After a meeting in New York, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev pose with the World Trade Center in the background. Getty

Idealist and Idiot

Gorbachev’s legacy is partly to blame for the tyranny into which Russia has since slumped.

John Lloyd
John Lloyd
9 min read

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev tends to be somewhat worshipped in the West by those who remember him in his pomp, and there’s cause for that. But there’s quite another narrative which runs counter to the genuflections. That is, that he was a bit of an idiot. This case has been put concisely in a non-fulsome obituary by the American historian Michael Kimmage, who writes:

Gorbachev may have been a decent man. But he was a catastrophically bad statesman. Despite his self-confidence, his intellectual brilliance, and his dignified bearing, Gorbachev had no idea what he was doing. … 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.

I covered East-Central Europe and then the Soviet Union and the states into which it dissolved for the Financial Times from 1987 until 1996. As a result, I inadvertently became the paper’s Collapse of Communism Correspondent, and to be so was, like most of the other reporters from capitalist-democratic states, to be wrapped in an invisible blanket of modified Fukuyama-ism. That is, even if we weren’t confident or intellectual enough to declare history at an end, we quietly believed (it would have been gauche to speak of it openly in punishingly ironic journalistic circles) that the West’s superior economy and, most of all, its higher liberal morality had defeated Soviet communism. In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama wrote that this period was “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

What we were witnessing and hearing seemed to be proof that liberal democracy was vanquishing all before it. The most triumphal among us (though not himself a reporter of the area) was Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wanted everyone to be an American and believed that, sooner or later, this would come to pass through the benign expansion of globalisation: “The driving idea behind globalization is free-market capitalism. The more you let market forces rule and the more you open your economy to free trade and competition, the more efficient and flourishing your economy will be. Globalization means the spread of free-market capitalism to virtually every country in the world.”

Friedman was no free-market fundamentalist—to the contrary, he scorned such figures. He was someone who wanted the states of the victorious West to understand that civilisations had to be paid for in taxes, that they required good welfare and health provisions, and that attention ought to be paid to those adversely affected by the phasing out of domestic industry. In the most highly developed states, rust belts were being relocated to those countries which still had to go through this sweaty part of capitalism’s development. Friedman was in tune with—and consulted by—some of the most influential political leaders of the ’80s and ’90s, including US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both these leaders sought, and finally believed that they had found, a “third way” between socialism and capitalism.

Under rather different circumstances, so did Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a Marxist-Leninist who had actually read—and continued to read—Marx and Lenin. Not many in the Soviet Politburo could boast of that, after the compulsory dip into the communist classics during their education. When he was General Secretary of the Communist Party, and thus ruler of Soviet Union, Gorbachev piled annotated volumes of Lenin on his desk, both for his own reference and as a sign to those who came to his office that he had immersed himself in the ideology of the state’s founding father. And he discovered—partly in a certain reading of Lenin, and partly in colleagues who believed in change more fervently than even he did—the outlines of his own Third Way. This, he decided, would beat a path to Western-style plenty and openness within the Soviet Socialist Republics.

And Gorbachev was confident enough to emulate the Soviet Union’s creator in some ways and not in others. Lenin was a hard, cruel man, but when circumstances required, he was prepared to compromise on his relentless drive to create a wholly socialist society. In 1920, when the people of the nascent Soviet state were starving under the strictures of war communism, he decreed a New Economic Policy which relaxed the “struggle against the kulaks [landowning peasants]” and allowed them to grow and raise food on their own plots for the market.

However, Lenin had also called for the elimination of Russia’s Orthodox Christianity. This had meant the massacre of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns and the reduction of a once-mighty institution into a slave-church which applauded all acts of Soviet power. He never resiled from that course before his early death. Gorbachev, however, saw the imprisoning of the church as excessive in the new state he wished to construct. In 1988, he met the Patriarch, Pimen, and told him that, “Believers are Soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their conviction with dignity.”

In that statement lay an illustration of both his approach and his mindset. His words to Pimen implied that he saw the Soviet people—all 254 million-plus of them—as socialists, fully invested in the values, policies, and laws of the ruling Communist Party. Citizens like these, he concluded, were perfectly capable of combining their civic investment with a moderate dash of Orthodoxy. Like all the Soviets of his generation, he saw the remaining churches as largely patronised by aged women whose faith offered no threat to the ruling ideology. Under conditions of greater freedom, he reasoned, they were unlikely to be joined by a flood of new younger believers.

It was in this misunderstanding of his people’s yearnings that Kimmage’s observation carries most weight. The relatively liberal view Gorbachev adopted was that the problem was not the Soviet system itself (as many Westerners and scattered Russian dissidents believed), but the grim and often brutal way in which it was administered. This conviction was shared by his close advisors and by the scholars he consulted: once the masses realised they would not be punished for espousing pluralist views they had hitherto been forbidden to hold, the Soviet Union would become an altogether happier place.

Happier and therefore more productive. In the interests of precipitating this change, Gorbachev created two major programmes. The first was glasnost, a word that sometimes meant “publicity” but is commonly rendered as “openness.” The latter was its more usual meaning in Russia, particularly when associated with those who, even before communism, demanded less secrecy in government. The second programme, and the one on which the success of his rule most crucially depended, was perestroika, which literally meant “rebuild.” Perestroika aimed to free the managers of small shops and vast enterprises alike to decide their own ways of working, buying, and selling—like a New Economic Policy nearly 70 years on.

