Monday, December 4, 2023

Gorbachev at 90: The man who awkwardly pushed humanity forward

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As a Soviet teenager growing in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in the mid-1980s, I was a happy camper. 

I was going to a new school near home, which was convenient, though I had to walk through deep mud as the road to school had not been completed. At the time there were many unfinished construction projects as the Soviet central planning system was evidently running out of money.

My family was doing well; we had a washing machine and my father was driving a Lada. With five of my schoolmates, we shared one skateboard and a tennis racket. With my small cassette player, we ran our own discotheque, although as the school DJ, I had a restriction on playing Western music. I was fortunate to be able to differentiate myself by wearing a pair of blue jeans and sneakers, unlike some of my friends whose wardrobe only featured a bulky school uniform. 

Once a week or so, my mother sent me to a local state-run grocery store. The shelves were empty, but on certain days they were selling bricks of butter. The first 20 people from a long line outside of the store could get one package each. 

Around mid-June, my family would get the first fresh vegetables. My grandmother had a big garden outside of town. She was not allowed to sell them for a profit – that would have been considered too bourgeois – but for a few months we had fresh greens and veggies on the table. 

Listening to the old Kremlin leaders speaking from the TV screen was a big part of growing up in the Soviet Union. The next day at school we were asked to repeat what they were saying. The indoctrination into this system had largely worked, as most of us happily followed that routine. But by the mid-1980s, the leaders’ speeches were growing dull and the words of the ageing heads of the country – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko – were becoming indistinguishable and confusing. 

I was 17 when, on March 10, 1985, Chernenko died. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, proposed Mikhail Gorbachev as the next General Secretary of the Communist Party. Gromyko’s recommendation carried great weight among the Communist leadership. In the one-party system, when Gorbachev had become a leader of the Communist Party, it was as if he had become the country’s president. 

The way Gorbachev started was first perplexing for many. Before him, people could be put into prison for critical public pronouncements. I mean, he still talked about the Communist leadership, but he was also ready to tackle the problems that were plaguing society. Behind those uncompleted construction projects and food shortages, Gorbachev saw some fundamental problems and criticized the leadership.

What followed was a policy that he dubbed perestroika, or ‘restructuring’. Gorbachev first used the term in 1986 while visiting a major state car production site in the Urals. This became his new economic doctrine, which allowed for more independent actions and introduced many market-like reforms. Its goal, as Gorbachev saw at the time, was not to end the command economy, but rather to make it work more efficiently by adopting elements of liberal economics.

In July 1987, Gorbachev introduced a law that allowed state enterprises to negotiate their own contracts, set their output levels based on demand, and assume some cost accountability.

His next moves were even more radical. In May 1988, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union allowed people, like my grandmother, to run their own private businesses and sell the production output at prices they saw fit.

Gorbachev speaking at a news conference after the Soviet-American summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. WIKIPEDIA

The country’s social life also picked up dramatically as Gorbachev had also introduced glasnost into the national psyche. The term was, in fact, not his. On December 5, 1965, an event known as the Glasnost Protest took place in Moscow, a moment that is considered a key event in the emergence of the Soviet civil rights movement.

During that rally, protesters on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, who were led by Soviet dissidents, demanded access to the closed trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. Having the new Communist leader adopt a term coined by dissidents as his own sent shocks throughout the system. Glasnost, or openness, quickly became his political slogan and was meant to give the Soviet people the chance to openly and publicly discuss – as there was a lot to talk about – the problems with the system, as well as the darker periods of the Soviet Union’s past.

Growing up just 30 kilometers from the Soviet Union’s western-most border, until the age of 19 I had never met a foreigner. Gorbachev’s reforms led to the partial opening of the borders. That gave me the chance to meet my first foreign friends – exchange students, businessmen investing in new joint ventures, artists that came to perform for the first time.

I could start reading Western papers and listen to foreign radio stations. From my new friends I quickly learned that owning a pair of blue jeans was not cool enough, one needed to know how to wear them as a free man. I also found out that glasnost was not equivalent to free speech, and that state enterprises always look awkward in a free market economy. It ultimately became apparent that the liberal reforms that Gorbachev introduced could not be successful in a one-party system.

Those years – 1985 to 1991 – were the final stage in the life of the Soviet Union. It was when the last Communist Party and Soviet leader – Gorbachev – tried to reform the old system.  He had made the country’s economic life more effective, widened the scope of political participation, opened up society for debate, and introduced a new way of thinking in international affairs.

Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s most prominent human rights dissident, was allowed to Moscow shortly after receiving a personal telephone call from Gorbachev who told him that he was free after almost seven years of internal exile for defying the authorities. In March 1989, Sakharov was elected to the new parliament, the newly created Congress of People’s Deputies and co-led the democratic opposition. WIKIPEDIA

Gorbachev forever changed the statist power and cultural patterns in Soviet society, but as he desperately was trying to save the old Communist system, he ultimately failed to recognize that it was rotten to the core and unreformable. Ultimately, he ended up destroying what he had hoped to improve and set me and hundreds of millions of people free. For the first time in our lives, what we did with that newly acquired freedom was entirely up to us.   

That newfound freedom that we all suddenly felt inspired the people of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia to declare their independence from Moscow. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, leading East and West Germany to reunite and end the Cold War. Citizens in Eastern European countries such as Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania staged protests and broke free. Others, like Ukraine, followed suit in declaring their independence from Kremlin rule.

The collapse of the Soviet system did, however, produce great upheavals in many Eastern European countries and the former Soviet republics. This led to increased crime rates, rampant corruption, and the rise of organized crime. Regardless, however, the powerful Soviet state was undone. It was dead.

Some thank Gorbachev for engineering that collapse and call him the most radical thinker to ever lead a major world power, while others tend to blame him for their misfortunes in the years that followed the monumental events of 1989-1991.

TIME magazine’s January 1990 cover. That year Gorbachev was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his leading role in the peace process that ended the four-decade-old Cold War. FLICKR

Now, at the age of 90 and in quarantine, as Gorbachev looks back on his six years in power and talks to reporters on Zoom, he seems to be willing to admit to the errors he made, including the fact that he went on for too long in trying to reform the Communist Party. He also admits to having been guilty of overconfidence and arrogance – not many modern politicians can do that these days. Yet, he still sounds at times as if he wished he could have reformed the Soviet system into a better kind of union. 

Asked recently about freedom, he said the process hasn’t been completed. There are some people, he said, for whom freedom is an annoyance. Whether he meant the current Russian leadership was not entirely clear. While pursuing the truth, he has not always appeared ready to follow it the whole way through.

My tribute today goes to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who at the time when it mattered the most embraced change and let many people in the world pursue it for themselves. 

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