Understanding Mikhail Gorbachev and his legacy

September 1, 2022

Mainstream media commentary on Mikhail Gorbachev's legacy is severely wanting. Some paint Gorbachev as being an enemy of socialism, responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others say he attempted to bring about necessary reforms to the Stalinist system. And others make him out to be best friends with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Green Left spoke to Renfrey Clarke, who was Green Left's Moscow-based correspondent between 1990 and 1998, covering the Soviet Union and then the restoration of capitalism,  about Gorbachev and his legacy.

The following is an edited and abridged version of the interview transcript:

A lot of people see Gorbachev as an enemy of socialism, responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others see him as bringing necessary reform to a Stalinist system in crisis. How would you analyse Gorbachev’s legacy? Why did the Soviet system need reforming and what can we understand from this?

It's a huge topic and I'll try to draw out some of the threads.

There's no question that Gorbachev is a significant historical figure. There are not many people who could preside over the destruction of one social system and the installation of another. And that's what Gorbachev initiated at the very least.

Was he an enemy of socialism? Yes and no, it's a very complex question. You have to consider who Gorbachev was and where he came from.

He was very much a creature of the Soviet bureaucracy of the 1960s, when he began making his career in a serious way. By the 1980s, he was a well-established figure from the south of Russia. He was recognised as somebody who was very capable and energetic and there were hopes in Moscow — at the top layers of the Soviet communist party — [that]  this was perhaps the person they needed, and his perspectives were what was needed to inject some life into the system and slow its decline.

So, Gorbachev was a bureaucrat, part of the bureaucracy with many of its attitudes and its perspectives.

At the same time, as I said, he was very capable open-minded kind of figure. He was at the same time very much in contact with the Soviet intelligentsia of the period and with its attitudes. And he shared, I think, many of its illusions.

So, while he had this grounding in socialism and Marxist ideas, at the same time he had this particular flavour of Marxism, the Soviet Marxism of the time that was bureaucratic. At the same time he was closely integrated in the intelligentsia and its modes of thinking. These were people who had certain contacts with the West, who were very dissatisfied with the Soviet system, who thought it constrained their possibilities as individuals and constrained the possibilities of their society as a whole.

They had enormous illusions in capitalism. That’s another thing to remember. This was the layer that Gorbachev [was] — perhaps at arm’s length — but certainly in contact with.

There was nobody in the late 1980s who had as much admiration for the capitalist system and as much hopes for what it could do for them as the Soviet intelligentsia of this time.

So, to a certain extent that Gorbachev shared those hopes and those illusions.

These people didn't know an enormous amount about capitalism but nevertheless thought that there were opportunities and possibilities there. And others within that layer went vastly further from this. They loved capitalism, no question, more than just about anybody else in the world.

Was he an enemy of socialism? He was certainly extremely critical of the way that socialism had been practiced in the Soviet Union, particularly since the 1920s. He saw that it needed a fundamental renovation. Up to a certain point he attempted to carry out that renovation.

The ideas that he attempted to implement were in many ways rather naive.

One of the first campaigns that he launched in the late 1980s was a campaign of acceleration, for Soviet citizens to work more efficiently. There was this hope that if people had a variety of material incentives, then Soviet growth — which had been lagging disastrously since the mid-1970s — could be boosted once again.

So, you give people material incentives, give [them] the possibility of earning higher bonuses and you hope that on that basis you're going to repair the Soviet system? No.

The problems were vastly more fundamental than that.

And what his acceleration program actually created was a vast, so-called rouble overhang, huge quantities of roubles with bonuses that went into people's pockets to which no material needs, particularly consumer goods, corresponded. That was a recipe for wild inflation, which was suppressed because of the fixed-price system.

Now another problem, another program, was the anti-alcoholism program. [This was] another enormous problem of Soviet socialism that people saw and considered never dealing with.

[T]he simplistic solution [was to] make it much more difficult to get your hands on alcohol. And this was simply a disaster. But it had an effect much like … in Chicago in the 1920s that you handed this very large industry over to the mafia. And the Soviet Union certainly did have its mafia elements.

And at the same time it was revenues from taxation on alcohol that provided a lot of the revenues of the Soviet state in the 1980s. And they suppressed the sale of alcohol, the legitimate sale of alcohol and lost those revenues and created deficits to create further increasing pressures.

So a variety of basically rather cack-handed and inadequate measures that Gorbachev and the people around him settled on in the vain hope that this could repair the problems of the system. [However,] the problems of the Soviet system were far deeper than that.

The critical problem was a system of economic administration that had been introduced at the end of the 1920s under Stalin. And that in essence amounted to the abolition of the petite bourgeoisie — a class of small traders, small entrepreneurs, small service providers. And this was to be taken over by the state.

