What if it were simple? What if there was actually no difficulty in explaining how and why a distant successor to Stalin gave his people and all of Central Europe the gift of freedom, brought us out of the Cold War without war, and retired from power, of his own free will, rather than using the military to prevent the dismantling of the former Russian Empire which became the Soviet Union?
There is so little understanding of this man that John Paul II called him a “gift from God” and others have called him a “genetic accident” in the line of USSR leaders, but Mikhail Gorbachev had his predecessors, and more than one. It was not only Trotsky who denounced the bloody dictatorship that the regime had quickly become. Many other old Bolsheviks and former Mensheviks paid with their lives for denouncing Stalinist crimes, and what can we say of Imre Nagy and Alexander Dubcek?
The former had gone so far as to propose that Hungary leave the Warsaw Pact and thus break with Moscow. A lifelong Communist, Nagy had dreamed of leading his country along the road to democracy. He had been no less daring than Gorbachev and he was shot to death. More cautious, Dubcek had always been careful to say that the “Prague Spring” was less directed against the USSR, but more against communism, of which it was, on the contrary, a new realisation. This did not fool anyone in the Kremlin, and the Pact troops soon came to put a stop to this mad hope for “socialism with a human face”.
Many communists around the world turned their backs on Sovietism as so many others had done after the crushing of the Budapest uprising. By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the worm has already been in the apple for a long time. Five years earlier, Poles had created the first independent trade union in the Soviet world and, despite General Jaruzelski and his ‘state of war’, Poland had not fallen into line. Poland is no longer afraid and is on the move. Poland is no longer a communist country but a military dictatorship, and when Gorbachev’s spokesman was asked in 1988 what the difference was between Perestroika and the Prague Spring, he answered without flinching: “Twenty years”.
Even then, 99% of sovietologists continued to harp on the fact that we were “not getting out of communism”. They said this while the press wrote what it wanted, while there were already thousands of independent organisations and, often, small political parties in the four corners of the USSR, and while the debates and fights between conservatives and reformers in the Political Bureau had become public.
“He wants to save communism”, the sovietologists kept saying, without acknowledging that there was not much communism left, that there was in fact less and less communism in the USSR, and that Gorbachev and his team did not say a word, did not make a move to curb this explosion of freedom bordering on anarchy.
So yes, why?
Margaret Thatcher gave the answer: “It didn’t work”. Communism didn’t work. It had missed the computer revolution and was therefore considerably behind in armaments. Its shops were empty, its production appalling. Let’s not talk about faith, which was lost not only in Italy or in the youth of the sixties, but also in the Soviet apparatus, and that’s not all.
Sovietism had reached the end of the long flight forward that sums up its history. At the end of the civil war, the party had invented the “New Economic Policy”, the NEP, a partial return to the market economy. The country had been put back on its feet, but the success of this authorised capitalism had been such that the party had become afraid, afraid of being swept away by these entrepreneurs and the money they had quickly accumulated.
Bye-bye NEP and the doors opened to mass repression, to a generalised terror which reached its climax in the second half of the 1930s. Stalin goes so far as to decimate the general staff and when the Nazi troops, to his great astonishment, penetrate the USSR, he is devastated, prostrate, convinced that all is lost, until he has the idea to appeal to the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, to this Church that he had so atrociously persecuted, in order to launch with it an appeal to save Russia, from now on more holy than communist.
Stalin did not defeat Hitler. Russia did so with a heroism that goes beyond the imagination, but as soon as the war was won, the repression resumed in full swing until the death of the “little father of the peoples”. The Political Bureau could finally breathe. Its members were no longer in danger of being sent to the camps without having seen the coup coming and Khrushchev, in his report to the XXth Congress, denounced Stalin’s crimes while the delegates sobbed or even fainted in the room.
It was the Thaw. Solzhenitsyn and others are published. As a student, Gorbachev enrolled in the Faculty of Law. The future General Secretary of the party learns law. Soon there was talk of the “Sixties”, the generation that had grown up in the hope of the Sixties and whose brightest elements were to be found around Gorbachev, but the leadership became afraid. Where is this leading? Where is the USSR going? Khrushchev was ousted (but not assassinated) and began what would be called the “stagnation”, this standstill in which the top apparatus refused to return to mass terror but went back on all of Khrushchev’s overtures.
It is in this stagnation that the industrial and scientific backwardness of the USSR takes root, and when Brezhnev dies, his two successors also die within three years. “They just keep dying”, Ronald Reagan noted in a press conference, and the fact is that the stock of old men is exhausted and there is no other choice than the youngest member of the Political Bureau, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, 54, the man who had so seduced Mrs Thatcher, François Mitterrand and… the Italian Eurocommunists.
He is no accident. He is the last card in a country ruined by seventy years of this regime’s headlong rush, and this sixty-something, surrounded by young people who had vibrated at the Prague Spring, is going to try not to save communism at all but to save Russia from communist bankruptcy.
He will never turn back because Russia has no choice and Gorbachev, like Dubcek and Nagy, like so many other communists from above and below who had believed in this ideal before turning their backs on it, believed in the values of peace and freedom. One more word: I knew that man, we became friends, and he was fundamentally good.