Plenty of obituaries have appeared in newspapers and on social media, paying tribute to Gorbachev. He introduced major changes in the Soviet system that led to its downfall, and the USSR disappeared from the map of the earth. Appreciation and criticism of his actions will continue for long.
Some considered him – and still do – a CIA agent who implemented the plan to dismantle the socialist bloc. Had he not liberalized the Soviet Union, so the argument goes, the socialist system could have survived and the balance of power would have contained the US for many more decades.
In this article, I will discuss the period leading to Gorbachev’s accession to power and analyze whether this scenario was possible. I have had the good fortune to live in the USSR as a student in the 1980s before and during the Gorbachev era, becoming an advertent eyewitness to the events unfolding there.
The first half of the 1980s was a crucial period for the future of the USSR as it paved the way for the changes that were about to take place. The Soviet Union had celebrated its golden jubilee in 1977, and there was much that the country could be proud of. Domestically, the socialist system had achieved nearly 100 per cent literacy, electrified the entire country, guaranteed employment to everyone, offered free healthcare to all, and installed an affordable transportation system across the country.
It had won the Second World War, defeated the Nazi war machinery by sacrificing millions of lives – both civilian and military, liberated eastern European countries from the clutches of Hitler’s army and supported anti-imperialist leaders – from Castro and Lumumba to Allende and Mandela – around the world. Soviet cosmonauts and satellites circled around the earth in space. The country became a symbol of an egalitarian society which served as a role model to communist and socialist parties for at least half a century. After WWII, there was a romantic revolutionary attachment that left-wing activists felt with the Soviet Union and its leaders despite ‘consistent propaganda by the bourgeois electronic media and the press’ in the capitalist world.
But not everyone was happy, and for good reason too, for there was a darker flip side to the story. The human cost of rapid industrialization and technical advancement was enormous. The authority of the Communist Party was unquestionable, and the dictatorship of the proletariat had crushed all dissent.
Having achieved full literacy, the Communist Party controlled the education sector on strictly Marxist lines. Marxism-Leninism was the only approved ideology that the party taught. The party suppressed all dissenting views by controlling the media and the press across the country. Full employment resulted in many jobs that people did not like.
They worked with limited options and developed anger. Healthcare was free but not without corruption. The Red Army liberated eastern Europe from Nazi Germany only to place it under the red umbrella. As a student in the Soviet Union, one would meet people from eastern Europe, and most of them did not like Soviet dominance over their countries. Many of them shared their dislike – even hatred – against the Russians who had ‘occupied their land’. While championing an ‘anti-imperialist’ agenda, the USSR itself became an imperialist power of sorts. Socialist countries developed an authoritarian streak that distanced them from their people.
The socialist structure thrived on power concentration and coercion. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the new leadership criticized him severely and exposed his crimes. They attacked the personality cult of Stalin and vowed to establish a ‘collective leadership’ by assigning the top three jobs – head of government, head of state, and party chief – to different people. Stalin was the party chief for 30 years, head of government (PM) for 12, and defence minister for six years. The head of state was a ceremonial post given to the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet (parliament).
He was one of the most senior party leaders but worked at the behest of the party chief. After Stalin’s death, Malenkov and then Bulganin assumed the charge of government for two and three years respectively, and Khrushchev became party chief. Voroshilov was the chairman as the new head of state. But this collective leadership once again transformed in 1958 when Khrushchev managed to remove Bulganin and snatched premiership too.
After Khrushchev’s removal in 1964, collective leadership again became a buzzword with three positions given to three different persons. But that too lasted till 1976 when party chief Brezhnev removed chairman Podgorny and assumed both offices.
In the pre-Gorbachev era, the year 1976 became a turning point as Brezhnev emerged as an all-powerful leader as chairman of the Russian parliament (Supreme Soviet), presidium and party chief. That was the decade of the 1970s when Gorbachev became a regional party head and joined the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party. This gave him a chance to interact with senior party leaders in Moscow. He was an excellent orator and commanded the respect of his colleagues.
He developed good relations with Andropov who was the head of KGB - the apex Soviet intelligence agency. In the 1970s, Gorbachev visited western Europe multiple times as a member of various Soviet delegations.
Gorbachev was a keen observer of liberal democracy in Europe and started shaping a favourable opinion about a more democratic system as opposed to the Soviet one. His visits to Belgium, France, Italy and West Germany helped him observe how openly people talked against their governments as opposed to people in the Soviet Union where it was not possible. He started developing doubts about the socialist system but kept them to himself because he wanted to climb the party ladder as a staunch communist. In 1978, he did climb to become a secretary of the central committee and moved to Moscow.
He became part of the Moscow political elite enjoying better medical care, specialized shops, and a home with a cook, guard and secretary. He was a hard worker and that impressed the party’s top brass. Soon he joined the central committee’s secretariat for agriculture where he had growing concerns about the country’s agriculture management system. He thought it was overly centralized and required more bottom-up decision-making. His observations would play a decisive role in his policy when he finally assumed the country’s leadership and the party’s command in 1985.
In the meantime, the top five leaders of the Soviet Communist Party – Brezhnev (party chief), Andropov (KGB), Gromyko (FM), Kosygin (PM) and defence minister Marshal Ustinov – took momentous action in 1979 by invading Afghanistan. Not even the entire Politburo – the top decision-making body of the party – was in the loop.
Normally the party’s central committee elected the politburo at a party congress after every five years, but in between there were additions and removals at the behest of the party chief. Usually, the membership varied between 15 and 25 with many more candidate or non-voting members.
The Politburo of the 25 Congress was in session from 1976 to 1981 containing 19 members. In 1980, Brezhnev promoted Gorbachev from a candidate member to a full member of the Politburo; he was just 49 years old – the youngest member with mostly septuagenarian colleagues. In 1980, 74-year old Brezhnev replaced prime minister Kosygin (76) with Tikhonov (75); the decline was inevitable.
To be continued..
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK.
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