Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Window on Eurasia: When Gorbachev was a Dictator

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 1 – Leaders often acquire an epithet which prevents people from seeing them whole, sometimes to their advantage and sometimes not.  One recent leader of whom this has been true, Oleg Kashin says, has been Mikhail Gorbachev, whose supporters and opponents now routinely forget that there was a time when the last Soviet leader acted as a dictator.

            If one were to write about “forgotten pages of history,” the Moscow commentator says, one would have to devote at least one essay to “the bloody dictatorship of Gorbachev,” a man who has been praised or demonized for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union but who nonetheless has retained the adjective “democratizer” (svpressa.ru/society/article/91244/).

            That is certainly part of the story, Kashin says, but it is not the entire one.  And it is worth recalling what he labels Gorbachev’s “dictatorial spring” both to get a fuller picture and to open oneself to an understanding of the reality that how a leader acts and is viewed at one time can change unexpectedly and dramatically at another.

            In the fall of 1990, the commentator recalls, Gorbachev was given the Nobel Peace Prize for “ending the cold war, demolishing the Warsaw Pact and liquidating the totalitarian system in his own country.”  But by the time he went to Oslo to pick up his prize, he had sent tanks into Lithuania and introduced forces into Moscow itself to protect himself against protests.

            Most Russians now remember Eduard Shevardnadze as an unsuccessful president of Georgia, but in December 1990, he resigned from his position as Gorbachev’s foreign minister with a warning to the Congress of Peoples Deputies that a dictatorship was coming. When he tried to speak on television, the show that invited him was taken off the air.

            “Three weeks later, there were tanks in Vilnius,” Kashin recalls, and among all the consequences of that, he says, a particularly important one was “the collective demarche of the Soviet creative intelligentsia,” who until that moment had been among Gorbachev’s strongest and most enthusiastic supporters.

            Many of them, including Eldar Ryazanov, Elem Klimov, Mikhail Ulyanov, and Grigory Balanov signed an open letter published in “Moskovskiye novosti” demanding that Gorbachev resign and declaring a boycott on Soviet television.  Moreover, Aleksandr Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s key aide, resigned from the CPSU and joined Shevardnadze in creating “the anti-Gorbachev ‘Movement for Democratic Reforms.’”

            In place of these reformers in early 1991, Gorbachev’s camp gained “new allies,” including “ultra-Soviet radicals from the Supreme Soviet,” pro-Soviet movements in the Baltic countries and republics, and retired military and security officers. And Oleg Shenin, who later was imprisoned for his role in the August 1991 coup, took Yakovlev’s place as an advisor.

            By the spring of that year, “the main allies of Gorbachev had become the ideological opponents of perestroika,” people like Aleksandr Nevzorov from Leningrad television, writers around “Den,” and reactionaries in the high command. 

            “Now,” the Moscow commentator says, “no one really remembers this, but during the last several months of his rule, Gorbachev was forced to rely – in parliament, in the press, in creative circles and in the regions – precisely on the ideological opponents of the policy which he had carried out the previous five years and which secured him the place in history he occupies.”

            A Gorbachev supporter in 1991 was “an advocate of a strong hand, a supporter of a strong state, and an opponent of any democracy,” Kashin says. This strange arrangement continued until the coup in August 1991. After it, Gorbachev found himself without any support at all. Neither side trusted him, and he passed from the political stage.

            Obviously, the Moscow commentator is not talking about events of 24 years ago just to correct the historical record but rather as a way of thinking about events now. Indeed, he says that he “recalls the dictator Gorbachev when [he] looks at present-day Putin,” and he adds “we still do not know how he will enter into history.”

            The spring of 2014, Kashin suggests, which now seems to be “a turning point” in Russia’s modern history “perhaps very quickly” will be “forgotten forever, as has been forgotten that ‘dictatorial spring’ of Gorbachev.”

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