Mikhail Gorbachev is undoubtedly the most important positive historical figure of our time. From 1985 to 1991, in just six years, he changed world history by contributing to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and to the end of the Cold War. At the end of the XX c. he somehow rehabilitated a century that began very badly with the two World Wars horrors and that was subsequently burdened for 40 years by anguish and tension between the two poles the world was split into. A century, however, which ended with a great injection of hope. That hope has been later broken by the aberrant management of globalization leading us to today’s disasters. But this is another story.
A visionary, a forerunner of the times and an optimist, through his reforms, Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev transformed USSR institutions, patiently driving the entire Soviet society toward the change. A skilful tightrope walker under pressure by the two extreme forces, the conservatives and the reformists, Gorbachev managed to keep different peoples united under the roof of the great and multifaceted Soviet Union. This is why we can say that there is a before Gorbachev and an after Gorbachev and the echo of the impulse he gave at the time towards openness and rights continues today, despite the attempts of the current president Vladimir Putin to go backward.
Andrey Grachev has been at Gorbachev’s side since those years, that’s what he told us.
How did you meet Mr Gorbachev?
Gorbachev was certainly a man coming from another generation. He was mentally and also morally from a different world. Sometimes I call him “a genetic error of the system”. That was my first impression. When I first saw him on the TV screen I thought to myself: “He looks like Mr Krushov but with a university education”, which was already an important feature for a party leader.
Before him, people at the top of the party structure were basically people of the apparatus, people who mostly had the experience of the internal party life, but certainly not the wide vision of their own country and of the world. And my personal meeting with Gorbachev happened several months later, in October 85, when I joined a team of advisors on the international affairs who were accompanying him in his first official visit abroad, to France.
Read also The time of Gorbachev
Gorbachev and Italian PCI
I remember that in ‘84, the year before he was elected, Gorbachev came to Italy to attend the funeral of the Communist Party Secretary Enrico Berlinguer
That was an important event in his political biography and he mentioned it in several occasions. He was the head of the Soviet Party and he joined a communist party delegation in Rome. It was an occasion for him to meet the leadership of PCI, the Italian Communist Party that at that time was one of the most important and influential parties.
Gorbachev was later telling that he had very long and interesting discussions with Alessandro Natta, who was the successor of Berlinguer as the head of the party. He was very impressed by these conversations and that thing in a way also influenced him and his project. He understood that the Italian communists’ attempt to create a kind of European version of communism, the euro-communism, could also be interesting and attractive for the Soviet Union. (…)
A new version of the communist project
(…) Already, at that time Gorbachev and people around him from his own generation were thinking about another version of the communist project, that had to be different from the Bolshevik version they inherited from 1970, and which I call -that’s my lable- a kind of “war communism”. That means they wanted to change the model that was having its roots in the particular condition of Bolshevik revolution with the World War in 1917 and the civil war that followed in the country.
That kind of “war communism” –that means a communism that was characterized by the one-party system, with the monopolism of one party- made a very extensive use of violence and then the suppression of all different forms of opposition. All of these things became features of bolshevik version of communism which made the history of almost 50 years of the soviet experience.
Gorbachev’s idea was to try to change without renouncing to the communist project and the socialist project as perspectives for the society. He wanted to try to elaborate a more modern version of communism. That would be a kind of east-european euro-communist version of society, which wouldn’t be as much based on violence, on corruption, on gulag, all the things that marked a lot the soviet experience. And from this point of view I think his contact with the Italian communism impressed him a lot.
Transparency and Transformation
With Glasnost and Perestroika, Gorbachev opened himself and his government to criticism, he agreed to be criticized. That thing was unthinkable before.
We have to say first that he was a very atypical soviet leader. You can hardly imagine any soviet leader who would accept voluntarily to be criticized from different points of views: from conservatives, radicals, nationalists, from the hard-core supporters of soviet system’s formal type and going to radicals like Yeltsin or others who were very impatient, accusing him to be too slow, too tolerant in regard to the conservative forces.
He was accepting this kind of critics because he was aware that this was a part of the game. It was an impressive change, for example, that the sessions of the new parliament, which was elected as a result of Gorbachev’s reforms, with representatives of different political forces, was broadcasted in the TV, and the whole population of the Soviet Union was able to see the Presidential show of different forces. (…)
The man in the center
(…) Gorbachev was believing that his role in the turmoil he had voluntarily provoked, was to be the medium force, the centrist force that would prevent different extreme forces going toward a direct clash. His idea was to avoid what from his point of view would be quite possible: a new civil war.
