Gorbachev Attempted To 'Reconcile the Irreconcilable'

December 29, 1991|By ARCHIE BROWN

Mikhail S. Gorbachev's real occupancy of the principal seat of power in the former Soviet Union lasted for less than 6 1/2 years. Yet within that time, he changed the world.

Not all of the changes were intentional. The disintegration of the Soviet Union was the last thing that Mr. Gorbachev had in mind when he embarked on the reconstruction (perestroika), or radical reform, of the Soviet system. He was, however, prepared to move from a desire to reform the system to an attempt to make it different in kind. His views continued to develop as he came to terms with new realities that he had done much to bring into being.

Mr. Gorbachev began as a serious reformer of communism and finished up as something more -- a believer in political pluralism, personal liberty and a mixed economy (one in which the market would predominate and there would be a substantial private sector).

In short, he had become a democratic socialist, espousing views of late that have more in common with those of mainstream social democratic and labor parties in the West than with the communist doctrine he inherited. In Moscow last week, a Russian scholar said to me: "Gorbachev would have made a wonderful leader for the Social Democratic Party in Germany in a time of peace, but he was not the right leader for this country in a time of crisis."

The second part of that statement does not, however, do justice to Mr. Gorbachev's achievement. It was his combination of boldness and caution that made the remarkable changes of recent years possible.

It took courage to try to reform drastically a system that could have survived until the end of the century if Mr. Gorbachev had gone no further in his reforms than Yuri Andropov did in his brief period as Soviet leader, even though it would have continued to fall further behind the developed world.

It also required enormous political skill, subtlety and caution, so long as the Communist Party, the KGB and the military remained powerful institutions. Otherwise, Mr. Gorbachev would have been hurled from the heights of power for permitting, and often himself uttering, views that previous generations of Soviet citizens had languished in prison camps for expressing.

His thinking constantly developed, for -- apart from sharp intelligence -- his single most important characteristic has been a remarkably open mind. Among the popular misconceptions of Mr. Gorbachev in Russia, and on the part of those Western commentators who merely reflect popular Russian misunderstandings and rapidly changing Russian moods, have been the notions that he was a prisoner of old communist beliefs and that he talked incessantly but did not listen.

The misleading attribution of traditional Soviet notions to Mr. Gorbachev was a result of failure to understand the extent to which he was actually undermining the most fundamental Soviet institutions -- the party and ministerial apparatus and the state security and military machines. He needed, therefore, to offer some concessions and reassurance to those bodies and at times to make tactical retreats in the face of their pressures and threats. During the winter of 1990-91, he carried such a retreat too far, but some zig-zags were inevitable in the course of such a dramatic transformation of a system.

So far as Mr. Gorbachev the listener is concerned, all of those who advised him, whether on a full or part-time basis, have pointed out that in private no one was afraid to voice their opinions in his presence.

He had what the director of a Moscow institute described to me last week as "simply an extraordinary talent for listening," an ability to concentrate on what his interlocutor was saying and absorb a remarkable amount of information and advice. If he did not always make the right decisions on the basis of the sharply conflicting opinion he heard, many of them were, nevertheless, close to the optimal ones under the circumstances and constraints in which he was operating.

It has to be realized that Mr. Gorbachev as leader never had anything remotely resembling a free hand.

Before the August coup he had to bear in mind the threat from those very institutions -- the government bureaucracy, the KGB, the Communist Party apparatus and the military -- which in that month joined forces to overthrow him.

After the coup, Boris N. Yeltsin and his colleagues moved quickly to ensure that Mr. Gorbachev would be given no opportunity to reassert his authority, even though the president now had a team committed to transformation and had dispensed with the dubious services of those whose hearts and interests lay with the old order.

One of Mr. Gorbachev's failures of judgment was to refuse to take the risk of parting company earlier with those opposed to systemic change.

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