The trouble is that planning activities at that level by the state is something which is damned near impossible. The number of planning decisions that you need to make becomes astronomical. The situation is that these planning decisions are simply not made, and that people are forced to improvise, of course to try to get around the plan. The plan loses much of its validity and force and potential as a result.

What is necessary at that stage was the retention of that layer of small traders to provide any small services and petty goods. At the same time the commanding heights of the economy would be kept under the planning system and were run rationally under general state control. And this remarkably obtuse system of meticulous, detailed micro-planning remained right up to the 1980s, when its potential had been absolutely exhausted and it was a tremendous drag on the economy. This needed to be dismantled.

One of the ideas that Gorbachev floated — and other intellectuals in the Soviet Union were pushing quite hard on — was [to] return to some of the structures of the New Economic Policy period of the 1920s, which was a mixed economy in which state control over the main elements of the economy (the “commanding heights”) is combined with giving a certain reign to private entrepreneurs at the lower economic level.

That idea was tossed around. There were attempts to implement it but again not very inspired and certainly not effective.

My own opinion is by that stage in the late 1980s, the whole thing was too far gone. The demoralisation within Soviet society as a whole was far too great.

Officials at all levels regarded the system with utter cynicism. Their perspectives were to try to get around it, to subvert it, to try to look after themselves and their friends not giving a damn for the help of society or for the mass of working people.

This was something that needed to be turned around. Gorbachev — with his basic allegiance to the Soviet Communist Party and his colleagues — wasn't the person to do this. It needed in many ways a much more radical perspective that rested on the working people and their own political initiatives. But the possibility of that by this stage, I think, was out of reach. The population as a whole shared in the pessimism and cynicism of the bureaucracy.

Mainstream commentary has emphasised this question of the Soviet economic crisis, which was undoubtedly true. But there's a hidden implication that the capitalist system is superior. Can you comment on that in relation to the practical experiences of the capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union and in eastern Europe?

Well, to be quite brief, the effects of attempting to install capitalism in a mechanical way in this society were absolutely disastrous.

By 1998, when I was still in Russia, gross domestic product, that is the size of the economy, [was] barely half of what it had been in the last full year of the Soviet system in 1990. Capitalism hadn’t worked in the Soviet Union and capitalism hadn’t worked in the newly restored Russian state after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It had been totally inappropriate for the structures which were there in the Soviet Union and the result was an entirely predictable disaster.

Now, how did this come about? What were some of its main traits? Now, remember that the Soviet Union was a society, an economy which was designed to be planned. Its economy was totally unlike the capitalist economies of the west. Industries were highly monopolised. So, the model of production was to build a great big factory that had as many as possible of the inputs and energies under the same roof to expedite planning and expedite management. So ,you had numerous monopolies, at least local.

[With] the end of price controls, what did those monopolies do? They raised prices in order to increase their profits, as they were now able to do. So, we had this tremendous boost to inflation added to the rouble overhanging pressures that already existed.

Who were the people who ran these industries? They were all members of the Communist Party. But they weren't exactly Bolsheviks. These were industrial managers who had a fine taste for their own power, who enjoyed it and enjoyed exercising it.

Their normal way of operating was to refer to the plan up to a certain point. But to actually get things done you had to go around the plan, which was inadequate, which couldn't possibly make all the decisions that you needed. You had to deal with your mates in allied industries, your suppliers and the customers and all sorts of corrupt under the table activities went on.

You had the possibility for those industrial managers to look after themselves to a remarkable degree. They were given the power under Gorbachev, from about 1986, to set up cooperatives. It was possible to set up their own little private enterprise. So, these industrial managers did that on a big scale.

They found ways of siphoning off money from the enterprises that they managed into the cooperatives that they owned. On that basis they made themselves petite — and eventually not-so-petite — capitalists on the basis of state resources. So you had these large hoards of money in the hands of these industrial magnates.

Other people who were putting money together were the mafia. We had corrupt hoards, we had criminal hoards as well, so that we had the makings of a capitalist class. But it wasn't the kind of capitalist class that the Soviet intelligentsia had looked towards or that commentators from the West had imagined would come into being in the Soviet Union.

It was a capitalist class that had a tradition in these bureaucratic, semi-criminal ways of operating (of the old industrial managers) and it rested heavily, shared the attitudes and practices of the emerging mafia bourgeoisie. And a worse kind of situation [for] the creation of a capitalist society could hardly be imagined.

