The reflections of Gorbachev’s close aide
December 1991, Moscow, Kremlin, around 10 pm. The long day was over but the President’s press service was still at work. Down the corridor in the President’s quarters Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Yakovlev discussed the procedures for transferring power. Neither the Soviet constitution nor any law had ever envisioned the possibility of the USSR dissolving, and the necessary legitimate procedures—from the transfer of the nuclear codes to the procedures for official announcements—had to be elaborated. In the empty Kremlin corridors one could hear the rustle of Her Majesty History’s mantle.
But we were still in the office—not only because MS (short for Mikhail Sergeyevich, as used by his staff) could need someone. People remain human even in historic and dramatic times and we had a good reason to unwind: One of our colleagues had his 50th birthday on this day. At nearly midnight somebody raised a toast: “I wish all of us to be always on the right side of the Kremlin wall.” We laughed at what sounded like an appropriate joke: We certainly knew that in a matter of days we would be out of the Kremlin. But with time passing I have started to think more about this toast—why the time of perestroika was really the “right time” to be inside the Kremlin wall.
Now, after thinking about these events for two decades, it is clear to me that the answer to this question has to do with Gorbachev’s personality. Among all the Soviet and post-Soviet leaders of Russia, he stands apart. In contrast to all of them who served either the “cause” or simply pursued their ambitions for power, Gorbachev served history, which makes irrelevant all discussions as to whether it was his action or inaction that opened the way for transformation.
When he came to power he had a choice. He could have chosen to stay on the same throne as his predecessors, which would have been the easy way. Inertia was strong and the country was still rich in natural resources. He opted for a different course. Why did he do so?
For the first time a man of morality—not a “political animal” for whom the goal justifies any means, but a person of (unconsciously) Christian morality—was at the top of Soviet leadership. François de La Rochefoucauld said, “It is never more difficult to speak than when one is ashamed to be silent.” Gorbachev had the courage to break the silence. As happened throughout history and with history itself, “In the beginning was the Word.” On the night of his election by the Politburo he said to his wife: “We can’t continue living like this!” THIS was the start of _perestroik_a. Courage and conscience ruled for the first time in the Kremlin!
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet Union had 50,000 personal computers; the US had 30 million. Four years later, there were about 400,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union, and 40 million in the US. In the mid 1980s, only 8 percent of Soviet industry was globally competitive. It is hard for a country to be a superpower when the world doesn’t want 92 percent of what it produces.
Gorbachev saw that the gray stagnation of the Soviet economy, its inability to match the vitality and inventiveness of Western capitalism, was not only due to the burden of empire and a bloated war machine. A stodgy political system inhibited imagination and enterprise. Gorbachev believed that the inventiveness of a talented nation could only be unleashed by letting ordinary people take more control of their lives through some form of democracy. He launched glasnost, freed the media, brought Andrey Sakharov from exile, released political prisoners, and then organized the first contested elections to be held anywhere in the Warsaw Pact. In March 1989, Soviet voters threw out Party bosses from the legislative branch all over the country and transformed the nation’s politics.
Abroad, Gorbachev’s reforms meant ending the 40-year Cold War and its attendant arms race, which had imperiled the United States, the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. In 1985 Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan stated at the Geneva summit: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”—adopting, in effect, a declaration of the need to rid humankind of nuclear weapons. In December 1989, at a summit meeting in Malta, Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush announced that the Cold War was over. Treaties providing for major arms reductions were signed, and even more far-reaching ones were being negotiated.
Gorbachev’s advocacy of “universal humankind values” showed that we couldn’t be free unless we liberated other nations and renounced the Brezhnev doctrine. By the summer of 1989, East Europeans were ready to change. Gorbachev refused to sanction the use of force to put down demonstrations. By November, the Berlin Wall had fallen. Adam Michnik, a leader of the Polish anti-Communist opposition, said in July 1989: “Were it not for the ‘perestroika virus’, our [democratic movement] could not have got where it is today.”
How did it occur to Gorbachev that people’s thoughts and words were not grounds for imprisoning and executing them? How did the post of the Communist leader come to be held by a man who believed that people’s lives and sufferings were more important than a superpower’s prestige?
On 7 December 1988, Gorbachev was speaking at the United Nations in New York when the Spitak Earthquake hit Armenia. Despite the importance of his presence there, he rushed back to Russia, where for the first time in Soviet history, he requested international help, breaking with the Soviet tradition of not accepting aid from the “imperialists.” This contrasts with Putin’s refusal of offered foreign assistance in saving the Kursk submarine in 2000— apparently a revival of the atavistic “pride” complex. National “prestige” again turned to be more important than human lives.
