By Andre Thomashausen
Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his biography of Joseph Stalin, labelled him the “Red Czar”. Was Mikhail Gorbachev the last “Soviet Czar”? A tractor and harvester mechanic, Gorbachev charmed himself through the ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Conformist and a model Soviet Man, at the age of 17 he became the youngest recipient of the prestigious Order of the Red Banner of Labour and a full member of the Communist Party. Gorbachev obtained his law degree with a final thesis on the “Advantages of Socialist Democracy over Bourgeois Democracy” and became a regional First Secretary for his native Stavropol Region.
This is where he developed his trademark people-based (or populist) style of visiting and engaging openly with agricultural workers. He succeeded in raising agricultural production to record levels and became the protégé of then chief of the KGB, hardliner Yuri Andropov.
In 1980, at the age of 50, he joined a mostly geriatric Politburo. SecretaryGeneral Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov who passed away in 1984. His successor, Chernenko, died of liver cirrhosis in 1985 which is when Gorbachev became the youngest secretarygeneral of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Having witnessed alcoholism, Gorbachev ordered drastic cuts in the production of consumable alcohol. Immediately a large shadow economy for the provision of illegal alcoholic beverages (including drinks made from industrial fluids) sprung up. Not understanding the economic laws of supply and demand, Gorbachev had some 500 000 suspected producers and distributors arrested without managing to curb alcoholism.
On April 26, 1986, 13 months after having been entrusted with the leadership of the Soviet Empire, Gorbachev was confronted with the meltdown of reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He failed to take control and allowed the military to engage in public obfuscation and denial, laying the ground for deep-seated distrust of Russia.
Gorbachev was shattered by the catastrophic accident that covered most of the Ukraine and large parts of Europe with airborne radioactive materials. He blamed the Soviet era robotic mentality of managers, who ruled by fear, for the failure to avert disaster during badly executed tests.
Gorbachev became determined to dismantle the Soviet management system and initiate global nuclear disarmament. In 1986, the USA had stockpiled over 60 000 nuclear bombs of all kinds and Russia had a slightly lesser number of some 45 000 nuclear warheads. In October 1986, while the damaged Chernobyl reactor was still radiating, Gorbachev met US president Reagan in Iceland.
Conceding that Reagan’s space weaponisation programme known as SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) could continue, Gorbachev wrung from Reagan a fundamental arms reduction agreement, to mutually reduce nuclear arms by 50%. Other agreements followed.
Nuclear disarmament was Gorbachev’s secular achievement. Nuclear warhead inventories fell from about 100 000 in 1987 to just over 13 000 in 2021. In Moscow, nuclear disarmament was not popular. Russia knew that after Germany’s WWII surrender, Churchill instructed his generals to rearm a remaining number of 20 German Divisions to be sent back into Russia, with massive American air support.
The plan was abandoned, but in its place the USA developed and until the ’60s continued to revise plans to destroy Russia, codenamed “Dropshot”, “Bushwhacker”, “Broiler”, “Sizzler”, “Pincher” and, finally, the “Single Operational Plan”. America planned in every detail how to drop a total of 3 500 massive nuclear bombs on the entire Russian territory, projected to kill between 285 and 425 million people.
It is not surprising that in the minds of the Russian military, only the success of the nuclear weapons programme of the Soviet Union saved the nation from annihilation. To overcome the resistance against nuclear arms reduction at home, Gorbachev needed to reward and co-opt officials and decision-makers.
His policy of “perestroika” and “glasnost”, meaning restructuring and transparency, opened the door for changes in economic policy. Private businessmen rapidly became wealthy and privatisations created a new money and business elite beholden to Gorbachev and later his successor, Yeltsin. Celebrated in Washington DC, in London, Paris and Bonn, Gorbachev failed to understand the rapid disintegration of the Russian economy and society.
For the first time since the Great War, hunger once again haunted millions. Even in Moscow, families would drive a whole day to find a farm where they could still buy or barter potatoes. The withdrawal of a defeated Soviet Army in Afghanistan, completed on February 15, 1989, accelerated the economic collapse.
In July 1990, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his finance minister Theo Waigel saw Gorbachev in Moscow and convinced him that Russia should stop financing a bankrupt East Germany, and benefit instead from trade and investment support and a generous credit line from a united Germany.
Gorbachev let East Germany fall, not realising that this would trigger independence uprisings in the former “national” Soviet Republics. To halt the dismemberment of the old Soviet Union, the military attempted a coup in August 1991.
Boris Yeltsin talked down the uprising, in return for Gorbachev stepping down. Gorbachev, the last “Soviet Czar”, never played a political role again. Gorbachev’s legacy in Russia was the demise and defunding of the military and at the same time the growing influence of the new “shadow elite”, made up of ruthlessly transactional “oligarchs”.
Their current demise, as a result of Western sanctions, is a welcome secondary effect of Russia’s military intervention in the Ukraine.
Thomashausen is a German Attorney and Professor Emeritus for International Law at Unisa.