There absolutely wasn't a capitalist society of any variety in the Soviet Union, it functioned in fundamentally different ways. It didn't have the institutions of a capitalist society, it didn't have a western-style banking system, it didn't have any apparatus — the legal apparatus, the labour laws the commercial laws that regulate interactions between capitalists in the West. That didn't exist. The Soviet Union had no need for it.

When you have decided that right, now we will be capitalists, you don't have that legal apparatus. What you have is a kind of mayhem in which very large and very ruthless people rule. And again, a recipe for disaster and that was pretty much what unfolded.

They lost half their GDP in the course of the 1990s. The Soviet economy — the great superpower, now Russia — finished up at the stage when the size of Russian GDP in 1998 was somewhere between that of Belgium and the Netherlands.

What are the popular attitudes today and in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union for the previous Soviet times?

Well, I suppose this goes through various stages. In the 1990s, when I was there, people still remembered the misery they’d endured in the final years of the Soviet Union. I can look back to the way that I lived as a publishing worker in Moscow in 1990, working for a joint venture, and I remember the supermarket at the bottom of my apartment block. Once — earlier on in the 1970s — it had been reasonably full. By this stage — in 1990 — it was virtually empty.

I remember going down there and noting what was on sale. There was mineral water, there was salt, there was what the Russians called sea cabbage, which is in fact sea weed from the far east. I rather liked it and it was extremely nutritious but the Russians despised the idea of eating something like seaweed. And the other thing that was on sale in this whole supermarket was squid tentacles, which is what you fed to cats. And if you can imagine the way that people responded to living on that level you can sense the disillusionment and the anger.

Now, I mean there's more to this story because things were still being produced. It's just that they were going out the back door where the supermarket staff [sold] them for hugely inflated prices to their mates. And this is how people lived, they had arrangements like this. But the system was in utter chaos and collapse.

In the 1990s, people looked back on that and they weren’t perhaps quite so nostalgic even though their continuing situation was worse than that in the Soviet Union, because the social provisions that had survived in the Soviet Union were now being dismantled.

Over the decades since, in my experience, the horrors of the 1990s have faded to an extent in popular consciousness and people tend to have a rosey-tinged view of the old Soviet Union: Life wasn't so bad, you had guaranteed healthcare, guaranteed education, you had the state provided housing. If you just like a cozy little apartment and a job, where you didn't have to work very hard, and nobody hassled you very much and [there was] plenty of ice hockey on television and life wasn't so bad.

That's what people tend to remember now, at least the older generation.

The younger generation was born less than 30 years ago. They don't have recollections of the old Soviet Union, except insofar as older people tell them that well “things were good, things were stable, things were predictable”, that kind of attitude. So, there’s a genuine nostalgia for the Soviet Union, in many ways given that the situation now is not good.

[Today], living standards are not high. The amount of money around in today's Russia is about one-fifth of that in Australia. The system of social provisions has largely collapsed, pensions are inadequate, [the] healthcare [system] is in great decline and largely subject to spontaneous privatisation. So the hassles of everyday life in Russia are pretty savage.

And the prospects for things getting better are not great, because growth rates in the last few years have been very low. People accept capitalism, they're used to capitalism now, they hate what they have at the moment, and there is this nostalgia when things were different according to the haze of memory. Those are today's popular attitudes as I see them.

Gorbachev is known for his efforts to limit and even reverse nuclear proliferation. Can you please comment on this? Also, to what extent was the Soviet Union responsible for the threat of nuclear war in the 1970s and 80s and what lessons can we learn about that for today?

Well, the process of defusing the nuclear time bomb dates from the 1970s with the [Soviet] Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty with the United States. That limited the number and capacity of strategic ballistic missiles.

The other treaty — which Gorbachev is largely responsible for — is the Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which was finally signed in 1987. This restricted the number of weapons with a range of between 500–5000 kilometres. These are some of the most dangerous, because it was very difficult to protect yourself against missiles that would be there within a few minutes. And Gorbachev really pushed very hard to do away with these missiles, to do away with the nuclear capacity and in general to reduce the level of nuclear threat. That's one of his main accomplishments for which he’ll be remembered — the fact that we all survived.

Yes, he is one of the great figures of nuclear de-proliferation.

The limitation treaty, now essentially forgotten, the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty very deliberately, consciously dismantled by [former US President Donald] Trump in 2017 … which is something that angered and very deeply disillusioned the Russian population and the Russian leadership.

There had been these illusions, these tremendous illusions in the Russian intelligentsia in the 1990s that they could make themselves capitalist and be accepted by the wider world and that they would be upwardly-mobile professionals living well, living like in Sweden. It wasn't so.

But, those were the illusions in the 1990s.

By the time of Trump and the dissolution of the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty, a lot of people were realising that well, the capitalists in the West are not benign, they are not aligned on our side and if they are going to do away with this treaty, doesn't this mean that they're going to attack us?

