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When The Roof Fell In

Pádraig Murphy

Moscow, December 25, 1991, The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery, Transworld Ireland 201, 448 pp, £25, 978-1848271128

Also referred to:

Altrichter, Helmut, Russland 1989, Der Untergang des sowjetischen Imperiums, Munich, Verlag CH Beck, 2009; Galkin, Aleksandr and Chernyayev, Anatoli (eds), Michail Gorbatschow und die deutsche Frage, Sowjetische Dokumente 1986-1991, Munich, Oldenbourg Verlag, 2011; Beschloss, Michael R and Talbott, Strobe, At the Highest Levels, The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War, London, Warner Books, 1993; Hosking, Geoffrey, The Awakening of the Soviet Union, London, Heinemann, 1990; Sebestyen, Victor, Revolution 1989, The Fall of the Soviet Empire, London, Phoenix, 2010; Kozovoȉ, Andreȉ, La Chute de l’Union Soviétique, Paris, Tallandier, 2011; Medvedev, Roy, Sovetskii Soyuz, Posledniye Gody Zhizni, Moscow, Astrel; Poligraphizdat, 2010; Sukhanov, Lev, Kak Yeltsin stal Prezidentom, Zapiski Pervogo Pomoshchnika, Moscow, Eksmo; Algoritm, 2011; Mukhin, Alexei, Pakt Putina-Medvedeva, Prochnii Mir ili Vremennii Soyuz? Moscow, Algoritm, 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that the most dangerous moment for a bad government was when it began to reform. Gorbachev’s tragedy was that his reforms were uncertain, in that he himself and those closest to him did not have a very good idea of where they were going, and the reform process, when it was eventually sketched out in some detail, came several decades too late.

The Soviet Union was seen to be in need of radical reform at the latest at the death of Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev and those around him could see that such reform was necessary, and, in his cack-handed way, Khrushchev did indeed set about it. But the disruption caused by what his overthrowers in the threatened nomenklatura called “hare-brained schemes” was such that the Soviet establishment under Brezhnev from 1964 settled for the promise that nothing should challenge the tranquillity of the Soviet landscape under which they enjoyed their ideologically endorsed privileges. Thus began twenty years of stagnation, so called in retrospect, which aggravated and arguably made fundamentally insoluble all the inbuilt flaws of the Stalinist economic and social model.

Already at the end of the 1970s, the USSR was entering into a many-sided and deep crisis, one of the striking elements of which was a serious absence of fresh blood in the system. In 1980, the average age of politburo members was about seventy-five. This decisive body in the Soviet system was made up not only of very old men, but of very sick ones, with a world view essentially formed along the most dogmatic patterns of Stalinism and without the intellectual resources, or, indeed, as has been mentioned, the desire, to begin the necessary reforms. When in 1980 Alexei Kosygin, who at one stage had shown signs of understanding that reform was necessary, left his post as prime minister and shortly after died, he was succeeded by Nikolai Tikhonov, who was then seventy-six and a much less competent and more conservative individual. When Brezhnev died in 1982, he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who, however competent and aware of what was needed he might have been, was already seriously ill and lasted only four months in power before dying. As for Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded him, nobody imagines that his qualifications for leadership went any further than a shrewd talent for bureaucratic infighting, and he too, seriously ill from the beginning, died in office in March 1985.

With this as a background, Gorbachev, and indeed his wife, Raisa, could not but shine and on a visit to the United Kingdom in 1984 shine is what they did. The British media remarked that Gorbachev smiled and was dressed in well-made suits. There was tattle about purchases with an American Express card, and talk of shopping at Gieves and Hawkes and Cartier. Raisa shone no less than her husband; indeed Margaret Thatcher was reported as saying that she was not only set on entertainment but was also an intelligent woman, if at times annoyingly direct. Famously, Thatcher decided that Gorbachev was a man with whom business could be done.

He was in a tactically favourable position to take over: he had substituted for Chernenko in the politburo and the secretariat of the central committee during the latter’s illness; he was a member of the politburo and chaired the commission preparing Chernenko’s funeral. He also chaired the joint session of the politburo and the secretariat of the central committee which immediately followed the demise of Chernenko, as well as the session of the politburo which met the following day to decide the leadership.

