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Mikhail Gorbachev: a personal obituary


Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Premier of the Soviet Union, who has died today, influenced this author's political career, personal life and international perspectives more than any other politician save perhaps Slobloban Milosevic, the last Premier of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, although their political trajectories and ultimate fates could not have been more different. Gorbachev was selected as head of the Soviet Union by that federation's Politburo, its highest governmental body, in the late 1980's, with a view to implementing policies of freedom and openness that hitherto had been an anathema to the Soviet Union's system of government. The Soviet Union had been founded in fire, in the ashes of the Russian Revolution, and was premiered upon command economy principles and the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Gorbachev's concept of freedom (Glasnost)  was to release the Soviet Union from this centralising macroeconomic grip with a hope of satisfying the population whose ailing standards of living in the late Soviet period, in particular in the field of consumer goods, was ailing. The Politburo decided to try an experiment in relaxing centralised control of the means of production and permit private people to own and manage small businesses. The concept of openness (Perestroika) that had also dominated the Soviet Union's political culture, entailed a lack of freedom to express criticism of the policies off the Soviet regime on the part of her citiyzenry, in the belief that to do so would encourage reactionary and counter-revolutionary voices to bring down the Soviet system from within using debate and criticism as a voice. It was the role of the state security service, the KGB, to police thought and speech critical of the Soviet system, in order to hold the monolith together. Gorbachev was invested by the Politburo with a limited mandate to relax the principle forbidding criticism of the regime or her works.


The principal consequence of all of this for the author, at the time a teenager, was to fling open the doors of the Soviet Union's previously closed immigration system and to allow western foreigners to travel to the Soviet Union on an independent basis,. Although visas were still required, they became much easier to obtain. An invitation from an official institution but, in a dark shadow of things to come, one could suddenly buy an invitation to visit. The process became nothing more than one of spending money to collect pieces of paper. This author, then a teenager gawking on the television (these were before the days of the internet) at the revolutionary events taking place in Eastern Europe as these policies' consequences played out and the entire Warsaw Pact fell apart before his very eyes, suddenly became aware that there was an entirely different set of societies that had been living literally behind a wall (the so-called "Iron Curtain") for the entirety of his life and indeed that of his parents; and he realised that despite being European they were all very different indeed. He resolved immediately to set off to what by then had become the former Soviet Union, as the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika caused macroeconomic collapse across the Soviet Union and the various republics of the Soviet Union flung themselves apart in a centrifugal whirlwind that included massive social upheavals, lawlessness, cvivil conflicts and desperate poverty.


This author decided that he was determined to go to this so-called "Second World" (a phrase long now out of use), to see what he had been missing. As soon as his means and courage allowed him, he travelled across central and Eastern Europe by various more or less Byzantine forms of ground-based public transport in the early 1990's, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and he got himself as far as Moscow, absorbing the peculiarities of a society in terminal free-fall. One of the first things that became obvious was that the way the Soviet Union had collapsed had resulted in the impoverishment, more or less overnight, of virtually the entire society of every republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union was manifestly a multi-tiered, comprehensive catastrophe as people of every social class suddenly found themselves without money, security or access to the daily resources necessary to live. Whatever had gone round, it was truly desperate. Anyone who recalls travelling comprehensively around Russia and Ukraine in the early 1990's recalls the sense of society in collapse, awash with people who had lost everything, who. had nowhere to go and no direction left in their lives. Whatever the waves of Glasnost and Perestroika, they left wreckage and destruction in their wakes. Mikhail Gorbachev was the man commonly associated with all of these unusual changes, even though by the time this author arrived in Russia and Ukraine on a series of bashed-up railways, he had been toppled from office as the Soviet Union had been abolished and a series of Presidents of the individual former Soviet Republics, including the Russian President Boris Yeltsin, had taken his place. 


Yeltsin's regime was properly near-uniformly considered as disastrous. Yeltsin himself had barely the slightest understanding of the policy reforms he was purportedly overseeing, being perpetually drunk and having no understanding of capitalist free market economics. Indeed neither did anyone else understand what these changes were meant to be, that were implemented  en masse for the most part by American economists who flew in with crazed ideas of privatising enormous state-owned infrastructure assets and other monolithic Soviet companies by handing out vouchers to the workers. The workers, who had seen their life savings evaporate overnight when different national spin-offs of the Soviet Ruble for each Repujblc were floated on the international currency markets against western currencies. They had no food because they had no money. The net result was that they gave away these worthless pieces of paper - share certificates, a concept about which they had no idea - in exchange for the food necessary to feed their families. A tiny group of senior managers in these Soviet companies, in Russia and Ukraine in particular, collected all the workers' shares distributed: used the voting rights to appoint their proxies as managers; and then asset-stripped the companies in favour of foreign bank accounts. That was the beginning of what we now call Russian and Ukrainian capitalism, and it was an appalling catastrophe as the Oligarchs came to power while the general populations starved.


