At the height of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev had a dream. The familiar system of one-party rule would smoothly open up to allow for the free play of other political forces, and, in the strange new world of electoral competition, the Communist Party would remain the voters’ favourite. Faced for the first time in their lives with a genuine choice, Russians would plump for the people they knew. Power would stay with the old elite, enhanced now by an enormous boost to its legitimacy.
Seven years later, and after a few electoral false starts, Boris Yeltsin appears to have made the Gorbachev dream come true. After a tumultuous presidency, he has prepared the ground for the Communists to win a nation-wide poll and return to power. Like one of those frequent ‘times of trouble’ in Russian history, the Yeltsin period may come to be seen as just another chaotic interregnum. Boris the Intemperate, the last of the Bolsheviks, will recede into oblivion, and Russia’s enduring pattern of evolutionary authoritarianism and economic autarky will be restored.
Of course, in a few weeks time this scenario may turn out to be fanciful if the Communists fall short of their target. But even if they do, the Communist restoration has gone further than anyone predicted even three years ago. It is not just that the Communists, now transformed into Russian gosudarstvenniki (statists), are profiting from a popular wave of revulsion at the collapse in living standards brought about by Yeltsin’s neo-liberal market experiment. Yeltsin’s reforms, in particular the privatization measures of 1992 and 1993, have produced the synthesis which has enabled the old system’s economic and political managers to find a comfortable role for themselves in new post-totalitarian conditions. Far from emasculating the Communist bureaucracy, as his Western backers hoped, Yeltsin has helped to make Russian ‘democracy’ safe for it.
To judge how far Yeltsin has completed a key part of the evolving Gorbachev project, one can now turn to Gorbachev’s memoirs published in Russian and German and due out in English later this year.footnote1 They complement and enlarge on the two brief and breathless essays he wrote in the heat of the moment after the August 1991 coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December that year. They also build on his substantial 1987 volume, Perestroika.footnote2
The new material covers in extensive detail Gorbachev’s economic reform, the name of which is conventionally translated as ‘restructuring’, though ‘transformation’ is probably a better word. Other participants, notably Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yegor Ligachev, have already written their accounts.footnote3 Like theirs, Gorbachev’s version is largely a self-justification. He sheds relatively little light on the thinking of other members of the Politburo and mainly records his own views. Even with hindsight, Gorbachev remains a man of discretion, and his wordy style masks an innate terseness. Although known to have an explosive temper, he maintains an even tone throughout the book, and rarely describes moments of concern, despair, or rage—of which there must have been many. For those who want lively observations or telling insights about colleagues, this book will be a disappointment. It reinforces the view that Gorbachev was not a good judge of character or a man who made friends out of colleagues.
Admissions of mistakes are equally rare. Yet, precisely because of Gorbachev’s low-key emotional tone, when admissions of error do come, they have particular force, like the ‘strategic miscalculation of dramatic proportions’ to which he confesses more than three hundred pages into his book: ‘Looking back at my role in the first stage of the economic reform, I must admit we unquestionably underestimated the conflicting factors. We laboured too long under the illusion that the problems arose from the psychological difficulties of Party officials’ (p. 352).
Gorbachev does not elaborate the point, but this was probably the central illusion which led to perestroika’s collapse. It was a political misunderstanding under which most of Gorbachev’s associates laboured in equal degrees. For almost three years they behaved as though the leadership only needed to admit publicly that the Soviet Union faced serious problems, and then enunciate a solution. Party officials and economic managers would rally round. This was an extraordinarily naive assumption, though widely held. Partly it arose from the myth that Soviet society had eliminated all non-antagonistic contradictions. Different interest groups might still exist but the conflicts between them could be resolved without difficulty. There was also the view that any Soviet government was enormously powerful, if not omnipotent. What it decreed would unfailingly be done.