In the politburo, from whose ranks the leader was to be chosen, only two others could seriously compete with him – Grigory Romanov, who had led the Leningrad City Committee for a decade, and Heydar Aliyev, who had been the party leader in Azerbaijan and had been a member of the politburo for only two and a half years. Romanov had been the cause of some scandal, having been said to make use of the tsar’s – also a Romanov – porcelain at a rowdy family wedding, and besides was not popular either in Leningrad or in Moscow. Aliyev, although the strongest intellect in the politburo, as well as the most able politician and conductor of business, had the disadvantages of short Moscow experience and consequent lack of a supporting group in the capital and provenance from the Muslim margins. And so without much ado at the decisive session, Andrei Gromyko, the most practised orator of the politburo and the most experienced foreign policy hand, rose to propose Gorbachev, who was elected unanimously and unopposed, twenty hours after Chernenko’s death, the first Soviet leader since Stalin not to have been of age for service in the Second World War.

Gorbachev was thus a breath of fresh air on the Soviet scene, both in foreign and domestic eyes, even if in some ways it was because he could, so to speak, walk and chew gum at the same time, in contrast to his predecessors over the previous twenty years. He was, for all that, a pure product of the party system, through whose ranks he had risen steadily since becoming a laureate of the Order of the Red Flag of Labour in 1946, thus advancing his Komsomol career. He had joined the party apparat immediately on return to his native Stavropol from Moscow State University in 1955. His party advancement was due of course to his talent, but also to the chance his geographical situation offered of cultivating leading members of the nomenklatura, especially Yuri Andropov, when they descended on that part of the USSR to take their summer vacations at their dachas.

That the Soviet economy needed radical reform was not exclusively an insight of Gorbachev. The Institute of Economics and Industrial Organisation of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk under Abel Aganbegyan had become the leading centre for research into what might be called the “social market economy” ‑ in contrast to the administered economy which had solidified under and since Stalin. The institute’s monthly journal gained a world reputation for its analyses of Soviet economic weaknesses and the alternatives it proposed. In 1983 it sent a long report to the then leadership, written by Tatiana Zaslavskaya, which contained a devastating criticism of the state of the economy and recommended radical decentralisation. It can be seen in retrospect as the first attempt to reform the system.

But in his first address as secretary general, Gorbachev declared that he was going to follow the line set out by his predecessors. In the area of the economy, the aim was to accelerate social economic development, as he put it: “to drive purposefully forward the planned development of the economy, to reinforce the social ownership of property, to extend the rights of enterprises, to increase their independence and interest them more strongly in the final product of their labours”. In internal policy, the main task was “the further perfection and development of democracy and of the whole system of the socialist self-administration of the people”.

“The role of the Soviets will be increased, and the unions, the Komsomol, people’s control and the worker collectives will be activated,” he continued. In foreign policy, “the first task of the Party and the State” was “to protect and consolidate all round the fraternal friendship with our closest companions in struggle and allies – the countries of the great socialist community”. As far as the capitalist countries were concerned, the aim was”to follow strictly the Leninist course of peace and peaceful co-existence”, along with the promise to meet “good will with good will” and “trust with trust”. In the pending negotiations in Geneva with the US, he defined the task as ending the arms race, above all in the nuclear area, the freezing of nuclear weapons arsenals and a halt to the stationing of missiles. In a further step, he declared that his aim was to arrive at a genuine and significant reduction and not to install new weapon systems in space or on earth (a reference to Reagan’s “Star Wars”). As far as the party, which he now headed, was concerned, its policy would remain “aimed at the consolidation of the alliance of the working class, the kolkhoz agricultural workers and the intelligentsia, as well as the continuous consolidation of the friendship between the peoples of our great multiethnic state”. Finally, the party was “the force which was capable of taking into account the interests of all classes and social groups, all nations and peoples of the country, and of bringing them together and mobilising the energy of the people for the common work of Communist construction”. It was a programme which was not fundamentally distinguishable from that of any of his erstwhile rivals for the secretary-generalship. Indeed, in its reference to “acceleration” as a solution to the economic problem, it was a classic, and therefore not new, response – indeed a typical Soviet cliché. Neither in this, nor in any other of the objectives set out in his opening speech as general secretary would Gorbachev succeed.

