What If Gorbachev Had Won 20 Years Ago? by Gaither Stewart

by Gaither Stewart
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
December 28, 2011
Rome, Italy

As a follow-up to Patrice Greanville’s article, “The Soviet Union—Environmental Degradation: Some Historical Antecedents“, I have presented here excerpts from some of my own articles written during the Gorbachev perestroika period, plus notes and reflections concerning Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Chief of State of the USSR, and his role in the history of Socialism. As an intermittent correspondent in Moscow for a West European newspaper during the Gorbachev era I covered some of the evolving crisis in Russian Communism in the late 1980s-early 1990s. From my notes of over twenty years ago I have reconstructed here the essence of my various articles on the XIX Conference of the CPSU held in Moscow in June-July of 1988.

Reviewing and re-living that conference today I have posed two questions of historical import. Did Gorbachev betray Socialism? And what would have happened in Russia and the world if he had won in the power struggle in Moscow in 1991? In my mind, the answers to both are subjective and objective in nature. If one limits one’s evaluations to Gorbachev’s role in the period from 1985 when he came to power until his formal resignation on December 25, 1991 following the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, then his program objectively resembles a last-ditch stand to save the savable in the Russian experiment in Socialism. I concluded that Gorbachev sincerely wanted to save Russian Socialism and the Soviet Union itself that, as we now know, was reeling under the effects of the arms race with the USA. Though Kremlinologists and U.S. intelligence seemed to have no clue of the impending crisis, the USSR was on the verge of economic collapse.

By 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, originally from the Stavropol region, had fought his way step by step through the tough Soviet hierarchy to the top of a by then static system torn by corruption and heavy bureaucracy, and a nation marked by nascent bankruptcy and a near total separation between rulers and the ruled, comparable to the gap between the rich 1 % and the other 99% in the USA and Europe today. The right man in the right place or not, Gorbachev made it to the top at the precise time Russia’s great Communist experiment was beginning to crack at the seams under the weight of an untenable arms race which enriched the arms industry in the West while it impoverished the masses of the USSR.

Gorbachev felt that it was his personal mission to save Soviet Communism by a thorough restructuring of Soviet society (perestroika), maintaining the one-party system but separating the Communist Party from the government, a fundamental change to be accompanied by radical reforms aimed at bolstering the national economy. In his attempt he was opposed by conservatives from within the system for going too fast in his reformism and by liberals for going too slowly and not far enough.

I had occasion to observe Gorbachev in action at the June 1988 CPSU Party Conference in Moscow where he launched reforms to reduce party control over the government and encourage a new work ethic. A brilliant, hypnotic, passionate and powerful speaker he carried the day. In word and action Gorbachev showed that his initial and enduring hope was to save Russian Socialism from its enemies as well as from itself.

After some hesitation I overcame my vacillation and found some of my rough article drafts on that conference, which I have abridged here in a look backwards to the Moscow conference beginning on June 28, 1988.

(Moscow) General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev opened this morning the XIX All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the CPSU, with a riveting three and one-half hour speech before 5000 elected party delegates from all parts of the USSR gathered in the Kremlin’s great conference hall. In his opening speech Gorbachev hammered home his message of renewal, of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency), a second revolution he called it, launched in a Central Committee meeting in 1985 when he set the Party’s course toward the renovation of a stagnant Soviet society. In his marathon speech the Soviet leader referred frequently to the post-1985 period as” a new epoch”, defining his course of renewal as irreversible. “Soviet society is now more aware of its past, present and future …. The winds of change are improving the moral health of our people,” he said repeatedly.

I have witnessed the changes in the capital of the Soviet Union in the three years since Gorbachev came to power. This appears as another country from the dark, cold and somber one I knew earlier. As Gorbachev says, times are changing. Glasnost has changed radically the atmosphere. Around the city you hear the words “Moscow spring” and “Socialism with a human face”. Still, today, (1988) over seventy years since the 1917 great October Russian Revolution barren shelves in the shops testify to the need for change. As do the lines in the huge GUM department store on Red Square or the degrading communal apartments or the blue gaseous atmosphere stemming from the environmental disaster in the periphery.

On the other hand the press is much more free than a very few years ago. For better or worse unemployment is not an issue, though pay is still low. The national healthcare system functions. Free education is the pride of the nation. The metro is fantastic, the Bolshoi Theater spectacular. Though the economy is shaky and the food shortage a burning issue, you still feel you are in a powerful land.

