This is the first of a three-part series on Mikhail Gorbachev and Russia by a retired Indian diplomat who had a ringside view of the Gorbachev era.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing away on 30 August has compelled observers around the world to assess his place in history. For three decades, he has cut a tragic figure, ignored and vilified, mocked and sneered at by his own people and country. The reality is far more complex, and can be appreciated only if one has an understanding of the state of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985.
I was privileged to be a witness, with a ringside view, to the Gorbachev era—first as political counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, and then as the head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991. During this time, I had occasion to meet him, study him, analyse his policies, including as the interpreter from the Indian side for the talks that Gorbachev held with Indian leaders during his visit to India in 1986. Returning to Moscow in July 1984, exactly nine years after I’d left the country at the end of my first posting to the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1975, I found that the country had not changed at all in the intervening period, except that the ailing and geriatric Leonid Brezhnev had passed away in 1982, as had his successor Yuri Andropov in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was the new leader, but he was also on his last legs. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Chernenko visited the Indian Embassy to sign the condolence book. At the request of the Soviet side, the book was kept at the entrance in the ground floor of the Indian Ambassador’s residence so that Chernenko would not have to climb the steps to the reception room on the first floor. Even then, Chernenko had to be physically hauled up the two small steps at the threshold of the Ambassador’s residence. To me, that symbolized the state of the Soviet Union in 1985, when Chernenko died and Gorbachev took over.
The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. In the local markets, fresh fruits and vegetables and decent quality meat were a rarity (I once had to barter a bottle of Scotch whisky for a leg of lamb.). Rumours of availability of basmati rice, fresh bananas or watermelons in local markets were enough to prompt people to set aside their work and rush to grab them before they vanished. Although I never had such a first-hand experience, veteran diplomats who had served in Moscow in the sixties said that it was considered acceptable behaviour for guests attending National Day celebrations organised by Embassies to pocket oranges and apples from the buffet table, since that was the only way to get them. The best memories that Soviet officials travelling to India on official trips came back with were of enjoying fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. For visitors from India, especially if they were vegetarian, a meal at an Indian home was like dining in a Michelin-star restaurant where they could actually eat fresh vegetables that used to be transported for Embassy personnel once a month at subsidized rates by Air India flights. You might have to spend a whole day wandering across town looking for a can opener, and in the process come across the strange sight of people walking with a garland of toilet paper rolls that they had managed to buy—not just for themselves, but for family and friends too. Russians always had a sturdy string bag in their overcoat pockets just in case they came across something worthwhile to buy. On seeing a queue, people instinctively joined it since it was assumed that it had to be for something worthwhile; securing a place in the queue was more urgent than finding out what was on sale. For an inexperienced foreigner, trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, what with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind. Workers in state and collective farms could not keep anything for their own consumption; everything had to be sent to a regional collection point, to which farmers had to drive in their vehicles or buses to visit towns or villages to buy milk, meat and eggs produced in their farms.
Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.
As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Factories turned out shoddy goods, which is why wary consumers always took care to check the date when an item had been manufactured, since it was a common belief that goods produced towards the end of a month were inferior quality products that were churned out in a hurry to meet the monthly production targets. Not that there was any reliability about statistics—as was later admitted, these were all cooked up. For most people, life meandered on aimlessly. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or was homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy). The three decades of Stalin’s rule had deadened Soviet society and polity, and deeply affected the psyche of the people. So secretive and tightly controlled was the system that the outside world only had an inkling of how hollow and brittle the system had become.
The system was crying out for a radical change—in fact, it had been doing so for the previous three decades after the death of Stalin, and the problems had only aggravated with time. Khrushchev did try to eradicate Stalinism. His “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 was seen as a landmark event, but Khrushchev ultimately failed to bring about any change. Kosygin (in the second half of the sixties) and Andropov (during his brief tenure between 1982 and 1984) also tried to institute economic reforms, again to no avail.
On Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU by a very narrow margin. As a young man influenced by the “thaw” created by Khrushchev in the mid-fifties, and as a protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev clearly had the conviction and the determination to reform the Soviet Union, as well as a sound assessment of the reasons for the failure of earlier reform efforts. Now, with a mandate and opportunity to change things, he was imbued with a sense of mission. There was no time to lose. As he put it, “If not now, when? If not we, who?”
Subsequent pillorying of Gorbachev as being politically naïve does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how he managed to climb up to the very top of the greasy pole of Soviet politics at such a young age. It also ignores his ruthless sidelining of opponents and his steady accumulation of power in his early years in office. Both by background and conviction, Gorbachev was cut from a different mould than his predecessors. Unlike them, he was well educated, that too at the prestigious and premier Moscow State University. In addition, in Raisa he had a spouse who was smart, educated and intellectually aware. Unlike the spouses of his predecessors and much to the annoyance of traditionalists both in the party and society, she was not content to live life in anonymity and is thought to have played an important role in shaping his policies. From his very first days in office, Gorbachev showed a decisive and vigorous style of leadership, oozing determination and confidence, impatience and urgency. He was open and accessible, mingled freely with ordinary citizens in the streets, encouraged popular criticism, and eschewed any personality cult. When one met him in person, he radiated warmth and sincerity. His initial goal was to reform socialism, not destroy it; to make the Party a more effective instrument of governance, not sideline it. Thus his slogan in the early days was merely “uskorenie” or acceleration. He called for “new thinking” for an interdependent world in the nuclear age, dreamt of the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home,” brought about a thaw in relations with China, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, gave a new dynamism to relations with India, worked for bold and courageous cuts in nuclear and conventional weapons and, in the Delhi Declaration signed with India in November 1986, breathtakingly endorsed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world. The tight grip over the East European countries was loosened, and support to Marxist regimes around the world on ideological grounds was given up. Although discerning diplomats and journalists could see the far-reaching logical and ultimate consequences of Gorbachev’s foreign policy pronouncements, no one really expected, at least in the early years of Gorbachev, that Soviet troops would be actually removed from the Warsaw Pact countries.
Rajiv Sikri is a retired Indian diplomat who has over the last five decades spent long periods living in, dealing with, and studying the Russian-speaking world.
This is the first of a three-part series on Gorbachev and Russia in the time of Gorbachev.