Deng called him an idiot. He brought about cataclysmic changes he had never bargained for. In the evening of his life, “ Mr. Gorbachev has become an isolated figure. Most of his contemporaries are dead. He is just critical enough about the lack of democracy under Mr. Putin that state-run television channels avoid him. His death has been announced more than once,” said New York Times not long ago.
Lost his power in some humiliating circumstances back in 1991, his dear wife Raisa some ten years later, his daughter and her family living in Germany, so all alone , except for bodyguards, chefs and chauffeurs, in a big house in the suburbs.
Marxists like me had certainly looked up to him during the heady days of glasnost and fervently hoped there could be life after Stalin. There was this Dr Bastian Wielenga, a Dutch scholar, who would proffer the latest issues of Moscow News and say animatedly, “Am sure Mikhail draws his inspiration from Lenin’s State and Revolution, more than anything else.”
Of course we were all to be disappointed in just six years, as everything unravelled. I could never get back to Wielenga thereafter for his explanations, and we all interpret the tragic events as we feel. Organized left were cagey about the whole process of deStalinization, Indeed they were contemptuous as well. Still under Stalin spell, you could never get at the truth from them.
Speaking for myself I was under the impression for long that between Reagan and Thatcher they made a fool of Gorbachev, of course with generous help from the likes of Yeltsin. Saddled with Putin now, we don’t know where to hide ourselves when taunted, and all that we can say hesitantly is, “Well, things could still change…anyway capitalism is throwing up Trumps, the world is yet to recover from 2008 blows and so on…”
But now Dr William Taubman’s authoritative biography helps clear a lot of cobwebs in our minds and arrive at a more informed critique. Marxists of course seldom learn or unlearn anything, for all their strutting around. They are caught in a time warp. No amount of original research or recurrent blowbacks will convince them Stalinism was doomed to fail, and most abominable even if it were to succeed sometime somewhere.
No point then in telling them anything then, still habits die hard.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, as Stavropol Komsomol chief, while going around the region, looks at the remote village of Gorkaya Balka from the top of a hill and is shocked to find “low smoke belching huts, blackened dilapidated fences…Down there in those miserable dwellings, people led some kind of life. But the streets if you could call them street were deserted. As if the plague had ravaged the entire village. No communication between the huts of this shantytown, just the everlasting barking of dogs….”
He recalls in his memoirs what he felt then – “This is why young people from this godforsaken village flee fr om desolation and horror, from the fear of being buried alive…how is it possible how can anyone live like that?”
Situation was that bad in the fifties, you must know, that is four decades after the revolution.
Invariably agriculture proved the graveyard of many Bolshevik leaders. The high command could not even get the correct figures from the collective and state farmss. The apparatchiks chased prizes by stealing grains from state reserves, while harvests rotted in the open for lack of storage and transport infrastructure.
The much talked of collective farms was a disaster. The Gorbachev couple were acutely conscious of it all.
Raisa Gorbachev, in her doctoral dissertation, even while speaking of Soviet achievements, carefully slips in comments like – the ‘socialist restructuring of the kolkhoz village has not entirely eliminated inequality.’ It is nothing but a hint at the gross inequality between town and country, which the official ideology pledged to reduce, notes Taubman. “Reading between the lines, one can detect the Potemkin-village nature of libraries, clinics, nurseries, and old-age homes that barely deserved their names.”
Of course the collectivization process itself was a great horror. Families were stripped of their property and herded into exile, some dumped in the barren steppes, others crammed into cattle cars in which many perished. The number of those killed in that grim period varies from six millions to as much as 13 millions.
“ What enmity collectivization created! Brother against brother, son against father, through whole families it rolled. The quotas came from above — so many kulaks to evict, whether they actually were kulaks or not,” Gorbachev was to tell the Politburo later in 1987.
His wife’s maternal grandfather was taken away during collectivization, he never returned – his crime, Trotskyism, but he didn’t even know who Trotsky was.
The 1937 purges heaped more miseries. Again targets were fixed – to identify enemies of the party. Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather was a victim, having to undergo 14 months of imprisonment and torture.
Such was the experience of millions they even wanted Hitler to win and free them from Bolshevik tyranny. How could such a system produce enough?
But it was not as if the high command was totally inured. Khuruschev tried his hand at reinvigorating agriculture, but failed
Brezhnev’s ten year programme failed to click either. Indeed it was dead on arrival. According to Zhores Medvedev, an associate of Gorbachev, thousands of experts spent thousands of hours putting together the ambitious plan and huge investments were also decided on, but “it was obvious that these enormous funds would be wasted because there was to be no liberalization of the decision-making process, no freedom of choice for state and collective farms
Gorbachev himself saw it for himself during his Stavropol assignment – those at the top firmly seemed fully convinced without their bureaucratic directives, no grass could grow no cows could calve and that the economy could function only under a regime of permanent mobilization, but deprived of any capacity for self- development, he remarked in disgust.
