Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Volkogonov on Gorbachev

Ruling Couples

When Volkogonov arrives at a description of the Soviet Union’s last Party Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, he has become part of the storyline. Gorbachev’s political nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, appointed Volkogonov as the the civilian leader of the Russian armed forces when he assumed power. Volkogonov believes Yeltsin made the correct choice in jettisoning the Communist Party and Bolshevik ideology, and he faults Gorbachev for remaining wedding to Leninism when the Leninist system had already been discredited as both a political creed and an economic philosophy. However, Volkogonov is sympathetic to Gorbachev, who was, as one American journal put it, the best that the Soviet system had to offer. He admits that Gorbachev was a towering political figure, a humane reformer, and a change agent who hastened the end of the Bolshevism.


While Gorbachev had no particular road map for reform, and did not know where glasnost and perestroika and acceleration might lead, he unleashed forces that could not be turned back. Although committed to failed ideological premises associated with Lenin, he renounced most, but not all, of the tools of totalitarianism. He also avoided military force and ultimately pulled the country's forces out of Afghanistan.

The author notes that historians have written more books about Gorbachev than any other Russian politician, including Lenin. In the midst of this sea of information about the man, Volkogonov understandably appears reticent to render a final judgment on Gorbachev. Clearly, Volkogonov believes that Gorbachev had a genuine faith in socialist principles, which he reiterated even after the failed coup of 1991. He also believes that Gorbachev was unable to free himself from the Party’s traditions, which included secrecy, extreme political centralization, and the Party’s monopoly of power. But these were inherited sins, and Gorbachev’s relentless pursuit of perestroika and glasnost had tremendously useful ramifications.

The Great & Good

The author particularly admires Gorbachev’s decision to move away from international rivalry, although he notes that the Russian people were more severe in their judgments about the real cause of Gorbachev’s popularity abroad. They thought he was betraying Russia at the expense of its traditional enemies.

Synchronizing Watches

Volkogonov’s analysis of Gorbachev is incomplete, but he emerges as an intelligent and complicated man who blended moral inclinations with the obsolete clichés of Marxist-Leninism. Perhaps Gorbachev could have taken a few pages from Yeltsin’s playbook and resigned from the Party at an earlier date. But it’s hard to see how exactly this would have helped either Gorbachev or Russia. Gorbachev’s ability to effect change was predicated on his role as Party Boss. To surrender this privilege, would have been to have surrendered his power base. In fact, when the USSR came apart, the Party hierarchy continued to control the destinies of the people. The former apparatchiks rapidly took control of the formal as well as informal economy, to say nothing of the various nationalist movements. Even Putin gained much of his authority as a direct result of his tied to the security organs who dominated the Communist State.

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