After 20 years

Gorbachev on 1989
By Katrina vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen

This article appeared in the November 16, 2009 edition of The Nation.
October 28, 2009

On September 23, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a contributing editor, interviewed former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at his foundation in Moscow. With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, we believed that the leader most responsible for that historic event should be heard, on his own terms, in the United States. As readers will see, the discussion became much more wide-ranging. --The Editors

KVH/SFC: Historic events quickly generate historical myths. In the United States it is said that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of a divided Europe was caused by a democratic revolution in Eastern Europe or by American power, or both. What is your response?

MG: Those developments were the result of perestroika in the Soviet Union, where democratic changes had reached the point by March 1989 that for the first time in Russia's history democratic, competitive elections took place. You remember how enthusiastically people participated in those elections for a new Soviet Congress. And as a result thirty-five regional Communist Party secretaries were defeated. By the way, of the deputies elected, 84 percent were Communists, because there were a lot of ordinary people in the party--workers and intellectuals.

On the day after the elections, I met with the Politburo, and said, "I congratulate you!" They were very upset. Several replied, "For what?" I explained, "This is a victory for perestroika. We are touching the lives of people. Things are difficult for them now, but nonetheless they voted for Communists." Suddenly one Politburo member replied, "And what kind of Communists are they!" Those elections were very important. They meant that movement was under way toward democracy, glasnost and pluralism.

Analogous processes were also under way in Eastern and Central Europe. On the day I became Soviet leader, in March 1985, I had a special meeting with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries, and told them: "You are independent, and we are independent. You are responsible for your policies, we are responsible for ours. We will not intervene in your affairs, I promise you." And we did not intervene, not once, not even when they later asked us to. Under the influence of perestroika, their societies began to take action. Perestroika was a democratic transformation, which the Soviet Union needed. And my policy of nonintervention in Central and Eastern Europe was crucial. Just imagine, in East Germany alone there were more than 300,000 Soviet troops armed to the teeth--elite troops, specially selected! And yet, a process of change began there, and in the other countries, too. People began to make choices, which was their natural right.

But the problem of a divided Germany remained. The German people perceived the situation as abnormal, and I shared their attitude. Both in West and East Germany new governments were formed and new relations between them established. I think if the East German leader Erich Honecker had not been so stubborn--we all suffer from this illness, including the person you are interviewing--he would have introduced democratic changes. But the East German leaders did not initiate their own perestroika. Thus a struggle broke out in their country.

The Germans are a very capable nation. Even after what they had experienced under Hitler and later, they demonstrated that they could build a new democratic country. If Honecker had taken advantage of his people's capabilities, democratic and economic reforms could have been introduced that might have led to a different outcome.

I saw this myself. On October 7, 1989, I was reviewing a parade in East Germany with Honecker and other representatives of the Warsaw Pact countries. Groups from twenty-eight different regions of East Germany were marching by with torches, slogans on banners, shouts and songs. The former prime minister of Poland, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, asked me if I understood German. "Enough to read what's written on the banners. They're talking about perestroika. They're talking about democracy and change. They're saying, 'Gorbachev, stay in our country!'" Then Rakowski remarked, "If it's true that these are representatives of people from twenty-eight regions of the country, it means the end." I said, "I think you're right."

KVH/SFC: That is, after the Soviet elections in March 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable?

MG: Absolutely!

KVH/SFC: Did you already foresee the outcome?

MG: Everyone claims to have foreseen things. In June 1989 I met with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and we then held a press conference. Reporters asked if we had discussed the German question. My answer was, "History gave rise to this problem, and history will resolve it. That is my opinion. If you ask Chancellor Kohl, he will tell you it is a problem for the twenty-first century."

I also met with the East German Communist leaders, and told them again, "This is your affair and you have the responsibility to decide." But I also warned them, "What does experience teach us? He who is late loses." If they had taken the road of reform, of gradual change--if there had been some sort of agreement or treaty between the two parts of Germany, some sort of financial agreement, some confederation, a more gradual reunification would have been possible. But in 1989-90, all Germans, both in the East and the West, were saying, "Do it immediately." They were afraid the opportunity would be missed.

