Wednesday August 31, 2022

Gorbachev, communist who ended communism

Gorbachev, communist who ended communism

Mikhail Gorbachev

When Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away in Moscow at the age of 91 on Tuesday, became the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985, the most powerful post in the first communist country in the world he was 54, the youngest after Yuri Andropov and Chernenko, his predecessors, who were ailing and in their 70s. The Soviet Union had become a gerontocracy. Gorbachev was a breath of fresh air. And he showed it as well. He saw the need to bring change, make things easier politically and economically. He understood political regimentation was the reason behind economic stagnation. The two Russia terms he made popular across the world were ‘glasnost’ or openness and ‘perestroika’ or restructuring. Glasnost was not just meant for easing up East-West relations though it was meant for that as well, and he went through rapid decisions of getting into strategic arms limitation treaties (START) and he offered to voluntarily reduce the nuclear stockpiles. But he also realized that there must be free exchange of ideas and opinion at the shopfloor and the party committees. He went about democratizing the communist system. Even before he became the general secretary, he travelled abroad. Margaret Thatcher after her meeting with in 1984 said in a BBC interview, “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Gorbachev brought a certain open outlook to his job.

He went around the country, speaking to farmers and factor-workers, and heard their views. He told the party bosses in Leningrad (now St.Petersburg), “Your shoddy goods are a disgrace.” But he was not denouncing communism. And he did not even disown his predecessors like Nikita Khrushchev did with Stalin at the 20th party congress in 1956. Gorbachev remained an apparatchik, all that he wanted to do was to make it a better system. In 1985 he told the party delegates, “Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But Comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.” The West made a hero out of Gorbachev as one who demolished communism in Russia helped its destruction in east Europe. Gorbachev did not see himself as St. George who slayed the dragon of communism. He was looking for ways of saving communism with a human face.

But things got out of hand as revolutions broke out, first in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, then in East Germany culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev still seemed to cling to the idea of keeping the Soviet Union as a reformed state. But the botched communist coup of August 1991 pushed Boris Yeltsin forward and Gorbachev was served with the ultimatum of dissolving the Soviet Union and quit office. With Yeltsin began the post-communist chaos in Russia. But ordinary Russians blame Gorbachev. They did not forgive him for destroying the communist state. They could not understand that the communist had become unsustainable, and it was crumbling from within because the economy was falling apart.

Vladimir Putin, the successor of Yeltsin, has reconstructed the Soviet state without communism and the socialist welfare system that protected ordinary people. Gorbachev did not have the luxury of steering the Soviet state into a more open system. The Western praise for Gorbachev is quite hollow because it looks at Gorbachev as the man who did the West’s job by destroying communism. Some harsh critics of Gorbachev say that he was a CIA agent! He was a genuine reformer with a gentle touch. History rarely allows such decent leaders to do the job they had set out to do. Gorbachev sat out for 30 years as Russia returned to its autocratic ways.

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