age of 17, he teamed up with his father to bring in the largest combine harvest in the entire region. Taken together, these achievements earned him admission to Moscow State University, the finest in the country.

Taubman paints a vivid portrait of 
Moscow State in the last years of the Stalin regime and the first, tentatively thawing years after it. Moscow may have been, as one of Gorbachev’s classmates recalled, “a huge village of wooden cottages, [where] people scarcely had enough to eat [and where] instead of flush toilets there was only an opening leading to a drain pipe.” 
But the university was an oasis apart. Its students did not consist primarily of young men from collective farms: Most were Muscovites who were well prepared for college. Some, especially after Stalin’s death, were also willing to talk about their skepticism of Soviet power.

Gorbachev was here, as everywhere else, a fast learner, and after a short period of seeming like a hayseed from the provinces, he started to blend in. He debated Stalinism with his classmates—he knew far more about the devastation of collectivization than they did—and courted a fellow student named Raisa Titarenko. The other important friend he made during this time was a Czech student named Zdenek Mlynar, who would later be a key participant in the Czechoslovakian attempt to build “socialism with a human face” in 1968.

After graduation, Gorbachev went back home to serve in the apparatus in the regional capital of Stavropol. As a local with a degree from Moscow State and no bad habits, he rose rapidly through the ranks, survived the changing of the guard from Khrushchev to Brezhnev, and was made head of the entire Stavropol region at the tender age of 37.

From his increasingly higher posts, Gorbachev saw that the Soviet system wasn’t working; at the same time, he thought it could be fixed. When the Prague Spring came along, he duly denounced it, urging the Soviet Union to “come to the defense of socialism in Czechoslovakia”—i.e., to send in the tanks. (Mlynar was eventually exiled to Vienna.) As regional party secretary, Gorbachev used old-style Soviet mass mobilization to exceed harvest targets; when a section of a major canal was completed in the region, he celebrated under a banner that read “the Kuban River will flow wherever the Bolsheviks tell it to.” But he did not hide from the leadership his worries about the system he was being groomed to inherit. In what Taubman calls a “radical memorandum” to the Central Committee in 1978, Gorbachev referred to the collective-farm system as an “internal colony” that was being exploited by 
Soviet power. These were not the words of a timeserver or cynical bureaucrat. And yet he kept being promoted through the ranks.

Geography played its part. The Stavropol region is the gateway to the Caucasus Mountains; in happier times, this meant it was the favorite vacation destination of the Communist Party’s demigods. Gorbachev got to play host several times to Yuri Andropov, the influential head of the KGB; to Mikhail Suslov, the longtime “gray cardinal” of Soviet politics; and to Alexei Kosygin, who had undertaken the most ambitious economic reforms of the postwar period, with some success. The sober-minded, hardworking, and true-believing Gorbachev made a good impression. In the late ’70s, he was called to Moscow to join the Secretariat of the Central Committee and shortly thereafter the Politburo, the small governing council of the Soviet Union. In March 1985, after three consecutive deaths among the old guard, he was elected general secretary—at 54, the youngest to assume the position since Stalin.

Gorbachev’s ascent raises a philosophical question: Was he a historical accident, a unique figure who was superlatively skilled at navigating and then dismantling the Soviet bureaucracy? Or was his rise representative of a larger segment of young leaders whose families had experienced the traumas of Stalinism and who had come of age during the Khrushchev thaw? Reading Taubman, one gets the sense that Gorbachev was not an accident. True, he was only able to become general secretary because he had powerful patrons; but it was also the case that, once in power, he was able to find within the Communist Party a significant group of like-minded reformers. And the eventual emergence of the hated Yeltsin suggests that someone like Gorbachev would have come along sooner rather than later.

But the qualities that allowed Gorbachev to become general secretary also defined his limitations. He remained an insider. The man who now told his wife and the Politburo that “we can’t go on living like this” was also the man who, according to a researcher quoted by Taubman, had earlier attended every Politburo meeting but almost never spoke at them, “except to say that whatever Brezhnev just said was just right.” Gorbachev was not a Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel; he didn’t build an independent base of support through opposition to the regime. Instead, he was a person from inside the regime, doing his best to save it.

We can’t go on living like this.” But how were they to live? From Taubman, one learns that Gorbachev, once at the top, was uncertain about what to do. In the first few years of his rule, he turned to piecemeal programs: His two main initiatives were “acceleration” (everyone should work harder!) and a somewhat quixotic battle against alcohol. Acceleration failed—people saw no particular reason to work harder—while the anti-alcohol campaign proved to be deeply unpopular and a blow to the fragile Soviet budget, which earned billions of rubles from alcohol sales. Taubman recounts a joke from the period: A man frustrated with the long line in front of a liquor store announces that he’s going to walk to the Kremlin and shoot Gorbachev. Shortly thereafter, he returns. What happened? he is asked. “When I got there I saw the line to shoot Gorbachev was even longer than this line, so I came back.”

Gorbachev had announced glasnost (“openness”) early in his reign, and as these other piecemeal reforms were running aground, he also announced perestroika (“rebuilding”). These were slogans more than programs, but they were programs, too. Both attempted to democratize different aspects of Soviet society: Glasnost sought to open up civil society and free the presses; perestroika sought to reform the economy and increase citizen participation in political life by introducing competitive elections and eventually breaking the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The political part of these programs was a success; the economic part, less so.

Taubman unfortunately devotes almost no attention to the economic challenges that Gorbachev faced, apparently assuming they are self-evident. But we should list them. The Soviets employed central planning, meaning that the state dictated in advance how many cars, pants, and shoes were to be produced each year and by which factory, and how many pounds of meat and butter and steel, and how many bombs. This created distortions in both information and incentives. And yet, as many scholars of the Soviet economy have pointed out, the system worked. It worked inefficiently, but it created full employment (plant managers had no incentive to fire people), consistently returned modest rates of growth, and basically fed, clothed, and housed the Soviet people. Enough was left over to also field the world’s second-most-fearsome military machine.

The Soviet Union could well have muddled along this way indefinitely. But three things happened. The first was external: After 70 years of trying to catch up with and overtake the West, the Soviet Union started to fall behind, a trend exacerbated by the cratering of oil prices in early 1986. The second factor was internal: That the country’s infrastructure was not world-class was no secret, but on April 26, 1986, a year into Gorbachev’s tenure as general secretary, Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant went into meltdown. The worst nuclear accident in history was compounded by an incompetent bureaucracy that failed to notify the Kremlin in time, and by an incompetent Kremlin that failed to react with sufficient intensity once it was informed. The third and final factor was, ironically, Gorbachev’s faith in the Soviet experiment. Muddling along wasn’t good enough for the inheritors of Lenin’s dream; something had to be done. Someone more cynical than Gorbachev would have been satisfied with tinkering around the edges; but Gorbachev was an idealist. “We’ve got to act like revolutionaries,” he declared, “to set the process in motion and then we’ll see.”

And so the Soviet Union had perestroika. But the decision to proceed did not absolve Gorbachev of the basic paradoxes of his character and position. He was a consummate insider seeking to dismantle the system that had raised him; he was, as Taubman shows, an autocrat who forced democracy on an entrenched bureaucracy, not because they supported it, but because they were in the habit of doing what the general secretary told them to do. He was prone to seeking consensus, and yet he was embarking on a series of controversial reforms. In the end, because of his compromises with Politburo hard-liners, the reforms he forced upon the party apparatus were bold enough to upend the system but not bold enough to renew it. So the system fell apart.

The economy was confusing. But on the international stage, Gorbachev knew just what to do: He called for a “New Thinking” when it came to foreign policy and began to herald a vision of a “common European home.” In 1986, he also started a series of summits with President Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev’s goal in the negotiations was to slow down the arms race so that he could devote more resources to the consumer sector. This wasn’t as easy as it looked. Soviet leaders had come to the table with disarmament proposals before without really meaning them, and there was also a strong constituency on the American side that enjoyed building more and more arms. But Reagan seized the opportunity. He had always believed that if Soviet and American leaders could just talk to one another, they could work out their differences. In Gorbachev, he had found his man.

Together, they agreed to cut down on nuclear and conventional warheads. When, after the election of the cautious George H.W. Bush in 1988, there was some question as to whether the thaw between the superpowers would continue, Gorbachev unilaterally announced that he was downsizing the Soviet army by 500,000 and reducing troop levels in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev was ending the Cold War on his own timetable, if not on his own terms.

