Deception for the Sake of Truth: Mikhail Gorbachev

We learn how to live by observing the lives of people we admire and appraising the outcomes of their experiments. I have learned most from two visionary political leaders, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev. They both made mistakes and now are derided as failed leaders in their own societies, India and Russia.

Yet much can be learned by comparing the contrasting, but edifying, political and moral principles that they followed. Gandhi the dissident and Gorbachev the strategist were poles apart, but that is why we can learn from them both, for everyone must frequently choose between the approaches they exemplified.

He used deception for the sake of truth

Gandhi invariably held onto the truth; that’s the meaning of the word “satyagraha.” He would rather go to jail than lie or disguise his intentions. Gorbachev also was a nonviolent leader whose “glasnost” freed people from the necessity to lie. However, he gained the opportunity to do so through many years of strategic deception. Though he opposed Stalin’s cruel communism, he became head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) by hiding his opposition. For a sublime objective, he conducted “under the carpet” manoeuvres masterfully. Year after year, he used deception for the sake of truth. He and many of his allies were like termites, deep inside the Soviet state, silently eating its foundation.

Morally, I prefer dissidents. They are all brave and trustworthy, but not all are likable, for they never hesitate to disagree. Dissent is a hard choice. Truth-telling may require one to lose friends or jobs or maybe go to prison. I know many Russians and East Europeans who, like Gandhians, are also dissidents — persons of extraordinary integrity.

Conformity as requisite for success or even survival

But I know even more Russians who would never dissent. Especially in a repressive state (and even in ours), one must practice conformity as a requisite for success or even survival. Such people are more complex than dissidents, for it can be hard to guess their hidden intentions. They face more moral dilemmas than dissidents, for they must sometimes decide how justifiable their deception is when it violates their own values. We can learn by studying their dilemmas and the outcomes of their decisions.

A funeral is no place to review a person’s mistakes, but mourners sometimes get together privately and talk about the life that has just ended. I think millions of us need a session to discuss our recollections of Gorbachev openly together, whether in grief or anger. I wish that Alexander Likhotal and Pavel Palazhchenko felt free to tell us more, even to write revelatory biographies about Mikhail Sergeyevich, whom they long served as closest aides. They will not. In retirement he had remained formal and private, thereby silencing those who knew him best. Who eulogized him at the funeral? Did anyone consider himself entitled to pronounce the thundering, impassioned accolades that such a life deserved?

Although I’d been in Gorbachev’s presence several times, I met him only once, when Alexander Likhotal introduced us at conference in Geneva. I didn’t understand what was said about me in Russian but it must have been laudatory because Gorbachev gave me a hearty hug and we all laughed. I handed him a Russian version of the book I’d finally written about his work and he said he’d read some of it.

This brief interaction obviously does not qualify me to analyze a man’s character, so I am not the right person to pose questions about Gorbachev. However, unlike those who knew him well, I never pledged secrecy. So, because I believe in transparency and expressiveness, I have decided to barge rudely into sequestered aspects of his biography. I’ll start with his medical condition.


All last year I wondered: How is he?

Alexander Likhotal and Pavel Palazhchenko were too discreet to comment on his health but I began to wonder whether he had slipped cognitively. A couple of years ago, Gorbachev gave interviews and wrote articles calling for peace, disarmament, and social and climate justice, but after February 24 he made no statement to the press about the invasion of Ukraine.

I tried to read between the lines. When I asked Palazhchenko, he just replied that Gorbachev was 91. (Implicit: What do you expect of someone at 91?)

Gorbachev had blamed Putin for dismantling everything he had worked for

I said I was only five months younger than Gorbachev. He replied, “Yeah, but you are definitely still going strong.” (Implicit: He wasn’t.) He told me that Mikhail Sergeyevich was living in a hospital (no disease specified) but that he had sometimes briefed him by phone about current events. (How recently was also left unspecified.) I inferred that maybe it was dementia. If so, I hoped that it had spared him any painful awareness of that Ukraine war. But today Likhotal told me that, although he had not seen him for three years, they had talked often until recently. He had undergone several surgeries related to severe diabetes. In one of their last conversations (already during the war in Ukraine) Gorbachev had blamed Putin for dismantling everything he had worked for. It was very painful for him. So my guess was wrong, his mind was clear.