As a politician, Gorbachev was sometimes forced to choose between the disastrous and the unpalatable—such as the dramatic incidents in Baku, Tbilisi, and Lithuania that led to loss of life. Force was used there, but not to keep power or crush political opposition. In the real world, beyond a moralist’s capacity to distinguish good and evil, it is sometimes necessary to recognize shades of good and evil. One sometimes has to sacrifice a good for a higher good or chose a lesser evil to avoid a larger one. This ethical compass has steered Gorbachev’s political decisions.
He believed that no political goal can justify shedding human blood and that people are history’s agents and not just instruments for reaching goals. This is why Gorbachev stood the test of power—not just by fighting for power or struggling to keep it. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.” Gorbachev stood on the right side and lost power, but historically he won as a person, and his perestroika has won too.
There were serious mistakes, but his political courage, conciseness and ingenuity began transforming the Soviet Union into a modern country at ease with itself and the outside world. This unleashed the world’s transformation.
The end of the Cold War not only made history, it saved history. Psychologically we are always inclined to disregard what could have happened but did not. Vaclav Havel is surely right when he argues that Gorbachev’s “historical achievement is enormous: Communism would have collapsed without him anyway, but it might have happened ten years later, and in God knows how wild and bloody a fashion.” Without Gorbachev’s perestroika “decompression,” the Soviet Union could have easily slipped into the Yugoslav scenario with the nightmare of a nuclear superpower ending up in a bloody conflagration.
Unfortunately, much of Gorbachev’s legacy and achievements have been squandered. However given the impacts of perestroika, this ball is still rolling, for we are experiencing today a painful, belatedly global perestroika. The famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II warned in 1992 that “the Western countries run the risk of seeing this collapse of Communism as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system.” Unfortunately, his prediction came true and after twenty lost years of capitalism chanting hallelujah, it took a crisis almost as deep as that of 1929, with a global impact on employment and growth, to show that a new world order must replace the old one. Twenty years later, we are closer to this goal but there is still far to go and the road will be bumpy. We can already feel it.
And Gorbachev would have not been Gorbachev had he merely rested on his laurels and reaped the benefit of his international recognition. Sticking to his credo, “If what you have done yesterday still looks big to you, you haven’t done much today,” Gorbachev has become a “prophet of change.”
As the biblical Isaiah, who warned Jews almost 3.000 years ago that they couldn’t continue living the way they did, Gorbachev still urges the world to recognize the need for change, to start thinking of the half the world’s population who live on one or two dollars a day. He reminds us that much of the world’s ecosystems have been broken, the atmosphere polluted, oceans and rivers poisoned. That today climate change poses an unacceptable risk of catastrophic, irreversible harm on a global scale within the next decade, threatening human security and development and jeopardizing the very future of human society. Meanwhile the world leaders respond to the challenge with incremental managerialism instead of bold and transformational leadership.
Back in 1990, when he saw the world heading into a perfect storm of interconnected environmental, developmental, and security crises, this synergy was not on the world’s agenda, and many thought it strange for a politician such as Gorbachev to take on the role of leading sustainable development. But he was not afraid of being ridiculed or questioned, and he has been proved right, as the issues of sustainable development have become a top political priority.
Under his leadership, Green Cross International, founded by him to deal with these issues, has become a mature organization with successful projects and a network of 32 national organizations. This is to a great extent thanks to the commitment, guidance, and leadership of its founder.
World politics has not yet found answers to the ethical challenge Gorbachev posed. The conflict between ethical vision and “realpolitik” has deepened. Ambitions and selfish interests continue to reign politically, where so many have learned to pay lip service to universal values, but merely as a PR instrument. The great principles of humanity have been marginalized or used rhetorically in imitation of real ethical concern. But imitating ethical policies cannot resolve current challenges.
The concurrent crises engulfing everything from climate to energy to the economy are creating a spiral of need for change. If ignored, this will lead us into collective chaos, but, if the challenge is seized, the new road on which we embark will elevate us to a higher level of civilization.
That is the historical perspective against which Gorbachev will finally be judged.“Why did he do it?” is the wrong question. The right question is; “For whom did he do it?”. He did it for his own country, which still needs time to understand it (“There is no prophet without honor except in his own country”), for the world, for all of us.
And now that Gorbachev has reached the venerable age of eighty, we all know that he still has a role to play in serving history, now from the outside of the Kremlin wall.
Alexander Likhotal is president of Green Cross International, and was Gorbachev’s adviser during and after his presidency.