The persistent shortage of consumer goods in the erstwhile Soviet Union is also widely known. This is a fairly objective account
It was in this background Gorbachev as the boss of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union went about his perestroika, but it too failed to deliver. “The rigid central planning process, along with pervasive secrecy, stifled scientific and technical innovation. The machine building enterprises Gorbacheve wanted to encourage struggled to find customers for their low-quality production. Agricultural output lagged even as state subsidies designed to boost it ballooned. Shortages, which once had been largely limited to imported luxury items and then spread to ordinary consumer goods, now extended to necessities, including food…,” points out Taubman.
Gorbachev fondly hoped going back to the people, motivating them, a Maoist move, seemingly genuine, he himself trying to take the lead, could help reverse it all.
That way his glasnost was the right key to a new Soviet Union he envisioned. Indeed thousands of flowers bloomed, and the people began to complain volubly and hold the rulers to account. Deng was being arrogant with his “idiot” remark, if one wants a peaceful transition, Gorbachev’s is the right path. And moral too, let us not forget, unlike Tienanmen.
But if he himself was too distracted by too many other commitments, those down below didn’t seem too very enthusiastic. Besides, Chernobyl disaster and a sharp decline in oil prices added to his woes.
Clearly the system was too rotten to respond to incremental reforms, whereas he was scared of far-reaching changes. Repeatedly he tries band-aid solutions, predictably they come off in no time, leaving the wound in a much worse condition.
And when he turns to the West, they welcome him warmly, yes. First Reagan, then Bush in the US, as also the European leaders do wish him well. Interestingly Margaret Thatcher keeps pressing the rest to go to the rescue of a beleaguered Gorbachev , even after she quit as PM. She makes it to the UN and tells them the fall of communism has been achieved without much bloodshed, and hence the West should be a lot more generous.
As it happened, the western leaders were willing to help to a limited extent, but one shouldn’t forget they had their own constraints. The billions Gorbachev was pestering them for, that would not happen. He seemed to hold it against them and his biographer too seems to imply they should have done a lot more than what actually trickled down.
When perestroika fails while at the same glasnost has emboldened a long repressed population to take to the streets, there was no way the man who initiated it all would survive without a financial lifeline there was no way the man who initiated it all would survive. And so the very least the beneficiaries could do was to come together with a new Marshall plan and save Gorby from sinking, such is the argument.
But then there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests, as the saying goes. If the Soviet Union was voluntarily dismantling the communist world, well it was its choice. We are happy, that is about all, why should we need to do anything more?
Besides what was the guarantee such humongous aid won’t get lost in the corrupt bureaucratic jungle and safety nets would indeed be in place?
Unfortunately for all his avowedly good, noble intentions, Gorbachev had failed pathetically as a leader. None of what he had hoped for when he set out on perestroika materialized. Everything was in a mess. All he could do was either escape to the adulation in the west or blame the people themselves.
Obviously he had no clue. In a way Deng’s devastating critique is bang on. The Chinese comrades didn’t waver, mowed through the protesters and went on with economic transformation. But if such ruthlessness went against his grain and he did not know what was the way out, Gorbachev, should, at the very least, have stepped aside gracefully. Eventually he was forced to, yes, but till the last minute, he just kept hoping against hope and manouevering within the party to remain in power.
Even more humiliating than his begging spree around the West was the way he haggled for his post-retirement plans, and that with the man whom he hated and who had brought about his downfall.
Why wont people take up the challenge of improving their lives? What do you think I am, a tsar, Stalin… did they expect him to dole out an apartment to you, a pension to him, a fair salary to her, hadn’t they figured out in three years who can do what? If they still expected him to solve everything they had missed the point completely,” he had grandly declared after a walking tour of Sevastopol.
If the people were to take care of themselves whatever he did or did not do to them, why should he have abased himself before Yeltsin and extracted a deal to live in comfort. He also went on to make money from speaking fees and even appeared in advertisement films – he still lives in some kind of style. How is it that it he could never figure out the angst of the ordinary folks, this man a serious student of Marxism.
Difficult to say whether under Yeltsin and Putin people have fared a lot worse and whether Gorbachev would not have been more humane, considerate, decent. Possible so, going by the way he conducted himself right through, but that doesn’t, cannot mitigate his abysmal failures. He has to be held responsible for the rise of the likes of Yeltsin.
His dear Raisa died of leukemia within a decade of his ouster. For all her faults, she was a highly accomplished woman and put up with his quixotic ways till the very end. She should have been terribly stressed when he would not simply fade out quietly but kept trying to claw back, like with his presidential bid when he had already become a widely reviled man.
He persisted even when it was taking such a toll on the person he loved so deeply, so how do you explain him – and the system he was a product of?
At the end of the day Stalinist governance proved far too obdurate for idealists. Deng’s China has emerged successful, relatively at least, but it still denies most basic rights to its citizens.
So how to conclude this wrenching? That communism or as Lenin envisioned it will prove a chimera and one has to accept what little crumbs that fall from the capitalists’ table? Or that the next Gorbachev anywhere should be less selfish and smarter ?