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Goodbye Gorby

Kuba Wrzesniewski September 6, 2022


Mikhail Gorbachev, the once and final premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, died on August 30th at the age of 91. In keeping with the comparative assessment of his political legacy, Russians (and the internet leftists that love them) have treated his death with schadenfreude verging on glee, while the respectable media organs of the West have eulogized him as a great statesman and world-historical force for peace.


You have to be of a certain age to recall him in power and not as a neoliberal celebrity spokesperson for Louis Vuitton. I myself barely qualify, being four when he came to power and 11 when the USSR dissolved, but I do remember him. My family had just escaped the People’s Republic of Poland for a much happier life in Canada, so Eastern Bloc politics were a significant fixture in our family life. For anti-Communist Poles (which is to say for Poles), the USSR was the author of national misery and the tyrannical master of our future, but my parents were cautious in their evaluation of Gorbachev - he seemed different from previous Soviet leaders, more sincere and less brutal. He came to power in the traditional way - opaque Politburo negotiations - but represented a literally new breed, a post-WW2 generation raised outside the crucible of bloody, existential conflict. This was not uniformly seen as positive - older Soviet Communists marked by that struggle, as well as the security service brutes that maintained the Soviet system of coercion, worried that when the time came, he’d blanch at the violence necessary to maintain the Soviet system, including its crypto-colonial grip on Eastern Europe. Domestic-minded reformers backed him, seeing him as most likely to deliver the radical reforms necessary to shock the USSR out of its era of stagnation, marked by cultural decay, economic decline, and social deterioration.


They were both right.


Domestically, his reform agenda consisting of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform) represented a radical shift across all of Soviet society. Dissenting views - somehow ubiquitous despite being strictly prohibited - could be expressed in increasingly less guarded ways, to the point of rising to a chorus in the late 80s. Outside information trickled then flooded in, provoking an effervescence of youth culture and artistic experimentation. The gnawing fear that characterized mid-century Soviet life subsided as regular people breathed a whiff of freedom.


Economically, Gorbachev observed the diktat against private property but encouraged any enterprise that respected that limit, including worker-controlled cooperatives and family production. The goal was to end run the massive state bureaucracies managing Soviet production, which routinely sacrificed their substantive, welfarist duties in order to game the planning system, creating a national quasi-bourgeoisie - the nomenklatura - preoccupied with accumulating, consolidating, and passing on power and privilege. These economic managers also oversaw the Brezhnev-era entry of the USSR into the global capitalist economy, trading Soviet oil for hard currency in an exchange that fueled a short period of prosperity but made the country dependent on foreign capital and markets. Perestroika was to break these pathologies, put consumer goods back on long-empty shelves, and finally deliver the plenty that had always been a promise of the Worker’s Paradise.


Diplomatically, he sought to end Cold War sclerosis and establish new international relationships, not only with the West but also within the Communist world. Putting aside brinksmanship, Gorbachev sought nuclear disarmament and constructive coexistence with America - and achieved it, even with the arch hawk Ronald Reagan as his counterpart. Their Summit diplomacy produced real results - increased opportunities for person-to-person contact, the softening of ideological fear-mongering (Moscow students convinced Reagan to repudiate his “Evil Empire” slogan), and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which continued to limit the nuclear arms race until abrogated by Trump in 2019).


His renovation of relations between the USSR and its satellites was even more radical and consequential. Since the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, no one in the Eastern Bloc held any illusions about socialist fraternalism and national autonomy. The Brezhnev Doctrine made explicit what everyone understood - Moscow commanded from an imperial (even colonial) position, with the right to enforce its diktats with Red Army (and sullen, reluctant Warsaw Pact allies). That doctrine led to the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan, still ongoing as Gorbachev entered office. He ended that war with a more dignified exit than Biden managed in 2021 and repudiated Brezhnev’s legacy of permanent subjugation of Eastern Europe, allowing popular movements from Berlin to Bucharest to mobilize, challenge, and, eventually, overthrow Soviet puppet governments. 100 million people - including Romanian street kids spawned and twisted by Ceausescu’s deranged natalism, the shipyard workers and miners of Solidarity beaten by Jaruzelski’s goons, and Czech intellectuals muzzled by fear of tanks again rolling through Prague - were able to (largely) peacefully cast off Soviet crypto-colonialism, elect representative governments, and pursue their own course in international affairs. East Germans were reunited with their Western kinsmen, the Warsaw Pact became the EU’s waiting room, Soviet soldiers packed up and went home, and the trains of modern tribute - from Polish pork to Czechoslovakian machinery to Balkan wine - ceased their relentless migration east. Once started, the process could only be arrested by exemplary and large-scale violence, and the Politburo was proven correct - Gorbachev was unwilling to inflict that human toll for the geopolitical benefit.


