Gorbachev's New Look at Soviet History:
Insightful and Naive

  • Gorbachev: On My Country and the World, by Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Translated from Russian by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Hardcover. 300 pages.

Reviewed by Basil Dmytryshyn

Just how and why did the Soviet Union collapse? Was the demise of this once-mighty empire inevitable? In this important book, the last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985-1991), and the last President of the USSR (1989-1991), offers answers to these questions and provides valuable insights on the 70-year Soviet experiment, including its origins and collapse, an assessment of his tenure as the last Soviet leader, and reflections on current global issues.

On My Country and the World is organized into three parts. In the first, entitled "The October Revolution: Its Sense and Significance," Gorbachev takes a close look at Soviet history. He states "absolutely and definitively" that "the October Revolution [which brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power] was historically inevitable" (p. 3). This is patently untrue; demonstrably only death and taxes are inevitable!

Having made this assertion, Gorbachev then seems to contradict himself, correctly noting that, in the years before the outbreak of the First World War (1914), Imperial Russia experienced rapid economic growth, including enormous railroad construction, and broad social, political and cultural development, including great expansion in education and the cooperative movement, along with the emergence of political parties and labor unions, the rise of an independent judiciary, and a silver age in music, literature, and art -- in short, profound changes that had a generally positive impact on every aspect of Russian life.

Gorbachev is right in noting that Russia's disastrous involvement in the First World War, which resulted in millions of casualties, enormous suffering and dire shortages of basic needs, triggered the popular February 1917 revolution that ended the ancient Romanov dynasty. He is, however, dead wrong in stating that the short-lived Provisional Government was "helpless, cowardly, and self-seeking" (p. 6). Here he repeats the standard Soviet version of history, and ignores Lenin's obstructionist tactics during that chaotic period, as well as the putsch-like character of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Instead Gorbachev praises Lenin's promises of peace, land, bread, national self-determination, and workers' control of factories -- none of which ever materialized.

Gorbachev contends that Lenin tried but failed to introduce "Communist principles" in Russia, and blames Stalin for the failure. This assertion is totally wrong. It was Lenin, not Stalin, who created this first totalitarian system of the 20th century. Lenin outlawed all opposition political parties; abolished freedom of the press and assembly; declared anyone who opposed him an enemy of the people; established concentration camps; reneged on his promises to give land to the peasants and self-determination to non-Russian nationalities; imposed secrecy and iron discipline on all party members; introduced purges; and established the Communist Party's monopoly control of all communications media. Stalin's "contribution" to Leninism was physical brutality on a mass scale.

Stalin, Gorbachev writes, was a "cunning, crafty, cruel, and merciless individual, and a morbid suspiciousness was an innate part of his character" (p. 16). While this characterization is correct, Gorbachev fails to note that Stalin -- as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1924 to 1953 (and thus Gorbachev's predecessor) -- faithfully carried out all of Lenin's policies.

These included the rapid industrialization of the country (which Lenin had proposed in 1922), an enormous, coerced program that, Gorbachev claims, transformed backward Russia into a leading industrial power "comparable to the advanced countries of the world" (Gorbachev's italics, p. 26). This is not true. On the eve of the First World War, Imperial Russia was fifth in world coal production; second in oil; fifth in pig iron and steel; fourth in the cotton industry; second in railroad mileage; and first in sugar beet cultivation and refining. In short, Russia was already a major industrial and economic power before the 1917 Revolution.

Gorbachev is correct in saying that the Soviet people paid a very heavy price for the Lenin-Stalin program of accelerated industrialization, which according to official propaganda was designed to overtake and surpass the West. And even after the Stalin era, the people continued to pay heavily. As Gorbachev quite rightly notes, the "overtake and surpass" policy ruined the peasantry, destroyed the competent and the industrious, profligately wasted the country's natural resources, and was enforced by brutal terror. It was carried out largely without modern science and technology (contacts with foreign scientists was prohibited), and relied heavily on prison labor and a vast state apparatus of corrupt bureaucrats who were masters of serving and surviving. "Collectivization and the Gulag together destroyed the human potential of our nation," writes Gorbachev, "and they strengthened the dictatorial regime."

Yet even after acknowledging all this, Gorbachev goes on cite what he calls "astonishingly great achievements" (p. 28) of the Soviet era, which, he says, included guaranteed employment, free education, public health service, inexpensive housing and transportation, and accomplishments in the theater, arts, film and sports. Having visited many foreign countries, Gorbachev acknowledges that "the standard of living in the Soviet Union remained significantly lower than in most developed countries" (p. 29). This reviewer would like to interject that, except for its military might and space program, by the standards of industrialized countries, and even many developing ones, Gorbachev's Soviet Union (like the current Russian Federation) was backward in many, many ways.

Gorbachev attributes this congenital backwardness to the paralyzing constraints of the Stalinist apparatus (which, as already mentioned, was actually initiated by Lenin). Gorbachev praises Khrushchev's "de-Stalinization" effort (1954-64), viewing it as a forerunner of his own 1980s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Unfortunately, but inevitably, these efforts were doomed to failure because both Gorbachev and Khrushchev remained loyal to Leninism, and each fell victim to an intra-party coup.