No one says harsh words about the recently departed, so even Putin showed up at the hospital with a bouquet, and the Russian TV reported the story politely. But newspaper columnists globally showed no such restraint, more often describing Gorbachev as a failure than a great statesman.

History is supposedly the final judge. I hope not. Historians are as fallible as anyone else and many of his contemporaries misunderstood Gorbachev all along. But at least there should be a diversity of accounts for historians to compare when reaching their verdicts. Here I’ll cite some of Gorbachev’s associates of the early 1990s to dispute the general opinion that he was a failure.

To be sure, many of his policies were not implemented. But did they “fail”? No, they were thwarted. Aborted! Betrayed! Attribute the failure to the right persons, please. The majority of Soviet citizens (including most of those who wanted freedom) were ungrateful fools and cowards — their own worst enemies. But for their fecklessness, they could be enjoying a flourishing democracy and economy today. The people who should have been most grateful for Gorbachev and his policies abandoned him.

Initially, this did not seem likely, though even from the beginning there was antipathy between the groups I called “Termites” and “Barking Dogs.” Had they joined forces and supported him, his wise policies might have prevailed. But I must explain.

The people who should have been most grateful for Gorbachev and his policies abandoned him


I started going to Moscow in 1982 before Brezhnev died. On the first few trips, I was a guest of the Soviet Peace Committee, a government-run organization with access to lots of money from the Soviet Peace Fund. Each Soviet citizen was asked to contribute to it a suggested sum each month at her workplace (say, 5 roubles) and most did so. (There wasn’t much available to buy in the stores anyhow.)

This was when NATO and the Soviet Union were planning to install fast nuclear-armed missiles in Europe, which might bring us to Armageddon.

Someone in the Soviet system apparently supposed that we Western peace activists had influence with our governments (we didn’t), so they brought about 25 of us at a time to engage in dialogues with genuinely influential officials, such as generals and the editor of Pravda. Most meetings were held in Moscow but occasionally in Vienna, though Aeroflot always took us to Moscow first for a day or so.

We all wanted an end to the nuclear confrontation, but the Soviets hoped we would endorse their terms and promote them back at home. They were remarkably courteous, treating us as if we had as much clout with our countries’ policies as they did with theirs.

These Soviet guys wanted democracy and human rights

The Canadians in our delegation comprised strangers who had no common point of view. Almost all of them avoided conflicts politely and expressed only platitudinous good wishes. I took a different, but equally polite, approach. I noted that the Western attitudes toward the Soviet Union were colored by our side’s deep preference for democracy and human rights. I said, “It would make negotiations about the missiles easier if we could see more protection of civil liberties in the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet participants’ responses to my remarks seemed scripted. They all made the same predictable points. But then we’d have a coffee break and some of them would almost rush to me in excitement. “Exactly right! You were so polite, but you made exactly the point that we hoped to hear. Keep it up.” Others, without winking or giving me a thumbs-up, displayed enthusiastic solidarity with a telling facial expression.

I was flabbergasted. These Soviet guys wanted democracy and human rights — and they were high officials of the Communist Party! Whenever I spoke instead about something different, they always reminded me at dinner that I should re-iterate my main point.

I thought of them as “Termites,” boring through the structure of their party and hoping to bring it down. The other members of my delegation, however, acquiesced pleasantly to the canned speeches they heard at the table and never heard the Termites’ contradictory disclosures.


There was also another group of Russians who mostly seemed unaware that many party officials shared their longing for democracy and their opposition to nuclear weapons. These were dissidents.

I was the only member of the Canadian delegation who, whenever in Moscow, also visited the dissident “Group to Establish Trust between the US and the USSR,” usually known just as “the Trust Group.”

Unlike the Soviet Peace Committee members, who officially endorsed their government’s official military policies while calling for peace, the Trust Group challenged Soviet policies in a highly public way and sought friendly contacts with Western activists who criticized both sides in the Cold War. They spoke out volubly and tried to influence public opinion with peace art exhibitions in private apartments and by collecting signatures on petitions in Red Square.