Glasnost released long-frustrated Soviet intellectuals, journalists, professors, and artists to read, watch, and listen to material long suppressed (such as the writings of Leon Trotsky, the early Bolshevik leader hounded out of the new Soviet state and then assassinated on Stalin’s orders). On TV talk shows, these newly liberated minds and voices chattered through the night and into the next day, luxuriating in their newfound freedom to exchange ideas (and, at times, insults). This delighted many, though disproportionately those with a higher education.

Perestroika was different because it pertained in the realm of material things not of culture. Furthermore, it meant people had to accustom themselves to the advent of an explicitly consumer culture. For Westerners, Soviet consumerism was a series of rebarbative encounters: shopping had long been a matter of buying what you could find, and shops were often overstaffed with young women who ignored their customers and reacted with indignation when asked for this or that commodity. But that was familiar, and when things began to loosen up, it came as a relief to foreigners.

Soon after arriving, I went to one of the new “cooperative” (essentially privately owned) restaurants with a Russian journalist whom I had met on a previous visit, and who had entertained me lavishly in the flat he shared with his wife. When the waiter, with unaccustomed courtesy, came to explain the menu options and take our orders, my acquaintance snapped that he should leave us alone until we called him. He saw the waiter as one of a new breed of profiteers, peddling food much more expensive to that available in state restaurants. To me, this establishment offered a welcome retreat from these very state institutions, where the waiters ignored clients with the same insouciance as the shop staff, and served bad food badly. And this was in Moscow, by some distance the best supplied and most cosmopolitan Soviet city (apart from Leningrad, now re-named St Petersburg). At the consumption end of things, that was how the state system worked in its dying years.

Perestroika didn’t work, except to exacerbate the decline. Corruption was by no means absent in Soviet times, but it was controlled. Now it proliferated and flourished as enterprise bosses created new “companies” and massively inflated prices on goods in high demand. The unavailability of cars, for instance, became the subject of many grim jokes, as the slow and inefficient but familiar state-controlled channels of supply and demand were undermined by those grasping for profit. Those with the money to buy one of the more highly priced sub-standard vehicles the factories produced were served relatively promptly; everyone else had to wait—sometimes forever.

In an effort to make production more efficient, Gorbachev introduced partial bans on alcohol between 1985 and 1987, raising prices and restricting its sale. This move dealt a heavy blow to the state budget, since alcohol revenues were surpassed only by those from oil. It dealt a more devastating blow still to millions of heavy Soviet drinkers. These were disproportionately male workers who felt secure enough in their employment and drank on the job until the new laws made such behaviour a prosecutable offence. The desperate search for an alternative to cheap vodka—in perfume or liquid cleaners—was fatal for many.

Gorbachev sought to inject new energy into a system that had, in Stalin’s time and even after, depended on force and fear to function with even minimal efficiency. As a result of the exigencies of the arms race, that system was now skewed to military production and heavy industry, leaving consumer industries without the managerial or intellectual talent or the material resources needed to function properly. Coercion, it turned out, was what had kept the Soviet show on the road. The big enterprise bosses were now so absorbed with making money that they were unable to make the new system work for the country rather than themselves. In the absence of state coercion, a creaking and barely workable system creaked more loudly and much less workably.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a man who, unusually for a high-ranking communist, clove to an ideal version of socialism and expected his vision to be generally shared, beyond the circle of his fellow idealists. He generally recoiled from deadly force, though it was used against demonstrators in Lithuania and Georgia, two of the Soviet states most impatient for independence. He refused to believe that nationalism in the 15 states of the Soviet Union remained a serious force. One of the bitterest passages towards the end of his period in power was his concession of independence for all states.

Most in the West saw the Soviet Union as a repressive monster of a state, and so it was. But its fragmentation would probably have been better handled by a more cold-eyed leader than Gorbachev—someone capable of limiting freedoms even as he conceded them. The power of the Communist Party needed to be retained for an indeterminate time, at least while a new generation of workers and managers was raised and rewarded by the success of their work. This might have allowed Soviet states to enjoy freedom of policy and action that stopped short of secession. It would have been an extraordinary feat. The Chinese communists have achieved some of this, developing highly efficient centres of production and greatly decreasing poverty, but only by presiding over an increasingly repressive state apparatus.

Gorbachev did usher in precious freedoms, which survived through Boris Yeltsin’s decade of chaotic marketisation and the vast enrichment of a few canny operators. But as Vladimir Putin’s rule becomes more and more despotic, the true price of a disorganised unshackling has become apparent. Tyranny, we now know, is seldom overthrown in a flash of joyous liberation. That was not how freedom was won in Western democratic states, where emancipation took centuries. And it rarely resulted from a straight line of incremental improvement; it was produced instead by a series of advances and retreats. Today, Russia has slumped into deeper subjugation, and has blundered into a more dangerous conflict than at any time since the 1930s. Gorbachev, for all of his liberality, charm, and good intentions, must be held partly responsible for that development if we are to learn from the past.

PoliticsForeign AffairsRussia

John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.