This could be considered stage one of his efforts to solve the Soviet Union’s problems. In developing policy on this basis, he was essentially acting as Andropov’s successor. As well as “speeding up” the economy, he tried to tighten labour discipline, evoking the notorious example of the Donbass coalminer Alexei Stakhanov. He established an official quality control inspectorate, Gospriyomka, which had instructions to reject shoddy manufactured goods and reduce the pay of those responsible for them. He continued and intensified the dismissal and criminal investigation of corrupt officials. Most notoriously, he cracked down on the availability of alcohol – he banned the use of vodka in official institutions, even on celebratory occasions. Mineral water was to be used instead. To anyone who knows Russia, the affront that this represented to hospitality traditions can easily be imagined and the soubriquet of mineralnii sekretar, or mineral secretary, given to him in the popular mouth was far from being friendly. What was worse, however, was that such tinkering was dealing with symptoms only, not substance. As Roy Medvedev remarks specifically in relation to the alcohol problem, it is the symptom of the social illness, not its cause. Medvedev tellingly quotes the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin, writing a hundred and fifty years earlier:

Why does our muzhik go around in bast shoes? Why does such all-round general ignorance reign in our villages? Why does the muzhik practically not eat meat or even lard? In answer to all these questions historiographers harp on one string: it’s all because of that, all because of those cursed raw spirits ... Oh, if only it were so! If only it were possible with the aid of just limiting the number of dram shops to inculcate in people confidence in their fate, raise their moral level, communicate to them that force and courage which will help them to fight and overcome the iron adversities of life! How easy it would be at a stroke to put an end to all the uglinesses of the past, to all the failures of the present, to all the doubtful aspects of the future.

Gorbachev too failed in his efforts to solve the fundamental problem by dealing with the symptoms. While he talked a storm in his new and lively way of presentation to radio and television and question and answer sessions with workers in their workplaces about technological innovation, glasnost, personal initiative, essentially no progress was made. Worse, while the anti-alcohol campaign resulted in a slight fall in mortality rates and an increase in birth rates, the numbers of cases of poisoning and death from the use of impure alcohol increased. In 1985, about 100,000 people were arrested for making hooch; by 1987, it was 500,000. Sugar began to disappear from the shops. According to official statistics, in 1987 more than 1.5 million tonnes of sugar were used in making samogon. Budgetary revenues from the sale of alcohol halved by 1986; worse still, organised crime – the Russian mafia – developed at great speed.

Meanwhile, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April 1986 had thoroughly exposed the inadequacy of Soviet openness or glasnost. As the tragedy developed, it became clear that the state’s approach to conveying information about what had really happened was producing radical distrust abroad and panic at home. The evaluation of this information disaster eventuated in stage two of Gorbachev’s reforms. Thus, at the end of 1987, Gorbachev began to talk of making all Soviet firms move to being independently accountable, and Yegor Ligachev was talking of reducing the central apparat by 50 per cent, and the regional by 30 to 35 per cent. The counterpart to this was seen to be a political concession: more power should be given to the Soviets. This was a tentative move towards a political opening up. A part of the press contributed to this by suggesting that the anti-alcohol campaign was not perhaps such a good idea and that giving more space for decision-making to individual enterprises might be a more fruitful approach.

Together, these developments meant that Gorbachev was being led into new territory and that those in the party apparat who had more or less enthusiastically contributed to his rise to power began to look at him with a new suspicion as someone who threatened their positions in a calcified system. Above all, this approach threatened those in the middle and lower ranks of the apparat, those who enjoyed the privileges and power of office in the classic Soviet system, but who were not sufficiently highly placed to realise the inescapable need for radical change. These were pre-eminently the people whose position had been copper-fastened by the Brezhnev reaction to Khrushchev’s “hare-brained schemes” – it now seemed to them that they had to determinedly pursue a rearguard action to defend their positions.

In Gorbachev’s perspective at this time, the absence of a political opposition could be compensated for by a self-critical attitude within the party. In a televised speech at Khabarovsk, he warned that “officials who react to criticism by persecuting their critics lay themselves open to criminal prosecution”. Significantly, these words, although broadcast on television, were omitted from the published version of the speech, implying as they did that the law was higher than party practice. Going even further, Gorbachev was at this time talking of not just restructuring, or perestroika, but of “a revolution in the hearts and minds of the people”. This was enough to bring the infamous Nina Andreyeva on the scene. A would-be simple chemistry lecturer from Leningrad, Andreyeva published in Sovetskaya Rossiya on March 13th, 1988 , probably with some assistance from backwoodsmen at the upper levels of the party, a sensational letter under the heading “I cannot betray my principles” in which she castigated the new “openness”, the “disappearance of taboo zones for criticism”, the “growing emotionalism in the consciousness of public opinion”, as well as the discussions about this, the talk of a “multi-party system”, “freedom for religious propaganda”, free emigration, “the right of open discussion of sexual questions in the press”, “the necessity of decentralisation in the cultural leadership” and “the abolition of conscription”. In effect, the Andreyeva letter was a plea for an end to what the writer or writers saw as calumniation of Stalin and his system.

