Respected in the West, Gorbachev is seen as a reckless flirt in Russia
In 1992, I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev, just over a year after he presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of power.
His assistant told me to submit questions first. I sent six. The assistant smiled. You would never ask all these things, he said. He likes to talk too much.
Gorbachev answered three in 40 minutes.
The man who died Tuesday at the age of 91 really liked to talk, and after coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he wanted his country to talk and talk openly about its problems.
To that end, in 1989, he established a new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies. The debates of newly elected MPs were broadcast on national television. Gorbachev and his ministers roamed the corridors, taking questions from reporters.
In the process, a country once heavily censored explodes in a flurry of speeches, revelations, and debates. For reporters like me – who came to Moscow as a correspondent for the CBC in 1988, for six years on the job – it was a tangle of news.
The problem is, when the country talks about its problems, they only get worse and worse. Food and goods of all kinds became scarce. The shelves in the supermarket are empty. The ruble buys almost nothing.
However, Gorbachev continued to speak.
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The Soviet leader, like Russian President Vladimir Putin today, had direct control of the main television channels. And so, night after night, Soviet audiences saw Gorbachev – often accompanied by his prominent wife, Raisa – at the top of the news, for 10, 20, even 30 minutes, talking to the ministries. his chief, chatting with people on the street. Talking.
Depressed Russians call him “boltan” – a chat box. The words flowed as the country sank into economic paralysis.
Looking for a coup
Gorbachev spoke and he maneuvered. He was an excellent tactician, defeating reactionaries in the politburo and KGB with the formation of a new parliament.
His aides begged him to go one step further and create a popularly elected president. He didn’t. He became president in 1990 by a vote of the Congress of People’s Deputies. He passed up the opportunity to have strong political legitimacy for himself.
During the winter and spring of 1991, his aides and allies warned him that his opponents in the Communist Party and KGB were planning a coup. He ignored them, believing that, once again, he could outrun them.
In August 1991, a coup took place. Gorbachev was taken prisoner at his summer residence in the south of the country. His political rival Boris Yeltsin was assigned to stand on a tank and face the coup plotters.
One of the leaders of the coup was the head of the KGB, Viktor Kryuchkov, whom Gorbachev himself chose for this job.
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The coup disbanded and Yeltsin later demanded that the Communist Party be disbanded. It’s done.
Four months later, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus agreed to break up with the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev is a president without a country. He resigned on December 25, 1991.
He came to power because he knew how weak the Soviet Union was. It’s a country that spends a lot on its military and is having a losing war in Afghanistan. Crops are failing and the price of its main export commodity, oil, is falling.
Gorbachev went to Canada before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party. There he had long talks with the Soviet ambassador to Ottawa, Alexander Yakovlev, another reformer exiled to Canada for his views.
Upon becoming leader of the party and country in 1985, Gorbachev promoted Yakovlev to the politburo. Their economic answer to the country’s problems was to focus further on the quasi-catatonic ministries of agriculture and industry. The result is a monster.
He was able to turn the weakness of the Soviet Union into a kind of diplomatic power, negotiating arms reduction treaties with the United States and making no effort to prevent the 1989 destruction of the Berlin Wall and the independence march. by Eastern European countries.
Because of this, he has earned the respect and admiration of many people around the world. But at home, he was a scorned leader. Finally, when he ran for president in 1996, he received 0.5% of the vote.
While in power, he remained a true follower of Communism, insisting that reform must come from the top, but unchecked competition and private property not for his country.
Without the power, his voice became inaudible. He created a strange, ungainly political mixture in my book about Gorbachev and his times I call a democracy of scumbags.
The KGB and the security ministries had failed to stop Gorbachev’s reforms. When a second chance appeared in 1999, there was no failure. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, became prime minister and then president.
Putin has described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. In the bloodiest way possible, he is now trying to regain parts of the lost empire.
Democracy in Russia is no more. Authoritarian rules are not binding.
Gorbachev was a reformer, a visionary. But the structure built from that vision went wrong and ultimately failed.