In these years, Gorbachev came, in essence, to lead a double life. In the West, he was treated like a hero: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl—they all admired and appreciated him and swore their undying friendship. The international media adored him as well. When, during a 1987 visit to Washington, Gorbachev emerged from his limousine to talk to ordinary people, the people went nuts. Here was the man with a nuclear sword over their heads, now voluntarily withdrawing it. “Gorbymania” spread throughout the countries of the Western world. In 1990, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile, back home, things were very different. Early in his tenure, Gorbachev had been presented with some radical economic-restructuring plans, but he ended up rejecting them. In 1990, a small group of leftist economists, including the future political leader Grigory Yavlinsky, put forward their “500 Days” plan toward a market socialist economy, but Gorbachev dismissed it as well. Instead, his economic policies—which sought to effect a gradual transition to a mixed economy—
advanced in fits and starts. State enterprises were kept intact, with all their weird ways, but some independent businesses—so-called cooperatives—were legislated into existence. The result was a mixed economy in the worst sense: The old factories 
continued their old work, with less and less 
support from the government, while the new cooperatives could and did take 
advantage of all the distortions created by the command economy.

Many of the men later known as the oligarchs got their start during this period. One of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, came up with an alchemical and apparently legal way to bring tens of thousands of the nominal rubles held by state enterprises into the economy as actual rubles; another, Boris Berezovsky, infiltrated the massive Avtovaz auto factory. Gorbachev had hoped to tap into the native entrepreneurial spirit of his people, and he did. What he didn’t realize—though he should have—is that capitalism isn’t necessarily productive; it can be parasitic. In this case, capitalism attached itself to the massive Soviet economy and started sucking out its insides.

As the slow-motion economic collapse was taking place, Gorbachev freed the press under glasnost. This too was not an entirely organic process: The press tribunes of perestroika were not start-ups but old stalwarts like Ogonyok, Novy Mir, and the Moscow News. They were now allowed to print what they pleased, but it took a while for them to take Gorbachev’s commitment to free speech seriously—for example, he had to personally clear the novel Children of the Arbat for publication. But eventually people got the point and stopped asking. (In the same way that, decades earlier, they had gotten the opposite point and stopped asking.)

The result was widespread criticism of his regime from all sides. The liberals were angry that economic reforms were moving too slowly and that Gorbachev refused to empty his Politburo of hard-liners. The communists were concerned that socialism was being destroyed from within. And then there were the nationalists: Very soon after glasnost came into force, ethnic Armenians and Azeris started killing each other in 
Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict continued to simmer throughout the rest of Gorbachev’s tenure, breaking out into a full-scale war in 1992, when it was no longer his problem. As troubling for the future of the Soviet Union were developments in the Baltic states, especially Lithuania, where nationalists seized on the opportunity provided by the new freedoms to organize and lobby for their independence. Gorbachev lost Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989; by mid-1990, the Baltic states had also declared their independence. The other ethnic republics lagged behind. Some of their populations wanted to remain in the USSR. But regional elites saw an opportunity for greater power, and they began to seize it.

This included Russia. Starting in May 1990, Yeltsin became the de jure leader of the Russian republic within the Soviet system, and immediately set about challenging the primacy of the Soviet government on Russian territory. One of his arguments was that Russia was a net loser, that it gave more to the empire than it got back and thus would be better off on its own. This move on Russia’s part was the final nail in the empire’s coffin. It was one of the strangest forces unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms—the imperial center itself undermining the empire—and likely the most significant.

We learn from Taubman that Gorbachev was not even remotely prepared for any of these developments. When he realized that Eastern Europe was on its way out, he didn’t care: He hated the rigid Communist leaders of Romania and Bulgaria and East Germany and wished them good riddance. He also wasn’t prepared for the nationalisms inside the Soviet Union and felt that there were bigger things to worry about: the domestic economy and his international summits. If he could solve the international situation and bring an end to the Cold War, he was convinced that he would also solve his domestic situation. And if he could solve his domestic situation, he would also be able to bring the rebellious republics back on board.

Reading through the account of Gorbachev’s summits with world leaders, in which he gave up the empire and asked for nothing in return, one is struck by how naive Gorbachev could be. But this was something shared widely; many Soviet people had come to believe what they’d heard on Voice of America about the freedom-loving peoples of the West. Anatoly Chernyaev, a close adviser to Gorbachev whose diary provides many of the most vivid passages in Taubman’s book, recorded his feelings after a particularly friendly meeting with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl: It was, Chernyaev wrote, “a physical sensation of entering a new world defined not by class struggle, ideology, or hostility, but by a shared humanity.” It was a beautiful dream, and one that Gorbachev embraced. Maybe Kohl and Reagan and Thatcher did so too, in their way. But they also lived in the real world.

Kohl had assured Gorbachev that the reunification of Germany would be a gradual process, and he also suggested that Germany might stay out of NATO. But reunification took place almost overnight, with full NATO membership attached. Likewise, James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state, unquestionably indicated to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward, a promise that the United States soon reneged on. “To hell with that,” Bush said. “We prevailed. They didn’t.” It would have been far better for Russian security—and for European security as a whole—if Gorbachev had been able to drive a harder bargain. But his difficult situation on the home front made him desperate for a win. The Soviet Union’s isolation left him unable to see just what was happening until it was too late.

Eventually, the various swift-moving currents in the country—the collapsing economy, the freewheeling public discussion, the loss of territory and spheres of influence—became too much for the old-timers that Gorbachev had allowed to stick around. A group of them, including the head of the KGB, the defense minister, the interior minister, and Gorbachev’s own chief of staff, placed him under house arrest while he and his wife were vacationing in Crimea. With Gorbachev cut off from the world, the putschists declared a state of emergency. But in Moscow they failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied resistance from in front of the Russian White House and forced the coup plotters to fold. Gorbachev also folded in the end: When he was flown back to Moscow, he did not go to the White House to greet his ostensible supporters. He didn’t go because, after several days of the couple being under house arrest and fearing for their lives, Raisa Gorbachev was ill. He also didn’t go because he knew that he was no longer the leader of the country; Yeltsin was. Four months later, Yeltsin met with the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus and disbanded the Soviet Union. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned.

Looking back on the end of the Soviet Union from where we are now, it is not as obvious as it seemed then that it was an unmitigated good. Some countries have fared well in the post-Soviet period, while others have fared poorly. The same is true for individuals across the post-Soviet landscape, and nowhere more than in highly stratified Russia. Some people have amassed untold riches; others live in fear and insecurity such as would have been unenviable even in Soviet times. At this point, the early-’90s celebrations of the empire’s peaceful disintegration seem out of place: More former Soviet republics have seen warfare on their territories than have remained at peace. Russia itself is now locked in a bitter rivalry, again, with the United States, this time from a dangerous position of weakness.

Could the Soviet empire have survived in some form? The answer for the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic nations is almost certainly no: Any amount of liberalization would have led almost immediately to their independence. Might the USSR have survived in its pre-1939 borders? Perhaps. But here as in so much else, the Soviet state had to answer for Stalin’s crimes: His 1939 annexation of western Ukraine, for example, made it less likely that Ukraine would want to remain in any hypothetical USSR. On the question of whether Russia might have survived as a socialist experiment, the answers are even less clear. Some economists have argued that the entire Soviet economy was based on coercion and that any liberalization—even one less haphazard than Gorbachev’s—would have led to economic collapse. Thus Philip Hanson’s mordant quip: “Mikhail Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who…did not understand the Soviet system. He was therefore the last Soviet leader.”

But this seems to underestimate the power of actually existing socialist idealism. Some people really did believe in worker control, and some really did think they were building a better world. Perhaps for this reason, some of the bravest independent union representatives in Russia today identify themselves with the Communist Party, for all its obvious flaws. And worker ownership would eventually be promoted even by the neoliberal Yeltsin regime when it launched its disastrous voucherization policy in 1992, which gave workers tradable shares in the enterprises where they worked.

What if this or something like it had been tried not in the lawless and impoverished ’90s, when most workers immediately sold their shares for a pittance, but in the more placid mid-’80s? What if, moreover, Gorbachev had run for president of Russia not in 1996, when he was one of the least popular politicians in the country, but in 1990, when he was still probably the most popular politician in the country and his election might have buttressed his case for union and reform? Obviously, we’ll never know, and maybe it’s just as well: A poor and backward country was always going to be a terrible place to test out socialism. A prosperous, powerful, and technologically advanced one, like the United States, 
remains a different matter.

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