Many of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were made out of sheer economic necessity, argues Russia’s historian Raymond Detrez. Gorbachev just wanted to make the Soviet Union stronger. He never thought she could fall apart.”
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s, it quickly sparked uproar across Europe. Despite some skepticism, Gorbachev’s promises brought hope to a world in a full arms race. He was also remarkably popular in the other countries of the Eastern Bloc, who, despite a mutual loathing of the Soviets, looked enthusiastically at the promising reforms proposed by Gorbachev. “Even the number of Slavic students increased spectacularly,” says emeritus professor Raymond Detrez, who taught Russian history at Ghent University until just before the corona pandemic. “Suddenly we had 70 students who wanted to study Russian. These are numbers that education today can only dream of.’
When he dies, the world will look drastically different. The war in Ukraine seems to have destroyed the last part of Gorbachev’s legacy. Certainly in Russia, but also in most former Soviet states, the reformer of the past is just not a pariah. How different it was when he was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985.
Raymond Detrez: His age alone was surprising: he was only 59. His predecessors Andropov and Chernenko were old men too weak and sick to accomplish anything. In addition, Gorbachev’s ideas were actively promoted by the cultural elite. Russian writers traveled around Europe to promote his glasnost and perestroika. There was some skepticism: Would all these reforms actually work? It didn’t help that initially it happened in the usual Soviet style, where the leader’s word was suddenly spread like the holy word.
Gorbachev never wanted to end the communist system, especially the Soviet Union.
What state was the Soviet Union in when Gorbachev came to power?
Detrez: The economy became square. The Soviet Union was also in foreign policy trouble: the invasion of Afghanistan was a complete failure. The USSR was no longer able to continue the Cold War. She had fallen far behind in technology. For example, there were almost no computers, while they were already quite widespread in the West. It could not continue like this, and therefore perestroika – an economic revolution – had to happen. Gorbachev never wanted to end the communist system, especially the Soviet Union. He just wanted to make the Soviet Union stronger. He never believed that the Soviet Union could fall apart.
Was perestroika somehow inevitable?
Detrez: Another manager might have handled it differently, but something had to change anyway. The Soviet Union was morally and economically bankrupt. She was no longer able to defend herself effectively. She could no longer spend money on additional weapons to ensure her safety. In that case, Gorbachev could do only one thing: improve relations with the ‘enemy’ so that an attack became unlikely. When he came to power, both America and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons large enough to destroy the world about 40 times over. While once was of course more than enough.
Should we see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact as an exercise in cost efficiency?
Detrez: In a sense, of course it was. Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union has withdrawn from countries such as Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique, where it supported groups to spread communism worldwide. The same applies to the Warsaw Pact: the Soviet Union was no longer able to intervene militarily in countries where anti-communist protests took place, such as Poland. That withdrawal may have been partly for moral reasons, but also mainly because the Soviet Union could no longer afford it.
Is it remarkable that a staunch communist announced such reforms?
Detrez: It was initially not believed that Gorbachev was sincere in his intentions. At the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986), glasnost – which means something like ‘publicity’ – was not yet widely known. Glasnost subsequently proved to be decisive for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Suddenly people who had been in camps were telling their story. Glasnost has created a moral crisis that is at the root of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
How unique was Gorbachev’s plea for more openness?
Detrez: It was actually not that unusual. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power (1953), for example, he suddenly allowed all possible voices critical of Stalin to be heard. Alexander Solzhenitsyn A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, a book about his hardships in the Gulag, was simply published and sold under Khrushchev because it was a critique of Stalinism. In Gorbachev too, glasnost served a partly political purpose, exposing corruption scandals and other abuses of power, allowing political opponents to be sidelined.
How successful were his reforms?
Detrez: Does not. Almost nothing came of his perestroika. It should come as no surprise: All in all, Gorbachev has only been in power for six years. It was always inadequate for the enormous problems facing the Soviet Union.
Unlike in the West, Gorbachev is especially despised in Russia. How did it happen?
Detrez: Because his reforms led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. National pride is an important matter for Russians, and the loss of such an empire is naturally sensitive. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly accused him of this. It is significant that Gorbachev does not want a state funeral.