The promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev to top job in the Kremlin a little over a year ago has commanded intense interest in the outside world. Two new biographies, one by a West German newspaper correspondent, the other by a Russian émigré, will in their different ways do something to satisfy that interest. But why exactly are we so interested?
Common-sense explanations start with the obvious fact of a generational shift in the Kremlin. For many years, the Soviet Union presented the image of a petrified gerontocracy where political leadership was the exclusive perquisite of the old and the dying. Leonid Brezhnev died on 10 November 1982; Yuri Andropov died on 9 February 1984; Konstantin Chernenko died on 10 March 1985; they were all of great age and feebleness, and they all gradually disappeared from view. The contrast between Mikhail Gorbachev, a man of vigorous middle age, and his three palsied predecessors, shuffling towards their catafalques, could scarcely be greater.
We are surprised by Mr Gorbachev’s modern walk-about style, by his relaxed professionalism in front of Western news reporters and television cameras, by the publicity given to his smartly-dressed wife, Raisa. We are fascinated by the speed and scale of his clear-out of the old generation of Brezhnev retainers (the term ‘purge’, with its Stalinist overtones, has been studiously avoided); by his crisp criticisms of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence; by the novelty of his crack-down on alcoholism; and by his overt espousal of economic reform. We are impressed by the apparent urgency with which he has pressed for better relations with the United States, and we are even a little taken aback by the radicalism and fertility of his public proposals for galvanising the arms-control process, moribund since 1979. Common sense tells us that this really looks like a man on the move, a man of dynamism, a man of the late 20th century, a man in charge, a man, above all, of change.
The very words betray themselves. At another level we are interested in Gorbachev because the Soviet Union is and has long been both threatening and baffling, and the more threatening because so baffling, so opaque, so apparently monolithic and rigid. Winston Churchill summed up our predicament in October 1939: ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ If we knew more about the policies and the policy debates of the Soviet Union, about the cabals and the springs of power, we might find it less threatening, or again we might not: but at least we should know more clearly where we stood and what challenges we faced. As it is, it is a matter of public notoriety that Western governments and the most expert advisers they can find are still not much past first base in trying to work out the irreducible objectives of the Kremlin. More than forty years have passed since the Second World War, yet Western governments still have difficulty in answering the most basic questions. Why is the Soviet Union so heavily armed? Is it because the Russian people, traumatised by centuries of foreign invasion, are obsessed by feelings of insecurity? Or because Communist ideology reinforces that other millennial tradition, of Muscovite expansionism?
Ideologues of left and right draw opposing conclusions from their own prejudices, but few serious analyses ever stray very far from the same well-worn banalities of speculative uncertainty. We do not know what the relationship is between the Soviet Union’s military capabilities and its political intentions; we do not know whether the détente of the early Seventies represented a genuine relaxation of attitudes on the part of a satisfied super-power which had achieved parity with its main rival, or a ploy to lull the West into a false sense of security. If it was the former, it is hard to make sense of the military build-up in the late Seventies, and the trouble-making in the Third World, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the election of Ronald Reagan. In short, we do not know very much of consequence – which is why the experts keep falling back on restatements of whatever happens to be the current cliché. An example is Paul Dibb’s The Soviet Union: The Incomplete Super-Power, whose thesis is that the USSR is strong in military terms, but weak in all the other ingredients of power – economic, technological, ideological. As far as it goes, the book is rather well done, but it does not tell us anything very illuminating and it doesn’t give us any guidance as to whether anything has changed, or is likely to change, as a result of Gorbachev’s accession.
Gorbachev eases our anxieties on two counts. First, he makes foreign policy initiatives which appear much more conciliatory than those of his predecessors: whereas Andropov accompanied the reckless build-up of Soviet SS20 missiles with a sustained campaign of menaces against Western Europe, Gorbachev has proposed deep reductions in strategic nuclear weapons, has had an amiable meeting with President Reagan at the first East-West summit in six years, and has even offered to negotiate the removal of all the SS20s from Europe. These initiatives may not, as yet, have led to any concrete agreements, nor even to any hard evidence of negotiating progress: but at least negotiations are under way again between the two super-powers, at least the angry exchanges of 1981-82 seem to be behind us, at least there seems to be an improvement in the atmosphere. This improvement does not seem to have been significantly reversed by the US attack on Libya, despite the cancellation of the May meeting between the US and Soviet foreign ministers. The clearest sign of a general sense of appaisement in the West is the deflation of the protests of the so-called Peace Movements.
