Vladimir Putin: a remake of Mikhail Gorbachev?


Mikhail Gorbachev’s 70th birthday has inspired among analysts not only the quite understandable desire to reminisce about “how it all began”, but also an impulse to comment on the current revival of interest in “the father of perestroika”. The media, which usually confines itself to today’s headlines, has clearly demonstrated this time round that post-Soviet Russia does have its own history – and quite a packed history: there were probably more colorful figures and events in the few years of perestroika than in the 20 years of Brezhnev. And as for the emotional judgments, hopes, discoveries, and disappointments of perestroika – well, there would be few periods in Russian history comparable to this fairly brief interval of time.

“Itogi” magazine titled its article on Gorbachev “The Man Who Launched the Process”. It doesn’t matter that the Soviet Union’s last general secretary only wanted to “open the floodgates slightly”, says “Itogi”. So he “tried to control democratization and measure out glasnost in small doses at first”. So he sometimes behaved like a typical party functionary of the stagnation period. But still, the most important thing was achieved: “The dam burst.” The process which was thus “launched” turned out to be uncontrollable – it couldn’t be stopped.

Quite possibly, at some point in the process of political and economic reforms, their initiator “realized to his horror that the system was unreformable.” After that, we started seeing a different Gorbachev more and more often – “Gorbachev dashing to and fro, over-sensitive, suspicious. Worst of all, indecisive.” A clear stand and determined moves were called for; but he still proffered only new compromises. “Eventually, the communist elite came to hate him; and the democrats turned away from him.”

“Itogi” examines the question of how we ought to view Gorbachev today – as a great reformer who set out to change the Soviet system, or a party functionary who only wanted to modernize it a little? Fifteen years ago, when the last general secretary uttered his famous phrase – “The process is underway!” – everyone asked: “Where is it heading?” And there is still no answer to that question, says “Itogi”. Accoring to “Itogi”, all we can do at present is paint a fairly accurate picture of the place from which this process led Russia away. All we need to do is recollect a few realities of 15 years ago.

The “Moskovskie Novosti” weekly claims it’s no easier to answer the question of “Who is Mr. Gorbachev?” than it is to answer “Who is Mr. Putin?”

According to “Moskovskie Novosti”, Gorbachev’s tragedy was that his dreams of reaching certain “high goals and ideals”, realizing “the people’s desire for freedom and progress”, ran headlong into harsh reality: it turned out that all of these were “just fine words, not expressing the interests of anyone in particular.”

Having rejected the traditional practice of relying on the party elite, Gorbachev found himself caught in the crossfire – trapped between those who opposed the reforms and those who wanted them to move ahead more quickly. Gorbachev dreamed of expressing the interests of the whole society, but he suddenly discovered that a united society no longer existed; that from now on “there were two opposing camps, and the nation’s future would be decided in the battle between them.”

Such is the fate of all moderates, says “Moskovskie Novosti”; they live on illusions and the impression that “people are ready to sacrifice their immediate interests for the sake of enthusiasm, a sense of patriotism, serving the nation.” Illusions like these are very costly for a society, since after the inevitable defeat of the moderates, “the radicals have to deal with all the leftover problems.”

“Novoe Vremya” magazine says: “No one in Russia today likes Gorbachev.” Well, the ladies might be the only exception – they have finally forgiven the Soviet president for what they used to criticize most strongly – his apparently “excessive” love for his wife.

In most cases, as soon as Gorbachev’s name is mentioned, it elicits “complaints – not very passionate ones, but complaints which have cooled slightly over the years, mostly because of the fresher dislike for Yeltsin.” People say: “All this started with Gorbachev! It’s his fault, he was working for the West! Big talker, traitor, coward! We were getting on fine until he came along.”

Of course, plenty of objections can be made to this; but for almost every negative memory from the Soviet past, there is another, no less negative, from recent times: “Yeltsin was no less embarrassing than Chernenko; and today’s regional leaders aren’t very different from first secretaries of regional party committees”; not to mention the fact that today’s “free elections” often mean the freedom to choose between crooks and outright bandits.

So if Gorbachev is really popular anywhere these days, it’s in the West. However, even there things aren’t quite so straightforward.

According to “Novoe Vremya”, for Western politicians Gorbachev is something like a dream that never came true, a dream of an ideal – or, more accurately, an ideally convenient – arrangement for global politics: “Everything in its place, no nuclear proliferation, the USSR still exists but it’s no longer scary, it’s still ruled by a general secretary but he’s a good guy!” There would have been no need to deal with Russian organized crime, outbreaks of nationalism, armed conflicts, and so much more. Therefore, “Novoe Vremya” concludes that Gorbymania in the West today is only “nostalgia for the irretrievably lost simplicity of a bipolar world”; or, in other words, “a form of distaste for Russia”.

