The Inspector Clouseau of the Cold War Speaks

In my lengthy research that went into writing The Age of Reagan, I read a lot of translated Soviet documents, and a ton of the secondary literature, trying to reach a conclusion about Mikhail Gorbachev and his role in the end of the Cold War under the spur of Ronald Reagan’s aggressive policies.  I came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was in fact a person of authentic liberal reformist inclinations, but that he was a deeply confused reformer.  His basic problem domestically was that he thought the problems of socialism required . . . more socialism.  (Fortunately he saw foreign policy more clearly.)  For this reason my summary judgment was that he was less Machiavelli than Inspector Clouseau.

Gorbachev, now 80, has given an extraordinary interview to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.  The whole thing is worth reading, but there are a few extraordinary passages like these:

Gorbachev:  . . .  That night, I retuned to my dacha shortly before dawn — and went for a walk with Raisa.

SPIEGEL: You never discussed important issues with your wife at home?

Gorbachev: You had to go outside. We also never discussed important things openly at the dacha. When I cleared out our Moscow apartment after stepping down as president, they found all kinds of wiring in the walls. It turned out that they had been spying on me all along. . .


SPIEGEL: . . . You only treated the symptoms of the sick communist system, but you didn’t get to the core of the problem, namely that the planned economy and the party’s monopoly on power remained untouched for too long. Was that not truly the case?

Gorbachev: Let’s take one thing at a time. I would launch perestroika in exactly the same way today. “We can’t go on living this way.” That was our slogan. “I want changes,” Viktor Zoi, the pioneer of Russian rock music, sang.

SPIEGEL: But you lacked a concept for these changes.

Gorbachev: If I had had a plan for it, I would have quickly ended up in Magadan.

SPIEGEL: The capital of the Stalinist gulag, 6,000 kilometers from Moscow.

Gorbachev: Both of you were very familiar with the Soviet Union. Don’t you remember what kind of a country it was? All it took was a tiny political joke to end up in Magadan. And I was supposed to have a plan and a supporting team? . . .


Gorbachev: The Soviet Communist Party was a huge machine. At some point, it began throwing spokes into the wheels. It was the initiator of perestroika, but then it became its biggest obstacle. . .  I joined the Communist Party at 19, when I was still in school. My father had been on the front and my grandfather was an old communist — and I was supposed to blow the whole thing up? Today I know that I should have done it. But the man sitting in front of you is not a so-called statesman, but a completely normal person. Someone with a conscience, and that conscience tortured me constantly. . .


SPIEGEL: What would be better today if the Soviet Union still existed?

Gorbachev: Isn’t that clear to you? Everything had grown together over the decades: culture, education, language, the economy, everything. They were building cars in the Baltic republics and airplanes in the Ukraine. We still can’t get by without each other today. And a population of 300 million was also a plus.

SPIEGEL: Are there other things that you did that still torment you today?

Gorbachev: My goal was to avoid bloodshed. But unfortunately there was some bloodshed, after all. It also troubles me that I didn’t resolve the problem with the Communist Party in time. And that I underestimated the fact that the establishment in the other national republics wanted to decide issues relating to their own lives on their own, without anyone from the central government getting involved. Now they have this possibility.

From this and other parts of the interview you can see his strange combination of decency and stubborn cluelessness, and hence my summary judgment stands undisturbed.  Centuries from now historians are likely to lump him as a spectacular failure, alongside British Prime Minister Lord North at the time of the American Revolution.

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