The author is the longest serving foreign correspondent covering Russia. He published his fascinating memoirs in December of 2018. They are full of insights into what has really been going on in Moscow over the past 30 years. RI wrote about it here. He is the author of 12 books, 3 of them about Russia.
“We have the right to expect,” Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union, declared to James Baker, US Secretary of State, in Washington on February 10, 1990, “that you won’t just wait until the fruit falls into your basket”.
Baker relaxed. By “right” he knew Gorbachev was holding out a begging bowl. By “expect” Baker understood Gorbachev was crossing his fingers. By “just wait” Baker marvelled that Gorbachev appeared to be deaf to his advisors and the Soviet chief of staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev. By “fruit” Gorbachev meant Russia and the Soviet Union. Of course, Baker and his colleagues and successors did more than wait, as Akhromeyev warned they would. The fruit did fall, Gorbachev first of all.
The lesson of Gorbachev’s political biography is that every Russian has the duty to expect the US Government will be doing much more than wait for Russia to fall into the American basket. Instead, to accelerate the fall and make it irreversible, the US Government wages permanent war against Russia. Failing to understand this was one of the reasons for Gorbachev’s retreat from the advance of American forces on all of Russia’s frontiers – the advance which President Vladimir Putin must defend against today.
What fresh lessons can an American historian’s study of Gorbachev add to the story which Gorbachev’s subordinates, one-time friends and former allies have already told in their own memoirs? Lessons which ordinary Russians have acknowledged for years? The lessons start with the Russian proverb President Ronald Reagan used to repeat at Gorbachev — Доверяй, но проверяй, trust but verify. This cannot be Russian policy towards the US because it’s never been American policy towards Russia. The correct expression should be: Никогда не доверяй, они мошенничают — never trust, they always cheat.
When Gorbachev was appealing to Baker, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment was that Gorbachev was so desperate and vulnerable, the Agency should intensify its regime-change operations, so it did. A few months later, the CIA made its assessment official that Gorbachev was finished; Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made finishing him off Pentagon strategy. Gorbachev’s end should be hastened, he argued, in order that the successor — Boris Yeltsin had already been selected — would break up the Soviet Union “thereby reducing the chance they could ever threaten our security again.”
In William Taubman’s book, Gorbachev, His Life and Times, the obviousness of this as American policy doesn’t dawn on Taubman until page 587; his history was 90% finished by then.
In 1990 Japan refused to provide loans to Gorbachev “until it got back the northern islands it had been forced to yield to the Soviets after World War Two.” “The capitalist threat, which Moscow had used for so long to justify one-party rule, had substantially abated”. If you know too little of the history Taubman ignores in order to accept these claims, then stop reading this essay at once and go to the library.
It isn’t worth repeating the evidence for the Russian opinion of Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, as fatally flawed characters – vain, arrogant, snobbish, deceitful, greedy, envious, obsessive — except that Taubman reveals that they managed to learn nothing from the education they vaunted over others; from their own social mobility; and from immersion in the Soviet ideology of class conflict. “Why do five to seven percent of people born in the world turn out to be capable of running their own business whereas the rest become hired hands?” Taubman quotes Gorbachev from one of his autobiographical memoirs. “It’s a question of character,” he answered himself. He repeated the line often. “We ourselves made our own fate. We ourselves became who we were.”
If you know so little economics and sociology you’re inclined to agree, then quick – it’s back to the library for you.
Gorbachev also told Taubman he had been “inspired by rereading Lenin”. Taubman didn’t know enough Lenin himself to raise an eyebrow. When he recounts the after-dinner dacha episode in March 1987, when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked Gorbachev if there was a Soviet working class, and who was in it, Taubman isn’t surprised by Gorbachev’s answer: “[working class was] largely an historical or scientific term which did not do justice to the diversity of today’s society”.
Exposed to much less of Gorbachev’s talking and thinking than Taubman, the better educated communist, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, is cited by Taubman as concluding Gorbachev was “an idiot”.
The history of such a faulty character shouldn’t obscure the continuities for Russian leadership. Gorbachev failed to acknowledge them when he was in power; he still doesn’t. But the US war for regime change in Russia is just as pressing today, so the lessons are even more urgent. Here are the Famous Five.
1. Character makes no difference. Gorbachev not only believed his character was fated to rule; he was also convinced the character of American presidents makes a difference when they negotiate with Moscow. If he could persuade Reagan or George Bush as individuals, Gorbachev told himself, that would be decisive politically. For a time Boris Yeltsin thought the same of Bill Clinton; so did Putin of Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. For learning this lesson, Gorbachev had just five years in power; Yeltsin ten; Putin has had nineteen. It can’t be said Gorbachev was the slowest learner of the three.