The West “digested Gorbachev’s advantages fairly rapidly”. However, the Western world turned out to be completely unprepared for a global revision of all its policies. At least, one thing that hasn’t disappeared is the drive toward NATO expansion, in order to “put up barricades against Russia, which is unreformed and unreformable” – just in case.

Gorbachev himself was no saint, says “Novoe Vremya”. His dedication to reform wasn’t based on a thirst for freedom, or a “longing for democracy”; it was based on plain simple envy – a Soviet functionary’s envy of Western living standards.

Nevertheless, “Novoe Vremya” is prepared to forgive Gorbachev for his incomprehension of his own actions, and his ignorance of economics, and for occasionally behaving like a communist boss from the provinces.

“Even so, he was the fairest flower that was capable of blooming from the rotting compost of the communist elite. He had some good intentions at heart. The happiest five years of our lives are associated with his name.”

But some verdicts on Gorbachev are a good deal more harsh.

Not without irony, the “Novye Izvestia” newspaper notes that judging by the foreword to his book “The Years of Difficult Decisions”, Gorbachev seriously considers himself to be a person who “presided over one of the 20th century’s major upheavals”, “taking on the burden of transforming a great and complex nation.” “Novye Izvestia” comments: “Alas, he appears to be confusing a party title (the official ‘leader’ of all the Soviet people) with the mission of a Reformer who really does lead and direct the process of reforms.”

According to “Novye Izvestia”, Gorbachev didn’t shoulder any weighty responsibilities at all: “He wasn’t in charge of the democratic reform process. He was in charge of a party-driven government system, under which (from the early 1980s) the command economy began to break down, and the first shoots of democratic consciousness and democratic organizations began to appear.”

In the major dichotomy of the time – “the party elite versus the people” – Gorbachev wasn’t on the side of the people. Of course, this view of things might seem strange if one accepts Gorbachev’s image of himself, and his repeated assertions that his ideal is “a society of free individuals” and all his actions have been based on “the interests of the individual, and democracy throughout.”

“Novye Izvestia” even allows for the possibility that Gorbachev sincerely believes all he says and writes. But reality was quite different.

“Novye Izvestia” points out that it was Gorbachev who defended until the last moment the notorious Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party ultimate authority. It was Gorbachev who spoke out against demands for “ideological pluralism”, agreeing only to “pluralism within the bounds of Marxism and Leninism” (“Novye Izvestia” notes sarcastically that Stalin himself wouldn’t have objected to such pluralism). Gorbachev didn’t even risk an open, universal presidential election; he became head of state following a Congress of People’s Deputies.

On the whole, says “Novye Izvestia”, Gorbachev was a true “son of the party elite”, and a loyal defender of its interests. Moreover, he fully shared the party elite’s confidence that making any changes was its own prerogative.

This was the reason why “the Utopia of perestroika” failed: it was because of blind faith in “all-powerful directives from the top”, in a strong regime capable of achieving anything, even a transition to democracy via authoritarian methods.

It’s hard to resist a comparison with present-day Russia. “Novye Izvestia” classifies as utopian the belief that “the leader’s strong rule” – and the state power hierarchy based on it – form the foundation for a strong state.

“True enough, without a strong state power hierarchy, it is impossible to stop the highly dangerous process of fragmentation in Russian society, the fraying of the social fabric. But a strong, effective hierarchy can only exist if it is supported by horizontal links – the structures and institutions of a civil society. Without a strong horizontal framework, there can be no strong state power hierarchy.”

And that’s the real lesson to be drawn from “Gorbachev’s reform failures”, according to “Novye Izvestia”. The article is titled “The Utopia of the Party Elite”.

The arguments used in the “Novye Izvestia” article are directly addressed by Leonid Zhukhovitsky, writing in the “Vek” weekly.

Yes, says Zhukhovitsky, Gorbachev was a party functionary – but not an ordinary one. He was a genius. “Having climbed every rung on the ladder of rank – from a common soldier to commander-in-chief – he understood the mafia-like system of power better than anyone. He knew the covert links, the vulnerable points. Gorbachev did the impossible – he beat the system at its own game.”

Zhukhovitsky admits that Gorbachev’s failures will inevitably be discussed, and he has answers ready for all accusations against the “father of perestroika”. Did Gorbachev rely on the wrong people? “Who else was there for him to rely on in the mid-1980s, or even in the late 1980s? Political observers from the national newspapers, and young TV anchors?”

