The earlier mini-post on Gorbachev prodded me to write a post I’d been planning to do for the last several days but which kept getting put to the bottom of the file.
The post idea came from this cutting and incisive analysis by Yuri Maltsev, an economist who was on Gorbachev’s reform team until leaving for the US in 1989. Reading it reminded me of my contemporary views on Gorbachev.
I liked him a lot. Not for the same reason that sent so many in the West into gorbasms. No, I didn’t like him because he was a new, sophisticated, westernized Soviet leader whom the US could work with. I liked him because it was clear to me that he was a Sorcerer’s Apprentice whose “reform” efforts were accelerating the collapse of the USSR. It was evident that his understanding of economics was laughable, and that his attempts to tinker around the edges of the planned economy while retaining a belief in a Leninist core was the best way to exacerbate the internal contradictions (to steal a Marxist phrase) of the Soviet system. He ripped at the bailing wire and duct tape that was so prevalent in the Soviet economy, not realizing that it was all that was holding the contraption together.
It was, in short, a good thing to have a Useful Idiot on the other side–especially since he was in charge.
Maltsev goes into detail about the idiocy of the Soviet economic system, and about how Gorbachev’s economic ignorance–rooted in his firm Leninist beliefs–led him to careen from disaster to disaster. Maltsev’s description of the effects of the ban on alcohol sales is priceless, and the rest of the piece is good too.
And for those who have the impression that Gorbachev was a humane idealist, I suggest you read William Odom’s The Collapse of the Soviet Military, which makes it clear that Gorbachev was more than willing to use force to preserve the USSR, and did it in the Baltics, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Moreover, Odom shows how duplicitous Gorbachev was in his attempts to conceal his role in these actions. Odom also delves into Gorbachev’s ambiguous relationship with the plotters of the August, 1991 coup.
It is my impression from my reading and talking to Russians that the modal impression of Gorbachev in Russia is that he was a CIA plant. How very Russian. Such views are understandable, I guess, because it is quite plain that Gorbachev was indeed the author of the demise of the Soviet Union at that time: it would have died eventually, but he certainly accelerated the collapse.
But whereas Russians are disproportionately are prone to view things in conspiratorial terms, and almost always ascribe result to intent, I think Napoleon’s statement “never ascribe to malice, what can be explained by incompetence” is quite appropriately applied to Gorbachev. He didn’t intend to destroy the USSR. But his incompetent attempts to save it did just that.
Lastly, it is more than a little ironic to read Gorbachev criticize Putin’s vanity. Not because Putin isn’t vain–ha!–but because if there were ever a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this is it. But that vanity too had its salutary effects, because it encouraged him to plunge ahead on his creatively destructive course. I often wonder whether Thatcher and Reagan, who praised Gorbachev repeatedly, did so out of legitimate conviction, or because of a shrewd judgment that by doing so they were empowering and encouraging the man that would destroy their most dangerous adversary from within.