Funeral audiences were already trained to these displays of Kremlin court etiquette. There were many opportunities. The Politburo, the highest body of the Soviet Communists, consisted of tired and sick septuagenarians. Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. 1984 Yuri Andropov. 1985 Konstantin Chernenko.
And in the meantime, several important members of the Politburo. Already in the 1980s, funerals were accompanied by “black humor” – they were called “five years of beautiful funerals” or “the longest television series.” And harsh, but “socialist realist” jokes stated that the “artificial kidney” (Andropova) was replaced by “oxygen device” (Cernenko).
Or: “What are the three most popular series of Czechoslovak Television viewers?” Ambulance, Hospital on the outskirts of the city and funerals of Soviet general secretaries.’
Soviet politicians, as well as many of their colleagues from the Eastern Bloc countries, were barely able to stay on their feet. Even the greatest optimist could not expect change from this gerontocracy.
And suddenly Gorbachev appeared there. He looked like an apparition among them. Normal person.
It’s hard to explain today. But then, watching the pompous and bizarre funeral of Konstantin Chernenko, many people experienced sheer joy, hope and great anticipation. It was Gorbachev who stood in the key place – first to the left of the coffin, where the future General Secretary had taken the position during previous funerals.
An energetic guy in a well-fitting suit, accompanied by an elegant, educated “first lady”. He’s not afraid to talk, he’ll have a good chat with Margaret Thatcher. The West was perhaps even more enthusiastic than the Soviet Union and its satellites. “Gorbimania” swept through Europe and the world.
However, the new image of the Soviet leader is not the answer to the question of how he managed to get to power and even push through reforms for a certain period of time. And the reforms were extremely radical by Soviet standards.
There is no need to repeat here the basic facts from Gorbachev’s biography, nor the definitions of “perestroika” and “glasnost”. They contain dozens and hundreds of obituaries that have been published in the last few hours.
Let’s try to frame Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure as the leader of the Soviet Union with a few basic facts and symbolic images.
In 1978, Polish cleric Karol Wojtyla became pope. From 1979, Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister. And a year later, Ronald Reagan won the US presidential election.
For all three, the Soviet Union and communism as such was an “evil empire”.
Thatcher strongly opposed the policy of détente towards the Soviet Union. Pope John Paul II he supported the opposition Solidarity movement during his visit to Poland. And Reagan decided to “arm” the Soviets. He increased military spending to 7% of GDP.
The Soviet Union had the largest military in the world at the time. But in order to maintain it and not lose abysmally in the “arms race”, he had to spend over 25% of his GDP on it. The rest of the economy plunged into prolonged stagnation.
In addition, Reagan succeeded in persuading Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. The glut of oil on the market led to lower prices and another blow to the Soviet economy – oil was the main export item.
Mikhail Gorbachev and his time:
In 1979, the Soviet Army launched an invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet communists gradually sent an army of up to a hundred thousand there and got stuck in an extremely frustrating and costly war.
In 1980, the independent trade unions Solidarity organized a wave of strikes in Poland that forced the communist regime to make concessions. The government signed an agreement with Solidarity to meet the economic and political demands of the strikers. However, the beginning of the revolution was stopped the following year by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who took over government power and declared a state of emergency.
The Soviet empire was deep in economic crisis and just a step away from political chaos. The gerontocracy of the Politburo did not perceive it sharply and urgently. But many of the regime’s pillars of power felt an immediate threat – the top military and secret services, the political and economic rulers of the governorates… They needed a change to strengthen their own positions.
But they bet on the wrong card. Mikhail Gorbachev was an idealist. And he was serious about reforms.
About the current ruler of the Kremlin
Where did Vladimir Putin’s determination to violently assert Russia’s great power position come from? According to his biographers, it stems from his personal distressing experience during the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Gorbachev’s reforms were, and still are, accompanied by speculation as to how thoughtfully he proceeded and how open he was. Was he a naïve idealist who did not realize that opening up uncensored discussion, curbing communist power and economic reforms would lead to the collapse of the empire? Did he want to preserve “socialism with a human face” and the Soviet Union?
Or did he know that he had to prescribe reforms in small doses, or the supporters of the old order would remove him mercilessly?
Anyway, he repeatedly seemed to be falling into a trap. Trapped by the limited horizons of your own vision? Or into the trap of tactics so as not to reveal the trump cards prematurely?
He acted like a trap during his visit to Prague in April 1987. The staleness of the regime in Czechoslovakia has not changed in the slightest two years after Gorbachev took office. The communists talked about “perestroika” and “glasnost” almost constantly, but their lies only added another dimension to the bizarre farce.
Will “Gorbi” do something about it? Will he bring some signal to Prague that things can’t go on like this? Will he deliver the final blow to Jakeš, Biľak, Husák… by apologizing for the 1968 invasion?
He didn’t do anything. Great expectations were replaced by great disappointment. Gorbachev legitimized the Czechoslovak concept of “perestroika” with his visit.
Historians believe that he considered distancing himself from the invasion, and that he even had a text prepared on the subject. Did he let the group around Jakeš talk him out of it? Did he consider that such a move could lead to too much destabilization in the country?
All that remains is to return to speculation. Gorbachev was a committed reformer, not a revolutionary.
Or maybe he was a revolutionary. And an excellent tactician who didn’t want to rush things.
Boris Yeltsin was a man of many faces. In the last days of the Soviet empire, he overshadowed Mikhail Gorbachev with courage and determination and contributed significantly to the fall of the communist empire. As the first president of Russia, he also oversaw the reforms that brought the country to the brink of collapse. And the wild privatization that gave birth to a group of powerful oligarchs. And he chose Vladimir Putin as his successor.
“We salute the ambassador of democracy” read the banner of one of the protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. There were less than three weeks left before the massacre of protesters by the Chinese army. And the banner was not intended for human rights activists or Western politicians.
He welcomed the guest who arrived to visit China on May 15, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev’s visit was highly symbolic. He met with the “father” of Chinese economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping. His path to “state capitalism” undoubtedly inspired Gorbachev.
The Chinese communists didn’t want to hear that, and hardliners in the Chinese government blocked the broadcast of Gorbachev’s speech.
On June 4, Deng sent the army against the demonstrating students. And later he stated: “Recent events clearly show how important it is that China is firmly attached to the idea of socialism and the leadership of one party. Only socialism—that is, one-party rule—can save China and make it a developed country.”
China has confirmed that it will not shy away from totalitarian policies and has continued to open up its economy.
Gorbachev democratized the political system and the country was falling into a deep economic crisis. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev was out of top politics.
Successor Russia began to emerge from the crisis only after many years. But the democratic political system in the country did not survive.
Were not Gorbachev’s reforms ill-conceived? Shouldn’t he have gone the “Chinese way”?
Teng’s son says his father thought Gorbachev “was an idiot”. And many Russians think so too. For example, in a 2013 survey, only 22% of Russians perceived Gorbachev as a positive political figure. He finished so far behind Stalin (50%) or Brezhnev (56%).
“The largely non-violent collapse of the nuclear-armed Soviet power is one of the most significant events of the last few centuries. In retrospect, it was almost a miracle. Never before has there been such a fundamental change with such minimal violence,” wrote American political scientist and historian Mark Kramer.
“What made him fundamentally different from previous Kremlin rulers and what made him one of my political heroes is that he held to a basic principle: Politics must not be based on coercion,” adds long-time BBC reporter Brian Hanrahan.
And he adds: “Imagine the horror if someone like Slobodan Milosevic was the Soviet leader at the time. Gorbachev still owes deep European gratitude.”
It could be the epitaph of Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev.