Fare Well Reformer, Mikhail Sergeyevich ... A Dominant Figure in World History in Curtailing Oppressive Communist Rule across Europe and Ending the 70-Year Cold War, the First Soviet President Sparked Fires of Reform That Later Overran His Vision

By Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 1991 | Go to article overview

Fare Well Reformer, Mikhail Sergeyevich ... A Dominant Figure in World History in Curtailing Oppressive Communist Rule across Europe and Ending the 70-Year Cold War, the First Soviet President Sparked Fires of Reform That Later Overran His Vision


Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WITH sadness, anger, and flashes of defiance, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev ends a momentous six and a half years at the helm of his nation.

The West sees Mr. Gorbachev as a singular figure. But in his role as unrequited Russian reformer, Gorbachev has trod a well-worn path. From Czar Alexander II to Nikita Khrushchev, leaders before him have broken their swords battling to prod the vast country forward. They all met with what history has revealed to be the futility of trying to save a dying system through reform.

"During my tenure, I have been attacked by all those in Russian society who can scream and write.... The revolutionaries curse me because I have strongly and conscientiously favored the use of the most decisive measures.... As for the conservatives, they attack me because they have mistakenly blamed me for all the changes in our political system."

These words could have been written by Gorbachev - indeed he said as much many times. But they were penned by another great Russian reformer, Count Sergei Iulevich Witte, in his bitter resignation letter as prime minister in 1906. Witte had saved Nicholas II and his autocracy from war and revolution, only to be discarded. Decaying system

Like Witte, Gorbachev was called in to save a society in collapse. The Russian empire was again weakened by foreign adventures, culminating in the disastrous war in Afghanistan. And underneath, the economic system was decaying, unable to meet basic needs.

"Gorbachev took this country like my wife takes cabbage. He thought that to get rid of the dirt, he could just peel off the top layer of leaves. But he had to keep going until there was nothing left." That is the assessment of Vitaly Korotich, who was Gorbachev's designated spearhead in the campaign to reclaim lost history as editor of the magazine Ogonyok.

Even before he took office as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, Gorbachev described his goal as the renovation of the socialist system. In a speech on Dec. 10, 1984, he delivered his later famous watchwords deep transformations in the economy and the whole system of social relations,perestroika {restructuring} of economic management,democratization of our social and economic life," and "glasnost" (openness).

Gorbachev reduced fear in Soviet society and let a fresh wind blow through Eastern Europe. But when those reforms reached their limits - and they did so quickly - Gorbachev balked. The ultimate assault on the Leninist state and its state-run economy was always beyond his intent.

In much of this Gorbachev was following a path laid out by his political sponsor, Yuri Andropov, who advanced from chairman of the KGB to succeed Leonid Brezhnev as party leader in 1982. Andropov was described by those around him as a closet liberal, a lover of jazz who sought to bring socialist democracy to the Soviet Union. But Andropov died in early 1984. Gorbachev had to wait more than a year until the Brezhnev-prot, conservative stalwart Konstantin Chernenko, came and went in similar fashion.

Gorbachev began with familiar themes of Andropov: the need to restore discipline, to intensify production through technological progress and innovations such as giving state-run enterprises more freedom and workers salary incentives. These moves picked up the reformist thread of Khrushchev, lost during the long years under Brezhnev, which Gorbachev disdainfully referred to as "the era of stagnation."

"Gorbachev did not have a clear plan of what kind of political and social system must be created," says Fyodor Burlatsky, a former speechwriter for Khrushchev, close aide to Andropov, and sometime adviser to Gorbachev. "He came from our generation, from the 60s. He had in mind what Khrushchev wanted but maybe more than Khrushchev. He shared the ... feeling that everything that came from the Stalinist system must be destroyed. …

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