2. Lobbying makes no difference. Gorbachev didn’t spend state money lobbying in Washington. He believed his own charisma, amplified by the American media, would do the trick. Putin calculated that if he released the Russian oligarchs to export capital, borrow from US banks, and invest in American sports teams, steelmills, and mansions, the outcome would be favourable for Moscow. For a time too, he thought the outcome of US presidential and congressional elections might be marginally better or worse for Russian interests, depending on the candidates and the vote outcomes. So he approved Russian money for American PR, lobbyists and fellow-travellers from universities and think-tanks. This has proved to be a bigger mistake than Gorbachev’s. Putin empowered and then enriched a Russian constituency which has ended up owing more to the US than it does to Russia, and a US constituency which is impotent. Because the pro-American constituency in Moscow is a target for recruitment to the American cause for regime change, it is a threat, not an asset to Putin.
3. Words make no difference. Throughout his career Gorbachev talked too much. After he became General Secretary this got worse; distinctively so, because his Russian was full of clumsy abstractions and stumbling syntax. He repeatedly ignored the advice of his staff to be brief. The psychopathology was reinforced by his wife. Alexander Yakovlev, one of the advisors he recruited who ended up losing confidence in him, diagnosed Gorbachev’s logorrhea as “a way to escape from concrete problems into a dense, almost impenetrable thicket of words.” Putin has used his four-hour talkathons – the mid-year Direct Line and the December press conference –- to demonstrate a concreteness and approachability which Gorbachev lacked. Putin has also proved that no politician in Europe or North America can match him in capacity to memorize the details of a script. But in domestic policy the words have belied the reality. Still, Putin’s approval rating has managed to defy the scepticism and pessimism of his audience. This is partly due to the impact of US warmaking since 2014. In time of war, arms must do the talking.
4. Intelligentsia versus intelligence. Syntax wasn’t Gorbachev’s only disability; he also couldn’t count. From Gorbachev’s former staffs, former friends and legion of enemies, from meeting papers, and from interviews with Gorbachev himself, Taubman has compiled a record of the vote counts which preceded each of Gorbachev’s political advances. That is until the last five years, when he reveals that Gorbachev abandoned counting altogether. In April 1988, for example, he quotes him as saying: “We’ve got to act like revolutionaries, to set the process in motion and then we’ll see.” From later recriminations, Taubman reports that Gorbachev counted only one political constituency between 1985 and 1991 – the Russian intelligentsia of writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, journalists, and media publicists; to them Gorbachev and his wife were equally attracted on their foreign travels. By glasnost and perestroika Gorbachev believed he was empowering intelligentsia to support him. When instead the revolution of rising expectations and freedom to choose released an anarchy of choice, and a storm of criticism of his performance, Gorbachev thought he had been betrayed. He then discovered he had no other constituency in the country to fall back on. The example Gorbachev set – Yeltsin likewise – has made Putin’s political calculation easier. Gorbachev and Yeltsin believed that in politics the winner was the first one over the finish line. Putin understood the race is won if there are no other runners at the starting line. Putin’s voter support has been high and relatively stable because Russians agree there has been no alternative to him. US war against Russia has reinforced this.
5. The force multiple. Gorbachev abandoned the Army in Afghanistan at the start of 1988 without assuring US restraint of the mujahideen. Over the next two years he did the same to the Army in Germany. In parallel he negotiated nuclear arms reduction agreements on terms the US side dismissed at the staff level and prevaricated in Gorbachev’s face. He had never studied strategy or Russian military history, nor would he allow the General Staff to advise him. He ignored Akhromeyev. When the Army intervened in Baku (January 1990) and Vilnius (January 1991), inflicting casualties, Gorbachev pretended he wasn’t in charge. “You don’t know what pressure I’m under”, he confessed to Senator Edward Kennedy on March 26, 1990. “Many in our leadership want to use force right now.” Force was an instrument of power Gorbachev disclaimed, or so he kept promising the US in private. From Putin’s speech in Munich on February 10, 2007, he demonstrated he had learned the lesson of Akhromeyev’s suicide and of Gorbachev’s folly. Listen to it again.
“What is a unipolar world?” Putin asked. “However, one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation; namely, one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day, this is pernicious, not only for those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.”
If the idea had ever crossed Gorbachev’s mind that only by force can Russia be defended from the US, Taubman has composed a very long book to conceal it. But this is where we are today.
Source: Dances with Bears