Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the first and last president of the Soviet Union, died on August 30th in Moscow. He was 91 years old.
The maiden Soviet statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, Gorbachev has been a controversial and polarising figure throughout his life. Even in his death, the man evoked mixed reactions throughout Russia and the rest of the world.
The general dislike for Gorbachev in modern Russia was evident from President Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to declare any official mourning for the disgraced politician, who resigned as the maiden and the last president of the Soviet Union on December 25th 1991.
Following Gorbachev’s resignation, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Boris Yeltsin became the Russian president. Ironically, when Yeltsin died in 2007, Putin announced a day of mourning, and several world leaders attended Yeltsin’s funeral.
Although Putin paid his last respects to Gorbachev’s mortal remains on Thursday, September 1st, at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, he didn’t attend the minimal, semi-state funeral on Saturday, September 3rd, citing other prior engagements.
President Putin, who had earlier called the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, refrained from referring to Gorbachev’s role as the CPSU general secretary. However, the opposition didn’t remain mute.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which calls itself an heir of the CPSU, condemned Gorbachev and his actions as the former CPSU general secretary and the president of the Soviet Union.
Gennady Zyuganov, the Chairman of the CPRF’s central committee and that of the CPSU, both reorganised in the early 1990s, denounced Gorbachev as a renegade who stabbed not just the Soviet Union but the people, the ‘allies’ and others. Zyuganov lambasted the dead former president but refrained from critically analysing Gorbachev’s role.
Hundreds of—relatively insignificant for a Russian politician of the deceased leader’s stature—Putin critics, pro-western liberal democrats and anti-communists attended Gorbachev’s farewell ceremony on Saturday, September 3rd.
They paid their last respects to Gorbachev at the Hall of Pillars in Moscow’s House of the Unions. He was later buried privately in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow, beside his wife Raisa Gorbachev, who died in 1999.
The Russian news agency, TAAS, which had once written long columns on Gorbachev’s ascension to power, spent less than 50 words covering the story of his funeral. Most Russian media outlets only used Gorbachev’s death as an occasion to bash the western critics of Putin’s “special military operations in Ukraine”.
Gorbachev remained a polarising figure forever. The US-led western imperialist lobby hails his controversial legacy, portraying him as a ‘messiah’. The ordinary Russians, and the left-wing forces worldwide, loathe him and consider him a renegade, a ‘Judas’, who kept collecting silver from the West for crucifying the Soviet Union.
Amid this dichotomy, an objective and critical analysis of Gorbachev’s role and the events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union is crucial for an in-depth understanding of the issue.
Gorbachev, the history behind his rise
Gorbachev was born on March 2nd 1931, to a peasant family in Privolnoye village, which is now located in southern Russia’s Stavropol Region. He completed his graduation in law from Moscow State University in 1955 and joined the Young Communist League (Komsomol).
From joining the Komsomol in 1955, Gorbachev had a swift career growth. By 1971, at 40, he was a member of the CPSU’s Central Committee. In 1978, he was appointed the party secretary of agriculture, and in 1980, he was promoted to a full member of the CPSU’s top decision-making body, the Politburo.
The period of Gorbachev’s rise was also a tumultuous phase in the Soviet Union’s and the world’s history. JV Stalin, the man who inherited the leadership of the CPSU from the iconic VI Lenin and transformed the Soviet Union into a global superpower from a backward country, died in March 1953. Soon, his hardcore loyalists were purged, and Lavrentiy Beria, the in-charge of state security, was executed after a coup by Nikita Khrushchev.
Khrushchev usurped power within the CPSU and the Soviet state and installed his loyalists, the vehement opponents of Lenin and Stalin’s socialist theories. From the podium of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev started a fanatic anti-Stalin campaign, which was implicitly anti-Lenin.
Many communists from other countries, particularly Enver Hoxha’s Albanian Party of Labour and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC), opposed Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin tirade. A split occurred in the international communist movement, as Mao-led communists accused the Soviet leaders of restoring state capitalism under the guise of de-Stalinisation.
Despite the Sino-Soviet split, Khrushchev continued with the “Thaw”, the anti-Stalin, and anti-socialist political campaign, which helped him initially garner the Soviet bureaucracy’s support. Gorbachev was one of the leading propagandists who carried out this malicious campaign at the behest of Khrushchev and his clique in the Stavropol region.
