Saturday, September 23, 2023

Mikhail Gorbachev, last big leader of the Soviet Union, dies at 91

Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the last of the titans in Russia who sought economic reforms through his famous ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (reconstruction), died in a hospital in Moscow. He was 91.

Gorbachev, an unquestioned titan who embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse, has died in Moscow.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 1990 which he shared with the US President then.

His death on Tuesday was announced by Russian news agencies, citing the government hospital where he was being treated, but no further details were immediately available, The Washington Post reported this evening.

For the sheer improbability of his actions and their impact on the late 20th century, Gorbachev ranks as a towering figure. In 1985, he was chosen to lead a country mired in socialism and stultifying ideology. In six years of cajoling, improvised tactics and increasingly bold risks, Gorbachev unleashed immense changes that eventually demolished the pillars of the state.

The Soviet Union’s collapse was not Gorbachev’s goal, but it may be his greatest legacy. It brought to an end a seven-decade experiment born of Utopian idealism that led to some of the bloodiest human suffering of the century. A costly global confrontation between East and West abruptly ceased to exist. The division of Europe fell away. The tense superpower hair-trigger nuclear standoff was eased, short of Armageddon.

None of it could have happened but for Gorbachev. Along the way, he let loose a revolution from above within the Soviet Union, prodding and pushing a stagnant country in hopes of reviving it. In nearly six years of high drama and breathtaking transformation, Mr. Gorbachev pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard, Washington Post said .

Archie Brown, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and one of the leading authorities on Gorbachev, has written that openness and pluralism were among the premier’s singular achievements in a country that for hundreds of years had been shackled by authoritarian rule under the czars and Soviet leaders.

Gorbachev introduced the first genuinely competitive elections for a legislature, allowed civil society to take root and encouraged open discussion of dark passages in Soviet history.

At the same time, Brown said Gorbachev suffered failures, including his effort to break the grip of central planning (Gosplan) on the economy in reforms known as perestroika, which got a start but never went far enough, and his inability to satisfy ambitions for sovereignty among restive Soviet nationalities, which contributed to the centrifugal forces that broke up the country.

Many of Gorbachev’s most remarkable accomplishments came to haunt him. Liberalization of the system “brought every conceivable long-suppressed problem and grievance to the surface of Soviet political life”, Brown recalled. “Gorbachev’s political in-tray became monumentally overloaded.”

After a failed coup attempt by hard-liners in 1991, a weakened Gorbachev finally relinquished power to even more radical reformers led by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin in December 25, 1991.

Gorbachev did not set out to lower that flag. He was very much a product of the system and the tumultuous events that spanned his lifetime, from Stalin’s terror and the unimaginable losses of World War II, through the hardships, thaws, triumphs, dashed expectations and stagnation of the postwar years.

Over many years, Gorbachev came to see a huge chasm that existed between the reality of Soviet day-to-day life, often shabby and poor, and the artificial slogans of the party and leadership about a bright future under communism. Many others also saw this gap and shrugged, but what made Gorbachev different is that he was shocked by it. By the time he became Soviet leader, he had fully absorbed the abysmal reality but had little understanding of how to fix it. He hoped that unleashing forces of openness and political pluralism would heal the other maladies.

They could not, The Washington Post said.

In the shadow of Stalin and war, Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the small village of Privolnoye, in the black-earth region of Stavropol in southern Russia. His parents, Sergei and Maria, worked the land in a village that was little changed over centuries.

Gorbachev spent much of his childhood as the favorite of his mother’s parents: He often lived with them. His maternal grandfather, Pantelei, was remembered by Gorbachev as a tolerant man, and immensely respected in the village. In those years, Gorbachev was the only son; a brother was born after the war, when he was 17 years old.

Famine struck the region in 1933, when Gorbachev was just two. Stalin had launched the mass collectivization of agriculture, a brutal process of forcing the peasants into collective farms and punishing those known as kulaks who were somewhat better off. The collectivization destroyed traditional patterns of farming. A third to a half of the population of Privolnoye died of hunger.

“Entire families were dying, and the half-ruined ownerless huts would remain deserted for years,” he remembered. Stalin’s purges took millions of lives among the peasantry in the 1930s.

The ‘Great Terror’ affected Gorbachev, too. His grandfather on his father’s side, Andrei, rejected collectivization and tried to make it on his own. In the spring of 1934, Andrei was arrested and accused of failing to fulfill the sowing plan set by the government for individual peasants.

“But no seeds were available to fulfill the plan,” Gorbachev recalled of the absurdity of the charge.

Gorbachev entered Moscow State University, the country’s most prestigious, in September 1950, a peasant boy in the bustling metropolis. He arrived with only a village school education, and friends who had acquired more learning in their earlier years often teased him. Gorbachev joined the Communist Party in 1952.

The first two years of his university life coincided with Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign, aimed at Jewish scholars and writers. This was an eye-opener for Gorbachev. He recalled that one morning, a friend, a Jew, had been confronted by a shouting, taunting mob and then crudely shoved off a tram. “I was shocked.”

Gorbachev came to see Stalin differently. At the 20th Party Congress, on February 25, 1955, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and use of violence and persecution. Only after the speech, Mr. Gorbachev recalled, “did I begin to understand the inner connection between what had happened in our country and what had happened to my family”. His grandfather Pantelei had said that Stalin didn’t know of his torture. But, Gorbachev thought, maybe Stalin was the one responsible for the family’s pain.

Gorbachev later frequently called Khrushchev’s speech “courageous”. It was not a total break with the past, but it was a break nonetheless.

While at the university, Gorbachev met and married Raisa Titorenko, a bright philosophy student. She initially shunned the village boy, but he eventually charmed her.

In the two years after Stalin’s death, Moscow began to open up to new ideas. Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel, “The Thaw”, was published in 1954. Gorbachev met a young Czech student at the university, Zdenek Mlynar, who became a lifelong friend, and they enjoyed stormy debates. The university experience began to open Gorbachev’s eyes even further, but at the same time, “for me and others of my generation the question of changing the system in which we lived did not arise”.

After the university, Gorbachev decided on a career with the Komsomol, the party’s youth division, as deputy head of the “agitation and propaganda department”. This was a conformist career path. Gorbachev threw himself into the work, honing his speaking skills, often making trips around the Stavropol region to exhort young people to be good socialists and believe in the party. In an early assignment, he was sent out to a local district to extol Khrushchev’s speech on Stalin.

Gorbachev moved up rapidly through the party ranks in Stavropol to become the highest-ranking official, the first secretary, from 1970 to 1978. In farming and industry, the heavy hand of the state stifled individual initiative. Theft, toadying, incompetence and malaise were everywhere. Central planning was both intrusive and woefully inefficient.

Brown later wrote that Gorbachev was “as pragmatic an innovator as the conservative temper of the times allowed”. He supported a farming plan to give autonomy to groups or teams of workers, including families. In 1978, Gorbachev wrote a lengthy memo on the problems of agriculture that called for giving “more independence to enterprises and associations” in deciding key production and money issues. But there is no evidence that these ideas ever took root very widely, and Gorbachev was definitely not a radical.

Gorbachev has said he finally realized, as regional party boss, that something much more serious was wrong with the Soviet system than just inefficiency, theft and poor planning. The deeper flaw was that no one could break out with new ideas. “This was a shock to me,” Gorbachev said. “This visit overturned all my conceptions.”

Gorbachev visited Italy, France, Belgium and West Germany. What he saw in these relatively prosperous democracies was far different from what he had been shown in Soviet propaganda books, film and radio broadcasts. Mr. Gorbachev realised multiple voices were allowed to challenge the power structure. And, he said, “people there lived in better conditions and were better off than in our country. The question haunted me: Why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?”

