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The Gorbachev diagnosis

Oct 06,2022 - Last updated at Oct 06,2022

WASHINGTON, DC  —  The death in August of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, sent me back to an extended interview I conducted with him in 2001. Reading the transcript anew, I was struck not only by the clarity of his thinking and the strategy that had motivated him to end the Cold War, but also by his conditional view, even then, of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin was the biggest beneficiary of the reform process that Gorbachev started, having gone from unemployed ex-KGB agent to president of Russia in just a decade. On Gorbachev’s passing, Putin acknowledged the last Soviet leader’s “historic” role, but was “too busy” to attend the funeral.

Back in 2001, I began by asking Gorbachev for his diagnosis of what had ailed the Soviet economy. “Our system was so cumbersome,” he replied, “that it was not capable of responding to the challenges of the science and technology revolution”. He became angry as he recalled that, in the early 1980s, the Soviet leadership that preceded him had planned to establish a commission to “solve the problem of women’s pantyhose. Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system, and it can’t resolve the problem of women’s pantyhose”, he groused. “There’s no toothpaste, no soap powder, not the basic necessities of life. It was incredible and humiliating to work in such a government.”

The Soviet “system of total control” could no longer work, he said, because the people had outgrown it. “We knew what kind of country we had,” he recounted. “It was the most militarised, the most centralised, the most rigidly disciplined; it was stuffed with nuclear weapons and other weapons. It was possible to do things in a way that could have led to civil war and to the destruction of the world.”

The route out of the crisis required ending the isolation. “We needed to put an end to the Iron Curtain,” said Gorbachev. “We could solve our problems only by cooperating with other countries.” That meant changing the nature of international relations and ending “the ideological confrontation”  —  and particularly the arms race. “We knew very well, if our arsenal and the American arsenal were to be used, we could destroy mankind 1,000 times over.”

Gorbachev’s reform agenda, which he called glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), was underpinned by “new thinking” that recognised the world for what it was: Interrelated, interdependent and “becoming increasingly a single whole”. Mutual interdependence meant that “we must act differently … It was very important for developing our plans, for developing domestic policies and particularly foreign policy”.

This dramatic shift in thinking was fundamental to ending the Cold War and reconnecting with the West. But it also led to something that Gorbachev did not anticipate or want: The disintegration of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev detested Boris Yeltsin, who was at the forefront of the breakup and became the first president of the independent Russian Federation. To Gorbachev, Yeltsin was a wrecking ball.

Gorbachev had advocated reforms “aimed at evolutionary change, political change, creating an infrastructure for market economics, creating a legal base, a legislative base for the market”. Given that multiple generations of Soviets had never known markets, he did not think that anyone could “just announce markets” and then expect them to “emerge overnight”. Rathe: “We believed that it was necessary to have 10-15 years at best.”

Yeltsin had his own ideas. As Gorbachev put it, “He broke up the country … He speculated on people’s wishes. He said, ‘We’ll do it within one year; we will conduct very good reforms, very rapid reforms, and in one year we’ll begin to grow, and within three or four years we’ll be among the three or four most prosperous nations in the world’.”

Gorbachev said he was “amazed at this kind of irresponsible deception of the people”. He did not think Russia was ready for such sudden change. “Yeltsin brought the country to a dead end. Two-thirds of the people live in poverty. We have a shorter life span, greater mortality, the population is decreasing, industrial production is one-half of what it used to be, scientific centers are being destroyed. It’s incredible.”

But, by the time we spoke, Yeltsin had already been succeeded by Putin. I asked Gorbachev how he thought the new president was doing so far. His answer was measured: Putin has a “difficult legacy”.

After inheriting “chaos in the economy, in the social sphere, in public policy, in the affairs of the federation, in military matters”, Putin’s first challenge was to stabilise the country. As of 2001, Gorbachev believed Putin had “done a great deal despite his shortcomings and mistakes … We see that he has made mistakes, but he wants to pull the country out of the crisis, and we see that, too. So, in the West you often criticise Putin without really understanding the context in which he started to act, and how he is acting”.

Putin, he explained, “is working on what I feel is the most important problem … a strategy for more than a year or two, for a longer term”. He hoped that Putin would choose “the right scenario”, meaning one that “will help to start the mechanism for reviving our economy.”

Having met with Putin on several occasions, Gorbachev told me that, “He understands the problem”, and that Putin had listened to his suggestions. Putin was “open to cooperation” with Europe, the United States, and others. “He is trying to do something,” Gorbachev explained, “but it is very difficult. Putin became the leader of the country very unexpectedly. He doesn’t have enough experience, but he is working. He is hardworking; he can learn”.

That is how things looked to Gorbachev 21 years ago. But the two men’s connections subsequently waned as Putin consolidated power and pursued a “scenario” quite different from the one that Gorbachev had envisioned and hoped for. Putin had no use for the man whom he held responsible for triggering the breakup of the Soviet Union, which he had described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”; and Gorbachev was appalled as Putin became increasingly authoritarian.

One way that Gorbachev tried to keep glasnost and the “new thinking” alive was by donating part of the money from his Nobel Peace Prize to help launch the independent opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. But the Kremlin became increasingly intolerant of independent media. Since 2000, a half-dozen of the paper’s journalists have been assassinated.

Last year, Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting freedom of expression in Russia. In Moscow, that was not an honour. In early September, just two days after Gorbachev’s funeral, the Russian authorities revoked Novaya Gazeta’s media license, shutting it down in Russia.


Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of S&P Global, is the author of The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations (Penguin, 2021) and the co-author of The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (Free Press, 2002), which was made into a PBS/BBC series of which he was executive producer. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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