KVH/SFC: A closely related question: when did the cold war actually end? In the United States, there are several answers: in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down; in 1990-91, after the reunification of Germany; and the most popular, even orthodox, answer, is that the cold war ended only when the Soviet Union ended, in December 1991.

MG: No. If President Ronald Reagan and I had not succeeded in signing disarmament agreements and normalizing our relations in 1985-88, the later developments would have been unimaginable. But what happened between Reagan and me would also have been unimaginable if earlier we had not begun perestroika in the Soviet Union. Without perestroika, the cold war simply would not have ended. But the world could not continue developing as it had, with the stark menace of nuclear war ever present.

Sometimes people ask me why I began perestroika. Were the causes basically domestic or foreign? The domestic reasons were undoubtedly the main ones, but the danger of nuclear war was so serious that it was a no less significant factor. Something had to be done before we destroyed each other. Therefore the big changes that occurred with me and Reagan had tremendous importance. But also that George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, decided to continue the process. And in December 1989, at our meeting in Malta, Bush and I declared that we were no longer enemies or adversaries.

KVH/SFC: So the cold war ended in December 1989?

MG: I think so.

KVH/SFC: Many people disagree, including some American historians.

MG: Let historians think what they want. But without what I have described, nothing would have resulted. Let me tell you something. George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, came to see me two or three years ago. We reminisced for a long time--like old soldiers recalling past battles. I have great respect for Shultz, and I asked him: "Tell me, George, if Reagan had not been president, who could have played his role?" Shultz thought for a while, then said: "At that time there was no one else. Reagan's strength was that he had devoted his whole first term to building up America, to getting rid of all the vacillation that had been sown like seeds. America's spirits had revived. But in order to take these steps toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and toward reducing nuclear armaments--there was no one else who could have done that then."

By the way, in 1987, after my first visit to the United States, Vice President Bush accompanied me to the airport, and told me: "Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him, and when he says that something is necessary, they trust him. But if some Democrat had proposed what Reagan did, with you, they might not have trusted him."

By telling you this, I simply want to give Reagan the credit he deserves. I found dealing with him very difficult. The first time we met, in 1985, after we had talked, my people asked me what I thought of him. "A real dinosaur," I replied. And about me Reagan said, "Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!"

KVH/SFC: A dinosaur and a Bolshevik?

MG: And yet these two people came to historic agreements, because some things must be above ideological convictions. No matter how hard it was for us and no matter how much Reagan and I argued in Geneva in 1985, nevertheless in our appeal to the peoples of the world we wrote: "Nuclear war is inadmissible, and in it there can be no victors." And in 1986, in Reykjavik, we even agreed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. This conception speaks to the maturity of the leaders on both sides, not only Reagan but people in the West generally, who reached the correct conclusion that we had to put an end to the cold war.

KVH/SFC: So Americans who say the cold war ended only with the end of the Soviet Union are wrong?

MG: That's because journalists, politicians and historians in your country concluded that the United States won the cold war, but that is a mistake. If the new Soviet leadership and its new foreign policy had not existed, nothing would have happened.

KVH/SFC: In short, Gorbachev, Reagan and the first President Bush ended the cold war?

MG: Yes, in 1989-90. It was not a single action but a process. Bush and I made the declaration at Malta, but Reagan would have had no less grounds for saying that he played a crucial role, because he, together with us, had a fundamental change of attitude. Therefore we were all victors: we all won the cold war because we put a stop to spending $10 trillion on the cold war, on each side.

KVH/SFC: What was most important--the circumstances at that time or the leaders?

MG: The times work through people in history. I'll tell you something else that is very important about what subsequently happened in your country. When people came to the conclusion that they had won the cold war, they concluded that they didn't need to change. Let others change. That point of view is mistaken, and it undermined what we had envisaged for Europe--mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. All of that was lost because of this muddled thinking in your country, and which has now made it so difficult to work together. World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders.

KVH/SFC: Is that why today, twenty years after you say the cold war ended, the relationship between our two countries is so bad that President Obama says it has to be "reset"? What went wrong?

MG: Even before the end of the cold war, Reagan, Bush and I argued, but we began to eliminate two entire categories of nuclear weapons. We had gone very far, almost to the point when a return to the past was no longer possible. But everything went wrong because perestroika was undermined and there was a change of Russian leadership and a change from our concept of gradual reform to the idea of a sudden leap. For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, ready-made Western recipes were falling into his hands, schemes that supposedly would lead to instant success. He was an adventurist. The fall of the Soviet Union was the key moment that explains everything that happened afterward, including what we have today. As I said, people in your country became dizzy with imagined success: they saw everything as their victory.