And that's substantially the case, capitalism is not benign. It didn’t regard the Soviet Union as a partner to be embraced or to be given a share in the wealth, but has a totally different attitude towards Russia and its role in today’s world.

A number of commentators have sought to draw comparisons and contrasts between Gorbachev and the current Russian President [Vladimir] Putin saying that Putin is trying to restore a grander Russian empire. Can you please comment on this?

Gorbachev and Putin were profoundly different figures.

Gorbachev was, in my opinion, a much more intelligent person than Putin. He was far more open-minded, vastly more flexible. While Gorbachev was a would-be reformer within the apparatus and someone who wanted, at least initially, to maintain some of the social conquests of the Soviet Union, back from the days of the Russian Revolution.

But then, as things changed, under the pressure of events, as things fell apart, he decided that he'd rather switch than fight.

Putin is somebody very different. Putin is a cop. Putin was a member of the foreign intelligence service and was stationed a long time in East Berlin. He had those very narrow, bureaucratic, authoritarian perspectives of the Soviet KGB.

[When] he came to power; he was very mindful of just how far reduced Russia had been in global terms. It had been reduced to the status of a dependent, semi-developed power. And that was something that grated on him intensely and beyond him.

Putin’s base was primarily the intelligence services of which he had been part. More broadly, it was the so-called power ministries in Russia: intelligence, the security service, the military, the militia, the police force. These power ministries are organs of coercion that enforce this ramshackle capitalist system that had grown up in Russia.

And those were Putin's perspectives ... He was religious, he discovered Jesus in his new life. He had these very reactionary ideas about Russian destiny these semi-mystical ideas about the Russian world, that the country encompassed places like Belarus and Ukraine and even to some extent other places where there are large numbers of Russians.

Did this mean that he had this ambition to reincorporate these other bits of the world near Russia into a new Russian empire? The evidence actually doesn't bear out this idea. One thing about Putin is that he is intensely hard-headed, and he has a very good grasp of his interests and what the interests of the Russian state are, and that doesn’t include war with nearby states, let alone with NATO. That's something that they resist.

Now, it's often, there's a lot of talk, particularly in the commentaries going on about the war in Ukraine at the moment about Russian imperialism. Russian imperialism disappeared with the fall of the old Tsarist Empire. That was an old, feudal, mercantile imperialism that has no place in today’s world.

The imperialism of our own day is very much a modern capitalist imperialism and Russia is not a modern capitalist country. It's a relatively poor capitalist country with a strikingly undeveloped and undiversified economy. It's not imperialist power. It's in the same category with countries like Mexico and Brazil, South Africa, India — the top tier of developing countries. It is not in a position to challenge the real imperialists, the countries of North America and Western Europe.

So, is this a new perspective of Putin, of today's Russian state, to restore the so-called Soviet empire with other countries in the region coming under the Russian umbrella? No, because as I said, these people are hard-headed, they realise their possibilities. Russian foreign policy anyways has been very cautious, very restrained. If you look at the number of wars — foreign wars — that Russia has fought since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there was just a handful. Until the invasion of Ukraine, these were very minor, border skirmishes disputes with Moldova, the Transnistria region, the war in South Ossetia, which used to be part of Georgia and became a state. These were of the order of police actions on the Russian border.

In the case of Georgia, in circumstances where the Russians were intensely afraid that Georgia was going to enter into NATO and become a real threat to it right on its border, transmitting the military power of Western countries [that] were by no means benign towards Russia.

We’re not really talking about the kind of imperialism, the kind of empire-thinking that we find in the case of countries: like Britain, you know, capable of waging war on the opposite side of the world in the Falklands; of the United States with very close to a thousand military bases around the world and waging wars in the Middle East; even Australia, with its expeditionary forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing like that in the case of Russia.

This is not an imperialist country. It has very strict limitations on its foreign policy. They understand that their possibilities are very limited. And they're extremely reluctant to venture into any such thing. They'll do it only under intense pressure, particularly the pressure of NATO expansion, which is something that they're very worried by. Because, if you think about it, the Russians have had this long experience over centuries of being invaded by forces coming from the West.

Now, the idea of NATO expansion into Ukraine is something that the Russians are extremely toey about. They're not an imperialist power. They don't share that imperialist caste of mind. Their economic structures are not imperialist. They're not compelled by a surplus of capital that's not making sufficient profits within their own borders to try to expand economically abroad. They’re totally different.

Russia has vast natural resources. They lack capital in order to invest there to develop what could be very profitable exports of minerals, of energy and so forth. So, those who see attempts by Putin to restore the Russian Empire have it all wrong.

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