After each coup, Gorbachev observes correctly, the nation fell back more deeply into stagnation, corruption, demoralization, and disenchantment. It was this legacy, it seems, that induced Gorbachev to turn to the works of such early critics of Lenin's experiment as Karl Kautsky, Otto Bauer, and Friedrich Adler, all of whom he quotes. Apparently under the influence of such critics, Gorbachev was converted to western European Social Democratic ideas that emphasized freedom and decency. Gorbachev does not, however, reveal exactly when and how he became a convert to these concepts.

Also in Part One, Gorbachev discusses Soviet ideological distrust of the capitalist world, Soviet efforts (open and secret) to overthrow it, and the building of an enormous military and industrial complex designed to expand Soviet power in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Gorbachev takes due credit for ending the Cold War by introducing perestroika and glasnost in foreign policy, a broad initiative that, he claims, benefited everybody. As he notes, his new policy encountered strong opposition from threatened members of the privileged Soviet hierarchy (or nomenklatura), as well as skepticism from Western leaders. All the same, Gorbachev believes, his new vision undermined the foundations of the totalitarian system at home, and of the Soviet-Western confrontation abroad.

In Part Two of this book, "The Union Could Have Been Preserved," Gorbachev details his own role in the dramatic events that culminated in the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991. He maintains that "no one foresaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union" (p. 83). That is really not correct. At least a few academic observers in the West saw this, but their foresight was largely ignored. The popular media and the political-scholarly establishment -- impressed by Soviet military might and Soviet propaganda -- took no interest in trying to understand the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet system, above all the powerful ethnic-national tensions that ultimately destroyed the USSR -- the same forces that have brought down other multi-national empires.

Gorbachev tried to maintain the multi-national USSR, but reorganized on a voluntary basis. What he failed to appreciate is the deeply entrenched resentment based on the fact that the country's many non-Russian nationalities (who made up nearly half the total population) had been forcibly brought under Moscow's control by military might, both Tsarist and Soviet.

The first serious outbreak of popular hostility to Russian rule, Gorbachev contends, was at a March-April 1986 confrontation between Russian and Yakut students in north-east Siberia. (He fails to mention that earlier there had been many suppressed anti-Russian demonstrations that had erupted in various parts of the USSR.) In the wake of that incident, he continues, ethnic hostility erupted in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania and other non-Russian regions. As Gorbachev correctly notes, many of these demonstrations were directed not just against Russians, but against other ethnic groups as well. Alarmed at the spreading ethnic strife, Gorbachev reports, the Soviet leadership debated various possible solutions at numerous Politburo meetings.

Realizing that these powerful forces could tear apart the country, Gorbachev and his associates drafted a new union treaty to replace the one that had established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922-24. Gorbachev was committed to preserving the USSR in some form, and accordingly he details here his efforts to that end, including a nationwide referendum on March 17, 1991, in which every Soviet citizen was to answer the question: "Do you consider it necessary to preserve the USSR as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign states-republics in which the rights and freedoms of persons of all nationalities will be fully guaranteed?" (p. 118). As Gorbachev notes, 76 percent voted their approval.

Just before the new federation was to come into being, though, everything was derailed by a dramatic coup staged on August 19, 1991, by "hard line" members of the top nomenklatura echelon (including his own vice president and several other close colleagues whom he himself had appointed), as well as by the actions of his principal rival, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation within the USSR. Gorbachev devotes several pages to the failed three-day coup that squandered the last remnants of Communist Party authority and prestige, and which, along with the decision by Russia, Ukraine and other republics to opt for independence, finally sealed the fate of the USSR.

Still believing that the USSR could have been preserved, and that its breakup was a tragedy for everyone, Gorbachev is very critical of the decision by Russian president Yeltsin and the leaders of other Soviet republics to discard the USSR. In support of this view, he quotes at length from transcripts of Politburo debates. While revealing, these high-level debates ignored the prevailing popular mood of the time. Gorbachev's promises in 1991 to establish a new federation on a just and equitable basis were widely equated with the broken promises made by Lenin and his successors about the original USSR. Consciously or not, events affirmed the truth of Lincoln's familiar adage that one can fool some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Because Moscow's leaders had so abjectly failed to live up to their past promises, most people opted for national independence to manage (or mismanage) for themselves.

Gorbachev is very critical of the December 8, 1991, meeting at which the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus publicly rejected the USSR and agreed on independence for their respective countries. When the leaders of other union republics joined them in establishing a loose "Commonwealth of Independent States" to replace the USSR, the Soviet Union passed into historical oblivion. Gorbachev acknowledged the new reality in a nationally televised address on December 25, 1991, in which he announced his resignation as president of the USSR. With the formal termination of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle banner that had once inspired both dread and pride was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. The next day the Russian tricolor flag was hoisted in its place.