In Yeltsin, Washington ended up with a vassal who thought that because of his anticommunism he would be carried in their arms. Delegations came to Russia one after the other, including President Bill Clinton, but then they stopped coming. It turned out no one needed Yeltsin. But by then half of Russia's industries were in ruins, even 60 percent. It was a country with a noncompetitive economy wide open to the world market, and it became slavishly dependent on imports.

How many things were affected! All our plans for a new Europe and a new architecture of mutual security. It all disappeared. Instead, it was proposed that NATO's jurisdiction be extended to the whole world. But then Russia began to revive. The rain of dollars from higher world oil prices opened up new possibilities. Industrial and social problems began to be solved. And Russia began to speak with a firm voice, but Western leaders got angry about that. They had grown accustomed to having Russia just lie there. They thought they could pull the legs right out from under her whenever they wanted.

The moral of the story--and in the West morals are everything--is this: under my leadership, a country began reforms that opened up the possibility of sustained democracy, of escaping from the threat of nuclear war, and more. That country needed aid and support, but it didn't get any. Instead, when things went bad for us, the United States applauded. Once again, this was a calculated attempt to hold Russia back. I am speaking heatedly, but I am telling you what happened.

KVH/SFC: But now Washington is turning to Moscow for help, most urgently perhaps in Afghanistan. Exactly twenty years ago, you ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan. What lessons did you learn that President Obama should heed in making his decisions about Afghanistan?

MG: One was that problems there could not be solved with the use of force. Such attempts inside someone else's country end badly. But even more, it is not acceptable to impose one's own idea of order on another country without taking into account the opinion of the population of that country. My predecessors tried to build socialism in Afghanistan, where everything was in the hands of tribal and clan leaders, or of religious leaders, and where the central government was very weak. What kind of socialism could that have been? It only spoiled our relationship with a country where we had excellent relations during the previous twenty years.

Even today, I am criticized that it took three years for us to withdraw, but we tried to solve the problem through dialogue--with America, with India, with Iran and with both sides in Afghanistan, and we attended an international conference. We didn't simply hitch up our trousers and run for it, but tried to solve the problem politically, with the idea of making Afghanistan a neutral, peaceful country. By the way, when we were getting ready to pull out our troops and were preparing a treaty of withdrawal, what did the Americans do? They supported the idea of giving religious training to young Afghans--that is, the Taliban. As a result, now they are fighting against them. Today, again, not just America and Russia can be involved in solving this problem. All of Afghanistan's neighbors must be involved. Iran cannot be ignored, and it's ill-advised for America not to be on good terms with Iran.

KVH/SFC: Finally, a question about your intellectual-political biography. One author called you "the man who changed the world." Who or what most changed your own thinking?

MG: Gorbachev never had a guru. I've been involved in politics since 1955, after I finished university, when there was still hunger in my country as a result of World War II. I was formed by those times and by my participation in politics. In addition, I am an intellectually curious person by nature and I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika--a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn't just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

I began to understand that society needed a new vision--that we must view the world with our eyes open, not just through our personal or private interests. That's how our new thinking of the 1980s began, when we understood that our old viewpoints were not working out. During the nuclear arms race, I was given a gift by an American, a little figure of a goose in flight. I still have it at my dacha. It is a goose that lives in the north of Russia in the summer and in the winter migrates to America. It does that every year regardless of what's happening, on the ground, between you and us. That was the point of this gift and that's why I'm telling you about it.

KVH/SFC: Listening to you, it seems that you became a political heretic in your country.

MG: I think that is true. I want to add that I know America well now, having given speeches to large audiences there regularly. Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: "The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?" I said, "Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me." But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.

KVH/SFC: And do you think President Obama will be the leader of such an American perestroika?

MG: As far as I know, Americans did not make a mistake in electing him. Barack Obama is capable of leading your society on a very high level and of understanding it better than any political figure I know. He is an educated person with a highly developed capacity for dialogue, and that too is very important. So I congratulate you.

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