How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

A man from West Berlin uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Glasnost, meant to save the USSR, wound up being its death blow.

May-June 2017

GORBACHEV CERTAINLY did not come to power with the idea of destroying Soviet Communism. He was not a closet social democrat, nor even a Communist with dissident ideas. Those who elected him were reasonably sure of that. He was eased into the job as general secretary in 1984 by appointment to the post of second secretary in charge of ideology, the post held by Mikhail Suslov since the Khrushchev days, until his death in 1982. Under Suslov the Soviet Union had enjoyed a long period of collective leadership and “stabilization of cadres,” which greatly assured the nomenklatura who remembered the regime of Stalin, or even the mercurial Khrushchev. Making Gorbachev the ideological secretary suggested that he would invest in the continuity of the Suslov system. Gorbachev’s salient act in the job was the rehabilitation of Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Stalin’s closest associate, who had been expelled in 1961 as too critical of Khrushchev and too uncritical of Mao Zedong. One would have thought Gorbachev to be a traditional Stalinist, at least in the same sense as Brezhnev or Suslov. When asked about this in 1986, after being elevated to the top job, he told the French Communist paper L’Humanité that “Stalinism is a concept made up by opponents of Communism and used on a large scale to smear the Soviet Union and socialism as a whole.” Nor was he particularly critical of the Brezhnev leadership. Even so, the Gorbachev broom swept clean. He made personnel changes in every corner of the state and party machinery, indeed often returning for a second pass to replace the replacements. Instead of the Brezhnev “stabilization of cadres,” it was churning of cadres.

But he did not assert that these changes were in the name of anything more than uskoreniye (acceleration), that is, “acceleration of the perfection” of the Brezhnev system. This was the watchword of the first two years of the Gorbachev period. It did not mean any substantial moves in the direction of opening up the Soviet economy. Gorbachev stressed “total independence” from other countries, “especially in the strategic areas.” The Andropov appointees in the Politburo took his measures to be in line with those of Andropov in 1982–83. When Gorbachev spoke of “de-ideologizing foreign policy” they assumed he was trying to use diplomacy in the style of Andropov or Gromyko to dilute the effectiveness of the Reagan Doctrine, which foresaw mobilizing every anti-Communist force in the world. He recognized the impasse of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, but gave no hint of accepting failure there. He recognized the challenge of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative for ballistic-missile defense, but insisted that the Soviets were always capable of “asymmetric response,” by which he presumably meant deploying more warheads. Uskoreniye seemed to be producing economic results, especially in the Baltic republics, and Gorbachev’s politburo colleagues had no real reason not to support his far-reaching explorations in what we would today probably call “soft power,” having as their aim a sort of Gromyko-Andropov peace offensive. When they spoke of de-ideologizing foreign policy, they had in mind mainly de-ideologizing U.S. foreign policy. But in the end, they failed to convince others and were able only to convince themselves. It was Soviet policy that was de-ideologized.


THE STRUGGLE against Stalinism only began with the central committee plenum of January 1987, shortly after Gorbachev’s return from his meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik. The two leaders had left their advisers aside and parlayed together with only their translators for three days, tossing about ideas on various ways for them to end their dependence on nuclear weapons—that is, if Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative were not deployed (Gorbachev’s view), or if SDI were more or less excluded from discussion (Reagan’s view). Their advisers were profoundly unnerved by the idea of the two men making this decision on their own.

When Gorbachev returned, he found a solid phalanx of Politiburo opposition; the Andropov appointees, led by Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev, confronted him for the first time. Ligachev was now in the Suslov role of guarantor of the collective leadership against a possible usurpation by the new gensek. The second secretary was not at all against reform and was to protest his support for perestroika during the next two years, as he insisted in his curiously feeble memoir. Still he had to do his job. Gorbachev might have wanted to smooth the whole thing over with reassurances that he knew his limits. But limiting the gensek under the unwritten Suslov rules might be a preliminary to removing him, as Suslov had organized the campaign to remove Khrushchev in 1964.

Gorbachev decided not to bend to criticism, but to double down with what the French call a fuite en avant, an “escape forward.” Instead of defending himself he went on the attack against his critics, accusing them of wanting to do things “in the old way.” He did not say that they were Stalinists at this time, although he would say it many times over the next three years, but he did stop proclaiming the intention to perfect Brezhnevism and started calling it stagnation (zastoy).