Most people do follow the official shepherd no matter where he leads them

When British peace activists brought them packets of flower seeds, they planted them in the shape of a peace symbol in front of a public building. Some were beaten or jailed or lost their jobs. After I once called one dissident family, their phone was disconnected permanently. I admired these gutsy people enormously and called them “Barking Dogs.” Their yapping was meant to wake everyone up to the danger of nuclear war.

Not all Barking Dogs belonged to the Trust Group, which actually had only a few hundred members throughout the USSR. There were other courageous dissidents too, such as Andrei Sakharov, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and various “refuseniks” who were not allowed to emigrate to Israel. All dissidents were persecuted politically.


Of course, most Soviet citizens were neither Termites nor Barking Dogs. I called the majority of them “Sheep,” for in a totalitarian system, most people do follow the official shepherd, no matter where he leads them. But I considered most Party members “Dinosaurs” who really believed in the official Communist Party line and would defend it to their death.

Gorbachev’s success would be determined by the changing relationships among these four categories of Soviet citizens. I failed to foresee that the Termites would become impatient and gullible within five years of perestroika. However, I did worry from the outset about the animosity between Termites and Barking Dogs.

I developed real friendships within both groups, and couldn’t understand why they disliked each other so much, since their goals were identical. They both wanted a liberal democratic Soviet Union that would not subjugate any other country by force. However, the Termites believed it necessary to seek those changes by secretly attempting to influence government policies from within, whereas the Barking Dogs regarded that as hypocrisy and demanded bold honesty, at whatever cost. No compromise between their tactics seemed possible.


During lunch at one of the conferences, I handed out a few copies of The Peace Calendar, the tabloid publication that I edited in Toronto before it became Peace Magazine. On the front page were photos of some Trust Group members who had immigrated to the US and had visited Toronto. Two KGB guys pulled me out of the conference and spent three hours interrogating me about my ties to dissidents. In the end I was, as they termed it, “deported.”

For a few years I did not even try to go back to the Soviet Union. I was also ejected from a Toronto peace group because of my deportation and also because I’d signed a petition for Andrei Sakharov to be released from house arrest. The Canadian peace movement was divided — between those of us who wanted peace with freedom, and those who would settle for peace without it. The latter group didn’t know about the Termites, so they were astounded when Gorbachev came to power. I wasn’t.

When one of my Trust Group friends, Olga Medvedkova, was arrested, she sent word to me. I ran a publicity campaign on her behalf in the press and TV and held a rally on the steps of Ontario’s legislature. Pierre Trudeau invited about 20 of us peace activists to lunch in Ottawa and I talked about Olga and the Group for Trust. She was pregnant and would have been sentenced to years in a prison camp, but Trudeau sent an observer to her trial. So did Britain. She was given a suspended sentence — almost as good as being found innocent. It was the first time the court had released a dissident. We were astonished, but the explanation was simple: Gorbachev had come to power! Gorbachev was a Termite. Democracy was coming!


It took a while for his changes to become convincing, even to Western peace activists. A year into his term, Chernobyl exploded and as usual Moscow reacted ineptly and then hid the true facts. In 2006 Gorbachev himself said that the reactor’s explosion was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” He called it a turning point that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” But he had actually launched glasnost, that new freedom of expression, six months before the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Anyway, most Russian dissidents would not trust him. For example, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his human rights advocacy, but had been kept under house arrest in Gorky since 1980. In December 1986 Gorbachev ordered a phone to be installed in Sakharov’s apartment. The next day he called to tell him he and his wife could return to Moscow: “Go back to your patriotic work!”

Sakharov then demanded that Gorbachev release all prisoners who had been convicted for their beliefs. As Sakharov reports in his memoirs,

“Gorbachev made a noncommittal reply.

“I said, ‘Thank you again. Goodbye.’ (Contrary to the demands of protocol, I brought the conversation to a close, not Gorbachev. I must have felt under stress and perhaps subconsciously feared that I might say too much.) Gorbachev had little choice, so he said, ‘Goodbye.’”

Sakharov was not grateful and often misperceived his allies as enemies. Several members of Russia’s Pugwash group had been writing letters and appeals for his release, but he considered them all opponents. He had attended one Pugwash meeting and I asked long-time Pugwashite Ruth Adams about him in 1995. “He was a very angry man and I think he must have considered Pugwash to be a compromise group. He was strictly a loner,” she replied.

Go back to your patriotic work!