In Part Three, "The New Thinking: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," Gorbachev reflects on international and global issues. As he notes, when he assumed power in 1985, the Soviet Union was embroiled in a bitter and costly war in Afghanistan, relations with China were strained, and the USSR was mired in the protracted "Cold War" rivalry with the West. The country was devoting a whopping 25 to 30 percent of its GNP to military spending -- five to six times more than that of the NATO countries. These factors, Gorbachev writes, forced him to adopt his radical "new thinking" initiative to sharply reduce military rivalry and international tension, and thereby to end the "Cold War."

He credits leading Russian and Western scientists, as well as the leaders of the United States, Britain, West Germany, Japan, India and China, for supporting him in his daring campaign. Not surprisingly, he notes, his bold new approach met with considerable opposition at home and suspicion abroad. But this did not dissuade him from his goal. He cites Einstein's comment that in a nuclear war there can be no winners. His realization that "nuclear war is irrational; it makes no sense" (p. 191), sets him apart from such men as Stalin and Mao Zedong.

With some justifiable pride, Gorbachev cites specific achievements of his dramatic foreign policy initiatives. These include the December 1987 US-Soviet treaty on the elimination and destruction of medium and short-range missiles, the July 1991 treaty that substantially reduced strategic offensive weapons, the November 1990 treaty on reducing conventional weapons in Europe, as well as a series of bilateral agreements on wide-ranging cooperation with France, Italy, Spain, West Germany, and the European Union. Gorbachev also notes the impact of his new policies in East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. As he correctly points out, one of the most important results was the unification of Germany in 1990.

In the remaining pages of Part Three, Gorbachev offers some perspectives on the challenges for Russia and humanity in the "post-confrontational" world. On this eve of a new century, his assessment of the present and future is pessimistic, notably because "individual countries have not only made no effort to counter disorganizing developments but have often displayed impotence or indifference in the face of dangerous chaotic processes" (p. 215).

On this point is he absolutely correct. With few exceptions, today's political leaders formulate their nation's policies not on a realistic and far-sighted assessment of national interests, but rather according to fickle public opinion about current events, as measured in media-orchestrated polls. The resulting confusion, he believes, has undermined essential principles, including freedom of choice, recognition of pluralism, rejection of brute force as an instrument of world politics, and, more generally, patience and tolerance.

"It is alarming today," writes Gorbachev at another point, "to see that the world, which had begun to move away from confrontation and toward unity, is once again being pushed onto a dangerous path... The responsibilities of those involved in international politics increase with each passing day. A new and higher quality of world politics is required."

Gorbachev also deplores the current moral degradation of the individual and of society, the decline of spiritual values, and the spread of terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking -- all of which, he says, have created a breeding ground for the criminalization of politics. He expresses concern about the impact of the information revolution on the world economy, the globalization of finance and banking; the spread of trans-national corporations; environmental problems; and the challenge of burgeoning population growth.

As Gorbachev correctly notes, "the peoples of the world are seeking self-identity and independence" (p. 232) in determining their own futures. At the same time (and in typical Soviet style), he blames many of the Third World's current problems on western colonialism. He is also silent about Imperial Russian and Soviet expansion and subjugation in the Baltic region, Ukraine, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus. (Incidentally, he offers no explanation for the Kremlin's current genocidal war in Chechnya, a region that was forcibly brought under Russian rule in the mid-19th century.)

Concerned about the threat of a nuclear catastrophe, Gorbachev believes that the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France should reduce their nuclear arsenals, stop testing nuclear weapons, terminate arms exports, and bolster the United Nations as a potent international peace keeping force.

Gorbachev is highly critical of US foreign policy in recent years, including ever more vocal United States claims to world "leadership." In this regard, he cites the war unleashed in 1999 against Yugoslavia (Serbia) by the US-dominated NATO military alliance, and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, a move that, he maintains, will promote European division, not unity. Writes Gorbachev: the United States, "which plays a commanding role in NATO, is willing not only to disregard the norms of international law but also to impose on the world its own agenda in international relations and, in fact, to be guided in world relations only by its own 'national interests,' taking the United Nations into account only if UN decisions and actions serve US interests." As a possible antidote to this, Gorbachev proposes that "the rights and powers of the UN General Assembly may need to be revised" (p. 228).

As this book further attests, Gorbachev's rise to the top of the Soviet hierarchy is more than remarkable; it is, to borrow Churchill's well-known expression, "a mystery inside an enigma." Just how was it possible for this Communist heretic to conceal his non-conformist attitudes as he climbed ever higher in the Soviet power structure? How did the Communist Party's strict surveillance apparatus fail to identify this heretic of Leninism-Stalinism? Gorbachev provides no answers to this mystery.

In spite of this reviewer's often critical remarks about Gorbachev's views, and even his treatment of historical facts, this book by the man who once held the highest position of power in the Soviet Union, and who presided over its demise, is an important document. Because it contains many valuable revelations and suggestions, it deserves to be read carefully, especially by those in authority.

About the Author

Basil Dmytryshyn, Professor Emeritus of History, was born in Poland. He holds a Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley (1955). For years he taught history at Portland State University. He is the author or editor of several books, including USSR: A Concise History, and of numerous articles published in various scholarly journals.

From The Journal of Historical Review, March–April 2000 (Vol. 19, No. 2), pages 65 f.