Gorbachev was obliged to respond to this – widely thought to have been “inspired” and not all Andreyeva’s own work. He did so in three meetings with secretaries of regional and national party committees. In the course of one of these meetings he said that “It was another question when we did not know what was going on. But when we learned and continue to learn ever more, that is another question. Stalin was a criminal lacking all morality. For your purposes I will only say: one million Party activists were shot. Three million were sent to the camps, where they were left to rot. Whole roll-calls of the best were knocked out. And this not taking into account collectivisation, which killed still more millions. If we are to proceed on the logic of Nina Andreyeva, we will come to a new 1937. Do you want this? You, members of the Central Committee? You have a duty to think deeply of the fate of the country. And always to remember that we are all in favour of socialism. But of what kind of socialism? We don’t need the kind we had under Stalin”.

The reaction to Andreyeva showed that at this stage Gorbachev’s revolution had its strict limits – the spirit of free enquiry which it appeared to augur did not stretch to Lenin or the October Revolution and “socialism” was still the guiding principle. A decision was taken not to publish the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in which the exiled writer clearly showed that the origin of Stalinist abuses lay in the system that Lenin had established.

In 1987, there were many demonstrations in the Baltic states to mark the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, seen as lacking any juridical basis for the subsequent incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. In February 1988, there was a demonstration in Tallinn to mark the seventieth anniversary of the independence of Estonia. The reaction in the central committee was pathetic, appealing as it did to the absence of authentic copies of the pact as a reason for non-reaction. Gorbachev himself maintained a silence which bespoke his profound ambivalence. On the one hand, he assigned the fault to local instances intent on “exciting the people against perestroika”. On the other, he admitted that the authorities of the republics did not have much control over the situation.

In the middle of all this exploded the ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. In February 1988, the Armenians created a committee for the union of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia and thus set a match to a long-accumulated bundle of tinder. Violence exploded at Sumgait, a new town in Azerbaijan north of Baku. Of its 250.000 inhabitants, 18,000 were ethnic Armenians. Between February 27th and 29th, the first pogrom since the end of the war broke out here, leaving forty dead and two hundred injured. The politburo remained silent, and the Soviet media were not allowed to talk about the events until July.

The term “Common European House”, commonly identified with Gorbachev, was in fact one that Gromyko had used before him. Its purpose in Gromyko’s mouth was to draw a distinction between Europe and what the Soviets at one stage called the revanchists “from across the ocean”, that is the United States, with a view to getting the West Europeans onto the Soviet side. That Gorbachev shared this objective in his earlier promotion of the “Common House” is evident when one reads the transcript for instance of his meeting with the then chancellor-candidate of the German SPD (social democrats), Johannes Rau, in June 1986, where he urges that thought be given to the time when Rau comes to power and direct talks can be conducted with the SPD about the withdrawal of American missiles from its territory and a corresponding reduction of Soviet potential.

Gorbachev’s phrases – the Common European House, democratisation, glasnost, perestroika – all turned out to have a resonance he had not at first intended. Thus, by dint of invoking the “Common European House” he was eventually obliged to concede in due form that each tenant of the house had the right to determine the conditions of the part of the house it occupied, without interference of any kind from outside. Beginning with Poland in 1981, where General Jaruzelski pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for the Soviets by declaring martial law himself as a way of avoiding a Soviet intervention à la Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the dissatisfaction in Eastern Europe grew, and was fed by the Gorbachev rhetoric. By the time it came to April 1989, a historic deal had been signed between Jaruzelski and Lech Wałęsa which saw the first democratic elections in the Soviet bloc for nearly forty-five years. Jaruzelski resigned as first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ (communist) Party on being elected president of Poland on the thinnest of majorities on July 19th, 1989. After massive demonstrations, Erich Honecker was forced by the politburo of the German Socialist Unity (communist) Party in October of the same year to resign his state and party positions. In November, the Wall fell. Todor Zhivkov was unseated in Bulgaria on November 10th of the same year. Miloš Jakeš resigned his position as general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, again after massive protests, on November 24th. Nicolae Ceauçescu was deposed on December 22nd, 1989 and administratively murdered three days later, along with his wife. And in Hungary, the first Communist Party of the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, dissolved itself at the beginning of October 1989 and was replaced by the Hungarian Socialist Party, which declared itself committed to a parliament-based state of law and a market economy.

There followed fateful developments within the Soviet Union. In February/March 1990 the Baltic republics made clear that they were determined to put an end to their incorporation into the USSR and to proclaim their independence. Despite warnings from the centre, in the course of the year, all fifteen Union Republics declared their “independence”: according to the constitution they already were independent, but now were clearly intent on actually being so. A series of autonomous republics followed suit in declaring their “sovereignty”. This caused the centre to increase the pressure on those insistent on departing, and at the same time set the scene for the elaboration of a new union treaty in which the competences of the constituent republics would have to be enlarged. The Congress of People’s Deputies of March decided on the establishment of the office of president, modelled on that of the United States, and on a number of would-be democratising measures, which, however, expressly forbade “the founding and activity of parties, organisations and movements which pursued the aim of changing the Soviet constitutional order and the integrity of the Soviet state by force, the undermining of its security, and the promotion of social, national or religious discord”.

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s coeval, was in most ways a contrast to his rival, and rivals they had become in a way that was fateful for the country. Where Yeltsin was emotional, Gorbachev was cool. Yeltsin appealed to the people; Gorbachev ended by turning them off with long-winded speeches. Gorbachev appeared to be arrogant; Yeltsin presented himself as a man of the people, with many of the people’s weaknesses. Above all, Gorbachev had the responsibility of governing, while Yeltsin could make the apparently costless proposals that are the privilege of opposition. Most crucially, he did this on the question of the future of the Union, where he saw his own best chances in a Russian Federation freed of the burden of supporting the rest, and, accordingly, was an early – and opportunistic – supporter of Baltic independence; eventually he argued that each constituent republic of the union should take as much independence and sovereignty as it could digest. Gorbachev came to despise him openly, saying to George Bush in 1990 that he was “not a serious person” but rather an “opportunist” and adding that “Yeltsin could have been with us, but now he’s become a destroyer”.

Gorbachev’s move to emend the constitution in order to introduce a presidential system, vaguely based on the US model, with himself foreseen as the new president, represents stage three of his tragic progress. This happened at a time when the supply situation in the country had become disastrous. In March 1991, in a conversation with Helmut Kohl, Gorbachev had been unable to bring himself to ask for urgently needed aid. His faithful aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, had to follow up by drafting a letter to make up for the omission. Chernyaev characterises the appeal as an “SOS”, “because in some areas famine is breaking out, the Kuzbass is striking, with the slogan, ‘down with the President’. In the shops of the large cities the shelves are literally becoming empty. Gorbachev asks Kohl to oblige the banks to open credits, as well as to provide money in advance on the security of the military property which will be left by our troops withdrawing from Germany”.

Against a background of unprecedented demonstrations in Moscow – up to 300,000 demonstrators were counted by the interior ministry – calling not only for the abolition of the CPSU, but also for the departure of Gorbachev himself as well as the conservative Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev succeeded in having the constitution amended by the bare two-thirds majority required and thus having himself elected president. Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s faithful assistant throughout his period at the top of the Soviet system, dates his decline from the assumption of the office of president. In his political diary, Chernyaev writes:

I was not pleased with the way Gorbachev organised the session and himself for election as President. His main focus was on the content of his inauguration speech. And nothing on the structures of the future power system. What was he going to do the following day? With whom? How? Because of course everyone would be counting the days, expecting momentous changes. Or, as “they” suspect, would he transform the Politburo into a Presidential Council (Ministerial Cabinet etc.) and everything would proceed as before? Or, possibly, was he consciously rushing into a trap, in order to “escape”? Hardly that. In that case, he would hardly have developed such energy. I am disturbed in mind. Society is dissolving, and the buds of a new society are not visible. And, judging by my most recent observations, Gorbachev is losing the sense of “the manageability of processes”. It seems that he too has “lost his way” – a favourite phrase of his – in what is going on before everyone’s eyes and is beginning to look for “simple solutions” – also one of his favourite expressions.

Gorbachev in fact was embarked on a conservative turn. Apart from Ligachev, three other conservative personalities saw their position advanced: Lukianov, a friend from Moscow State University days, became president of parliament, Dmitry Yazov was minister of defence, a pure product of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and about to become marshal, and Vladimir Kryuchkov was head of the KGB. In due course – December 1990 – the presidential council was suppressed in favour of the council of security (also inspired by the US) which removed from his side the most progressive of Gorbachev’s aides, like Alexander Yakovlev. Gennady Yanayev became vice-president of the USSR, Valentin Pavlov prime minister, Boris Pugo interior minister.

The scene was set for the penultimate act in the Gorbachev drama. Stage four saw the putsch of August 1991, a serio-comic event which nonetheless could have resulted in serious violence, verging on civil war. That it did not was not thanks to Gorbachev, but rather to the courage of his great rival, Yeltsin, and the fundamental incompetence of the conspirators, none other than the very people advanced under Gorbachev’s conservative turn. All of them were arrested. But the most significant result was the evaporation of all Gorbachev’s credibility and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The arrest of the so-called emergency committee – the putschists – meant that the union had lost almost its entire leadership: apart from the vice-president and the prime minister, there were the interior and finance ministers and the chairman of the KGB. In the succeeding days the foreign minister, the president of parliament, the chief of the general staff and three of his deputies, the head of state television and the head of the news agency TASS all had to go because they had made common cause with the putschists or did not distance themselves from them in time.

It was only a matter of time before the union itself became unviable. Although Gorbachev, as president of the USSR, continued to busy himself with a new union treaty aimed at saving what could be saved of the Soviet Union, it was without the participation of the Baltic states, Georgia, Armenia or Moldova. Yeltsin appeared to be engaged, but had reservations. Apart from Gorbachev, only the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, seemed to be fully committed. Yeltsin is on record as saying that “it was necessary to do everything to persuade the Ukrainians to join the Union Agreement”. He added that “if this could not be achieved, it will be necessary to think of other variants”. And this is what eventuated. Ukraine decided by referendum that it wanted independence. And so, on December 8th, 1991, without putting Gorbachev in the picture, in a hunting lodge in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belarus, Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk for the Ukraine, and Stanislas Shushkevich for Belarus proclaimed:

We, the Republic of Belarus, the Federation of Russia (RSFSR) and the Ukraine, States founders of the USSR, having signed the Union Agreement of 1922, declare that the USSR no longer exists as a subject of international law nor as a geopolitical reality.

As if to underline the superfluity of the president of this superannuated entity, Yeltsin told the US president, George Bush, before Gorbachev was informed.

Gorbachev was unwilling to read and accept the signs of the new times. His aides, understandably, denounced the Belovezhsk agreement as “a second coup”. As late as December 13th, he was defiantly presenting himself to the Western press as a man of the future, denouncing the agreement as “unconvincing, ill-founded, badly formulated”, adding that “if we start tearing this country apart, it will just be more difficult for us to come to terms with one another”. But almost everyone else considered him yesterday’s man, and he was eventually forced to bow to the realities. On Christmas Day, 1991, he announced his resignation as president of an entity which by then had ceased to exist.

Conor O’Clery describes the events of that day in the best traditions of informed journalism. His classic setting of the scenes brings the situations vividly before us. He has used well his personal experience of living through much of the history he gives; even more, he has read very widely around these events, and gives a full account of the background to Gorbachev’s historic resignation speech of December 25th. If you read only one book on these events, this is the one to read.

Two questions need to be answered. The first is whether Gorbachev was up to the task he confronted on becoming secretary general in 1985. Here, I may perhaps quote Zhores Medvedev, the eminent Soviet scientist who emigrated in 1972 and had his citizenship revoked while abroad. He wrote in his review of Gorbachev’s memoirs in relation to the Gorbachev of 1985-88 and 1989-91 that he

