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Reading Between the Lines

5 minute read
John Kohan/Moscow

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV IS NOT THE KIND OF statesman who could ever quietly fade away into history. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. may have left the former Soviet President without a job or a country, but he has continued to speak his mind with the same confident authority he had in the past, and he travels abroad now with the honor and respect due a ruling leader. Gorbachev has done nothing to disabuse admirers of the impression that his political career is far from over. During a visit this month to Tokyo, he speculated about a possible comeback, drawing an analogy to French President Charles de Gaulle, who resigned in 1946 out of impatience with party political maneuvering, to return in 1958 at the age of 68. “I am only 61,” quipped Gorbachev. “That means there is a chance.”

Given Gorbachev’s hectic “retirement” schedule, it is amazing that he found the time and tranquillity to write about his fall from power. But historians should beware of politicians who publish their memoirs too soon. Gorbachev’s fascinating narrative makes no pretense of offering a scrupulously detailed or unbiased account of the events last year that transformed the modern world. There are no revelations here about what went on behind closed Kremlin doors. These are the passionate jottings of a man who is willing to acknowledge his mistakes but remains unreconciled to present-day realities. Gorbachev continues to believe the old Soviet republics would be better off in a new union; history, it appears, cheated him of this goal.

Gorbachev is selective in reviewing the recent past. He remains silent about one of the most puzzling episodes of his final year in office: why he abruptly abandoned radical economic reforms in the fall of 1990 and made common cause with hard-liners in the military and KGB. Some would argue that this was the pivotal moment in the decline and fall of the Soviet Empire. Gorbachev describes this period with remarkable understatement as “particularly difficult.” He will only admit that he should have “seized the moment” and invited democratic groups to join him in “some sort of round-table meetings.” He also sheds no light on the January 1991 crackdown in the Baltic republics, which seriously tarnished his image abroad as a reformer. He notes in the vaguest terms that there was “an escalation in confrontation,” and that “the threat of dictatorship was real.”

Some of Gorbachev’s assessments betray wishful thinking about what might have been. He blames the August coup attempt for making any efforts to overhaul the Communist Party and introduce a more measured program of market reforms “impossible.” The putsch certainly accelerated the breakup of the Soviet state, but it is debatable whether Gorbachev would have achieved either aim had the hard-liners not made their move. By the summer of 1991, Kremlin power was already ebbing away to republican leaders like Russia’s Boris Yeltsin; the party was clearly headed for a schism. It is also doubtful, as Gorbachev suggests, that he might have succeeded in his second attempt to form a new, looser union in the months after the putsch if the Russians had not wavered in their support. Gorbachev gives the impression that the overwhelming vote for independence in Ukraine might somehow have been reversed, and was not an insurmountable obstacle to his plan.

Gorbachev’s stormy relations with sometime enemy, sometime ally Yeltsin are woven through the narrative like a leitmotiv from the Wagnerian music he so much admires. When Gorbachev asks the Russian leader why the republican parliament will not back a new union-treaty draft, Gorbachev thinks that Yeltsin is too evasive in his answer. He criticizes the Russian President for “dissembling.” But Gorbachev cannot accuse Yeltsin of keeping him completely in the dark about the plot the Russian President and leaders from Belarus and Ukraine were hatching to bring the Soviet Union to an end. Before heading off to the fateful December summit in a forest dacha near Brest, Yeltsin pointedly warned Gorbachev of “the possibility that a union of Slavic republics might come up.” The former Soviet leader — at his own peril — dismissed the idea as “unacceptable.”

Gorbachev pledged support for the new Commonwealth of Independent States in telephone conversations with Western leaders during his final days in the Kremlin, but his words were always full of foreboding. In fact, Gorbachev casts himself in his narrative as a reluctant prophet who fears that his premonitions of chaos in the old Soviet Union are bound to come true. But what if Gorbachev is proved right? Does he present a real alternative? His arguments for what he calls a “confederative union state” sound increasingly irrelevant, as the former Soviet republics move further apart with growing speed in establishing their political and economic independence. The old union has shattered into so many splinters now that no one can put it together again — not even Gorbachev.

The former President writes with such personal conviction that he almost persuades the reader he could do the job. Gorbachev was always too demonstrative and emotional a politician to be easily packaged in television sound bites or the conventional memoir form. His wounded pride is never far below the surface — for example, when he recounts how Yeltsin refused to take part in a ceremony turning over the “nuclear button” and would not let him leave office with some shred of personal dignity. But this is not the testament of a defeated man. Whatever his personal setbacks, Gorbachev remains an optimist. Reflecting on his past ties with the KGB, he writes, “I knew that what I am able to say today, I couldn’t have said then. I had to beat them at their game.” And he did.

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