Khrushchev turned the Soviet Union into a bureaucratic capitalist society and started liberalising the political and economic spheres, following Evsei Grigorievich Liberman’s theory of initiating market reforms within a socialist system.
Khrushchev also ended the central planning model and created regional economic councils, which pursued unplanned economic programmes. These councils, led by competing bureaucrats, often worked parochially. It hampered national economic growth. They also led to severe shortages and economic turmoil.
The bureaucrats and managers were judged as per their unit’s productivity, which made them increase production manifold—consuming more factors of production—without considering whether so much production was necessary and how the excessive production would aid the national economy.
Khrushchev’s agriculture policies also abandoned Stalin’s socialist model. Firstly, he brought a large tract of new land under cultivation to increase food grain and meat production. Following severe food shortages caused by his reforms, he reversed them in 1959.
He cut back the land one could use for private production, forced farmers to sell their livestock to collective farms and slashed the state investments in agriculture while increasing the demand for food grains.
By 1963, a year before he was ousted in a palace coup, Khrushchev’s agriculture policy became so disastrous that the Soviet Union had to import grains from the US and Canada.
Stalin had focused on developing heavy and key industries to ensure that the Soviet Union could become an advanced industrial society. His focus on heavy industries was to ensure that the Soviet Union could become self-reliant in consumer goods manufacturing and have adequate capacity to maintain an adequate supply of essential commodities and meet the growing material needs of the people.
Khrushchev’s unplanned economic programme reversed Stalin-era gains. These chaotic policies had led to a situation in which the producer goods outstripped the consumer goods, causing a supply crunch, and caused severe harm to the Soviet economy. Importing goods became mandatory for the survival of the Soviet Union.
Even though Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin ousted Khrushchev, their policies didn’t change much, and they continued the de-Stalinisation drive. Although Kosygin tried to reform the economic mess, the bureaucratic capitalist system was consolidated and a new Kulak, or landlord class, emerged in the countryside.
Brezhnev and Kosygin solidified the collective and state farm managers as the rural capitalists. The collective and state farms became virtually independent firms tied to the state’s capitalist class. The CPSU’s class base changed rapidly, and it not only became a party of the rural capitalists and Kulaks but also became an agency that tied the rural and urban capitalists together.
Kosygin’s sweeping reforms in 1965 aimed to turn profiteering into the main motive of the Soviet industry, discarding the social goals of the socialist economy. This helped consolidate the state capitalism that Khrushchev had earlier established.
The large surplus that the industrial bureaucratic capitalists had accumulated became a matter of concern for the Soviet state, which looked for avenues to invest in foreign countries to reap rich benefits and pay for its external debts and growing import bills.
The Soviet Union, which invested capital in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, tried to control the economies of these countries and turn them into satellite states.
The surge of the public sector in different countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America was due to this infusion of Soviet capital, which also brought its custom form of neo-colonial oppression.
The Soviet Union’s active pursuance of neo-colonial ambitions created more confrontations with the US and the West, leading to a weapon race under Brezhnev and the deployment of troops in countries where Soviet interests came under threat.
Amid this situation, the Soviet Union’s economy trembled due to the lack of modernisation, and it entered a state of stagnation from 1975 onwards. The increase in military spending was becoming fatal for the state, while agricultural and consumer goods production suffered.
For the Soviet citizens, a period of sheer gloom reigned during this period. Lack of political freedom, extreme economic hardships and the unavailability of consumer goods made them vulnerable to the West’s baits.
The US-led western bloc managed to sow discord in the Soviet society by dangling the bait of jeans, Coca-Cola, rock and roll, and ‘freedom’ before the influential and aspiring Soviet middle-class, those whose roots were in the bureaucracy,
In this scenario, for the sake of the Soviet Union’s existence, the ruling elites needed a series of economic reforms, according to Liberman’s theory. Brezhnev’s death in 1982 paved the way for the much-needed reforms.
Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief, became the new general secretary and planned to start a new series of reforms. Under Andropov’s patronage, Gorbachev became a prominent face in the Politburo.