In a move that took him upward in the Soviet power structure, Gorbachev was elected a secretary of the Central Committee, and put in charge of agriculture in Leonid Brezhnev’s final years in power. The general secretary was ill, and some Politburo meetings lasted no longer than 15 or 20 minutes. The country was in serious trouble economically.

The war in Afghanistan, launched by a coterie around Brezhnev, turned into a quagmire. The hopes of detente in the 1970s evaporated, and superpower tension escalated. Bread lines grew longer. During the first four years that Gorbachev was secretary for agriculture in Moscow, there were four successive poor harvests and massive Soviet grain purchases abroad.

From the time Gorbachev arrived in Moscow in November 1978, through the early 1980s, an intense Kremlin power struggle played out between an old guard, bastions of the party and the military, and a handful of reformers, most of whom were academics with fresh ideas but no power base. When Brezhnev died in 1982, hopes were raised that his successor, the former KGB boss Yuri Andropov, would end the long stagnation. Andropov promoted a group of younger officials, including Gorbachev, whom he had mentored. Gorbachev brought some of the academic reformers to his side, the post said.

But Andropov died in 1984, after only 15 months in office. Gorbachev was briefly in contention to succeed Andropov, but was cast aside in a maneuver at the last minute for Konstantin Chernenko, a long-serving Brezhnev acolyte. Five weeks after Reagan was reelected to a second term, in December 1984, Gorbachev made a landmark trip to London, where he left a strong impression. He called attention to the dangers of nuclear war and emphasized Soviet fears of an arms race in space. He promised “radical reductions” in nuclear weapons.

In substance, Gorbachev did not change Soviet policy, but his youthful and vigorous style spoke volumes. He seemed to promise a more flexible approach, a sharp contrast with the rigidity of the past. Just after the visit, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to the BBC. In her first answer to a question, she declared: “I like Gorbachev. We can do business together.”

On the evening of Sunday, March 10, 1985, Gorbachev took a call from the Kremlin doctor, Yevgeny Chazov. Chernenko had died of a heart ailment and complications from emphysema. The next day, Gorbachev was selected to be the new general secretary.

Gorbachev has recalled that he had a long talk with Raisa early in the morning of March 11, strolling the garden paths of their dacha outside of Moscow just before dawn, talking about the events and the implications.

Gorbachev told her he had been frustrated all the years in Moscow, having not accomplished as much as he wanted, always hitting a wall. To really get things done, he would have to accept the job.

“We can’t go on living like this,” he said. Shock waves and a nation’s demise

In his early days in office, Gorbachev sent a shock wave of excitement through a moribund society. At a time when people were accustomed to flowery but empty official pronouncements, when portraits of leaders were dutifully hung from every wall, when conformity suffocated public discussion, Gorbachev’s style was refreshingly direct.

Often he talked too much, wavered on important decisions, and was slow to break out of the old Soviet mind-set. Yet the absolute core of his early drive was to halt the decay in Soviet living standards and rejuvenate society. He believed that open discussion was essential to the survival of socialism. He didn’t fear what people had to say. He believed in Lenin’s ideals, but concluded that leaders after Lenin had gone off track, and he wanted to set it right.

It would have been so much easier to fall back into the old habits, to take the well-worn old pathways, but Gorbachev did not. In a combative speech to Leningrad Communists at the Smolny Institute, Gorbachev spoke largely without notes, insisting that the economy be re-energized, demanding that people who could not accept change must stand aside. “Get out of the way. Don’t be a hindrance,” he declared.

In 1990, Gorbachev toyed with a plan to turn the country into a market economy in 500 days, but he discarded it. His economic policy zigzagged back and forth. His efforts to reform state-owned industries were ineffectual. He refused to take another key step, freeing prices from state control. Gorbachev also blamed the heavy burdens of the arms race for his economic failures.

“Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry,” he wrote in his memoir.

In politics, Gorbachev’s revolution from above grew ever more radical as time went by. It reached a climax March 26, 1989, with the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. In the balloting, the Communist Party leadership in Leningrad was turned out, pro-independence parties won in the Baltics, and Yeltsin, the radical reformer, triumphed in Moscow. The Communist Party establishment took a shellacking.

When the new legislature met for the first time from May 25 through June 9, Gorbachev ordered the proceedings broadcast on television. Transfixed, millions of people stayed home from work to watch the broadcasts; the debates broke new ground in freedom of speech.

But as with so many of Gorbachev’s daring moves, this one had a double edge. Gorbachev, the party, the KGB and the military were lambasted with open and often trenchant criticism. Soon, Gorbachev’s room for maneuver began to shrink. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him, creating obstacles and open resistance.

In later years, many analysts said Gorbachev missed an important opportunity in 1990, when he might have split the Communist Party into two: a more progressive wing that aspired to Western European social democracy, and another branch harboring the old guard.

Had Gorbachev taken this leap, and become leader of the progressives, he might have overcome the divisions that were swelling up around him. But Mr. Gorbachev did not do it, and later that year a backlash took root; Mr. Gorbachev himself seemed to side with the reactionary forces.

One of the most important moments of Gorbachev’s rule came with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. In the early days after the accident, the Soviet Union attempted to cover up the extent of the catastrophe. Then a radioactive cloud drifted toward Europe, and the truth could no longer be hidden. The experience later reinforced Gorbachev’s belief in the value of glasnost, or openness. Shevardnadze said that Chernobyl “tore the blindfold from our eyes and persuaded us that politics and morals could not diverge”.

With the sting of Chernobyl still fresh, Gorbachev that summer prepared to coax President Ronald Reagan toward an agreement on deeper cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, while also attempting to bottle up Reagan’s plan for a global missile defense, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Soviet physicists had told Mr. Gorbachev that they didn’t think Reagan’s missile defense plan would work; Gorbachev had already decided not to build an equivalent Soviet system. He did not want, nor could the Soviet Union afford, a new arms race in space. Even so, Soviet officials were puzzled and worried about why the US was pouring money into the missile defense project, and they knew American innovation and technology could be a potent force.

Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 11-12, 1986, for what was supposed to be a quick discussion but soon blossomed into much more. They improvised, argued and bargained their way toward the deepest cuts in strategic nuclear weapons ever contemplated in the nuclear age. However, at the very end, on October 12, a Sunday afternoon and early evening, Gorbachev demanded that Reagan confine his missile defense research to the laboratory. Gorbachev had planned this challenge to Reagan all along. The president refused. They abruptly broke up, and the summit ended without a deal.

The breakdown seemed to be a diplomatic disaster at that moment, but later it led to new progress in nuclear arms control. Over the next year, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear-armed missiles, the intermediate-range rockets in Europe, signing a treaty to scrap them at the Washington summit in 1987, where Gorbachev spontaneously stopped his limousine on Connecticut Avenue and began shaking hands with thrilled passersby.

In 1988, Gorbachev announced a massive pullback of conventional troops in Europe in a speech at the UN. However, it was later revealed that while Gorbachev and Reagan were negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, the Soviet Union continued to operate a sprawling, hidden biological weapons program in violation of its treaty obligations.

On December 25, Gorbachev resigned and turned the nuclear weapons controls over to Yeltsin, as president of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev gave a short speech from the Kremlin.

When he took office in 1985, Gorbachev said, he felt it was a shame that a nation so richly endowed, so brimming with natural resources and human talent endowed by God, was living so poorly compared with the developed countries of the world.

He blamed the Soviet command system and ideology, and he blamed the “terrible burden of the arms race”.

The Soviet people had “reached the limits of endurance,” he said.

“All attempts at partial reform, and there were many, failed, one after another. The country was losing its future. We could not go on living like this. Everything had to be drastically changed.”



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