Sakharov spent the last day of his life on his feet in parliament, demanding that a party be created to oppose Gorbachev, who was presiding. Because he wouldn’t finish speaking, Gorbachev eventually cut off his microphone. Sakharov went home and died that night.


But this was already in 1989 in the Congress of People Deputies, a genuinely democratic parliament that Gorbachev had invented, whose members were directly elected by the citizenry in multicandidate, contested elections. Yet from its beginning, Sakharov and some other deputies were angry about the “slowness” of change!

The new constitution of 1988 called for a bicameral parliament, and in 1989 the new Congress of People’s Deputies elected from its members a new U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that, unlike its predecessor of the same name, had real legislative powers. In May 1989 Gorbachev was elected chairman of this Supreme Soviet — and in 1990 became the country’s president.

How did all these innovations come about? Were they “failures”? Some obituaries are saying that Gorbachev never was really a democratic reformer, but that Yeltsin was!

Let’s step back in time and trace Gorbachev’s political commitments from 1950, when he joined Moscow State University as a first-year student.


Gorbachev’s roommate was a Czech student named Zdenek Mlynar, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. (Once he even mended Mlynar’s pants.) They were both ardent Communists who wanted to liberalize socialism.

Later, Mlynar became a leader in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek attempted to decentralize the economy and democratize Czechoslovakia. Russian troops invaded and crushed the new regime. Mlynar was sent to Moscow to sign the “Moscow Protocol,” basically capitulating to Brezhnev’s rule. Gorbachev was sent to inspect the new government but was not allowed to meet Mlynar, who had been expelled from the Party and was working as an entomologist in a museum.

People in Prague were disappointed by Gorbachev’s visit, having hoped he would show empathy. But Gorbachev was an adept Termite who took the only realistic route up the Party ladder: hiding his liberal side until he reached the top. Still, he was shocked to see Czechs turning their backs on him to express their opinions. He had loyally acquiesced to the Soviet invasion, but that visit troubled him.

I had heard a story about Gorbachev that I could not trace, but it was confirmed in an interview with a democratic Russian friend, Fyodor Burlatsky, who had been a close aide of Khrushchev’s.

METTA: According to this story, Gorbachev had attended the 20th Party Congress. (I know that’s not true, but he did attend the 22nd Party Congress.) According to this story, afterward he went to the lookout point in front of Moscow State University where Herzen and another man took an oath to combat absolutism, and he took an oath to devote his life to combating Stalinism. Have you ever heard that story?

BURLATSKY: This is what Mlynar explained in his article in Italian press when Gorbachev came to power. … in L’Unita, I think. I met Mlynar, maybe it was 1989, in Prague, and I asked him, will you prepare a book about Gorbachev? He told me, maybe yes — but not now. [He later did so.] He told me the same story, that when they were students, they lived together in one room, not just one room but connected rooms with one bathroom. He told me Gorbachev was a very anti-Stalinist man at that time and discussed many problems and that Mlynar had an influence on his mind. But I never heard something like this in Russia. Nobody can say that about Gorbachev; he was a normal Party man.

METTA: So, it was true, but he was hiding it, you think?

BURLATSKY: Yes, he hid it, but maybe it was not so important for him because he liked power very much; he was a real man of power, that’s why he did not want to become a dissident. He wanted to be above.

Mlynar’s own path continued toward greater dissidence, and in 1976 he signed a manifesto called “Charta 77.” The Chartist movement culminated in the successful Velvet Revolution which overturned the Communist regime which was collapsing. Communism was overthrown throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 because Gorbachev refused to send troops to repress protests. (See 177 transcripts and audio recordings of my interviews with dissidents and others, plus interviews by Gwynne Dyer here. )

While Gorbachev was Soviet head, he and Mlynar restored their contact and held several conversations comparing changes in their own political views since university years. They published these enlightening transcripts as Conversations with Gorbachev.

The Velvet Revolution brought Charta signatories such as Vaclav Havel and Jiri Dienstbier almost directly from their jail cells to their inaugurations as president and foreign minister. Equally dramatic changes occurred in most other formerly socialist countries, including Poland, where the Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa became president.