However, Andropov died within 15 months, and the CPSU leadership didn’t allow Gorbachev, who was chosen by the deceased as his successor, to inherit the mantle as 71-year-old Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko became the fifth general secretary in February 1984 and remained in the position until March 1985.
The 54-year-old man, Gorbachev, was the youngest to take the CPSU’s reins since the Khrushchev era. While the pro-Andropov lobby, which wanted to reform the Soviet economy and introduce market reforms, stood by Gorbachev, some pro-Brezhnev old guards opposed him. However, nothing could stop Gorbachev’s juggernaut.
Glasnost and Perestroika
Perestroika (restructuring) was Gorbachev’s economic programme that opened the floodgate of the neoliberal economy in the Soviet Union. State-owned enterprises were privatised, and the private ownership of resources was allowed for the first time since Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP).
However, contrary to Lenin’s NEP, which focused on consolidating socialism, the Perestroika programme aimed at ending the state-controlled planned economic model –the base of the Soviet economy.
Gorbachev didn’t want to retain the CPSU’s vanguard role in the political field, unlike the Chinese. He wanted to create a political system where capitalism could be officially established, which led him and his clique to introduce Glasnost (openness) in 1986. This programme aimed to transform the Soviet superstructure into one compatible with market capitalism.
Under Glasnost, the Soviet dissidents were freed, political criticism of the CPSU was allowed, Marxism-Leninism was vilified, and ideological corruption was actively promoted. Press censorship was lifted, and anti-communist propaganda was allowed to thrive and captivate susceptible minds.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2011, Gorbachev claimed he couldn’t have followed the Chinese model of opening up the economy under the Party’s leadership. “In the Soviet Union nothing would have happened if we had done that. The people were cut out, totally isolated from decision-making. Our country was at a different stage of development from China and for us to solve problems we had to involve people (sic),” Gorbachev told The Guardian.
Neither the Glasnost nor the Perestroika could reform the Soviet state. Overnight, the state enterprises were bought by bureaucrat-turned-capitalists, and economic instability followed, which also caused an immense shortage of food and other commodities. The state didn’t attempt to arrest the rampant inflation caused by hoardings and black-marketing by the neo-capitalist class.
The policies could neither provide political liberty to the people nor could it raise their living standards. This resulted in more frustration, especially among the non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union.
The blatant loot of public enterprises by a section of bureaucratic capitalists, the resultant economic crisis and shortages fuelled anger at Moscow and Gorbachev knew no way to resolve it except using rhetoric and blaming Stalin.
Initiating ‘peace’ and following ‘non-intervention’
Since Brezhnev’s era, the Soviet leadership were mindful that they couldn’t carry on the arms race with the US and its western allies, as the total focus on expanding arsenal, both traditional and nuclear, was stagnating the economy further and creating a massive crisis of consumer goods manufacturing, and aiding inflation.
For Gorbachev, unlike Andropov and Chernenko, a paradigm shift from Brezhnev’s foreign policy was crucial to saving the Soviet economy. The first significant decision was to cut down the Soviet military budget heavily. This would mean applying brakes to the nuclear missile race started by Brezhnev to compete with the West.
Gorbachev’s first step towards minimising the military expenditures of the Soviet Union was to end the military occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan, where Brezhnev had installed a puppet ‘socialist’ regime to checkmate the Americans. The Soviet troops were fighting the CIA-funded Afghan Mujahideen and helping the ‘socialist’ president Babrak Karmal, who had inefficient troops and poor morale. Karmal fled Kabul, and the Afghan version of Gorbachev, Dr Najibullah, ascended to power with a compromise formula and an olive branch.
Although Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan at the beginning of his tenure as the general secretary, the policy was implemented in 1988. By that time, much water had flown through the Volga, and the Soviet Union had seen dramatic changes caused by the flawed Glasnost and Perestroika campaigns.
When then US president Ronald Reagan wrote his first letter to Gorbachev upon his ascension to power in March 1985, he promptly replied and expressed his desire to have a peaceful coexistence with the US. Gorbachev underscored the need for dialogue between the two powers to ensure that there is no outbreak of a nuclear war in the world.
Gorbachev’s response to Reagan was contrary to what his mentor Andropov wrote in his last letter to the US president. While Gorbachev was eager to have a dialogue, Andropov kept the ball at the American court, blaming it for erecting a stonewall on the way to peaceful negotiation.
In 1987, Gorbachev tabled the proposal for a Common European Home, hoping for the western powers to recognise a Eurasian integration without the presence of hostile military blocs like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.
Gorbachev called for disbanding NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1986. Later, he amplified the need to end these military blocs; however, without pragmatically waiting for the US side to take decisive steps, Gorbachev took unilateral steps to end the Warsaw Pact’s influence and weaken it significantly.
In his frantic bid to appease the western power blocs, Gorbachev followed a policy of non-intervention, which meant that the Soviet troops would not meddle in the affairs of Warsaw Pact countries. This gave a lot of impetus to the ongoing anti-communist movements in these countries.
Gorbachev allowed the reunification of Germany, without protecting the German DDR (East Germany), following the non-intervention policy. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, followed by a series of right-wing coups in the former socialist bloc countries, ended the so-called pro-Moscow communist parties’ rules in these countries.
At the same time, with the formal restoration of capitalism in these countries, the need for the Warsaw Pact, which Khrushchev initiated in 1955 after US-occupied West Germany joined NATO, had ended. After the NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries signed a treaty in Paris in 1990 declaring the end of hostilities, Gorbachev agreed to dissolve the 55m-strong Warsaw Pact in April 1991.
While ending the Warsaw Pact, Gorbachev got assurance from NATO that it would not expand eastwards from Germany. However, it was soon found that the US assurance were mere empty phrases, and NATO engulfed most of the eastern European states and even entered the Baltics, poaching the former Soviet republics like Georgia, Latvia, and then Ukraine, which sparked the major military confrontation between the NATO and the Russians in 2022.
Although the West hails Gorbachev as a messiah of peace and friendship, his foreign policy, especially his act of sacrificing the allies and the friends of the Soviet Union to earn two pats on the back from the White House and 10 Downing Street, kept Russia under the Damocles sword for decades.
Despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, his flawed foreign policy allowed the US-led NATO to reach the doorsteps of Russia and challenge its sovereignty. The rise of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and other Baltic states can be traced to Gorbachev’s unilateral concessions to the US and NATO.
The final downfall of Gorbachev and the USSR
While he ran his Glasnost and Perestroika campaigns in the 1980s, Gorbachev also vigorously propagated for a new legislative system. Ending the Soviet system in 1990, he introduced a presidential mode of governance and got elected as the first and the last president of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, he vigorously advocated for a new, reformed union, where the Soviet republics would enjoy greater autonomy, with Moscow only managing the defence, communication and foreign affairs of the Union. However, as he began relaxing the CPSU’s control and vigorously supported the amplification of anti-communist propaganda under Glasnost, the very nemesis of the Soviet Union was born amid this chaos.
Former CPSU Moscow region’s first secretary Yeltsin became the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the largest constituent of the Soviet Union, in the 1990 elections. Yeltsin, a former Gorbachev protégé, was ambitious and ended greater autonomy for the RSFSR. He also formed a nexus with the ultra-nationalist capitalists of other republics and wanted an end to the Soviet Union.
Although Gorbachev wanted to retain his political mantle by retaining the Soviet Union in a new form, he didn’t have the power or ideological standpoint to oppose the growing clout of Yeltsin. Rather than combating Yeltsin, Gorbachev compromised with him on several occasions and turned his spearhead against the CPSU.
After paying homage to Lenin on November 7th 1990, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Party-led Russian Revolution, Gorbachev and his coterie started preparing for the dismantling of the CPSU.
While Yeltsin went on his hysteric anti-communist rampage, questioning the authority of the CPSU and advocating the dissolution of the Union, Gorbachev, devoid of any other means to retain his hegemony, trained his guns at his own party.
In July 1991, taking his Glasnost drive to its peak, Gorbachev asked the CPSU to scrap Marxism-Leninism, its guiding ideology since 1924, calling it an “ossified dogma”. He warned the CPSU and the Soviet people that except for walking on the path toward a privatised economy, there could be no salvation.
He said: “There can be no other solution, for the party and the country, than to press on, deepening reforms and establishing a new, pragmatic model of social relations.”
