01 September 2022

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev

Dozhd TV on the death of Gorbachev (screenshot from source).

A thread on imprisoned Russian politician Alexey Navalny's Twitter feed yesterday:

1/6 Prison radio reported the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. It was under his rule that the last political prisoners were released in the USSR.

2/6 The fact that today people like me find out about his death through loudspeakers in their prison cells perfectly characterizes the transformation of my country initiated by this outstanding man

3/6 My attitude toward Gorbachev evolved from savage irritation - he was standing in the way of the "radical democrats" I adored - to sad respect.

4/6 When it turned out that those "radical democrats" were mostly thieves and hypocrites, Gorbachev remained one of the very few who did not use power and opportunities for personal gain and enrichment.

5/6 He stepped down peacefully and voluntarily, respecting the will of his constituents. This alone is a great feat by the standards of the former USSR.

6/6 I am sure that his life and history, which were pivotal to the events of the late XX century, will be evaluated far more favorably by posterity than by contemporaries.

My deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

Sputnik (March 1986).

Before Gorbachev, my assumption about the permanence of the Soviet system was summed up perfectly by the title of Alexei Yurchak's excellent book Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Ever since Brezhnev and Kosygin pushed out the lively Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 (I heard about that during a drama class in grade school!) and "stagnation" descended on the USSR, it really did seem like "everything was forever."

The death of Brezhnev brought Andropov to power, giving Kremlin-watchers like me a bit of fascination: would the former KGB head turn out to be a game-changer? Then Andropov died, and a safe, elderly placeholder, Konstantin Chernenko, was slotted in. But he, too, died, and this time the Politburo approved Andropov's ally Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party, thus the functional head of the USSR.

In those years I was a subscriber to Sputnik, a sort of Soviet-style Reader's Digest. Words like "acceleration," "openness" and "restructuring" began to appear in the magazine, signs that (as I later understood) reflected Gorbachev's belief that the Soviet Union's economy was unsustainable with the nation's then-current management culture and centralized control.

The March 1986 issue of Sputnik contained a special supplement, an essay by Gorbachev on another topic entirely, presented with a kind of vigor that gave me hope. That topic was nuclear disarmament.

The Soviet press had often published formulaic denunciations of war and nuclear weapons, typically including swipes at NATO, the Pentagon, and the wealthy industrialists supplying them. Gorbachev's article was a closely-reasoned essay divided into seven sections, urging the USSR, the USA, and the world to end the threat of nuclear warfare, step by step, by the end of the century.

The Twentieth Century gave humanity the gift of atomic energy. But this great victory of the intellect can become the weapon by which we destroy ourselves.

Can this contradiction be resolved? We are convinced that it can. To find an effective path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons is feasible, if we take up this task without putting it off any longer.

The Soviet Union proposes the implementation, starting with the year 1986, of a program that will liberate humanity from the terror of nuclear catastrophe. And the fact that the United Nations designated this year as the International Year of Peace, serves as an additional political and moral stimulus. This demands approaches that go beyond national egoism, tactical calculations, quarrels and disputes, all of which mean practically nothing in comparison with preserving the principal value: peace, a future we can rely on.

It seems that, on some level, both Gorbachev and Reagan shared this dream, but many in their respective governments did not. Part of Gorbachev's reason for his peace initiative was to divert military spending into civilian purposes, but with Reagan resisting cuts to his "star wars" defense program, Gorbachev saw no possibility of reducing the USSR's strategic position.

In any case, it wasn't the practicality of Gorbachev's proposals that impressed me, it was the combination of idealism and intellectual force, a different tone from the cliches and the often snide defensiveness of past Soviet rhetoric. 

It was only a short time later that the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe challenged Gorbachev to make good on his principle of openness. After several days of the usual dodges, the Soviet press began giving more accurate coverage of the accident's scale and danger.

Sakharov's apartment with the fateful telephone.
On December 25, 1986, dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, in exile in the city of Gorky, was visited unexpectedly by technicians who installed a phone and told him to expect a call the next day. Gorbachev himself called, informing Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner that their exile had ended and they were free to return to Moscow.

When this news reached us, we knew we were dealing with something very new. Gorbachev's ideals would, in the end, complicate his life immensely, as Sakharov and his supporters publicly pushed for more radical implementation of those very ideals than Gorbachev was ready or able to deliver. And the gradual end of censorship under Gorbachev amplified the ever-increasing levels of criticism from all sides that came to a head with the attempted coup of August 1991. The coup failed, but its aftermath spelled the end of the Soviet Union, and of Gorbachev's leadership.

This was certainly not the first time that a figure unleashed historical forces that he or she could not control. It's less usual for such a figure to be as elementally decent and, ultimately, loyal to principle above self-preservation, as Gorbachev turned out to be. I believe Navalny is right; Gorbachev will get a more charitable assessment by future historians than he enjoys now.

(Dare I expect this could be true even in Russia?)

Obituaries and commentaries on Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman in Politico; Jonathan Steele in The Guardian; Thomas Rowley in openDemocracy. Meduza's Gorbachev photo albumMichael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs:

Despite his self-confidence, his intellectual brilliance, and his dignified bearing, Gorbachev had no idea what he was doing. In the name of preserving a form of Leninism that had little purchase on the actual functioning of the Soviet Union, he undertook a series of actions that quickly spun out of control. After granting individuals and groups greater freedom for the sake of saving the Soviet Union, he had to watch as they employed this freedom to undermine the Soviet Union. He did not understand the motivations of the people he ruled. He did not understand their nationalism. He did not understand their cynicism. He did not understand the role that coercion played in keeping the Soviet Union afloat, and he was thus naive about what would happen when that coercion was diminished through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the buzzwords of his tenure.

Saying goodbye to Bernie Bosnjak (1945-2021), pastor at Hillsboro Friends Church for twenty years: a conversation with Kendra Purcell.

Meetings for worship under the care of Friends World Committee, to pray for peace in Ukraine, are held every Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, 1:30 p.m. in London. There's more information on the Web site of FWCC European and Middle East Section.

The things that Freddie King used to do....

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