Unfortunately, no such drastic reversal of power occurred in the Soviet Union. Apart from his friendship with Mlynar, Gorbachev never allied with former Soviet dissidents, but depended on Termites for his support and to staff his new government. The Barking Dogs were all given full political rights and many of them did wonderful work organizing civil society, but only Sakharov, Sergei Kovalev, and a few less famous former dissidents sought to become deputies or bureaucrats. Mutual mistrust lingered, even after it became obvious that Gorbachev was promoting reforms that both Termites and Barking Dogs wanted.

Gorbachev refused to send troops to repress protests

Here’s one example. I knew and loved both Lyudmilla Alexeyeva and Fyodor Burlatsky, who each told me their version of the same event. Burlatsky was a Termite, but an exceptionally brave one who had been fired from three jobs because of his liberalism. Alexeyeva was the greatest of the Barking Dogs, the leader of the Helsinki Group until her death. She had been a dissident even during the earlier Khrushchev liberalization period known as the “Thaw.” After emigrating to the US and becoming a citizen there, she had returned to Moscow, where she lived to be 91.

She told me that just after Gorbachev became the CPSU’s general secretary, the Party’s department of education decided to create a new “Helsinki Group.” The real Helsinki Group had been founded in 1976 but most of those brave human rights defenders were still in camps or jail or had emigrated. So, the Party created a new “Helsinki Group,” composed of prominent Soviet writers and artists. And Burlatsky headed this group, which, in Alexeyeva’s opinion, was designed to attract public support away from the real group.

This new Soviet “Helsinki Group” suggested meeting in Paris with the American Helsinki Group, for whom Alexeyeva served as a consultant. Although the Americans were inclined to refuse, she urged them to go. It was an opportunity to get the jailed Helsinki Group members released and that was the most important thing.

She accompanied them to the meeting but listened quietly the whole time. Until then, she’d always considered Burlatsky an honest man, but she reported that he had said to the Americans, “Nobody knows those people who are now in jail. I represent a group of famous writers and other public figures. Why would you want to deal with those people instead of my group?” The Americans had said, “Excuse us but we don’t know those famous writers. This is the group that we know.”

The conversation continued all day. As soon as Burlatsky and his group of writers and artists left, the Americans began laughing. But Alexeyeva was crying, for the Russians, whom she had respected before, had not wanted to help release a single political prisoner! “It was shame,” she told me.

Afterward, I re-read the transcript of Burlatsky’s account. By then he was dead, but he had been my friend and a decent man. I could not believe he declined to help free any jailed prisoner of conscience. And indeed, Burlatsky recounted meetings about political prisoners and 400 other people who had been imprisoned for “religious crimes.” He had asked Gorbachev personally to release all of them without any judge. Gorbachev argued each case should be examined separately, but Burlatsky replied, “No, it should be a political action. In such a case, Western people will believe that we are really on the way to democracy.”

He added that, in 1987, “they all were released and I informed Helsinki Watch and Rosalyn Carter that Gorbachev did it.”

But Burlatsky and the Barking Dogs never became allies. He mentioned that the dissidents, including Sergei Kovalev and Timofeev, who had founded the Helsinki Group, had later founded other new groups, including Memorial,

“and didn’t want any contact with us. They explained that we are an official group and they are real unofficial groups, and [that was really so] because I became a member of parliament and had big official influence with the government. But it was a very good possibility which should [have been] used for human rights. I did it. I prepared three drafts of laws of human rights, as you know — freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of press.”

Alexeyeva and Burlatsky were both great people. But, though the Barking Dogs and Termites agreed about principles of human rights, they couldn’t overcome their disdain for each other. Burlatsky was disappointed in the human rights leaders, who, “from the beginning, started to struggle against Gorbachev and to be included in Yeltsin’s group. They supported him politically.”

That was true — at least briefly. The Barking Dogs and former Termites abandoned Gorbachev for Yeltsin, calling their new radical movement “Democrats.” They did discover their mistake, but by then Yeltsin had successfully broken up the Soviet Union. Had all the reformist groups continuously supported Gorbachev’s reforms, they probably would have succeeded.


As for Gorbachev himself, his Termite soul was shaken by his trip to Prague. As an official emissary of the country that had just invaded and oppressed Czechoslovakia, did he feel guilty of disloyalty to his friend and to the political values they had shared?

