"A PROPHET is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house." This biblical quotation is a fitting epitaph for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the last secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), who died on Aug. 30, 2022. He is a hero in most of the world for ending the Cold War. His reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) resulted in the largely peaceful restoration of freedom for millions of people in what were once the satellite countries of the Soviet Union. The world has felt more secure after Gorbachev agreed to enter into nuclear arms limitation treaties with the United States. For the public outside the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was thus nothing short of meritorious and well-deserved.
But in his own country, the Russian Federation, Gorbachev is blamed and reviled for the dismantling of the Soviet Union although as he stated in his speech at the ceremonies formalizing the dissolution of the USSR, his reforms were directed, on the contrary, at saving the union from collapse. He took pride in the following accomplishments: "political and religious freedoms, the end of totalitarianism, the introduction of democracy and a market economy, and the end of the arms race and the Cold War." Today, in the context of what has happened and is happening in Russia, including Putin's war on Ukraine, the Gorbachev legacy seems but a fleeting dream.
It was my good fortune to have been a witness to Gorbachev's colorful watch. I assumed my post as Philippine ambassador in Moscow on April 23, 1986, three days before the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, and my tour of duty ended on Nov. 30, 1989, one week after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Spanning these two events was the tenure of Gorbachev as secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These two events have been defining moments in history.
Chernobyl demonstrated the decrepit state of the Soviet Union and its governing Communist Party. The cover-up of the disaster by the Kremlin alienated the Ukrainians and became the first crack in the structure of the Soviet Union. The whole world learned about the disaster from the Swedes: the radiation-bearing wind was blowing their way. The Russian people knew about it only by listening to BBC Radio Liberty clandestinely. When the Kremlin confirmed the disaster, they downplayed its casualties, reporting 30 deaths among the first responders and not mentioning the 4,000 to 350,000 expected by experts to die through years of exposure to radiation poisoning.
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While Gorbachev might have been involved in the cover-up, Chernobyl demonstrated to him and people of the Soviet Union the value of freedom of information. It propelled Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. During my assignment in Moscow, it was very common for Gorbachev and his allies to cite Chernobyl and its cover-up in emphasizing the importance of glasnost.
The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the relentless downhill slide of Communist Party rule to implosion. The Wall had to be shattered to pieces ultimately. The people of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries could not bear the communist rule's inefficiency and injustice any longer.
Economy of scarcity
Communism promised a proletarian paradise with equality among its citizens. Instead, what common Soviet citizens got was an "economy of scarcity" marked by the acute shortage of consumer goods. They had to fall in line to buy bread, milk, soap, toothpaste, etc., for hours, a truly harrowing experience when the temperature frequently minus 20 degrees below zero. Soviet society was actually highly stratified. The ruling elite, the top officials of the CPSU, known as the nomenklatura, were paid in "hard" rubles convertible into Western currencies allowing them access to Western goods. They were given dachas (summer homes), they could travel abroad and send their children to foreign language schools.
The shortages were the product of the centrally planned economy which did not recognize the price mechanism, and the law of supply and demand. The central planners decided what and how much goods of each kind would be produced, from hydrogen bombs to toothpicks.
After the pronouncement of glasnost and perestroika, the reform of the Soviet economy became the order of the day and the immediate subject of speculation among diplomats in Moscow. Gorbachev tapped three economists based in the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics in the Russian Far East — Abel Aganbegan, Tatiana Zavlaskana and Leonid Abalkin. They were chosen partly because their distant location would allow them freedom from party control. They, however, made themselves accessible to diplomats in Moscow, perhaps recognizing the latter's potential as communicators to the world of the message of perestroika. In my interaction with them, the three described the main thrusts of perestroika as follows: 1) dismantle the centrally planned economy and replace it with a market economy governed by the law of supply and demand; 2) make the ruble convertible; 3) remove all state subsidies; 4) privatize all government-owned businesses (meaning all businesses as all were owned by the State); and 5) deregulation (meaning of all aspects of life since everything was regulated in totalitarian countries).
Actually, there was little controversy about the goals of economic reform in the Soviet Union at that time. The controversy was rather about the pace of reforms, how fast they should proceed. Things might have turned differently for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union if perestroika had been pursued less hesitantly or at a faster pace.
The abovementioned advisers said they expected the transformation of the Soviet economy to be realized 14 years after implementation. To reservations about this pace, they replied that there was first, the expected resistance from hardline communists and second, the lack of qualified personnel to man the private enterprises that would be created. The skills needed had still to be developed through cooperatives running small enterprises.
The guru of political development, Prof. Samuel Huntington, advocates the "blitzkrieg" approach as the preferred strategy for reforms. He stresses that there will always be opposition to reforms, and a slow pace will allow those against to mount a counterattack. In due course, as the Eastern European countries junked communism, the rapid transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy was to be called "shock therapy."
Pace of reforms
The debate about the pace of the reforms was to be stopped, and the lesson of Professor Huntington was to be confirmed when hardline communists attempted a coup d'état in August 1991. Gorbachev survived the coup attempt, but his powers were reduced. He was in the Crimea at the time, and in his absence, a new star appeared in the political firmament, Boris Yeltsin, whose image denouncing the coup plotters atop a tank became iconic. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Gorbachev, Yeltsin assumed the presidency and applied the abovementioned shock therapy to the Russian economy. He privatized the economy, turning over the ownership of state enterprises to his cronies who, alas, did not know anything about running private enterprises. The result was economic chaos and social unrest thus setting the stage for the public to clamor for reversion to authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin. While there has been some improvement in the economy and certainly, social order under a police state, critics say one reason for Putin's invasion of Ukraine was to divert the attention of the Russian public away from economic problems at home.
Elsewhere in the former satellite republics of Eastern Europe, the shock therapy has been more successful. The reason is that the private entrepreneurs from pre-communist days were still living when communism collapsed, and their businesses were simply restored to them. Russia had been under communist rule for 70 years, and the skills for running private enterprises had completely disappeared.
In the final analysis, Gorbachev and his advisers were not unjustified in carrying out perestroika at the pace they did. One could only wish destiny had given them enough time to make perestroika a guaranteed success.