Gorbachev also eases our anxieties in another, perhaps more insidious way: the ‘modernity’ of his image suggests that he is a politician not all that dissimilar to other (Western) politicians, and the Soviet Union more like other countries than we are accustomed to suppose. Making an unconscious glissando from style to substance, we hope that this modernity implies that his purposes are more akin to our purposes, and less inimical to our interests, than traditional Soviet rhetoric had asserted. We are interested because we look for reassurance.
The grounds for such hopes may be flimsy enough, but our need for them is irresistible. Does anybody now recall the extravagantly optimistic interpretations put forward when Andropov succeeded Brezhnev? He was deemed to be a sophisticate because he had a taste for Scotch and jazz (or was it Bourbon and Bach?): so gossip implied that he must be a ‘liberal’. Gossip conveniently submerged the fact that he came from a career in the KGB (until it gradually became clear that he was not so much a ‘liberal’ as a disciplinarian), just as gossip later submerged the fact that Gorbachev came to power as a former protégé of Andropov. Given the secrecy of the Soviet system and the opacity of its political processes, it isn’t surprising that much of the interpretation of the Gorbachev phenomenon has been guided by wishful thinking.
Perhaps the least controvertible fact about Gorbachev’s first year in power has been the speed with which he removed rivals, representatives of the old guard, and the hangers-on of the Brezhnev era. In parallel with the sackings of Romanov, Tikhonov, Baybakov, Grishin, and the ‘promotion’ of Gromyko from the foreign ministry to the ceremonial job of President, there was a wave of reshuffles throughout the Party and the bureaucracy: 14 new ministers, 25 regional party chiefs, and eight departmental heads of the Central Committee.
What conclusion should one draw from this hectic rearrangement of the political dramatis personae? Many people have pointed to the contrast with the very slow shifts of personnel under Brezhnev, and have inferred that Gorbachev’s speed is at the very least suggestive evidence that the Kremlin is now ruled by an individual with almost unlimited personal power, rather than by a collective leadership. Such an inference may be correct, but the zigzag of the Soviet handling of Chernobyl raises more questions in this respect than it answers. An alternative hypothesis might embrace a number of factors: Andropov was too ill and his tenure too short for him to be able to prevent Chernenko from resuming the Brezhnev mantle, but in 13 short months he had already started taking decisive steps against the Brezhnev retinue. When Chernenko in turn died, there was no avoiding the generational shift and the long-delayed reaction against the incompetence and the corruption of Brezhnev’s men. In such circumstances, a dynamic and modernising General Secretary would not lack – and might need – allies in clearing out more of the dead wood. If so, Gorbachev’s personal authority may prove to have been greatest during the initial clear-out period, and it is at least possible that he will now become increasingly dependent on the collective leadership of his newly promoted allies: Yegor Ligachev, the party ideologue, Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chebrikov, head of the KGB, Eduard Shevardnadze, the Foreign Minster, and so on.
At all events, it may be unwise, and must be premature, to assume that Gorbachev is and will remain the unchallenged one-man ruler of Russia. On the contrary, his first 12 months demonstrated with greater clarity than ever before that since the death of Stalin political power in the Soviet Union has increasingly been based on the promotion of personal protégés or home-town cronies. Khrushchev started the trend, but it became a dominant practice under Brezhnev, who gave consistent preference to men (many of them mediocrities) he had known in Moldavia, in Kazakhstan or at the Metallurgical Institute of Dnepropetrovsk. In Brezhnev’s case the process was partly masked by its slowness: it took him 14 years to consolidate his supremacy. With Gorbachev it was clearer because it was telescoped into such a short time.
Christian Schmidt-Häuer’s Gorbachev: The Path to Power has many virtues as instant biography. It is crisply written; it is remarkably up to date; and it occupies a judicious middle terrain between over-confident interpretation and dramatisation, on the one hand, and cautious citation from articles in Pravda, on the other. But perhaps its most useful contribution is the way it highlights the networks of patronage and promotion which have marked the rise of the new leadership. A final section provides potted biographies of the new élite, the 18 men behind Gorbachev.