There is no reason to doubt Gorbachev’s socialist commitment - whatever else he was, he was also a comrade. He sought to save the USSR, not end it, and he showed true socialist humanism in seeking to do so without spilling more blood.


But even a comrade can be a failure, and each of Gorbachev’s policies ran counter to the warped logic of “actually existing” Soviet socialism and undermined the system further. Glasnost opened official history to revision, dispelling the gentle myths that comforted and exposing bloody crimes and deceptions that enraged. Perestroika failed to produce plenty but did allow economic criminals like Mikhail Khordokovsky to begin accumulating their oligarch fortunes, even as Soviet citizens queued up for blocks to buy vodka, the final comfort their country could offer. The Americans proved predictably duplicitous, negotiating cuts to nuclear stockpiles while insisting on their right to a missile defense system (the Strategic Defense Initiative) that would nullify the USSR’s deterrent, all while continuing to arm, finance, and support the Afghan mujahideen, who - as Soviets warned - would metastasize into a universal threat. And the peaceful decolonization of Eastern Europe emboldened Soviets - first the subject peoples of conquered nations like the Baltic states, but soon everyone - to protest and defy central authority, confident that they too would be spared the tanks, the secret police, and the camps of the Soviet apparatus of repression.


It was too much for the conservative hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A committee including military leaders, the head of the KGB, and Gorbachev’s own Vice President announced a state of emergency and claimed power for themselves. In the early morning of August 19th, 1991, troops loyal to the coup plotters surrounded Gorbachev’s Crimean dacha and placed him under house arrest. His political career - and his moment as a world-historical figure - was over, and he was left to watch Yeltsin mobilize public resistance, turn the soldiers sent to quell that resistance to his side and claim power in his own right. What followed - the dissolution of the USSR, the “shock therapy” transition to capitalism, the plunder of national wealth by well-connected gangsters, the fatal solutions peddled by Western advisors, and the social, economic, and political catastrophe which still bedevils the post-Soviet state - was neither his intention nor his doing. He had failed to save the USSR - it was others that killed it, and divided up the body.


His failure is akin to the failure of Obama - both came to power in declining superpowers in crisis, and both entered office with youthful charisma and a mandate for change. Both faced entrenched opposition from powerful interests that benefited from the pathologies of the system. Both held too idealistic a view of their systems that limited their imagination and shackled them to norms and civility. Both failed, though perhaps there is one salient difference: Gorbachev dared to meet the moment with ambition and hope but failed to succeed. Obama, in seeking the approval of elites and acceptance by his political enemies, only offered platitudes and half-measures: he failed to try.


But, as leaders who consciously or inadvertently furthered the interests of global capital, allowing vast fortunes to be collected and consolidated, they both enjoyed comfortable retirements. I cannot hate Gorbachev for ending the USSR (which he didn’t do), but the commercials for pizza and handbags, the laudatory speeches delivered by (and to) corporate ghouls, his chumminess with the Davos set - these are as easy to despise as the Clinton Foundation and Obama’s Chicago Presidential Library/HQ, despite the much smaller budget.


After Gorbachev, the failed savior of the old regime, comes Yeltsin, the corrupt and degenerate servant of foreign interests and saboteur of his own society. Likewise, the aloof Americanism of Obama’s administration - offering salvation to Goldman Sachs and homelessness to regular Americans - provokes its own nihilistic reaction in Trump, the American Yeltsin. Perhaps Biden offers America a do-over, a second chance to do Gorbachev right and somehow preserve the system despite its accumulated contradictions. Or perhaps this moment is merely a pause in the reactionary self-destruction of the last legacy superpower - we will find out for ourselves.


But Gorbachev needn’t worry about that anymore. He belongs to history now, which will mark his failure but needn’t damn his memory.


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