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August 2000

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On My Country and the World
By Mikhail S. Gorbachev
George Shriver, trans.
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. 300)

Poor Forgotten Gorby:
The First Bolshevik’s Last Apologist

by Katherine A. S. Sibley

POOR MIKHAIL GORBACHEV.  While his San Francisco-based Gorbachev Foundation consults monthly with leading political scientists to diagnose the problems of the world, gone are his heady days of serving as President of the Soviet Union as it made its transition from totalitarianism to democracy. If not for the wily Boris Yeltsin, who double-crossed him by pursuing Russia’s independence in 1991, Gorbachev suggests that he and his allies would have successfully completed the transformation of the former Soviet Union into a new Union of Sovereign States, with Gorbachev, presumably, its first leader. Instead, we had the “tragedy” of the Soviet collapse. He fails to convince us here why his planned Union would have been better than the current situation, difficult as it is. Nevertheless, one feels Gorbachev’s pain, since seventy-six percent of Soviet voters supported the idea of such a union less than six months before the August 1991 coup. Unfortunately, events ran away from him, as activists on both the left (who saw his policies as heresy) and the right (who didn’t think he went far enough) denounced his plans.

Gorbachev starts his book with a conventional summary of Russian history since 1917 (the October Revolution, he tells us in pedantic italics, was “inevitable”), continues with a more compelling, if highly self-congratulatory, survey of the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction); and concludes with a mushy set of pronouncements on global problems that seem to be the gleanings of the aforementioned meetings at his Foundation.

In his historical survey, otherwise unexceptional, we are introduced to a Lenin who exercised himself over “problems of democracy,” an assertion that may surprise those who remember reading of the First Bolshevik’s summary executions. Suggestive of previous training is Gorbachev’s penchant to cite Lenin’s Collected Works chapter and verse. This gentle soul is contrasted most sharply with Stalin, whose excesses must not, we are reminded, serve as an argument that socialism is unworkable. Indeed, despite such Stalinesque excesses, Gorbachev argues, the Soviet Union offered an example for the world with its social welfare, literacy, and scientific achievements, all of which encouraged decolonization as Third World countries clamored to follow in its footsteps. Further, he declares that today, lacking the Soviet example, working people in the West do not have “confidence in the future.” Then he contradicts himself by acknowledging that the Soviet system fell, and the West survived, because the latter’s social system was superior. Such inconsistencies are typical here.

In the second section, Gorbachev heaps lots of credit on himself for introducing policies of glasnost and perestroika, as well as a foreign policy that he attributes to his “new thinking” (but which sounds a lot like good old-fashioned peace and cooperation), and also claims full responsibility for ending the Cold War. Certainly Gorbachev deserves a huge amount of credit for the pioneering steps he took to end the Cold War. Moreover, his discussion of the nationalities issue in the waning USSR is most revealing, and we should be grateful for his willingness to expose the arrogance of Soviet leaders on this issue and admit his own mistakes. Yet he is not content with this. Instead, the abortive plans for a Union of Sovereign States consume him. In this respect, he makes some rather debatable claims, declaring, for instance, that “most people regret the dissolution of the USSR.” Gorbachev insists that his Union could have worked, yet admits that the Communist militants of his day were opposed to his ideas of a post-Soviet union and supported the coup. In this jittery situation, even those more sympathetic to his ideas, like the post-Communist leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, understandably preferred national independence to a continued union-state. One has to wonder what sort of potency his Union had anyhow in its last months, unable to prevent the bloody reprisals against pro-democracy forces in Lithuania and Georgia. (Gorbachev insists that he knew nothing about these measures.)

The book’s last section is its weakest. Here, Gorbachev offers an ambitious vision for the future, “a new, genuinely peaceful world order,” nay, a “new civilization.” Unfortunately, he only provides us with vague guidelines, plowing dutifully through the problems of globalization, diversity, and democracy with vacuities like “progress itself needs to progress.” To bring about his program of international harmony, he calls for a “worldwide brain trust,” described here as “people free of any ideological or other preconceptions or prejudices” — as if such people are breathing human beings. He offers more precision in his jabs at the United States and its market system, blasting most sharply its environmental record and its foreign policy. He accuses American officials of developing “psychotropic drugs” and arrogantly claiming world leadership. The aroma of sour grapes is unmistakable.

This book suffers from Gorbachev’s annoying habit of quoting himself repeatedly and at length, often referring to himself in the third person. But perhaps what is most disappointing about this book is what is not said. What made Gorbachev grow from being the loyal party leader in Stavropol to a national leader with truly transcending initiatives in international policy? Moreover, what is his reaction to the Soviet Union’s own environmental devastation, the result of those socially progressive five-year plans? As we now know from the new book by Ken Alibek, Biohazard (2000), the Soviet Union was the only country known to have an active biological warfare program throughout Gorbachev’s tenure. (Washington discontinued its program in 1970.) His condemnation of the West’s environmental record rings hollow when his own government spent nearly $1 billion on developing deadly anthrax and other biological weapons in 1990. Perhaps, like the brutal treatment of Lithuania, Gorbachev was unaware of these programs, though it seems doubtful.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev is right on in his assertions of the authoritarian tendencies of the present Russian regime. The questionable succession between Yeltsin and Putin (which seems largely to have been aimed at protecting Yeltsin and his family from prosecution), the repressive war in Chechnya, and the recent arrest of media magnate and government critic Vladimir Gusinski all underline this trend. Daily needs are certainly less affordable for most Russians as compared to Soviet times, as Gorbachev notes. Yet overall, Russian society is also far more vibrant than it ever was under Gorbachev or his predecessors, and, despite some distasteful practices, shows signs of continued progress. The former General Secretary’s effectiveness as a critic of this process would be more effective were he less resentful of his own fate.  
Katherine A. S. Sibley specializes in Soviet-American relations and teaches at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA.  ~ Ed.
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