Only once during the book about their subsequent conversations did Mlynar express anger. That was when he recalled Gorbachev’s behavior during that 1968 trip. Gorbachev just replied by defending his actions without acknowledging remorse. Yet he certainly did admire the Prague Spring’s “socialism with a human face” and later admitted that his “glasnost” and “perestroika” reflected the influence of the Prague Spring. Was it during that 1968 trip that he began planning a similar “Moscow Spring”? We will never know.

But we do know that he resolved never again to forcibly suppress the political desires of other people. He told Mlynar,

“Immediately after the funeral of my predecessor, Chernenko, I called a conference of political leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries and told them clearly that now we were actually going to do what we had for a long time been declaring: We would adhere strictly to the principle of equality and independence, which also included the responsibility of each party for the development of its own country. This meant that we would not commit acts of intervention or interference in their internal affairs. My counterparts at that conference, as I came to understand later, did not take what I said seriously. But I did adhere to this principle and never departed from it.”

We can see this in his decision to let the East Germans abandon Communism, tear down the wall, and rejoin West Germany. We even can see it in his much later acceptance of Putin’s invasion, referendum, and annexation of Crimea. The Crimean population wanted to rejoin Russia, he said, so they should have that right. That position is incompatible with his opposition to military aggression, but consistent with his principle that people should choose their own paths.

Gorbachev may have wanted to lead a “Moscow Spring,” but his society was not interested. He did try to ignite enthusiasm “from below” for perestroika and demokratizatsiya but it never caught on outside Moscow. The Czechoslovak and other Eastern European movements truly had spontaneously emerged from below. But those countries were the victims of Communist authoritarianism, whereas Russia was its origin. Besides, Russia had never been democratic and had been ruled by Communists for seventy years. No one remembered any other way.

Gorbachev depended on the support of Termites, who were generally quick to spot opportunities. But opportunities can change as the wind blows. When Gorbachev came to power Termites became publicly enthusiastic overnight. No longer did they deliver scripted Communist speeches at conferences. The Party officials were eager for democracy and a free market. Gorbachev was their hero — for a while.

He was indeed planning democracy and economic decentralization with private enterprise (without calling it “capitalism”). He authorized a young economist, Gregory Yavlinsky, to develop a “500-day plan.”


Even earlier he began secretly and carefully designing a democratic constitution. Soon after he became the head of the CPSU, he and a small group of close advisers began planning to abolish the Party’s monopoly of power.

I met a young political scientist, Yegor Kuznetsov, who worked for Gorbachev’s close adviser, Georgy Shakhnazarov. While helping Shakhanzarov move offices, Kuznetsov had found a notebook recording these meetings. He told my assistant and me that story in 1994:

YEGOR KUZNETSOV: Khrushchev’s experience proved that if the system is not destroyed completely, it will mean the failure of reforms and personal defeat. So, he calculated very literally the brick that should be pushed off to break down the whole system. He was sawing a bough on which he was sitting because nobody in the whole world had the same amount of power as the General Secretary of CPSU….

As I understand it, there was no strict plan of reforms. A general strategy existed until the 19th Party Conference. [June, 1988.] After that, a plan of political steps was worked out: elections in the new parliament, establishment of the institution of presidency. On the other hand, we can’t say that no documents existed that defined the initial direction of reforms. It seemed that the first free elections to the Supreme Soviet and the establishment of presidency were somehow spontaneous.

But now in the archives, documents start to reveal that a detailed plan of the transformation of state institutions existed. It was worked out in a very narrow circle of persons — much more narrow than the Politburo. Few persons knew about that. For example, at that time very few people knew who Shakhnazarov was. Well, they knew that he was a President’s assistant, but nobody suspected that the level of his influence was much higher than, for instance, some Politburo members’. It can be that one day we’ll come upon the documents that describe the strategic plan against the absolute power of CPSU.

What concerns the second step of reforms — I saw the plan. I found that document in the private archive of Shakhnazarov. These documents were not registered, they are not in the President’s archive. The document covers the smooth transformation of the political system, short-hand records of the closed meeting that, surely, were not published anywhere.

It means that it was just a performance that Gorbachev was so addicted to the idea of CPSU ruling, that he was so against the idea of cancelling the Article 6 of the Constitution. Article 6 guaranteed the Party exclusive control.