Mikhail Gorbachev is no political beginner. He has played his cards wisely. His timing has been perfect. His perestroika progressives called on the people over the heads of the party bureaucracy. Before the conference Gorbachev himself spoke to masses of people in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, to 150,000 people in Tallin in Estonia, to 500,000 in Erevan in Armenia.

Bedazzled by the hectic movement in the capital, delegates are hit from all sides by pressure for perestroika. They are interviewed on TV, a favorite Gorbachevian instrument in his struggle for the restructuring of Soviet society. They are quizzed and queried by the press, which in these days is filled with the message of irreversible democratization, restructuring, transparency. Today’s Pravda, Izvestiya and Sovietskaya Rossiya scream the same message of change and call on the social consciousness of the delegates.

Gorbachev opened the historic conference with the straight-forward, unambiguous words: “Comrades, the basic question facing us is how to further the revolutionary perestroika we have launched and how to make it irreversible.” After listing society’s needs, he quickly shifted delegates’ attention to what has been done: society, he affirmed, has rallied, the nation’s spiritual life has become more diverse and richer, the creative nature of scientific and humanistic Socialism is reviving in a clash with dogmatism.

After such premises, the Soviet leader’s considerations swept across the vast problems of the complex multinational Soviet society which he described as” a staggering giant.” How can we accelerate production? he asked. He listed several ways: economic incentives, rapid expansion of cooperatives for the consumer society, land-leasing and private farming to make people care about food production, a refined pricing system, the introduction of wholesaling, and savings by abandonment of the arms race. He suggested more Soviet participation in world affairs, better relations with world Socialists, and again reforms of the Soviet political system and the role of the Communist Party.

As a rule party congresses are monotonous, boring affairs. But not this one. Electricity was in the air. That current affected also the hundreds of accredited journalists. Clearly the moment was historical. Some foreign correspondents based in Moscow called the conference the most extraordinary event they had ever experienced. Subjects unspeakable only a few years earlier were today presented as the program of Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as well as the official line of the CPSU.

The program enunciated from the rostrum erected in the center of the capital of world Communism included: reform of the political system, participation of Soviet citizens in the administration of the country, the development of self-regulation, the State at the service of all classes and groups of society, freedom for development of all ethnic groups, the strengthening of Socialist legality, strict demarcation between the functions of the Party and the State” with the Party as the vanguard and the Soviet State as the instrument of government”, and the broadening of human rights. According to Gorbachev “political reform is what it’s all about.”

Amidst the media screaming perestroika, glasnost and irreversibility, mammoth Moscow and bustling Moscovites serve as a bewildering background surrounding and framing the delegates, the entire political action and the historical moment itself. Moscovites who intuit that the conference will change their lives seem to be waiting to see what happens.

At the same time skepticism lurks behind the doors of Moscovites, who Gorbachev accuses of doing too little for restructuring society. Like the young woman I dined with one evening who said: “I don’t believe in it. It’s all bla bla bla.”

Russians are skeptical of any real political change. Their attitude is: I don’t expect anything but I will gladly accept anything they give me.

It has often been said that it is impossible to galvanize the Russians. Perhaps the reason is that so few real Russian leaders have emerged since the times of Lenin and Stalin. In any case, today, in the summer of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev seems to be the right man in the right place.

When early this year of 1988 Gorbachev called for democratic elections of the delegates to today’s Moscow Party conference, the powerful Party apparatus responded with the same old method of naming the delegates as it has always done. The clash between the old and the new promised that this conference would be a head-on battle between conservatives and the Gorbachevian young guard, a do-or- die battle for perestroika and glasnost, as well as for Gorbachev’s political survival.

His position depends on his ability to produce results for the masses in the form of more food in the shops, for the food shortage today is the most painful point for reformists, a political, social and moral issue. Reports describe a countryside in ruins, and agricultural production low. Again I heard the old complaint that out in Uzbekistan people are sitting in the sunshine and eating tomatoes while Moscovites scramble to get a green tomato as they are unloaded from a truck from who knows where.