Gorbachev’s proposal won massive support among his vassals, but some of the old guards, who wanted the CPSU to retain the façade of Leninism to dupe the working class, objected. Gorbachev then started preparing for a Congress of the CPSU, its highest decision-making forum, with a draft programme in his hand.
At this point, Yeltsin’s manoeuvring helped most of the right-wing forces in the Soviet republics to push for a referendum on the Union’s future. While Gorbachev advocated retaining it, Yeltsin and his coterie advocated its fast dissolution.
In this scenario, Gorbachev went on vacation when a group of men, who had been a part of his coterie, tried usurping power by staging a coup. It was a frantic bid by an isolated clique to stop Gorbachev’s juggernaut of reforms from ending the CPSU’s hegemony.
Neither the group was well-prepared nor had any fool-proof plan to take the coup to a culmination. In this scenario, Yeltsin exerted pressure on the armed forces and rescued Gorbachev. The coup was over, and Gorbachev quit the CPSU.
Soon Yeltsin banned the CPSU in the RSFSR. He managed to seize all assets of the ruling party and its press. The CPSU, which was until then the ruling party, was rendered fractured, banned and disarrayed by its general secretary.
The coup reduced Gorbachev’s power significantly. Even though 60% of voters, who participated in the referendum regarding the Union’s future, voted in favour of it, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Byelorussia and Ukraine, managed to overturn the results. The Soviet Union was to be dissolved, and the new states would come under a commonwealth.
Gorbachev remained a puppet president of the Union, without an actual Union and even without the party that helped him rise to power. He depended on Yeltsin for everything, while his western friends also abandoned him.
“I was probably too liberal and democratic as regards Yeltsin. I should have sent him as ambassador to Great Britain or maybe a former British colony,” Gorbachev told The Guardian of the UK in 2011 while celebrating his 81st birthday.
On Christmas of 1991, Gorbachev resigned from the post of Soviet Union’s president, ending a seven-decade-long chapter in the history of the 20th century. Gorbachev’s exit allowed Yeltsin to carry forward his tyrannical rule that turned Russia into a poor and weak state.
Why should Gorbachev be remembered?
Gorbachev will be remembered by Russians and non-Russians alike until the time they will remember the Soviet Union. The majority of the people, who suffered hunger, unemployment and sheer poverty due to the Soviet Union’s collapse, will remember Gorbachev as a despicable man forever.
Instead, Gorbachev will remain dear to those, especially the western bloc, whose imperialistic geopolitical ambitions were served by his catastrophic policies. Therefore, Putin didn’t want to be seen with the man whose death was mourned by almost all NATO member states.
One can learn from Gorbachev – how to not betray a country and its people. Gorbachev didn’t come from Mars. Gorbachev’s psyche was shaped by Khrushchev’s Thaw, Brezhnev’s stagnation, Andropov’s opportunist pragmatism and Chernenko’s jaundiced politics. Gorbachev was a by-product of a sick Soviet state, which was socialist in words and imperialistic in deeds.
Although Gorbachev will be credited for the Glasnost and Perestroika, which nailed the coffin of the Soviet Union, these reforms were not his creations. Gorbachev was a naïve and mediocre politician who didn’t innovate these policies but copied them from Andropov’s reform agenda.
Moreover, Gorbachev couldn’t have had them rolled out unless the CPSU’s decision-making body, the Politburo, and the Soviet government did not favour these policies. It was a collective effort of the entire CPSU top brass, keen to take Khrushchev’s Thaw to its logical conclusion – the destruction of the Soviet state and dismantling of the CPSU’s rule.
Gorbachev also became a role model for those who wanted to show servility towards the western powers and compromise sovereignty. Gorbachev’s act not just jeopardised Russia’s security but turned the entire Soviet Union into a hotbed of ethnic tension, violence and neo-Nazism, evident from the recent incidents in Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania.
The man who led the Soviet Union to its gallows was politically dead in August 1991, when the coup took place to oust him, and Yeltsin had to use his powers to save him. The moving corpse of Gorbachev, who lived like a ghost of the past, finally got a Russian Orthodox funeral in 2022. In between, and even in the coming days, his existence will haunt the people’s minds in Russia and other Soviet republics.
An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker