By Paul Goble
Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the USSR, wanted to save the Soviet system he is now given credit for destroying, Boris Stromakhin says, something that should be remembered by everyone in the wake of his death when he is being celebrated as if what happened at the time of his leadership was what he wanted to take place.
The Russian human rights campaigner who has been forced to emigrate to Ukraine points out that “Gorby was a protégé of Andropov” and that “the ideas of perestroika, democratization, and other cosmetic changes with the goal of getting money from the west for modernization because there was nowhere else were developed by Andropov when he was head of the KGB” (graniru.org/Society/History/m.285847.html).
“Whole institutes developed then this theme – how to create the appearance of the liberalization of the Soviet regime without changing its essence and without those in power losing it,” Stromakhin says. But what Gorbachev discovered was that even the changes he was prepared to make toward that end undermined the system and his own role.
Consequently, Gorbachev “was not ‘a liberator.’ He simply did not want and did not intend to lose power;” but he did not understand the country over which he ruled and the fact that the system he had inherited could not be saved by cosmetic change. It could only be destroyed and replaced by something else, Stromakhin continues.
As the unintended result of his actions, “the steering wheel was torn out of [Gorbachev’s] hands; and his only merit was that unlike other communist leaders he judged sensibly: life is more precious than power” and did not go for broke, something that could have ended with his facing an execution like that of Ceausescu in Romania.
According to Stromakhin, “the ghost of Ceausescu after 1989 must have played a significant role” not only for what happened in the USSR but “in the personal fate of Gorbachev.” The Soviet leader saw what was happening elsewhere and “realized that it’s better to advertise pizza alive than to be shot or hanged.”
That decision to save himself has brought him undeserved laurels as “the liberator, the slayer of the communist dragon, the messiah and the righteous man.” But in fact Gorbachev never escaped from the communist paradigm in which he grew up; he simply wasn’t prepared to die for it, although it is important to remember, he was prepared to kill on its behalf.
He sent troops into Tbilisi in April 1989, more into Baku in January 1990, and still more into Vilnius in January 1991. “In all these cases, people died,” Stromakhin says. “Not as many as in Tiananmen Square or as many as would have died under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Andropov” had they been in office thent
And they died at Gorbachev’s order, he writes. “No matter how often Gorby denied it, no matter how much he sought to shift the blame to the Central Committee, to the Politburo, to his generals, to anyone else, in the Soviet system of power such things could not have been sanctioned by anyone but the top man. No one below him would have taken the responsibility.”
“In 2011, when Gorby flew to London to celebrate his 80th birthday in the company of the Queen of England, Vladimir Bukovsky suggested he be arrested there for a trial concerning his involvement in the massacres of 1989-1991. Almost no one then either inside Russia or abroad supported that idea, Stromakhin recalls.
That is most unfortunate, the rights campaigner says. Had he been arrested and convicted, Gorbachev wouldn’t have been sent to prison for long. Instead, his punishment would have been symbolic. He would have been the first living Soviet leader to be convicted of real crimes and not “mythical” ones like the collapse of the USSR and “the betrayal of communism.”
Gorbachev would have been found guilty of killing people to try to save the Soviet empire, not to destroy it. And that would have been important for the future of Russia. While the West wasn’t prepared to arrest him, Gorbachev was reportedly very much afraid that the Putin regime would. He knew what the KGB was like and what kind of trial they’d arrange.
Now the first Soviet president is dead, and he will receive praise from much of the world and denunciations from many in Russia who are still upset that he didn’t kill even more people and thereby save the Soviet system. The big question in the coming days is not about that pattern: the big question is who will go to his funeral?
Had Putin not invaded Ukraine, it is likely many Western leaders would have gone or sent senior officials as their representatives. Now that is less likely to happen, but the decisions they make will say a lot about whether they understand what Gorbachev was really about – saving himself when he couldn’t save his system rather than being the sainted figure many think.