It shouldn’t be forgotten, says Zhukhovitsky, that Gorbachev had two bodies at his disposal in order to carry out democratic reforms: the Communist Party and the KGB. He notes acidly: “It’s futile to ask which of these was more progressive – they were both progressive to the same extent.”

Zhukhovitsky goes on to address the common complaint that Gorbachev clung to a “Communist Party vocabulary”, so irritating for “clever people who were true supporters of democratic change”. Indeed, endless avowals of loyalty to the path of socialism, and endless ritual references to the classics of Marxism and Leninism, couldn’t fail to irritate. “My deepest sympathy to those clever and democratic people,” says Zhukhovitsky, “but another point seems much more relevant: all those evasively liberal phrases soothed the party elite.” In other words, says Zhukhovitsky, Gorbachev’s style was a deliberate move – it served the purpose of camouflage.

(And here is another link to the present day: some supporters of President Putin – at least during his first months in office – claimed that he was only trying to conform to popular expectations of a “strong hand” capable of restoring order in Russia; but in his heart, the new head of state was a keen liberal and a true believer in reforms. Their opponents feared that all the new regime’s declarations that reforms would continue were just a smokescreen, an attempt to divert public attention during a forced transition to a police state.)

Zhukhovitsky then turns to the criticism of Gorbachev for trying to keep Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution in place: “The world’s wisest party had a very strange general secretary – he battled for the party’s privileges with great determination, but for some reason he lost every battle. He lost to the democratic forces, which at the time could have been suppressed with a single Politburo directive. How poorly Gorbachev defended the Communist Party’s monopoly on power! Apparently he could handle everything apart from this…”

Zhukhovitsky quotes Gorbachev’s famous statement: “I’ll never reveal the whole story.” Indeed, asks Zhukhovitsky, what can Gorbachev really say to his critics? “If he says he wanted moderate reforms, but got a different outcome, then he can be written off as a short-sighted provincial functionary. If he says he deliberately led a totalitatian system to its downfall, then from the viewpoint of Communist Party functionaries he’s a traitor.” All he can do is keep silent.

The “Argumenty i Fakty” weekly quotes Grigorii Yavlinsky on Gorbachev: “He did one small thing for the reforms. He arrived at the conclusion that people should not be executed or imprisoned for what they think or say. Moreover, they should be permitted to say anything they wish. And that was enough to launch the process.”

As a result, the “initiator” of the reform process found himself “trapped between two political forces – the new-wave politicians he had brought into being, and the party elite he came from.”

Gorbachev’s approval rating went through all the stages common for Russian political leaders: the people adored him, they grew disillusioned with him, they hated him. But in the end, says “Argumenty i Fakty”, the nation forgave Gorbachev for everything: “The Russian people are easily appeased, and compassionate. When Gorbachev’s wife Raisa died, millions mourned with him. Ten years after he stepped down, the approval rating of the Soviet Union’s first and last president is slowly but steadily growing.”

Recently, there have even been rumors that the former leader might soon return to politics, “to help the present master of the Kremlin avoid errors”. Some say Gorbachev could be an adviser to Putin. True, Gorbachev himself denies these rumors: “I’m not needed in the Kremlin. A president needs his own team. Of course, those of us who are experienced and authoritative politicians may be capable of helping in some way. But no official appointments are necessary for that.” (From Gorbachev’s interview with “Komsomolskaya Pravda”.) Nevertheless, “Argumenty i Fakty” is sure that “Gorbachev is making a come-back”.

“Literaturnaya Gazeta” has compiled an interesting collection of replies from various political figures to the question: “What will people say of Gorbachev in 2031?” As expected, the fiercest responses came from nationalists.

Alexander Prokhanov, chief editor of the nationalist newspaper “Zavtra”, describes Gorbachev as an “ill-starred and demonized” figure. He says that the legend of Gorbachev the villain has been firmly established. “Like the legends about Grishka Otrepiev or Mazepa, this legend won’t go away. It’s part of our nation’s history now, and by 2031 it will be set in stone. Once Gorbachev is no longer a living personality, this legend will become ever more tragic and frightening.”

Dmitrii Rogozin, leader of the Congress of Russian Communities, replies along the same lines: “Mikhail Gorbachev headed a state with a population at 250 million and rising. This state had its problems, but it functioned, and its GDP was growing. Gorbachev left it split into feudal kingdoms, amidst the fire and bloodshed of civil conflicts.”

As for democracy, glasnost, and civil liberties, Rogozin says these are “the objective result of scientific progress and the development of communications technology. And the people take primary credit for that.”

