Perestroika 20 Years Later: A Reflection
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, now heads Green Cross International. He spoke with Carlos Gardels and Nathan Gardels July 8 at the Gorbachev Foundation headquarters in a modern bank building on the outskirts of Moscow. In the summer of 1985, he first announced his ideas of “new thinking” and “perestroika.”
NPQ | Your policies of “perestroika” and “new thinking” on global affairs were announced 20 years ago this summer. How do you evaluate their accomplishments and failures now?
Mikhail Gorbachev | Perestroika and new thinking were attempts to respond to the global challenge of history—above all, interdependence. The momentum it generated and the changes it introduced were so fundamental that it shifted the paradigm not only of Russia but of the foundation of the global order. It affected everyone by ending the Cold War and igniting the Velvet Revolution in Eastern and Central Europe, leading in turn to a new Europe. It opened the way for globalization.
Perestroika’s greatest achievement was to awaken and liberate the mind. People were freed to think without the constraint of fear of the authorities or of nuclear war. For the first time, they had the right to choose. The effect of that is long term and not yet over.
The failed coup and the breakup of the Soviet Union put an official end to perestroika. But it had gone too far already, to the point of no return. Twenty years later, there are young people in Russia who have only known freedom. That is a big accomplishment.
In perestroika’s wake there have been setbacks due to domestic politics in Russia that have made things worse for us—such as Boris Yeltsin’s “shock therapy,” a cavalier and disastrous great leap forward to a market economy. Instead of the evolution envisioned by perestroika, this was another catastrophe in the name of revolution. My idea was that perestroika would unfold over a 30-year period. But I was accused of going too slow.
I’m not trying to justify myself. We made mistakes. For example, we waited too long to reform the Party. We waited too long to reform the union, which had become an administrative body instead of a true federation. With the growth of the intelligentsia and professional class in all the republics, they had become capable of governing themselves more fully. We should have decentralized more quickly. Not moving on these fronts made the coup possible.
There have been mistakes also on the side of the West. When I proposed perestroika for our country and new thinking for the world, it started with the following words: “We want to be properly understood.” There is still not enough understanding of Russia, even now. America and Europe should be grateful to us and respect Russia. Yet, today Russia is suspected instead of trying to rebuild its empire, of becoming a dangerous country again. That is wrong.
As perestroika unfolded, there was initially a good degree of understanding with the West—we became closer for a while. We thought “a different time has come.” But it didn’t. At some point, things began to change. I’m not only blaming the Americans because we made our mistakes, too, in Chechnya, for example. But Americans have treated us without proper respect. Russia is a serious partner. We are a country with a tremendous history, with diplomatic experience. It is an educated country that has contributed much to science.
The Soviet Union used to be not just an adversary but also a partner of the West. There was some balance in that system. Even though the United States and Europe signed a charter for a new Europe, the Charter of Paris, to demonstrate that a new world was possible, that charter was ignored and political gains were pursued to take advantage of the vacuum. The struggle for spheres of influence—contrary to the new thinking we propounded—was resumed by the US. The first result was the crisis in Yugoslavia in which NATO was brought in to gain advantage over Russia.
We were ready to build a new security architecture for Europe. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact, NATO forgot all its promises. It became more of a political than a military organization. NATO decided it would be an organization that intervenes anywhere on “humanitarian grounds.” We have by now seen intervention not only in Yugoslavia, but in Iraq—intervention without any mandate or permission from the United Nations.
So much for the new thinking of 20 years ago the West so eagerly embraced when I announced it. The whole idea was that there were global interests beyond national interests—in the economy, in security and in the environment. Yet more than 15 years have been wasted since the end of the Cold War, as nations still act mainly in their own interests.
Most of all, the US has engaged in a victory complex, a superiority complex. Perhaps only now, mired down in Iraq without allies, it is just beginning to understand that the world cannot be ruled from one center and order other countries about. It needs its own perestroika to end its old way of thinking.
NPQ | To return to your point about shock therapy, would you agree that one lesson here is that there are no shortcuts in history? That you can’t suddenly leap from Soviet socialism to capitalism anymore than Lenin could leap from a peasant society to industrial communism?
Gorbachev | Absolutely. Shock therapy was Bolshevism in reverse. The West, of course, applauded Yeltsin in attempting the misadventure of this historical shortcut. Instead of being the person who destroyed communism, he was the person who ruined a huge country.
NPQ | You spoke about perestroika liberating the mind. Ironically, one of the greatest beneficiaries of Russia’s turn to freedom of thinking, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now says liberalism is destroying Russian culture. There is too much freedom, in his view. He condemns the crime, commercialism, permissiveness and sexual revolution that has engulfed Russia these days.
Gorbachev | Solzhenitsyn has made this statement: “It is Gorbachev’s glasnost that has ruined everything.” Well, without glasnost he would still be living in exile in Vermont chopping wood.
Look, I greatly value Solzhenitsyn’s contribution to the liberation that came to Russia. There is no doubt that he had the courage, for example in “Gulag Archipelago” to speak about things during the Cold War that others would not dare mention. Historically, his place is large.
But when I think back to the way he returned to Russia—he looked upon himself as a prophet returning in triumph. He was hoping that he would be able, at this new stage in history, to give expression to the people. But he was out of step.
