Wednesday, December 2, 2009

20 Years Ago 16: Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ran the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, first as party general secretary and then as president, won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize ...

... for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community. During the last few years, dramatic changes have taken place in the relationship between East and West. Confrontation has been replaced by negotiations. Old European nation states have regained their freedom.


Nobel peace laureates are often controversial. I have not shied away from such controversies myself.

But what are we to make of Gorbachev's role in the revolutions of 1989?

His main achievement was not something he did, but rather something he didn't do.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was outlined in a speech by Soviet Communist General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in November 1968. He justified the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, which ousted a reform Communist regime:

The peoples of the socialist countries and Communist parties certainly do have and should have freedom for determining the ways of advance of their respective countries. However, none of their decisions should damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries, and the whole working class movement, which is working for socialism ... Discharging their internationalist duty toward the fraternal peoples of Czechoslovakia and defending their own socialist gains, the U.S.S.R. and the other socialist states had to act decisively and they did act against the antisocialist forces in Czechoslovakia.


Although his name is attached to it, Brezhnev did not originate that idea. His predecessor Nikita Khrushchev applied the same therapy to Hungary in 1956.

Gorbachev faced several situations in 1989 in which the Brezhnev Doctrine would have called for armed intervention. He held back, and he made it clear to all involved that he intended to continue holding back. Once the jailhouse door was opened, the prisoners did not linger inside.

So, Gorbachev's achievement was that he was not as evil as Brezhnev. Does that make him a hero?

To answer "no" to that is not to say that Gorbachev's behavior was insignificant, or that it didn't take a certain type of courage to purse that path. Perhaps we can turn around Edmund Burke's famous phrase and say that all that was necessary for the triumph of good was that evil men do nothing.

Gorbachev advanced through the Soviet Communist system, and benefited from the perquisites of power. I probably would have done the same thing in his circumstances. But the true heroes are the dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, who sacrificed a very comfortable life to be true to his conscience.

This is another of those unanswerable what-ifs, but I wonder whether Gorbachev would have governed in the orthodox Communist fashion, if the Soviet Union's economic circumstances had allowed for that. Some cite the falling oil prices of the 1980s as one factor depressing the Soviet economy. But there was also the cumulative effect of the inefficiencies of socialism that had been acting on the country for 70 years. In other words, an argument can be made that Gorbachev's benign inaction was forced on him, and was not necessarily evidence of a genuine intent to reform the system.

Oh, and then there's that little technicality that he never won a free and fair election. Marxist-Leninist politicians' refusal to compete against opposition parties has always been justified by gobbledygook such as "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Many Western intellectuals bought into that. The notion was that there were idealistic ends that, to some extent at least, justified brutal means.

But I agree with the school of thought that says there was never any idealistic intent; it was all about seizing power by force, and holding on to it by force for as long as possible. Submitting to competitive elections would have inhibited their full exercise of power. And, Marx forbid, they might lose, as they started finding out in various European countries starting in 1989.

And what happened when Gorbachev did run in a multi-party election? He got 0.5% of the vote when he ran for president of Russia in 1996. That's all the democratic legitimacy he ever had, when he interacted with Ronald Reagan, who had been reelected with 58.7% of the popular vote in 1984, and George H.W. Bush, who won with 53.3% in 1988.

And, yet, there are many on the left who want to make Gorbachev the hero of the story, and give only a small share, if any, of the credit, to Reagan and other democratically-elected leaders, including Margaret Thatcher.

The best I can bring myself to do is to damn Gorbachev with faint praise by writing that he was perhaps the least bad of the major Communist leaders.

1 comment:

Terry L. Johnson said...

Well, I guess it sort of makes sense giving Obama the Nobel in that he too is not someone else.

For that matter, I am not Bush: so, maybe the award should really have gone to ME.