Friday, January 26, 2018

Book Review: Gorbachev

"Gorbachev is hard to understand." So said the man himself, characteristically using the third person, as quoted in William Taubman's excellent biography, published in 2017. And true enough: understanding Gorbachev means knowing the man, his time, his country and his historical circumstances. Was the collapse of the Soviet Union historically inevitable? Or was it the fault (or credit) of Gorbachev? Or did Gorbachev simply hasten what would have happened anyway, albeit perhaps not for a couple of decades?

However hard it is to understand Gorbachev, it is very easy to like him. Born in 1931 in Russia's Stavropol region, he grew up in a peasant household during times of famine, purges and war, all of which touched his family. For all of that he still managed to have a happy childhood, close to both his parents (esp. his father) and grandparents. Ambitious at a young age, along with his father he served as a combine driver harvesting 8,888 centners of grain, earning him the Order of the Red Labor Banner in 1948, one of the USSR's highest medals.

So young Mikhail Sergeyevich grew into a man: garrulous, confident, friendly, loyal, and extraordinarily well-read, especially considering his semi-literate family.

That, along with native intelligence and a prodigious work ethic, earned him a place at Moscow State University (MGU)--the Harvard of Russia, both then and now. There he studied law (in a country that didn't really have any), and met the love of his life, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko. She, also brilliant, studied philosophy. They were married from 1952 until her death in 1999.

Following university in 1955 Gorbachev was sent back to Stavropol, a posting neither he nor his wife initially wanted. He began his career as a minor functionary with Komsomol, cashing in not only on his MGU credential, but also the Red Labor Banner. In 1969 he was chosen as general secretary of the Stavropol region, a job he held until 1978.

Such a rise required much ass-kissing, and yet somehow Gorbachev never lost his original idealism. He worked hard to make Stavropol a better place, and it began with agriculture. That mainstay of the local economy suffered from notoriously low productivity. Supposedly new machinery arrived broken, other inputs arrived late or not at all, and what was harvested couldn't be properly stored or transported. Most seriously, the peasants were not motivated to work on the kolkhaz (collective farm), from which they derived little benefit.

Gorbachev understood that the extreme centralization of all decisions in Moscow was the leading problem. He railed against that, trying to earn as much autonomy for his people as he could. And in whatever small measure he could affect the outcome he tried, though mostly to no avail. His efforts did succeed in raising his profile in Moscow.

At least as important to his future was that Yuri Andropov served as his mentor, not least because he shared his disciple's idealism. Andropov, also from Stavropol, later served as Brezhnev's successor as USSR General Secretary. In 1978 Gorbachev was appointed Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture. Such an important portfolio meant he could return to Moscow and join the Politburo.

An important portfolio--yes--but also known as a graveyard for political careers. For improving the abysmal state of Soviet agriculture was nigh an impossible task, failure for which redounded to the secretary. Gorbachev, despite dramatic effort and frenetic activity, failed as much as any of his predecessors.

Brezhnev, long since senile, finally died in 1982. He was succeeded by an already ill Andropov, who in turn left the job to the similarly decrepit Konstantin Chernenko, who passed in March, 1985. His logical successor was Andrei Gromyko, already 74 years old, a dour apparatchik and longtime foreign minister.

In a typical display of tactical genius, Gorbachev bought off Gromyko by promoting him to the largely honorary post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. And so the younger man became General Secretary by unanimous vote of both the Politburo and the Central Committee.

For the first three years or so of his reign, Gorbachev had the full support of the Politburo. Everybody knew that the Soviet economy was collapsing, that the war in Afghanistan had to end, and that the Cold War with the US couldn't continue. The country was bankrupt. Even without Gorbachev the status quo was no longer viable.

But Gorbachev was different. Unlike his predecessors, he loved the public limelight, and thoroughly enjoyed street walkabouts among everyday people. And he could talk--too much actually. Unlike Brezhnev, who in rare public appearances read from a script, stumbling and mispronouncing words, Gorbachev spoke expertly and extemporaneously. That led to a joke:
Gorbachev is much worse than Brezhnev. He doesn't even know how to read.
Soon came the two words that would define the rest of Gorbachev's life: glasnost and perestroika, meaning, respectively, openness and restructuring.

Glasnost was relatively easy, albeit painful. The immediate purpose was to make economic statistics transparent and public--you can't fix a problem you can't see. But what happened was the wholesale revelation of Stalin's crimes. This was very painful, especially to the older generation who venerated the old man. And especially to the elderly members of the Politburo who took the whole thing as an assault on Communism. It was at this point the first cracks in Politburo began to appear. Yegor Ligachev (1920 - ), initially a staunch Gorbachev ally, gradually turned against him.

Perestroika, obviously necessary, was much harder to accomplish. Gorbachev got off on the wrong foot trying to improve productivity by taxing vodka--that went over like a lead balloon. While he understood that decentralization was crucial, actually doing that meant firing thousands of bureaucrats, all of whom fought desperately for their jobs.

In the end perestroika was no more successful than Gorbachev's initial efforts to reform agriculture. The Soviet economy went from bad to worse, and Gorbachev's popularity went down with it.

Only in foreign affairs was our man reasonably successful. He pulled out of Afghanistan. He had very good relations with Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and especially Francois Mitterand. He loved the accolades he got from Western audiences, which he no longer received at home.

By the end perestroika had changed its meaning. It was obviously no longer possible to restructure the economy within the Communist system--perestroika had gradually morphed into counter-revolution (my term). I think Gorbachev should have accepted the 500-day program, which would have intelligently privatized the economy (unlike what Yeltsin did a couple of years later).

From 1985 to 1988 Gorbachev was mostly in control of the situation. Beginning in 1989 the wheels started to come off the bus, and by 1990 the master tactician could no longer keep up with events. In 1991 came the reactionary (and completely incompetent) coup, after which Gorbachev essentially gave up, ceding the limelight to Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev is an honorable man. I thought so then, and I think more so now after reading Taubman's book. He refused to engage in violence. He was not personally corrupt. He refused to fire people--partly for Machiavellian reasons (keep your friends close, and your enemies closer), but also because he felt sorry for people. At the end this strategy no longer worked.

He may not have been responsible for the demise of the USSR--that probably would have happened anyway, if not in 1991 then only a few years later. But that it happened peacefully without brutal ethnic conflict or civil war--that I think is largely due to Gorbachev's honor and moral sense.

And for that we can all be very grateful. He is a good and important man.

Further Reading:

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