Rogozin is sure that all positive changes in Russian society were achieved despite Gorbachev’s efforts, not because of them. It is interesting to compare his views with those of noted writer Tatyana Tolstaya (quoted in “Moskovskii Komsomolets”).

“Gorbachev was driven out, ridiculed, blamed for all the misfortunes, tragedies, disasters great and small that took place during his time in power,” says Tolstaya. However, she believes that Gorbachev has been vastly underestimated as a Great Reformer (“Novoe Vremya” magazine calls him “Martin Luther from the Stavropol territory”); the public is extremely unfair to Gorbachev, even by Russian standards. “Yes, there was corruption under Gorbachev; and after him it came into full flower. Yes, poverty was a problem under Gorbachev; and after him some people actually began starving to death…” Tolstaya notes that no one considered Gorbachev particularly honest, just, or noble: “But after his departure, the nation was flooded with an unimaginable level of dishonor, corruption, outright theft, and lies.”

Tolstaya believes that no one has managed to come up with the definitive statement on Gorbachev: “The Gorbachev phenomenon remains unexplained; and everything I’ve read on the subject seems like varying descriptions of an angel given by a biologist, a psychologist, a lawyer, an anthropologist, a statistician, etc.”

All the determined efforts to find the source of the Gorbachev phenomenon, based on ordinary cause-and-effect reasoning, are doomed to failure: “According to all the usual laws of nature, Gorbachev should never have existed. But he did exist. And he still exists.”

However, debates about “Gorbachev’s errors” refuse to die down.

Moreover, as “Itogi” magazine notes, all the accusations levelled at Gorbachev – “he avoided making the fundamental decisions which require a leader to show political will, he tried to tell everyone whatever they wanted to hear from the president, he engaged in demagoguery” – are also being directed at Putin.

When Gorbachev launched his reforms, he believed that the system was reformable. There was no talk of smashing the system, as Boris Yeltsin subsequently did. “Itogi” points out that the present regime isn’t striving to continue Yeltsin’s reforms so much as restore what has been destroyed over the past decade.

“Just like Gorbachev, Putin has no clear plan of action, and has only a vague idea of the ultimate goal of the changes he is making. Putin instinctively turns to the models of managing and organizing the state which he understands because they have been familiar to him all his life.” This gives the impression that Putin pictures the “state power hierarchy”, which he started building as soon as he took office, as being in the image and likeness of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The regime is devoting all its efforts to ensuring that this “remake” is successful. Internal competition in politics has been practically eliminated: “What is presented as the consolidation of society is actually the rejection by all political forces of a democratic struggle for power, and a transition to covert intrigues, battles for access to the president’s ear.”

But times have changed, and these days it’s not that easy to force state officials into implicit obedience. There are many examples – one of the latest is the story of Evgenii Nazdratenko, which reveals the state’s present helplessness, even “with the FSB and the prosecutor’s office”; the president was forced to phone a recalcitrant regional leader personally, to bargain with him rather than threaten him.

Politicians are also confidently saying that the state isn’t what it used to be, and does not inspire the same level of fear. Among them are some who supported Putin at the start of his presidency.

Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces, was asked in his interview with “Komsomolskaya Pravda” what he thought of the president: “Unlike his predecessor, Putin is a rather cautious person. He has a completely different personality. Yeltsin was a real Russian tsar. Whether his decisions were good or bad, he did make them. But Putin asks various people for advice. As I see it, he sometimes asks advice too much. Some among the Moscow political elite think Putin is afraid of making decisions. He’s a novice president.”

As noted above, that same Moscow political elite also used to accuse Gorbachev of being indecisive, even cowardly. According to the media, the difference between Gorbachev and Putin could lie in the fact that Gorbachev really didn’t have to take much action; once launched, the “process” continued of its own accord, based on general enthusiasm.

Now the situation has changed – the people have a different attitude to the government, and even to themselves. Yevgenii Yasin, the “grandfather of Russia’s economic reforms”, who is now head of the Expert Institute, was interviewed by the “Vecherniaia Moskva” newspaper. He said: “The biggest problem in Russia today is trust. The government doesn’t trust the people, and the people don’t trust the government. Even if Putin or Kasianov do have high approval ratings, I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on that. In their hearts, the people expect no good from the government. And the government expects no good from the people – it expects that they’ll steal and conceal. The business sector has a similar atmosphere.”

From this point of view, Mikhail Gorbachev really was on another planet – he firmly believed in the good intentions of all participants in the “process”, from his own people to Western politicians. Maybe that’s why some can’t forgive him for what he did, and others can’t forget him.

And in this sense, it’s most unlikely that the Putin era will turn out to be a “remake” of the Gorbachev era.