Two impressions stand out, one general, one specific. The general impression is that Gorbachev’s path to power is uncannily reminiscent of the political snakes-and-ladders of Medieval Florence or England under the Tudors. But whereas Brezhnev promoted his own relatives to positions of power and influence (and in so doing set in train the corruption which marked his reign), the chief sources of patronage for the new generation are the Party, the administrative bureaucracy and, significantly, the professionally-educated technocracy. The more specific impression is that the majority of Gorbachev’s new entourage were Andropov’s men well before they were in any effective sense Gorbachev’s. There are perhaps two exceptions: the Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze, an old acquaintance of Gorbachev’s; and Vsevolod Murakhovsky, a long-serving colleague of Gorbachev’s in Stavropol in the Caucasus, who has now been brought to Moscow as one of the three First Deputy Prime Ministers. That Gorbachev should have so few personal trusties in the new top élite should cause no surprise: he is still too young, and his rise to power was too fast, for him to have been able on his own to play a decisive role in the promotion of the new generation. Nevetheless, Schmidt-Häuer’s account strongly suggests that Ligachev, Ryzhkov, Chebrikov, Aliyev, Yeltsin, Yakovlev and Burlatsky, like Gorbachev himself, all owe their primary debt to Andropov.
To that extent, they may be less indebted to Gorbachev; to that extent, their support for him may prove conditional; to that extent, he may be dependent on them. This is not an inference spelt out by Schmidt-Häuer, but it is not inconsistent with the story he tells.
Inevitably, Zhores Medvedev’s biography covers much of the same ground as Schmidt-Häuer’s and draws on much of the same published material. He has the benefit of deep personal knowledge of Soviet history, the drawback of exile. He is particularly interesting on the details of local government structures, as exemplified by Gorbachev’s formative career in Stavropol. On the whole, Schmidt-Häuer’s account has the advantage of immediacy and the telling detail: for example, that Gorbachev was elected General Secretary nem. con. (not unanimously). He provides an apparently firsthand account of Gorbachev’s visit to a Moscow hospital last year, as part of his campaign to get rid of Viktor Grishin, the Moscow Party chief, and describes Gorbachev’s active intervention in support of the Moscow Arts Theatre, as well as the theatrical symbolism of his May 1985 speech in Leningrad’s Smolny Institute.
The biggest difference between the two writers is in the tone of the provisional judgment they pass on the new Soviet leader. Schmidt-Häuer is much more inclined to up-beat interpretations, while Medvedev is at once more severe and more cautious. The writer who chose exile in the West starts from the proposition that real improvements, both domestic and in East-West relations, can only come about through more liberalisation. But he does not believe that this is on the cards: ‘It has already been abundantly clear that Gorbachev is neither a liberal nor a bold reformist. He prefers small modifications, administrative methods and economic adjustments structural reform. If he merely continues the course he has adopted in his first year in office, trying to modernise and repair the existing system without lifting the many artificial and unjust political and economic restrictions, there will be little improvement in Soviet material and intellectual life.’ Yet he is reluctant to write off the chances of real change. Where Schmidt-Häuer declares that ‘Gorbachev’s honeymoon with the essentially conservative Soviet establishment can have only a limited life,’ Medvedev roundly asserts that ‘the eventual emergence of Gorbachev’s own cult of personality is inevitable’; that Gorbachev ‘has not yet made his final choice’; and that ‘the very fact that he has a better intellect, better education and is a more decent person than his predecessors, may contribute to a gradual improvement in the quality of the Soviet political and administrative élite, and help to cultivate a more flexible and less dogmatic future generation of leaders.’
