Was the USSR doomed to collapse under Gorbachev? Could anyone stop him? Alas, the “staff culture” of the Central Committee was such that “collective leadership” was a fiction. The principle “the boss is always right” dominated, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The death of Mikhail Gorbachev caused the same polar assessments of his personality that accompanied him during his lifetime: from “herald of freedom” to “traitor who ruined the country”. In the current context, this was imposed on contrasting comparisons of “Gorbachev’s Russia” with “Putin’s Russia”. As part of the mourning symbolism, the black-and-white tombstone of Khrushchev made by Ernst Neizvestny comes to mind. But whether it is possible to reconcile the “black” and “white” assessments of Gorbachev, only history will show. So far, there is little hope for this.
Regardless of the tone of the assessments, the deeds and words of Gorbachev are known to everyone, for the older generations — according to their personal memory, for the current generation of students — on questions from Russia’s Unified State Examination. And therefore, it is tempting for a historian not to write another text about Gorbachev, of which there have already been so many these days, but to speculate about the forks in history: what would have happened “with the Motherland and with us” if Gorbachev had never existed. We partly referred to these alternatives earlier, in the Valdai Paper “What If… the Soviet Union Had Not Collapsed?”
The first of them is “if Andropov had lived longer.” The figure of Andropov in the context of the renaissance of “Chekist values” or “Chekist myths” is perceived as the quintessential leader of the Soviet era. What Andropov really managed to do during his year in power is strengthen the discipline of labour, fight against corruption, and tighten foreign policy. It was then that the mutual deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe reached its apogee, Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire”, and a South Korean Boeing was shot down. Let’s add to this the cheap vodka “andropovka” (union of power and people, whatever one may say). But if Andropov wanted to start full-scale economic modernisation, if he could have become the Soviet Deng Xiaoping, there is no answer to this. The memoirs of Andropov’s assistants speak in favour of this; the “Chekist myth”, on the contrary, gives rise to doubts. And to all this, conspiracy theories are added concerning the unexpectedly sharp deterioration in Andropov’s health in Crimea in the summer of 1983, after which his days were numbered.
In addition, the memoirs show that Andropov favoured Gorbachev, and if he had lived longer, he might have made him his heir — the unofficial “second secretary” of the Central Committee instead of Chernenko. This, however, has its own conspiracy theory, that then Andropov would have “seen” Gorbachev’s “rotten insides” and would have nominated someone else from the team of politicians who received new high posts in his time (among them Geidar Aliev, Yegor Ligachev, Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Vitaly Vorotnikov).
The second question is more paradoxical: what if Chernenko had lived longer? It would seem that a terminally ill person was in power, suffocating without an oxygen mask, what can I say. But here, too, not everything is so clear. The countdown should be carried out from the same summer of 1983 and from the same Crimean vacation, when a little earlier than Andropov’s conspiracy illness, Chernenko’s no less conspiratorial illness came on, from which he never recovered. There are hints of deliberate poisoning in the memoirs. One way or another, before that, Chernenko was, first, quite cheerful, and second, he gained a reputation as a strong apparatchik who effectively led the internal life of the Central Committee during Brezhnev’s last years. If everything had turned out differently, then Chernenko’s rule would have been perceived as “Brezhnev-2”: conservative, but manageable, and Gorbachev would not have received the power that he had under the sick Chernenko.
At the same time, even the sick Chernenko was not a stranger to reforms (it was under him that a large-scale reform of the secondary school system was launched), he refused to vindicate Brezhnev’s Minister of the Interior Shchelokov, who had been dismissed for corruption by Andropov. It is significant that Shchelokov shot himself not under Andropov, but under Chernenko. We also note that it was Chernenko who reinstated Molotov in the party. In the Politburo minutes, where Chernenko discussed the reinstatement of Malenkov and Kaganovich in the party, it was Gorbachev who actively advocated for this. In any case, Chernenko’s assistants compete in their memoirs with Andropov’s assistants in insisting that if their boss had lived longer, everything would have been fine.
Finally, the question arises of what would have happened if someone other than Gorbachev had succeeded Chernenko. The alternatives included Grigory Romanov, Viktor Grishin, Andrey Gromyko and Vladimir Shcherbitsky. Any of them, I think, would have continued the conservative course of Brezhnev-2. In terms of the USSR foreign policy, it is most interesting what the long-serving Foreign Minister Gromyko would have done. It is possible that, due to his understanding of the situation, he would have been more cautious in his foreign and nuclear missile policy than Andropov. In addition, the USSR, headed by Gromyko, most likely would not have lost its influence on its allies and partners, as happened under Gorbachev. Another question is: would Gromyko become more open to dialogue with the West and China?
In the context of current politics, it is also interesting what would have happened if Shcherbitsky, head of the Soviet Ukraine, had become head of the USSR (according to a number of memoirs, Brezhnev himself called him his heir). Would he just continue Brezhnev’s “Dnepropetrovsk” course — with increased attention to the development of the industrial centers of Ukraine and the recruitment of Ukrainian personnel to the highest corridors of power in Moscow? Or would Shcherbitsky launch a much more ambitious campaign to bring Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian ideologemes to the pan-USSR level? Would he have revived the policy of “indigenisation” in all of the Soviet republics? By the way, in the early years, Gorbachev did not take into account this delicacy of national feeling at all. His decision to appoint a Russian, Kolbin, as head of Kazakhstan instead of Kunaev provoked protests in Alma-Ata, the first protest against the authorities in his era.
But there were no alternatives, and Andrei Gromyko, who eventually supported Gorbachev, later told his relatives: “How wrong I was!”
The second block of “forks in history” is connected with a direct question: was the USSR doomed to collapse under Gorbachev? And also: could anyone stop Gorbachev? Alas, the “staff culture” of the Central Committee was such that “collective leadership” was a fiction. The principle “the boss is always right” dominated. Therefore, the question arises: could there have been acceleration without restructuring? Whether economic reforms would have been carried out despite political conservatism (again, the path of Deng Xiaoping), one cannot answer positively. Gorbachev’s enthusiastic nature and the activities of his associates, who pushed him towards reform, apparently made political restructuring inevitable.
At that point, the outcome of events was predetermined. It is clear that you cannot let a genie out of the bottle in parts. From the moment perestroika outgrew the limits of the Khrushchev thaw, when Gorbachev himself launched the reform of power, it was already impossible to stop this process.
History has no subjunctive mood. What the alternatives could have been, we will never know. But the question of the role of the individual in history here receives an absolutely textbook example.