Of course, many things he is saying are just and right—for example, about the shameful gap between the rich and poor in Russia. He is right to condemn the oligarchs as well as the return to power of the army of bureaucrats, many of whom are the same ones who ran the Soviet Union. He is right to condemn the bribery and the plunder of the nation’s wealth. He is right to say that the main goal of policy today ought to be to preserve Russian culture and build Russia, not enrich a few and tear down the nation.
But Russia’s problems are not caused by democracy, but by the lack of it. They have happened because democratic checks and balances, democratic institutions, have not taken hold. Independent courts have not yet evolved.
Only democracy can answer the concerns Solzhenitsyn expresses, not a strong hand, as he wants. We’ve been down that road. That is a vain hope.
NPQ | From the West, it looks like Vladimir Putin is trying to restore the strong hand of centralized power Solzhenitsyn wants. Isn’t that so?
Gorbachev | I don’t think the West understands what we are facing in Russia historically—three centuries of Mongol domination, serfdom, communism. Russia is a vast country whose governance cannot be totally decentralized. You have to seek a delicate balance between decentralization and centralization to keep stability.
Under Yeltsin, we had unchecked decentralization. That didn’t create more democracy, but regional feudalism. Putin is right to have ended that arrangement and forced regional leaders to make their laws conform to national laws.
Currently, we have the prerequisites for moving ahead to complete Russia’s reforms. Putin has proposed a political program for the coming years that includes fighting poverty, promotion of small- and medium-sized business, helping move Russia’s manufacturing base toward post-industrialism.
This is the right direction for Russia. But the question remains: Who will implement those goals? Unfortunately, the current (cabinet) government and parliament are incapable of doing so. This is the problem.
Their reform of the social benefit system—monetizing in-kind benefits such as housing—was a disaster that would have put widows and veterans out on the street with only change in their pockets. To see these poor people protesting their dispossession out in the streets in the cold, in winter, was a shock to all of Russia.
Putin had to intervene to ask the government to review these ill-considered reforms. For perhaps the first time, there is now a serious debate about the future of education and health care.
For the first time, teachers, for example, are manifesting their position in a very organized fashion to try to influence legislation. This activation of civil society is new for Russia. This is exactly what we need.
NPQ | Your old Politburo colleague in perestroika and glasnost, Aleksandr Yakovlev, has said that under Putin we are seeing a “restoration of the nomenklatura” that existed in the Soviet days. Is that not right?
Gorbachev | I don’t think Putin is restoring the old nomenklatura. What is true is that people are calling for Putin to fight the bureaucracy, but, in reality, little is changing. It is not true, though, that Putin wants to restore Soviet-style power.
NPQ | Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese reformist leader who died this year, was purged after Tiananmen for, among other reasons, imparting “state secrets” to you during your visit there in June 1989, just before the crackdown. Apparently their concern was that he revealed to you the fact of the continuing power of Deng Xiaoping, who had formally retired. What did he say to you?
Gorbachev | This is a ludicrous accusation. Zhao only emphasized to me that China was working on the basis of the leadership of Deng and that it was very important to continue along the line of reform set by Deng.
There was a debate at the time within the Chinese leadership about how to end the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. We knew they were discussing the situation, but we did not interfere. We were there to talk about normalizing relations between our countries.
I did say that the Tiananmen situation should be defused politically and that I was confident a political solution would be found. I was wrong, unfortunately. For China, this remains a factor.
NPQ | A good factor or bad factor? The Chinese leadership’s view today is that Russia descended into chaos and stagnation because democratization got in the way of economic reform.
Gorbachev | It is silly to say that China’s growth is due to the lack of democracy, and this justifies the Tiananmen crackdown. China is growing because the overall course of reform as charted by Deng—openness to the outside world in trade and foreign investment—has remained steady and sustained for decades.
Despite China’s tremendous achievement, however, hundreds of millions of people still live near absolute poverty. Their environmental problems are immense. In many regions, the water table is drying up, threatening their ability to feed themselves because their agriculture depends on irrigation.
Inescapably, they still will have to address the issue of democracy and political reform. As in Russia, the high level of education of the growing professional and middle class simply demands this. Perhaps the Chinese leaders are coming to understand this. Until the last couple of years, the Chinese have not allowed my books to be published there. Now they do. That means something is happening.
All of us should help China go forward incrementally, step by step, without provoking some kind of backlash. The worst thing would be another Cultural Revolution-type disruption. They are right to be cautious. Shock therapies and cultural revolutions make any problems you have worse.
NPQ | Would the main lesson you would draw be that historical change must evolve incrementally so people can properly absorb it? Radical breaks, whether Bolshevist or otherwise, undermine change and cause a reaction?
Gorbachev | Yes, indeed. Look at what happened when the French people voted against the European constitution. It is not that the French are against a united Europe. They voted against the constitution for one reason: They became worried at the problems which multiplied in the European Union because enlargement took place so rapidly. People thought the constitution would give the ruling elites the power to make decisions on their future without consulting them.
The pace of change is always the number one problem in any reform. In our case, a pace for change was set in motion in the Soviet Union that society could not sustain.