The televised conference debate in the days following Gorbachev’s speech reflects widely varying opinions, something new in itself, about how to reshape Soviet society. The two main questions are: how to strengthen this Second Revolution and how to overcome resistance to it. These are the criteria for the evaluation of each speaker: Is the speaker for perestroika or dragging his feet in resistance? In Gorbachev’s conference, which this is, the latter are frequently hooted out by ironic applause. In these Moscow days it is not easy for dogmatism to raise its head. For the basic goal of the conference is to clear the road for meaningful economic reform and real democratization by giving effective power to the Soviets in the original Leninist sense.

Gorbachev spokesmen underline that the Soviet Union stood at a precipice before Gorbachev’s Party reversed the direction. An ideological change has occurred in peoples’ minds, they claim. “Now we must change the system,” they say. One Gorbachevite warned that if perestroika failed, both Soviet society and the whole world would be defrauded.

Observers like myself wonder about the division between reformists and conservatives among the 5000 elected delegates allegedly representing the country. Who is winning, one asks, the conservatives who resist the winds of change or the reformists who want to change everything? Skeptics reflect the old adage, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Gorbachev and his spokesmen continually hammer home the message that “there is no alternative to perestroika.” Most conservatives know it is true, but they try to delay it and consider transparency policies too far reaching. Conservatives within the Party structure are like conservatives in any system: they oppose changes that threaten their own interests.

On the fourth day of the conference a leading Moscow intellectual and delegate to the conference, the outspoken writer Mikhail Shatrov, told me in a brief telephone interview that this is Gorbachev’s conference. “Gorbachev has been tremendous. He is getting everything he intended, perhaps more. This conference is fundamental to prepare the path for legislation to enact political reform. Firm agreements will emerge from this meeting. Then the pertinent Party organs and Soviets throughout the country will hold democratic elections. It will all happen very fast.”

One asks who will control the local Soviets (the peoples councils)? “The Soviets will govern,” Gorbachev answers. “But the Party will be in control. Government parties govern in all countries, whether they come to power through revolution or election.”

Gorbachev is irresistible in these Moscow days. He is all emotion, passion, charisma, experience and conviction. He overwhelms supporters and opponents alike. When he speaks with his great spontaneity, hardly looking at notes, delegates sit open-mouthed, some gasping in disbelief, and bursting into spontaneous applause just to express their emotions. At such moments the Kremlin Hall recalls what I imagine was the atmosphere in St. Petersburg in 1917. Never in modern times has a Party conference been so open, so concrete. People speak as never before. Hundreds of delegates want to speak in the debate. The Central Committee even asked some foreign journalists to extend their stay for though the official 19th CPSU Conference ends today, the Party secretaries and officials will remain for the unofficial part. Gorbachev is unrelenting. He wants concrete results before sending his men home.

On this hot and humid early July weekend political Moscow is holding its breath. The expectation is that this could become another country next week.

The three years since Gorbachev was elected in 1985 have been an explosive and dynamic era. Gorbachev is a master in the use of Party conferences, which he revived. His 1986 Party conference instituted perestroika and glasnost as the cardinal policies of his Secretaryship. That conference however also marked the emergence of his clash with reactionaries and conservatives entrenched in the Party apparatus and nomenklatura. Their heavy and static bureaucracy rotted Russian Communism from within, which, in my opinion, was a fundamental cause of the collapse of the Russian Communist state.

Soviet people are meanwhile confused and afraid to commit themselves, recalling what happened to reformers like Khuschchev who fell to the reactionary Party apparatus created by Leonid Brezhnev introducing twenty years of darkness and oppression.

Gorbachev’s 1988 proposal of a presidential system and a new legislative body to be called the Congress of Peoples Deputies was subsequently enacted and elections were held throughout the USSR in 1989, the first free elections since 1917. In that same 1988 he ousted from power three old-guard Central Committee members while he became Chairman of the government’s Supreme Soviet and Chief of State.

Undeniably personal ambition and the smell of power drove Mikhail Gorbachev as every political leader of whatever color or society or nation. Gorbachev was no exception. However, and as Patrice Greanville points out concerning the Soviet Union itself, any fair evaluation of Gorbachev’s historical role must take into account the powerful anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, anti-Russia spirit of the economic-military power of the USA which in that period used the arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union. No reforms could compensate for the consequences of the enormous damage to the Soviet economy and the population loss while it was fighting the major war against Nazi Germany, a war fought also for the West. During the Gorbachev period, forty years after World War II, the West led by the USA still feared the contagious successes of the Russian Socialist experience. One recalls the years when President Ronald Reagan labeled the USSR “the empire of evil”.

