Mikhail Gorbachev: The endgame chronicler

By Chiranjib Haldar

The Pizza Hut advertisement aired in 1997 had two diners contradicting each other; economic confusion, political instability and complete chaos versus opportunity, freedom and hope. But both the dissenter and supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Union patriarch, converged on one commonality in the visual as all echoed ‘Because of him, we have many things…like Pizza Hut’. Gorbachev is just a bystander to the commercial’s drama: a verbal spat between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour sullen, middle-aged father. The celebrity promo proved two data points. Either Gorbachev was a sell-out or the sight of a man, who once commanded a superpower, hawking pizza – showed the vacuity of popular culture.
That in essence sums up Gorbachev’s legacy, a Soviet iconoclast who was also the architect of the dissolution of the socialist republic. Some say he was a flawed reformer on an impossible mission. But most laud his extraordinary vision as he ushered in glasnost and perestroika, unheard of in authoritarian regimes. Despite being at the helm of affairs, he had the gumption to assert that change was mandatory and at that very moment even if it meant sacrificing his personal triumph. When leaders outlive their countries, they carry a burden. According to his biographer, William Taubman, Gorbachev reciprocated his successor Boris Yeltsin’s hatred and told a scribe ‘When they hang me, make sure they don’t hang Yeltsin from the same birch tree’. Taubman terms the relationship as a Shakesperean conflict; ‘Gorbachev played a role in creating Yeltsin as his nemesis and then Yeltsin paid him back in spades.’
Eulogised by western powers but reviled at home, Mikhail Gorbachev had to live with this dichotomy throughout his life. Many Russians who fall back on Soviet nostalgia, have always blamed him for destroying a bloc and bolstering nationalists who successfully liberated the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and elsewhere. Gorbachev shared an esoteric relationship with President Vladimir Putin. While he criticised Putin’s decision to contest for a third stint, calling his policies ‘an obstacle to progress’, Putin termed the downfall of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. This falls in line with the Kremlin spokesperson’s harsh tribute to Gorbachev as ‘a historic statesman but too romantic about the West.’
Did Gorbachev actually liberate millions by default is a question that will continue to haunt future historians. For behind the trademark Port wine stain on his forehead, here was a leader ahead of his time, one whose cautionary tale has drawn varying conclusions from a majority of his own countrymen who have denigrated him over the years. Glasnost and Perestroika, the twin flagship ideals so dear to his socialist reform momentum were never akin to western liberal democracy. But somewhere down the line, the mental silos of a generation felt the unshackling of chains and an end to sclerotic thinking. His seminal thought process moved at breakneck speed after the fall of the iron curtain, a premonition even Gorbachev never had.
1991 was a tumultuous year both for New Delhi and Moscow. When India was on the cusp of change and liberalisation was about to take off, Gorbachev was placed under house arrest in an attempted coup by the hardliners that fell abruptly with the President reasserting control. Yet, Gorbachev never tried to curtail the forces he had unleashed even at the cost of vicious opposition by the Communist gerontocrats. Soon after Ukraine’s independence referendum in December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, paving the way for Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. Many commentators say it is ironic that reforms championed by Gorbachev hardly survive in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today as the modern tsarist state marches towards consolidation.
Though Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi hailed Gorbachev as a crusader of peace, the Indian Left parties blamed his reformist policies for obliterating communism to trashbins in various parts of the world. In its 14th Party Congress in 1992, the CPI(M) underlined grave concerns about ‘the ant-socialist trends that started emerging through glasnost and perestroika’. In a tough resolution, dogmatic Marxist stalwarts at the congress had noted that ‘Capitalist prescriptions were being doled out as solutions to socialism’s problems by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under Gorbachev’s leadership. Again in 2002, then Politburo member Sitaram Yechury had asserted ‘Gorbachev and the liquidationist leadership of the Soviet Communist Party thus emerged as the children of the illegitimate relationship between revisionism and imperialism’. For the Indian Left, Gorbachev and his policies were always anathema.
Did the Soviet Union collapse only because of Gorbachev’s policies? Economic reforms under perestroika allowed cooperative businesses and lifted restrictions on foreign trade to kickstart the sluggish Soviet economy. But these very reforms with honest intent backfired. Government spending soared with a ballooning deficit, inflation and food prices galloping. The highly subsidised agricultural sector was now a profit economy and not producing at controlled rates in the Soviet era. The first truly democratic polls in Soviet history in 1989 and the creation of a new Congress of People’s Deputies also had an undesirable aftermath. Decentralisation of power from the entrenched communist bureaucracy to local power control estranged party mandarins and deprived Gorbachev of a power elite to support his reforms. It also encouraged nationalist upsurges both inside and outside the U.S.S.R.
Perhaps, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tribute sums up the West’s infatuation with Mikhail Gorbachev as she said, ‘He exemplified how a single statesman can change the world for the better’.
In 1988, shunning the Brezhnev doctrine, he declared that each country had the right to choose its own political and economic system. The upheavals that followed in the Warsaw Pact nation even shocked Gorbachev. He had wanted to reform Communism, not to annihilate it by cataclysms. It was the hardliners who quickly grew distrustful of perestroika since it imperilled their own powerful positions and deviated away from Communist orthodoxy. The day the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet troops were cemented to their barracks, a credit which the peacemaker deserved but never claimed.
The adulation Gorbachev received in the comity of nations was often marred by despair at home. A nobel laureate who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union like ninepins after reaching a pinnacle of acclaim, Gorbachev had an instrumental role to play in a peaceful resolution to the Cold War. Two hallmarks of his era would be setting in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and his faith in the Enlightenment that dismantled a system based on apparatchiks and lies. In the Pizza Hut commercial, when all yell ‘za Gorbacheva’, the last shot shows an old lady, a babushka dressed in black, looking into a great distance. It’s a zoom out into an uncertain future and the Ukranian imbroglio has only underlined that.
(The writer is a commentator on society and politics.)

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