The author recalls his early journeys to both Russia and Ukraine, the latter suffering even worse than Russia as her currency plummeted so dramatically in the face of a relative absence of natural resources for sale to prop it up that the Ukrainian Ruble was replaced with the Coupon, a Russian Ruble with a small Ukrainian symbol stamped into the corner. A cottage industry in forging different currencies emerged; the Coupon was notorious as worthless trash: people carried it in plastic bags; every exchange office would have wild, desperate crowds standing outside it looking for anybody with a US Dollar to exchange. Ukraine had become ruled by a series of violent criminals with the tacit approval of the west in the democratic process that they did not understand was completely fixed and remains so to the present day. Corruption in Ukraine was and remains so ubiquitous that every transaction was concluded only in foreign money to avoid the crime-ridden organs of state. Ukraine became particularly violent, and this author was a victim of that violence in the early 1990's. Russia was a little better organised, but only because she had no pretence of democracy; each subsequent Russian leader, including the current one, Vladimir Putin, was hand-pickled by their predecessor. Due to the circumstances of her social and economic collapse, Russia had and has no concept of free market democracy. Even the concept of the nation state remains bleary. Nationalism makes sense in the former USSR; it always has done, as the Russian Empire has always been a federation of different ethnic peoples who from time to time express their individuality in political movements. But the concept of the economically sovereign nation state is not one that the region has ever understood, and Gorbachev's reforms did not inculcate such changes either. Soviet companies for the most part had no concept of economic sovereignty for each individual Soviet Republic; assets for railway lines, for example, that crossed multiple republics were all owned by the same company. These problems ran so deep that the so-called independence movements of the various former Soviet Republics were never completed. Although twin companies were created to own common assets in different republics, the details of how multiple new companies would interact when once they were just a single company were never worked out. In practice people just kept working on infrastructure projects in much the same way as they had during Soviet times, reporting to the same managers even if they now turned out to be in different countries. These issues were never solved, and they remain particularly acute in the fields of state security (all the KGB successors more or less report to a common Moscow headquarters, decades later(; hydrocarbons; railways; and electricity grids.


Gorbachev's much-lauded reforms completely failed, and left former Soviet societies in chaotic ruins as freedom did not lead too capitalism but to corrupt oligarch-led cronyism; and openness did not lead to democracy but instead to authoritarianism, ballot box corruption and reversion to the methods of political succession of the Russian Empire. In 2005, the then relatively new Russian President who had risen rapidly up the ranks of centralised political power under Gorbachev's predecessor Boris Yeltsin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. In that observation he was almost certainly right; anyone who became intimately familiar with the social and political collapses taking place in the region in the early 1990's could not but agree. The disastrous way in which the Soviet Union fell apart was in large part the fault of Mikhail Gorbachev, who did not anticipate the strength of the beast he was unleashing nor did he undertake precautionary measures to ensure that his values of freedom and openness should be introduced gradually and incrementally in order to avoid the social disaster that in fact infected the former Soviet Union and in particular Russia and Ukraine, the two successor countries that bore the brunt of it. In failing either to understand or control the forces he was unleashing, he catalysed the accelerated and catastrophic collapse of an empire. Whatever one thinks of the historical record of that empire - and it is hard to be too enthusiastic about the merits of the Soviet Union as a system of government although one must always bear in mind the atrocious feudal anarchy that preceded it - the means by which it collapsed by virtue of Mikhail Gorbachev, doyen of the west, rushing into massive political and economic reforms he did not fully understand and he could not control were disastrous.


Gorbachev himself undoubtedly had the best of intentions, and tried his hardest in an impossible situation. The Soviet Union was going bankrupt as a result of the Arms Race, and Moscow could not afford to subsidise the smaller republics outside Russia. Hence the collapse of the Soviet Union into her constituent components was probably inevitable, with Ukraine, as the biggest per capita recipient of subsidies (Ukraine has always been impoverished and in need of heavy subsidy for her citizens to survive), likely to suffer the most. Nevertheless the way it was done was ham-fisted, because the Soviet Union's last leaders - and her immediate successors, an unsavoury bunch of autocrats, drunks and criminals - did not bother to apply their own concepts of openness and self-criticism to themselves. They allowed the system to spin out of control, with the result of massive suffering on the part of the greater majority of what had once been the second most powerful country in the world. This author saw all these things for himself in the early 1990's, and he was appalled and scarred for life. He also met the Russians and Ukrainians in large numbers in some of the earliest days after the collapse of the Soviet Union when travel around the region suddenly became possible for the independent traveller without oversight or censorship. Armed with his 1989 copy of the Lonely Planet travel guide "USSR" (a vintage cult work of which the print run was very short because the country the book described barely lasted much longer), he explored every nook and cranny of the Russian and Ukrainian societies that were made available to him. And he liked what he saw: complex, sympathetic, determined and kind people emerging from one sort of peculiar society manifestly very different from the west, and moving into another era amidst great suffering and upheaval, which also remains extremely different from the west. This author has been engaged intimately with the region ever since. One lesson he learned early and never forgot, as he traced the subsequent development of Russian and Ukrainian societies from the Gorbachev reforms to the present day amidst a cruel war between former federal common allies Russia and Ukraine that rages on the day of Gorbachev's death, is just how dramatically different these societies are from those in the west and from values of social democratic capitalism, freedom of speech and ballot box democracy. You can change the wording in the pieces of legislation, as Gorbachev sought to do; but you cannot so rapidly turn the hearts and minds of huge populations of complex countries, to another way of thinking about which they have no experience, understanding or adequate period of transition. It is not an option for the former Soviet Union now to go backward; history never runs in reverse. But precisely what post-war Russian and Ukrainian societies ought to look like is extremely difficult to judge. It is the challenge for a new generation.


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Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, communist politician and reformer, born 2 March 1931; died 30 August 2022