Gorbachev’s revisionism and his attempts to change and reform a system gone awry since the aftermath of World War II find justification in the U.S. led capitalist attack on Russia and Russian Socialism.

In my estimation, Gorbachev, in the final analysis, attempted to play a positive historical role in the evolution of world Socialism. In the West he was both hailed for reforming the USSR and ending the Cold War. But he was also blamed by the Western Left for the ultimate demise of West European Communism. In Russia, he was denigrated by both Right and Left; by nascent capitalists for moving too slowly, by the Left for surrendering too much of the Russian experiment in Socialism.

Gorbachev’s goal in 1988 was to pressure conservatives within the CPSU who opposed his policies of economic restructuring. He hoped that through open debate and participation the Soviet people would support his reform initiatives. Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalization owed a great deal to the Czech Alexander Dubchek’s “Socialism with a human face”.

Through glasnost, a radical change including wider freedom of speech, the press became less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released. For the first time since Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s, Gorbachev’s radical Law on Cooperatives of 1988 permitted wide private ownership of businesses in services, manufacturing and foreign trade, unfortunately preparing the path for the savage capitalism after his fall from power and the dissolution of the Soviet Union..

What If Gorbachev Had Won?

This in short is what has happened in Russia since the fall of Gorbachev in 1991: the USSR was dissolved and a power vacuum ensued. Russia was a confused and directionless nation, its international position at a nadir. The hard drinking Boris Yeltsin—about whom as many anecdotes once circulated as about Italy’s ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—became President and converted Russia to capitalism. The power vacuum left many slots unoccupied. The Russian mafiya (sic), the emerging oligarchs and the USA preferred this weak, hapless and leaderless Russia. Real power, no longer political, was up for grabs. Russia’s neo-capitalism was of the most savage sort. Moscow became a jungle as mafiya gangs fought for supremacy, the winners of which then spread their criminal network world wide, especially to the United States where Brighton Beach on Long Island became Little Odessa, headquarters for winning clans. The exclusive class of oligarchs who succeeded in gaining control of major state enterprises in key sectors such as gas became super wealthy overnight and spread their network over Europe, buying real estate and soccer teams and investing black money from London to the French Riviera to the Swiss Alps. The new men of power made their money in Russia and spent it in the West. Meanwhile, America’s industrial-military complex rubbed its hands in glee as it moved quickly to occupy ex-Soviet dominated East Europe, right up to the borders of Russia, finally realizing Ronald Reagan’s dream of a missile shield along Russia’s borders and tightening its encirclement of Russia as it had desired since the Russian Revolution. New Russia’s second President and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was elected in a landslide vote in 1999 and has tightened the reins of political power. However today, after twelve years, his time as are many aspects of capitalism are running out. Putin’s popularity has fallen dramatically. Today, in polar temperatures on the eve of Christmas in the Western world, 120,000 Russians filled Boulevard Sakharov in protest against election frauds. The protesters comprised mixed age groups and social and political situations including many Communists from the Communist Party that garnered 20% of the vote in legislative elections last December 4. The slogan “Russia without Putin” says it all. “We could assault the Kremlin,” says one protest leader. “And sooner or later we will if things do not change. There’s no turning back now. This regime will collapse.” Also Gorbachev was supposed to speak to the masses. He did not because of: poor health at 80 years old and the extreme cold; instead he sent a message of encouragement and expressing his shame for having supported Putin’s rise to power.

While the Russian nation was going haywire, Gorbachev’s Socialist dream faded from the imagery of the Russian people. However, if Gorbachev had won the day, if his perestroika had won despite the economic collapse caused by the arms race, Russia today with its fabulous resources, its surplus of well educated people and the technological know-how would most likely be a prosperous Socialist society, not the Socialism Lenin had in mind, but still a lighthouse for world Socialists. On a personal level Mikhail Gorbachev was the most imaginative Soviet leader since Stalin. One might blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the communist dream. That however is to disregard the nation’s enormous losses in its defense of the West again Nazi Germany and the economic power of the USA which emerged from World War Two stronger than ever before, strong enough to cripple the Soviet economy struggling to survive. Gorbachev’s battle was that of a lifeguard trying the save a drowning swimmer. He failed in his attempt.


Gaither Stewart is a Featured Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post . His latest novel, Time of Exile, part of the Europe trilogy, will be published in 2012 by Punto Press.

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