Gorbachev is a great master of the staff games. That is what helped him to pass all the way as a legitimist. To the end, the Party just hated him but there was no one case when the majority voted against him. In fact, this manoeuvring helped to to transit to democracy non-violently. Up to the last moment the Party didn’t realize what was going on. Thanks to Gorbachev’s tactics, Communists didn’t vote against him not at the Plenum, nor at the Congress (the opposite happened with Khrushchev). When they understood at last what was happening, they initiated the coup [1991] but it was too late. They couldn’t do anything….

He is an amazing master of the apparatus fight, ‘under-carpet intrigues.’ As we can now see, all this was dictated by his good intentions. He was extremely consistent. Only in the end of his political life did he start to betray himself, though we still don’t know what forces were pressing on him at that time. I mean Vilnius and Tbilisi, to some extent, events in Baku. We don’t know if he was controlling those situations. Maybe already not — as the coup had demonstrated.

The economic reforms were the most difficult problem and evoked the most opposition. To stimulate the sluggish Soviet economy Gorbachev emulated Lenin’s successful NEP program, which allowed for private enterprise. Farmers could charge higher prices in the market, so prices and inflation skyrocketed. Hardliners complained that he was moving too fast, whereas radical critics called him too slow.


I still don’t know how to apportion the blame for the polarization between the Party’s Dinosaurs and the Termites who had been Gorbachev’s team. Several of his close liberal advisors quit him, expressing disgust that he was caving in to the hardliners. For example, Georgy Arbatov, the head of the USA-Canada Institute, had been Gorbachev’s main conduit to information from European liberals, but he became exasperated with Gorbachev for acquiescing to hardline Communist demands. I speculated that they may have had some power over Gorbachev, but Arbatov called that nonsense.

Russia had never been democratic and had been ruled by Communists for seventy years

ARBATOV: He said it was tactics! … He picked out the people around him on his own free will. Why did he insist so much, because, even contrary to the rules of the institution, as vice president Mr. Yanayev. Why did he appoint Pavlov? … [So,] Shevardnadze left. Yakovlev left. Bakatin was fired. The best people! In.the next echelon, people like myself distanced ourselves… and quite different new people appeared.

On the other hand, the progressive aides who remained loyal to Gorbachev argue that he appointed Dinosaurs only because the Termite advisers were abandoning him. Here is what his loyal aide Georgy Shakhnazarov told me in 1992:

“The democratic forces attacked the president in 1990 and openly called for his resignation. … There was a chain of demonstrations and meetings demanding that the president be ousted. In this situation, he could not bring to power the same people who demanded that he be ousted. He never rejected the idea of reforms, but it was a compelled situation…

“Gorbachev made a deal with the democratic movement when he brought in Yavlinsky and … his colleagues. He agreed with Yeltsin on this. These young people went to a country house and for two months they prepared this “500 Days Program.” At the same time Gorbachev gave me his consent to meet with other democratic representatives to find common actions …. We came to the conclusion that all democratic forces radicals, as we called them should unite in order to stop the attacks from right wing forces in our country.

“They say that Gorbachev betrayed all this new union of democratic forces because he rejected the 500 Days Program. But the real case is that after this program was done, it was extremely criticized in our Supreme Soviet….Yeltsin also strongly criticized this program…. He predicted that if we implement this 500 Days, the living standards in the country will go down up to ten times and that it is possible that the reduction of production would be 50 or even 60 per cent. It would be the collapse of our economy….

“I also came to the conclusion that it is a mistake to make this shock therapy in a country where everything was based on public distribution and organization of production. It is clear to everybody now that this reform should be done more tentatively, over a period of ten or fifteen years or so. That’s why Gorbachev … tried to mix it with the program of Ryzhkov.

“But the leaders of the democratic opposition were of a mood to oust Gorbachev by all possible means because they wanted to take power. …. So, by that time, Gorbachev concluded that it was impossible to continue to collaborate with these people.

“That’s why it seems to me that they, not Gorbachev, rejected the accommodation for the sake of taking power. They would go so far as to sacrifice the Soviet Union. It was done by Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich. Yeltsin betrayed the agreement with Gorbachev that he would do everything to keep the Soviet Union…. He could have stopped all those things and still be in power, continuing the reforms himself. But it wasn’t his idea to use force; he brought democracy to our country, and it was his idee fixe that he should only use democratic methods. The other side acted according to different methods.”