On one hand accepting this kind of contradiction was part of the game, on the other hand he was hoping that his supporters, especially on the democratic side, would be more understanding about his difficulties with his political enemies, the conservatives.
But after all his main idea was to calculate the factor of time for the progression of the change. He understood that a change at rupt would have provoked an immediate confrontation, so he introduced the change as a process inviting the society in this process, with the idea that the country would gradually be transformed.
That was a hard challenge, maybe a super human challenge and the fact he could manage it I think was another proof of the extraordinary personal and moral qualities of the man. But also the explanation of how and why he was able to achieve this kind of change in such a difficult country with a very hard history and without any experience of the political compromise in the past”.
Gorbachev was a visionary ahead of his time and he calibrated the process so to make the society gradually achieve the change. Now with Putin it’s exactly the opposite. He is not at all open to criticism, we are seeing it with the Navalny case, he is putting a brake to the process while society has changed and is rebelling.
The present situation in Russia is in contrast with Gorbachev’s times, with the atmosphere of those years both inside the Soviet Union and in the world. That’s not his responsibility, of course.
In any case, the whole world is different. We are no more in the world that existed thirty years ago, luckily. And even when new tensions seem to come back and sometimes are being qualified as the danger of a new conflict and a new cold war between Russia and the west, well let’s not forget that some basic things have been achieved: there’s no more danger of a nuclear conflict, there’s no more such a big confrontation between two blocks, there’s no more an ideological split of the world in different camps.
Even the Russia of Putin has a different society from what was the Soviet Union before Gorbachev. This is why the first thing you can say is that in any case, whatever happens now and in the future, the history of the end of the XX century can be divided into a before Gorbachev and an after Gorbachev. (…)
(…) But then the balance sheet certainly comes: what he could achieve and what he couldn’t. What were the points of no return and what were the unfortunate features of the situation that seems to be back. Well, he couldn’t achieve a kind of euro-communist version of the Soviet society, which was his hope. A kind of socialism with a human face, the one that Prague Spring was believing.
He didn’t achieve another thing, which was also his hope: that Russia would become part of the common European home. This was his project, this was his invention and his proposal to the West. And here we would say that the responsibility is also on the western side, because Russia then was not admitted in this common European home. For Gorbachev Russia’s entry in this project would mean not only to extend Europe’s borders to the Russian territory, but also to use Europe as the means of Russia’s transformation.
That didn’t happen. Partly with the responsibility of the west, especially under the pressure of the Americans and the eastern Europeans, who decided rather to extend NATO in the eastern direction. That means they put a new border, a “new Berlin wall”, this time on the border of Russia.The logical result was the fact that Russia was pushed from Europe to Asia and in the direction of China, but also in the direction of its own Asian identity which was very different from what Gorbachev hoped: a European model of the organization of the society. (…)
Putin, the natural consequence
(…) In this sense, Putin is in a way the product of this kind of unfortunate evolution of Russia, which had to live as a rejected part of the European continent. And this situation was used by conservative forces, by those who wanted to take revenge, not only on the international scene for the humiliation of Russia but also inside Russian political scene over the democratic forces, European-minded forces, over the modern forces. The new conservatives are now happy to rebuild Russia as a fortress with a gate, its own status and its own prestige, like the former Soviet Union feared by the west.
So instead of being a part of the same political space and culture, we are back unfortunately to the rules of the game on the international scenes that is based on the balance of power, on the equilibrium of forces, on the competition in arms and military budgets. And from this point of view the western side has some responsibilities: people like Trump, but also Bush, with all the adventures we could witness in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Jugoslavia. This was the very unfortunate school of behaviour on the international scene that the west has given to the new Russian leaders.
So in a way Putin, even if we forget about his personality and his past as KGB officer, is the result of this kind of school, of this kind of experience. This is unfortunate both for the world but also for the Russian society. But we see that Russian society is resisting in Navalny case, especially young people are supporting Navalny and they do not accept this kind of situation. They are the children of Gorbachev and from this point of view I think we can say that what he has done in only 6 years hasn’t been lost.
This article was published at the Other News on 3 March 2021.
Photo: Mihail Gorbachev (source: The Other News)
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