- Mikhail Gorbachev and the Origins of Perestroika:A Retrospective
Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union for less than seven years, but his tenure resulted in profound domestic and international changes, culminating in the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR. Having arrived in office in March 1985 determined to strengthen the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Gorbachev instead presided over the end of both.
This essay by Gorbachev, who turned 90 in March 2021, explains the policies he pursued as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from March 11, 1985, to August 24, 1991, and as President of the USSR from March 15, 1990, to December 25, 1991. Although Gorbachev has discussed these topics at great length in his memoirs and in countless interviews over the years, the essay provides a valuable reassessment of why he acted as he did and what he was trying to achieve. The passage of three decades has altered his perspective on numerous issues, and the essay deepens and enriches our understanding of the dissolution of the USSR.
Several points are worth noting. First, Gorbachev argues here (as he has many times in the past) that the Soviet Union was in dire shape when he took power and that drastic changes were therefore needed. He insists that "leaving things as they were was not an option. That was the unanimous opinion of the Soviet leadership" (p. 212). There was undoubtedly widespread sentiment among Soviet policymakers that some changes were needed to make the economy work better, but perspectives were considerably more varied than Gorbachev suggests. He himself acknowledges that on economic policy, in particular, he encountered staunch resistance almost immediately. The very fact that Gorbachev began undertaking [End Page 255] major changes of personnel in the CPSU's ruling organs and central party apparatus at an early stage indicates that he was aware that opinion in 1985 was not as "unanimous" as he claims here.
Second, Gorbachev emphasizes the enormous pressure he was coming under in the spring and summer of 1991 from hardliners, on one hand, and from radical reformers and separatists, on the other. He briefly recounts two serious challenges he faced from hardliners in the months leading up to the attempted coup in August 1991. The second of these challenges, the so-called "constitutional coup" in June 1991, became known almost immediately and has been discussed at length in various memoirs. But the first challenge, in April 1991, has been much more obscure. Gorbachev maintains that at a CPSU Central Committee plenum in late April 1991, a group of hardliners demanded that he either clamp down forcefully or resign. Gorbachev says that he fended off the challenge by resigning and leaving the hall. The Central Committee as a whole was not yet willing to accept this outcome and voted by a large margin to have Gorbachev stay on as party leader. He withdrew his resignation and remained General Secretary, but he now believes this was a mistake.
Third, Gorbachev sheds light on what spurred the plotters of the failed August 1991 coup to act. The plotters themselves—Vladimir Kryuchkov, Anatoly Lukyanov, Valentin Pavlov, Gennadii Yanaev, Dmitry Yazov, and Valentin Varennikov—argued both in August 1991 and in their post-1991 memoirs that they had imposed a state of emergency on August 19, 1991, because they feared that the draft Union Treaty, which was slated to be signed the next day, would result in the disintegration of the country. Gorbachev contends that this explanation was mostly window-dressing. He argues that their main motivation was concern about their own political fates. According to Gorbachev, his deliberations with the various republic leaders in the spring and summer of 1991 had led to consensus that figures like Kryuchkov, Pavlov, Lukyanov, and Yazov would be omitted from "the new leadership to be formed after the signing of the Union Treaty" (p. 231). Presumably, the coup plotters had learned about these impending leadership changes from one of the republic leaders, or Kryuchkov had discovered the plans from eavesdropping and wiretaps the KGB maintained. Whatever the case may be, Gorbachev is justified...