Could Mikhail Gorbachev Have Saved the Soviet Union?
The Soviet leader is remembered as the man who killed a superpower. But Gorbachev’s gambit on reforms could have worked -- if only he wasn't betrayed by the Communist Party.
At the time of Gorbachev’s visit to China in 1989, few people would have guessed that a decade later Deng’s policies would look smart and Gorbachev’s reckless. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev was widely hailed for his liberalizing policies. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for reshaping the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. Meanwhile, China’s decision to crush the Tiananmen protests was not only condemned worldwide by governments and media; it was also interpreted as evidence of Beijing’s backwardness.
But by his death in 1997, Deng’s decision appeared vindicated, as world opinion had turned decisively in his favor. Deng had seen enough of Russia’s tumultuous politics to know where he stood: sacrifice political liberalization for stability’s sake, because the alternative was chaos and collapse. Chinese analysts of Soviet politics continue to fault Gorbachev for abandoning central planning too rapidly and in a disorganized fashion. Rather than liberalizing politics, they argue, Gorbachev should have focused on the economy.
Today, top Chinese leaders cite the Soviet Union as an example of why China’s Communist Party must keep its fist clenched on power, even as it casts off the last remaining vestiges of the Maoist economy. Jiang Zemin, who succeeded Deng as China’s leader, argued in 1990 that the Soviet Union’s main problem was that Gorbachev was a traitor like Leon Trotsky, the Soviet revolutionary who was found guilty of betraying Marxism-Leninism by then-leader Joseph Stalin. That was an ironic charge coming from the official who first formally welcomed China’s business classes into the supposedly communist ruling party. Yet in December 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping echoed this analysis. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he asked a group of Communist Party members. “Their ideals and convictions wavered,” he explained. “Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone.” Yet it is Deng’s logic that has come to dominate most interpretations of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “My father,” reported Deng’s youngest son, “thinks Gorbachev is an idiot.”
In Russia, many agree. Russians regularly rate Gorbachev as one of their worst leaders of the 20th century. A 2013 poll found that only 22 percent of Russians perceive Gorbachev positively or slightly positively, while 66 percent have a negative impression. By contrast, Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over two decades of stagnation, is viewed positively by 56 percent of Russians. Even Stalin, who managed a murderous reign of terror, gets positive marks from half of Russians. It is not surprising, then, that Deng’s reputation in Russia has risen. Many Russians see China as a model of what their country should have done during the 1980s and 1990s. Liberal politics cause chaos and economic distress, many Russians have concluded, and only a strong hand can deliver economic growth.
Given the growing appeal of market economics combined with authoritarian rule, it comes as no surprise that dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin criticize democrats like Gorbachev. The Communist Party was the institution that held the Soviet Union together; it ensured that laws were obeyed and taxes were paid. Once Gorbachev began his assault on the party’s authority in the late 1980s, is it any surprise that the country fell apart?
Lost in this explanation is the fact that the Soviet system gave power to a new ruling class of generals, collective farm managers, and industrial bosses, all of whom benefited from economic waste and inefficiency. Deng managed to compromise with other elites, letting them retain their authority in exchange for their support in pursuing economic reforms that allowed China to grow. But in the Soviet Union, economic reform meant destroying the power base of the special interest groups, leaving a potential military coup lurking in the background and hanging over Gorbachev’s head. That was a threat Deng never faced.
The reason why Gorbachev lost out is not because the Soviet economy was unreformable. China’s example proved that the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy was possible. Rather, the Soviet Union collapsed because vast political power was entrusted to groups that had every reason to sabotage the efforts to resolve the country’s decades-long financial dilemmas.
In the end, the political clout of these interest groups proved far greater than Gorbachev anticipated. In his quest to reform his country and steer it away from calamity, Gorbachev brought about the very process that would eventually lead to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
This article is adapted from Chris Miller’s new book, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR.
Top image credit: Getty Images/RPS/Ullstein Bild/Foreign Policy Illustration