Pavel Palazhchenko explained Gorbachev’s “turn to the right” in much the same way:

“Practically 80 percent of the Russian intellectuals fled from Gorbachev in favor of Yeltsin. And I think that was not Gorbachev’s mistake. That was the mistake of the Russian intelligentsia, who believed that the more radical approach espoused by Yeltsin would work better for Russia and for the country as a whole. To me, that was a big mistake on the part of the Russian intelligentsia.

“Fortunately, Arbatov himself did not flee. He was not one of those people who actually pledged allegiance to Yeltsin. But he could have done more to support Gorbachev at that very, very difficult period. Actually, what the pro-Yeltsin faction of the Russian intelligentsia (and it was a majority of the high-status Russian intelligentsia at that time) was blaming Gorbachev for was what he did not favor the radical, crash economic reform that Yeltsin was espousing without really looking into it. He wasn’t looking into the possible consequences of the kind of economic radicalism that he was proposing.”


The economy was the main dispute. Life became hard under Gorbachev, but was infinitely worsened by Yeltsin’s radical “shock therapy” reforms, which Gorbachev had declined to implement. Yeltsin’s approach differed from the “500-Day plan” of Grigory Yavlinsky, who during our 2008 conversation blamed the Yeltsin catastrophe on U.S. economists:

YAVLINSKY: … nobody would advise a government to liberalize prices when they had an all-monopolized economy. When you have all-monopolized economy, if you liberalize prices, you have a 2,600 percent inflation. Nobody would give such advice!

SPENCER: Jeffrey Sachs would.

YAVLINSKY: Yes, but it was not only Jeffrey Sachs. It was IMF. It was the American treasury who supported this line. It was not simply an academic exercise, no! It was a policy! But it was policy based on incompetent vision, and they knew that. Nevertheless, they did it.

Was Yavlinsky accusing the US of trying to sabotage the new Russian economy? Not really. He simply meant that the US wanted to implement radical changes so quickly that it would be impossible for the country to revert to the old Soviet economy. In this they succeeded.

It was Yeltsin’s economic reforms that failed. Although Gorbachev’s economic changes were far from successful, he was right to prefer gradualism instead of shock therapy and the privatization of all Soviet means of production, which enabled a few oligarchs to buy up the whole economy for a pittance.

Today Russians blame Gorbachev for the break-up of the Soviet Union. They should blame themselves. When Gorbachev’s team of former Termites abandoned him, they left him at the mercy of the hardliners, whom he unwisely appointed to office, giving them an opportunity to plot a clumsy coup against him.


Yet even so, he had prepared a plan that would sweep them away (Yegor Kuznetsov called it a “time bomb”): the “New Union Treaty,” which would have made the Soviet Union into a federalized democracy of semi-sovereign republics, thereby satisfying the nationalists who wanted more autonomy. It would have eliminated the roles occupied by these Party hardliners, making the way for a new, democratic USSR. The chairs were already set up in the Novo-Ogaryovo country estate for the next day’s meeting to adopt this treaty, but the coup plotters prevented it. Blame them, not Gorbachev.

His reforms were rejected, but his life was certainly no failure

? Blame the US and Britain for refusing financial aid to Gorbachev when he was struggling to reform the Soviet economy.
? Blame Termites and Barking Dogs for mutual mistrust when they should have united in promoting their common goals, as carefully planned by Gorbachev.
? Blame Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich, the three leaders of the republics that declared themselves independent, thereby destroying the Soviet Union, simply to eliminate the office of the president.
? Blame nationalists who cared more about self-determination for each nationality than for the development of good governance.
? And blame Russians for their ungrateful rejection of extraordinary gifts — peace, democracy, and good governance — from Gorbachev.

His reforms were rejected, but his life was certainly no failure. His explanation to Mlynar was correct: The reason for the failure of the reforms is not that we took the path of democratic change. The reasons lay elsewhere, in the vindictiveness of the reactionary forces and the excessive revolutionism of the radicals.”

What a contribution this man made to the world! Rest in peace with our thanks, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. [*]

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