Medvedev’s is the voice of a Russian who apparently yearns for a wise and benevolent father of his people, without at all believing that such a paragon has arrived or is likely to arrive. Towards the end of his book he comments wistfully: ‘it is probably a mistake to expect too much of Gorbachev.’ Schmidt-Häuer dramatises the novelties of Gorbachev’s regime and the impression of both power and personal strength which he projects, no doubt because it makes good copy. Yet in reality he appears to see Gorbachev as a public relations wizard, a lone actor constrained to preside over an entrenched and conservative establishment and a system which he does not seriously want to challenge or to change. In other words, despite all the razzmatazz and the initial excitement over Moscow’s New Man, the two authors concur, though from different perspectives, in a general sense of disappointment and gloom. Neither is able confidently to answer our questions or to alleviate our anxieties. There was a famous Whitehall Think Tank report on the Foreign Office some years ago, which attempted to denigrate the importance and the difficulty of political intelligence and analysis, by asserting that in any given country it was relatively easy to know ‘where power lay and what the prospects were’. The fatuity of the assertion is self-evident. Here we have two serious analysts, working with considerably more information than was available under previous Soviet leaders, and they cannot really tell us if Mikhail Gorbachev will make much difference to anything.
They are both agreed that interaction between Gorbachev’s domestic and foreign policies is unavoidable, though only Schmidt-Häuer pretends to deal with foreign policy in any detail. In one sense, it is an easy prediction to make because Gorbachev himself has said that domestic economic reform depends on more normal relations with the West – in the first place, with the United States. It is also an easy prediction because the widening gap between economic performance in the Soviet Union and the West cannot be closed without freer trade with the West, and trade will not be liberalised without better political relations. President Reagan’s rearmament and his Star Wars programme pose a daunting challenge to Moscow, which probably cannot compete technologically, and must be deeply reluctant to contemplate further transfers of scarce resources to defence. In addition, the Soviet Union’s almost total dependence on oil and gas exports for hard currency earnings has now been hit by the precipitous fall in the international oil price: these earnings can only be replaced by manufactured exports, in which the Soviet Union is uncompetitive.
Yet Schmidt-Häuer makes little attempt to work out what all this will mean, or to size up the real thrust of Gorbachev’s foreign policy: he contents himself instead with projecting the surface glitter of those public appearances in London in 1984, in Paris and Geneva in 1985, which so captivated the West. It is evident – or at least, it appears evident – that Gorbachev wants better political relations with the United States and its European allies: but if this is his general objective, what role does he assign to arms control? Schmidt-Häuer does not tell us. Six months ago, the logic of the Soviet position seemed unambiguous: Gorbachev was determined to negotiate curbs on America’s Strategic Defence Initiative, and was prepared in return to agree deep reductions in offensive nuclear weapons. More specifically, he seemed poised to insist on some commitment on Star Wars at the Geneva summit with President Reagan. Yet the summit passed, and passed amicably, without any such commitment having been demanded or conceded. Schmidt-Häuer tells us that ‘Moscow’s insistence that there could be no improvement in Soviet-US relations without the prior removal of SDI was Gromyko’s legacy; with the Geneva summit, Gorbachev set that legacy aside.’ He does not tell us what has replaced the legacy, and his analysis throws no light on recent developments.
Six months ago, many strategic analysts were persuaded, not merely that the new Soviet leadership was genuinely bent on a strengthening of the international arms-control regime (and not just because of its fear of SDI), but that, unlike any other post-war government, it was even prepared to take the initiative in negotiations. More precisely, it looked as though all the ingredients were there for an agreement reducing the nuclear arsenals of the two super-powers. Yet in the past three months there has been deadlock in these negotiations, combined with such a proliferation of new Gorbachev arms-control proposals on such a range of issues, most of them either hopelessly fantastic or obviously non-negotiable, that optimism has turned to pessimism. In propaganda terms, SDI and deep cuts have been displaced at the top of the Soviet agenda by a so-called plan for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons by the turn of the century, and by a demand for a negotiated ban on all nuclear testing. These are attractive notions: but since the first is quite unrealistic in practice, and the second is totally unacceptable to the US Administration in principle, they do not suggest that Gorbachev has decided on a businesslike approach to East-West relations. One possible explanation is that he is merely pressing various propaganda buttons just to see what kind of response he gets from Western public opinion; another is that he is having second thoughts about the necessity, or even the feasibility, of a negotiated improvement in relations with Ronald Reagan, and is filling in time until Reagan’s successor comes along; yet another is that he has found it much easier to make grandiose public declarations on arms control than to persuade his bureaucracy to turn them into equitable negotiating positions. In short, we still do not really know what he and they are after.