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Mikhail Gorbachev

5 minute read
James O. Jackson/Moscow

At 55, Mikhail Gorbachev is likely to be the Soviet leader who will lead his country into the next millennium. Yet in the past year he acted as though he had only one year rather than 14 to get the Soviet Union ready for the 21st century. He was a man relentlessly on the move, prodding every part of Soviet society to change. At the same time he was challenging the U.S. on many fronts with an energetic and sophisticated global diplomacy, Gorbachev often seemed determined to shape the Soviet Union to his own personal agenda by the sheer force of his willpower.

That activism had its greatest impact on Soviet foreign policy. As Moscow’s diplomacy went through a top-to-bottom reorganization, a fresh team of policymakers took power and new ambassadors were assigned to virtually every important capital. The Communist Party’s Secretariat underwent a total overhaul, and Anatoli Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet Ambassador to Washington, – was brought home to become Gorbachev’s principal adviser on foreign policy. Finally, the Soviet leader gave the propaganda apparatus a new look. The message from Moscow now had a modern, Western style, even though the substance was usually as hard-line as ever.

During the year Gorbachev issued a dizzying series of arms-control initiatives that left the Reagan Administration on the policy defensive. His disarmament proposals ranged from nuclear-free zones to global peace conferences. These may have been insincere, unenforceable or impractical, but they never lacked appeal for left-of-center groups around the world.

Gorbachev’s most spectacular foreign policy display came in October at Reykjavik during the hastily called summit, where he played the superpower game like a grand master. A confident but ill-prepared President Reagan was lured into a no-win confrontation over the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. By offering the near total elimination of nuclear weapons in exchange for restricting SDI to the laboratory, Gorbachev momentarily captured the propaganda high ground. Reagan attempted to outbid him by promising to do away with all nuclear weapons, but the President was nonetheless pictured as the advocate of military escalation while Gorbachev came across as the man of peace. Sophisticated analysts in the West realized that the issue was far more complicated than that, but Gorbachev nonetheless reaped a harvest of favorable reactions in many parts of the world.

Gorbachev last year also put his mark on Soviet domestic affairs. In the spring he presided over the 27th Communist Party Congress, which endorsed his plans for “acceleration and restructuring” of the bureaucracy-bound economy. More important, the Congress swept out nearly half of the Central Committee’s 307 members and gave Gorbachev a solid majority on the twelve-man Politburo. The top echelons of both the state and party apparatus are now staffed by people who share Gorbachev’s activist policies.

The Soviets over the years have introduced several words to Western vocabularies, from intelligentsia and sputnik to apparatchik and politburo. During the past year a new one was added: glasnost, or openness. In a major domestic initiative, Gorbachev tried to let some light shine in on his country’s press, arts and politics. Formerly untouchable subjects such as prostitution in tourist hotels and drug addiction were suddenly reported candidly and fully. In December, TASS, the state-run news agency, took the unprecedented step of carrying reports about violent, antigovernment demonstrations in the southern republic of Kazakhstan.

In the arts, long-suppressed films started coming off shelves and books out of desk drawers. The Chopping Block, a new novel by Chingiz Aitmatov, features drugs as its theme and a former seminarian as its hero. Anatoli Rybakov’s forthcoming novel The Children of the Arbat deals with Stalinist terror. This new freedom, said Poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, has developed into a “pre-Renaissance” of the arts.

The glasnost policy opened prison doors too. In an apparent attempt to patch up the Soviet Union’s poor human rights record, Gorbachev allowed such prominent dissidents as Anatoli Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov to leave the country. And just before Christmas the leading lights of the dissident movement, Andrei Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner, were permitted to return to Moscow from internal exile in Gorky.

Gorbachev’s glasnost, though, was put to the test in April, when the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl, a then little-known town north of Kiev. At first the Soviet leader abandoned his open style. He dropped out of sight and did not comment publicly on the disaster for 18 days. When he finally reappeared, Gorbachev denounced the West for producing a “mountain of lies” about the accident. But soon glasnost was back; officials and the press began providing information on the accident to a degree unprecedented for Soviet journalism. Criticism diminished, and near the end of the year the radioactive wreck of the Chernobyl reactor was finally sealed in concrete.

But while Gorbachev has captured attention abroad and sparked expectations at home, he has actually achieved few of his goals. To date, his policies have been more motion than movement. Despite the Soviet Union’s rhetorical support for revolution and radical reforms, the country is very traditional, accepting change only gradually and slowly. Attempts by other Soviet leaders, notably Nikita Khrushchev, to reform the economy and give creative talents more freedom were defeated by entrenched bureaucracies and a privileged class that basically likes things the way they are. Gorbachev has made an impressive start, but it will take all his energy and willpower, and time, to press the Soviet monolith toward the third millennium.

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