This is the second of a three-part article written by a retired Indian diplomat, who had a ringside view of the Gorbachev era in Russia.


Was Gorbachev merely a dreamer, an idealist imbued with the ideas of truth, morality and humanism? As subsequent events showed, he did have some of these qualities, when he refused to send troops to quell uprisings in different parts of the Soviet Union and in the East European satellite states. But Gorbachev was also a realist. His outreach to the West was a compulsion, born out of the recognition that, saddled with a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union did not have the wherewithal to compete with the West, with which he foresaw a period of intense competition, aggravated by US President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). As a satiated territorial power, Gorbachev needed peace with the West, and did not want to fritter away energy and resources to export of revolution. To many of us living in the Soviet Union at that time, it was evident as early as in 1985 that Gorbachev’s coming into power would be a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. Even cynical and sceptical observers were compelled to revisit old stereotypes and assumptions about the Soviet Union. After having got a mandate from the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, and having consolidated his political authority in the Politburo, Gorbachev shifted gears from merely “uskorenie” or acceleration to a wider “perestroika” or comprehensive restructuring of all aspects of political, economic, social and intellectual life. In order to overcome the entrenched vested interests of the party elite, who were bent on sabotaging Gorbachev’s policies, Gorbachev tried to enthuse ordinary people to support his perestroika. He exhorted people to believe and feel that they were the “owners” of the country. His was a nutcracker approach: cleanse the top ranks of the leadership, and then use the people to exert pressure on the party and bureaucracy from below. In the early months, there was indeed considerable enthusiasm and optimism among at least a section of the elite in the cities. The cultural renaissance, criticism of past leaders’ policies, removal of “blank spots” in history, release of dissidents, reopening and restoration of churches and monasteries, easier travel abroad, emigration of Jews, access to foreign broadcasts, articles in the press exposing misdemeanours of officials—all this released considerable pent-up frustration. 1986 and 1987 were years of heady optimism, mingled with anxious hope that this was not just a dream.
Gorbachev’s strategy didn’t quite pan out the way he had intended. None of this ferment percolated down to the small towns and villages. The bulk of the people were passive and could not get out of their ingrained habit of receiving orders from above. They were uneasy at having responsibility thrust upon them, and their decades-long bitter experience of life in a Stalinist environment prompted them to be naturally cautious and circumspect, even fearful. The bureaucracy was sullen and hostile, at best fence sitters. In any case, they did not know how to work in a more open and liberal environment. One instance that typifies this problem comes to mind. Thanks to Ambassador T.N. Kaul’s initiative, an agreement was reached to open an Indian restaurant as a joint venture in Moscow. The opening of a foreign restaurant in Moscow was a pioneering and path-breaking development. But the nitty-gritty of opening was infuriatingly frustrating. The Russian general manager and his Indian deputy took a long time to arrive at a compromise on whether the doors of the restaurant should be kept open or closed. The Indians wanted open doors, whereas the Soviets (in keeping with the prevalent practice that doors to restaurants were kept shut and it usually required a bribe of a rouble or two to persuade the doorman to let in customers) wanted the doors to be kept shut and a doorman appointed to regulate access to the restaurant. The compromise reached was that the doors would be kept open, but there would be a doorman to keep an eye on who was coming in. A couple of days after the opening of the restaurant, a diner hailed the Indian deputy manager with a complaint that his soup was cold. As he went to the kitchen to investigate, he found that there was a babushka (old lady), seated at the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen, weighing the portions of soup and other food items before they were sent to the dining room. Aghast, the deputy manager asked why this was being done. The babushka said that she was simply following rules: the prescribed quantity of each soup serving was 300 ml and she was just making sure that no one got more or less soup. It took considerable effort by the deputy manager to persuade the kitchen staff and the supervising babushka that two ladles of hot soup were preferable to an exact 300 ml of cold soup.
By 1988, perestroika had begun to sputter, and within a year the situation had become critical. There was a flux in all spheres of life. Old systems had been dismantled but new ones hadn’t been set up. The most worrying aspect was the state of the economy because, far from bringing a change for the better, perestroika had worsened the day-to-day life of people. Ethnic and separatist problems began to surface. Gorbachev’s popularity and credibility sharply declined. He was widely blamed and intensely hated for creating the mess in which the country found itself. As it was impossible to turn back the clock, Gorbachev decided to press ahead even harder with radical changes. He got himself elected as President, though not through direct elections. While that gave him more legal powers, it did not give him greater political legitimacy. There were now many independent centres of power—the party, the republics, the army, the KGB, the miners, workers and farmers. Ethnic and regional nationalism, as well as separatism, surfaced menacingly throughout the country.
Soon, the Soviet Union was like a runaway train, hurtling towards a crash. Gorbachev had opened too many fronts simultaneously, and was unable to control the course of events. The Communist Party was made to give up its leading role, but it was forgotten that it was not just a political organization but also the administrative organ of the state that held it together. The old system had been dismantled, but there wasn’t a new one to replace it. Laws to regulate property rights were not in place. No one in authority had any experience in managing a market economy. Nor did ordinary people understand what it meant. By the second half of 1990, as republics, regions, towns and districts declared their “sovereignty”, there were serious widespread doubts in the minds of observers and even Gorbachev himself whether the Soviet Union could survive. A referendum in March followed by an agreement reached in April 1991 between nine of the 15 Republics to have a new treaty that would restructure the Soviet Union as a loose federation or confederation of sovereign states with a weak Centre was a last-ditch effort to avert a looming train wreck. However, the August 1991 failed putsch against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s grab for power torpedoed this possibility. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as President of the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev era was over.

Rajiv Sikri is a retired Indian diplomat who has over the last five decades spent long periods living in, dealing with, and studying the Russian-speaking world.

This is the second of a three-part series on Gorbachev and Russia in the time of Gorbachev. The last part next week will answer the following question: Was Gorbachev a failure?