Gorbachev's pragmatism helped him pull off reform Country's survival was guiding rule

December 22, 1991|By Scott Shane

"The success of perestroika will be a decisive argument in the historical debate: which system [capitalist or socialist] to a greater degree meets the interests of the people. . . . Those who hope we will turn from the socialist path are destined for a bitter disappointment."

-- Mikhail S. Gorbachev

"Perestroika," 1987

Four tumultuous years later, the bitter disappointment is that of Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Unable to accept the consequences of the revolution he began, he departs not in triumph but in a huff.

He set out to make a stronger Soviet Union. He ends up reluctantly snuffing out the empire, observing the occasion in what promises to be a poignant New Year's Eve ceremony with his greatest enemy and greatest ally, Boris N. Yeltsin.

History may credit him with epoch-making achievements -- wrenching Russia from 1,000 years of authoritarian rule and the world from the path to nuclear holocaust. But, like many titanic political figures, including such Russian rulers as the westward-looking Peter the Great and the serfs' emancipator, Alexander II, Mr. Gorbachev is a mass of contradictions, a man of liberating vision and exasperating blindness.

After three decades as a loyal servant to the gray Communist Party apparatus, he defied Kremlinological wisdom by launching risky, daring reforms. Ever vowing his fidelity to communism, he junked its major precepts. Incessantly praising and quoting Lenin, he authorized real elections and constitutional changes that doomed Lenin's one-party rule. Arguing that only contested elections are consistent with democratic ideals, he never submitted to one himself.

He sparked republican independence movements with his rhetoric of democracy and non-violence -- and then resorted to economic bullying and military force to stop them. He inspired the emergence of a new generation of radical reform-minded politicians -- and then scorned them and surrounded himself with reactionaries and time-servers.

Overthrown and imprisoned for three days by his Communist Party associates, he emerged proclaiming that the party could still be reformed. Having worked furiously to transform the Soviet Union into a decentralized union of sovereign states, he angrily denounced just such a union when it was finally delivered not by himself but by Mr. Yeltsin.

Hero or apparatchik?

Who was the real Mikhail Gorbachev? Was he the man who held the U.N. General Assembly spellbound in December 1988 with his vision of a world without the Cold War? Or the sputtering apparatchik who in October 1989 tried to oust the editor of the country's most popular newspaper, Argumenti i Fakti, for printing a poll ranking Andrei D. Sakharov and other liberals as the country's most popular legislators?

Was he the master politician who persuaded the Communist Party Central Committee in February 1990 to relinquish the party's constitutional monopoly on power, peacefully ending a thralldom many thought would yield only to force? Or the chilling Kremlin despot who in January 1991 cynically justified the KGB-army assault on peaceful demonstrators outside Lithuanian television facilities, which left 14 people dead?

He was all of those. He was -- as Vladislav Starkov, the editor he tried to fire, put it -- a man at war with himself. His veering, paradoxical course revealed that he was ad-libbing and that his own feelings about reform were often mixed.

Far from enacting a detailed, long-term scheme for reform, Mr. Gorbachev began with nothing more than doomsday economic projections from the KGB and a vague sense that "we can't live like this." His method was trial and error. About four years into his nearly seven years in power, he lost the reformist initiative to his people. He could only struggle to channel or resist the social and political forces he had unleashed.

The Russian historian Leonid Batkin has compared Mr. Gorbachev to an elderly man caught in a public toilet in Tashkent when an earthquake hit that Central Asian city in 1966. The old man is said to have emerged, from the rubble of the toilet, surveyed the devastated city and declared: "If I'd have known all that was going to happen, I never would have pulled the chain."

That may be a cheap shot, but ordinary Russians invariably respond to it with delight. It reflects an intuitive Russian sense that Mikhail Gorbachev was not an idealist determined to bring democracy and the free market to his country, but a pragmatist who knew the Soviet Union was incurably ill and required radical surgery for mere survival.

Pragmatism in a country long ruled by ideologues may have been his most important trait. Whatever he had to jettison to stay the course toward a more prosperous long-term future, he was willing to jettison: the pursuit of military supremacy; entanglement in Third World conflicts; the war in Afghanistan; rule over Eastern Europe; control over Soviet elections; the one-party system; media censorship; state ownership of all property; collectivized agriculture.

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