was, of course, able to begin economic reforms while at the same time reinforcing the traditional command and repressive methods. In the Soviet press this reform model was called ‘Chinese’, or was even compared to the policy of Pinochet in Chile. Gorbachev decided otherwise – to combine economic restructuration with political rapprochement with the West (the idea of ‘the Common European House’), quick disarmament and the democratic administration of the country. The calculation was pretty straightforward. Disarmament would free up enormous financial and material assets for the economy. The appearance of a real parliament in the country and of democratic parliaments in the Republics would create safety valves for the reduction of the pressure of meetings and switch the protests of the population from strikes to debates and discussions. The introduction of a market economy and the inclusion of the USSR in the world economy should attract international investment into the country. The conversion of the military-industrial complex could saturate the country with consumer products. The end of the Cold War promised to give enormous peace dividends to Western countries and these could be shared or at a minimum be received in the form of credits. These were without question the correct preconditions and precisely this was the principal element or motive of perestroika. But this was a long-term programme. However, Gorbachev was impulsive and impatient. Hence the significant programme of ‘500 Days’. He wanted to reform everything immediately: not only the economy, but also the Communist Party, local government, the structures of the Government, and in the final analysis, reform the entire Soviet Union, replacing the Marxist-Leninist basic doctrine of the USSR, which provided the foundation of the discipline of the CPSU, into a free union of independent republics which would voluntarily sign a new union agreement, excluding from the new name of the country the words ‘socialist’ and ‘Soviet’.

Roy Medvedev, Zhores’s dissident twin brother, who remained in the USSR, rightly, to my mind, comments on this to the effect that, in 1987, Gorbachev had not yet formalised in any clear way a general overall plan of perestroika. In much, Roy comments, he was acting on intuition. The real problem of Gorbachev’s approach, so to speak of flying by the seat of his pants, was that it created the preconditions for the end of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the split-up of the USSR itself, which Gorbachev certainly had not set out to achieve. Thus, one can say that he was not up to the task before him, if only because he did not fully understand it. But, it has to be added, nobody else did either. The Soviet Union had become a sclerotic case where any reform would have threatened the whole structure, because it came too late. Gorbachev was the man who tried to remove a brick from a tumbledown building in order to rebuild it better only for the whole construction to come down around him. There is a certain tragic grandeur to the failure, not least because the flaws of the protagonist played their part in it, but failure it was.

The second question has to do with the nature of the Russian polity, a very topical one these days, when an apparently stable system à la Putin is again under radical contestation. It is apparent that, like the Britain of the immediate postwar period in Dean Acheson’s phrase, Russia has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role. There are those in Russia who think that the country cannot prosper if it is not a leading world power. Thus, Alexei Mukhin, a Russian writer and publicist, writing in 2011 about the Strategy for National Security of Russia for the period up to 2020, adopted in 2009 under Dmitri Medvedev, remarks that it clearly tries to answer the question: should Russia try to return to the position of a world power? He goes on:

Efforts to depart from this thesis (Russia as a world power) always led to global catastrophes in the course of which Russian state power (gosudarstvennost) collapsed (in 1917-18; 1991-2). In the course of the last historical cycle, when the complex of the political inadequacy of the USSR was laid on the back of the Russian Federation, this succeeded in functionally collapsing and destroying its development. For Russia, the question of its return to the ranks of world leaders is a question of its identity – it is a question of struggling for this, but not of rushing. The latter, i.e., rushing, really could lead to serious disproportions in its political and economic systems.

In this perspective then, Russia is only biding its time until it can resume its true role in the world. This role is often characterised in shorthand as deriving from its position as the Third Rome (classical Rome having been the first and Constantinople the second and it goes without saying there will never be a fourth). It is unfortunately possible that some of this thinking may be behind the apparent inability of Russia to come to terms with being a normal country, which for much of the Gorbachev period was the fond ambition of most Russians I met. It was after all Tocqueville, with whom we began, who pointed out in the nineteenth century that the counterpart to the Manifest Destiny of the United States was an equally manifest destiny of the Russian Empire. “Their point of departure is different,” Tocqueville said, “and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”

By any realistic calculation, Russia is some way off “holding in its hands the destinies of half the world”, but, should this be the real ambition of Russian decision-makers – whoever they may be when the dust settles ‑ we shall not have seen the end of its capacity to trouble the tranquillity of those who think that empires have had their day.

Pádraig Murphy, a graduate of UCC, is a retired official of the Department of Foreign Affairs. His career saw him posted in Berne, Brussels, Moscow, Bonn – the longest of his postings - Madrid and Tokyo. He also served as Political Director of the Department.

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