Gorbachev was not the required Bronze Horseman. He did not possess the valour of Alexander Nevsky, the versatile vision of Peter the Great, the intellectual brilliance of Vladimir Lenin, the iron will of Stalin, or the fierce commitment of early Soviet leaders.
Mikhail Gorbachev could have been a character from Ivan Turgenev’s novels where a new type of hero—“superfluous men”—was introduced to the 19th century literary world. They were depicted as inept but with good intentions that brought chaos and confusion. Socialist Realism frowned on this genre of literary heroes; the revolutionary era required men of energy and resolve. But Turgenev had the last laugh. When another new era dawned, a “superfluous man” emerged to usher in a time of turmoil.
The prelude to this was a hurried procession to the grave of experienced leaders: Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, Andrei Gromyoko, Yury Andropov. Their departure marked changes which would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, unwittingly hurtled the Soviet Union towards this grim finale.
This was another Smutnoye Vremya—Time of Trouble—that periodically occurs in that vast turbulent land until a Bronze Horseman (Pushkin’s character) brings order and stability to Russia.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev was not the required Bronze Horseman. He did not possess the valour of Alexander Nevsky, the versatile vision of Peter the Great, the intellectual brilliance of Vladimir Lenin, the iron will of Stalin, or the fierce commitment of early Soviet leaders.
Gorbachev unleashed forces over which he soon lost control. He believed that new eras could begin by removing personalities of a previous era. Gorbachev dispensed with astute and experienced members of previous regimes as a symbolic severance from the past; foreign minister, Andrei Gromyoko, Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Baibakov. The old war-horses knew the terrifying complexities of governing the Soviet Union with its constituent republics, its myriad races, creeds and traditions.
And most fatal of all, he promoted the alcohol-prone Boris Yeltsin because this man did not seem as a threat. Later, Gorbachev called Yeltsin as “a destructive force who did damage to Russia.”
After seven decades the Soviet Union ceased to exist; other constituent republics became sovereign states. The disciplined unified defence forces were dispersed to other republics. There were security implications. To protect their nuclear arsenal the Soviet government had dispersed some of them to the Central Asian Republics. To prevent their falling into control of antagonists, Russia recovered these and placed them under its own defence forces.
Never before in history had a huge political entity encountered this kind of challenge.
In early 1987, Gorbachev suggested “democratization” of Soviet society. He proposed that multiple candidates should contest in future Communist Party elections. The delegates at the Plenum meeting of the Communist Party of Soviet Union rejected this and multi-candidate, secret ballot elections were not accepted by hard-liners.
Gorbachev set a precedent when he, the Communist Party leader, went to the people without the approval of the Central Committee to secure support for his reformist agenda on the economic and political fronts. With popular support, Gorbachev pushed ahead his proposed reforms. The hard-line communist leaders saw no way to stop him.
Gorbachev began by freeing political prisoners in 1987 and invited the dissident Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov and Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn to return to Russia. He initiated changes within Russia by allowing elections to the central legislature, though a single party system. Freed from the unifying thread of the Soviet Union, nationalist movements erupted in Soviet republics during late 1989. Gorbachev wisely accorded more autonomy to the constituent republics. Ethnic differences had been subsumed by a wider identity with the Soviet Union. Now those ethnic groups claimed attention.
Khrushchev’s famous “Thaw” in 1956 inspired Gorbachev to usher a similar thaw in the spring of 1989. Gorbachev embarked on constitutional changes to separate the Soviet government from the Communist Party whose powerful members interfered in governance. Detailed proposals for the new Congress of People’s Deputies were published in October 1988. To enable the establishment of the new legislature, the Supreme Soviet effected amendments to the Constitution soon after. Laws for electoral reform were introduced. Election was scheduled for March 1989.
Soviet Union had created the largest planned and controlled economy of the world. The transition to a market economy was daunting. Suddenly the new Russian Federation had to formulate policy for liberalization and privatization. The secure planned economy’s encounter with market forces resulted in high inflation. Russia’s Central Bank, which framed fiscal policy, printed money to redeem its debts. As a consequence, the value of the rouble plunged. The protective arms of the Soviet state were prised open; the new economic system created competition to seize opportunities. Those who were young, better educated, had experience of commerce and finance and adequate funds were able to utilize the opportunities.
Gorbachev’s perestroika produced not the promised freedom from controls but freedom from legal constrains. Carpe diem—seize the day—was the motto of the new entrepreneurs who graduated as black marketers. The victims of this sudden laissez faire were those with fixed incomes, fixed government pensions or personal savings. Excess printing of paper money led to severe inflation. The lifetime savings of many people vanished. Many faced financial disaster. To stabilize this situation stern austerity measures were introduced. Prices of commodities fluctuated. Interest rates were raised to encourage private investment. Heavy taxes were imposed to raise government resources. To prevent flight of capital from Russia, government bonds were issued, without success. The Asian financial crisis and decline in oil prices made investors wary of activities in Russia. Later, the International Monetary Fund gave an emergency loan of $22.6 billion in July 1999.
Russia now stepped into a dangerous debt trap.
Ironically, the West, which had welcomed Russia’s nascent capitalist system was now anxious because it feared that collapse of the Russian government and economy would have serious impact on the global finances. Russia’s Central Bank suspended payments, the rouble went into free fall, with a rush on dollars. Entrepreneurs embarked on investment in the hope that this would provide productivity incentive. Capitalists could take risks and enhance efficiency and productivity.
The Russian Federation had embarked unwisely and simultaneously on two transformations. If Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost had concentrated on ushering in political changes and democratization there would have been stability. Without experience of managing a market economy Gorbachev and colleagues rushed into a drastic transformation of the planned economy. They could have taken a leaf out of India’s experience which cushioned the trauma of change from a colonial economy to a planned one by gradual transition. Without the scaffolding of political power, economic chaos was guaranteed. Without economic stability, albeit controlled, political chaos was inevitable. Both came as grim challenges.
Economic reforms did not bring prosperity immediately. Instead standards of living declined. This provoked political opposition; people voted for those who opposed reforms—communist party members, trade unions, directors of state-owned firms, and politicians in the new parliament—fought for those who were victims of the drastic change in the new market economy.
The plight of average Russian citizens has not been given attention. Before the changes they enjoyed the security and stability of the Soviet economy, which controlled prices, gave subsidy to crucial sectors, whose protectionist policy had shielded them from harsh market forces. Never before in history had a huge political entity encountered this daunting situation.
Soon after the formation of NATO, Soviet Union realised that its former allies against Nazism were now hostile. As the Cold War began, Soviet Union invested heavily in the defence sector. One fourth of its gross national product was spent on the massive defence-industrial sector. One out of five Soviet citizens was employed in this area. Dismantling of Soviet Union and disbanding of the massive Red Army created a huge vacuum. Employees of armaments factories and defence related industries were retrenched. Those who had acquired skill and experience in these fields were forced to work in consumer goods enterprises. Attempts were made to relocate the work force in other industries but there were few industries to absorb them.
Problems were created by the dismantling of industries or plants which dominated a region. Half of Russia’s cities had only one large industrial complex and three fourths had a maximum of four such units. Soviet policy had deliberately dispersed armament plants and industrial complexes across its regions and republics. This dispersion was dictated by fears of invasions such as the country had experienced in 1918 and 1941. When these industries closed, the once self-contained single-industrial regions suffered. Production fell, resulting in acute unemployment.
The Soviet state possessed organisations that provided welfare functions such as housing for workers, health care, educational infrastructure, recreational facilities. These ceased to exist in the Russian Federation. Paradoxically, the “reforms” for economic transformation became regressive in social and economic progress for ordinary Russians. Benefits of the welfare economy were removed; subsidies to industry and construction stopped. Without work orders or funds many state enterprises closed resulting in more unemployment. A poor harvest in Russia resulted in shortfall in food production. Russia appealed to the international community for assistance. Members of the Communist Party and trade unions organised a nation-wide strike.
The Marxian dictum of “each according to his need, each according to his ability” was stood on its head by Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”
The fittest were the emergent class of black marketers and oligarchs.
Falling prey to the jargon of “reform”, Gorbachev did not realize that sudden removal of controls would open the sluice gates of chaos or tempt alien armies to intervene.
Gorbachev proposed a new Congress of People’s Deputies, which would elect candidates to represent them. Seats were also allocated to the Communist Party members, Central Council of Trade Unions, the Communist Youth Union, Committee of Soviet Women, War and Labour Veterans’ Organisation and to members of the Academy of Sciences.
In May 1989, Gorbachev proposed elections throughout the Soviet Union. Reservation of seats for the Communist Party members and members of official organisations was abolished. More powers were delegated to the Soviet republics.
In the meantime, events in Russia reached a crisis. In December 1990, an undeclared civil war erupted between hardliners in the government and Gorbachev. The hardliners met secretly and saw the draft of the Treaty of Moscow and felt that the terms would hasten the dismantling of the Soviet Union. A few of them met Gorbachev in Crimea and delivered an ultimatum—resign or declare a state of emergency. Gorbachev refused both. He was placed under house arrest and preparations were made for arresting Gorbachev and his adherents. There were demonstrations in Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities of the Soviet Union. When the coup organisers tried to bring in the military to disperse the protestors, the soldiers refused to fire on the people.
On 19 August 1991 there was confrontation between Yanayev’s group in front of the White House or Parliament. Armoured units of Tamanskaya Division and Kantemirovskaya Tank Division appeared in the Red Square. The Army refused to participate in the coup. Barricades were erected around the Parliament building, which was attacked the next day. Many were killed. Gorbachev returned to Moscow and ordered the arrest of the coup organisers. The hardliners surrendered, they knew they could not override the will of the country.
The protest gatherings made it clear that people wanted change.
Gorbachev resigned on 25 December 1991. He had hoped to set the Soviet Union on the road to democracy. More turmoil followed. Boris Yeltsin became President and accorded himself powers not authorized by the Russian Constitution. Confronted with opposition and threatened with impeachment, he illegally “dissolved” the Parliament on 21 September 1993, and ordered new elections and a referendum on a new Constitution. Yeltsin ordered Special Forces and Army units to storm the parliament building. Defenders of the parliament could hardly overcome the fire power of the military.
The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991 after an existence of 69 years.
President Vladimir Putin has called this the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century.
The newly formed Russian Federation, with the approval of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), informed the United Nations that as per international law, Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union would be a member of the United Nations and retain the seat of the Soviet Union in the Security Council.
All member states of the United Nations accepted this arrangement.
Mikhail Gorbachev wanted progress in Russia and peace in the world. After assurances from USA that “NATO would not be a military organisation” Gorbachev agreed to NATO’s terms for ending the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact. USA and NATO assured the Russian Federation that NATO “would not move one inch eastwards” into Russian sphere of influence. No formal treaty was signed but US State Department documents have surfaced to prove that such assurances were made. What followed was the forcible fragmentation of Yugoslavia, the ensuing carnage, violation of international law in the bombardment of Belgrade for 80 days, “coloured revolutions” in Georgia, induction of former Soviet republics and allies into NATO and EU. The threat to draw Ukraine into NATO and give it nuclear arms was another attempt to encircle and weaken the Russian Federation.
Mikhail Gorbachev was lionized by the West for dismantling the Soviet Union. But in an interview given to BBC in 2014, the former Russian President criticised the West, particularly USA, whom he said “wanted to build its own new world order where USA would be supreme.” He lamented that while professing peace and democracy the West had its own expansionist agenda. He reiterated that Ukraine had been a province of Russia and became a separate entity only during the Soviet era. Crimea too was part of Russia for three centuries until transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev.
There was sadness in his once humorous eyes as he recalled the past and hoped for the future of his country. “Russia needs a calm period to progress,” he said sombrely. Gorbachev wanted to set things right. Perhaps for him time was out of joint.