When Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at 91 on Tuesday, was First Secretary at Stavropol, he was known by the nickname above (Mishka konvert in Russian).
That was a reference to the way he did business in one of the most corrupt Soviet provinces, the clearing house for the contraband flowing from the Caucasus to Moscow. His wife Raisa was different: she liked her bribes in the shape of egg-sized gems, not densely stuffed envelopes.
The criminal operation was so massive that it had to be underwritten and largely run by the KGB, with whom Gorbachev had to work hand in glove. That’s how he must have come to the attention of Yuri Andropov, then KGB head.
Andropov liked what he saw: a former collective farmer with the gift of the uncultured but contagious gab. Gorbachev could drive his platitudes home with the same skill he had applied to driving a combine harvester in his youth.
The boy had a bright future, and when Andropov became General Secretary he brought the largely unknown provincial apparatchik to Moscow. There Gorbachev was quickly hoisted to the post of a Central Committee secretary. Thereby he filled a vacancy left by the sudden and untimely death of Fyodor Kulakov, his predecessor at Stavropol.
Moscow buzzed with rumours that Kulakov, 60, a young man by Kremlin standards who had never had a day’s illness in his life, had a little help on the way to his maker. But then the rumour mongers would look at Andropov’s steely eyes peering at them from his photographs, shudder and shut up.
Clearly chosen as heir apparent, Gorbachev continued to do the KGB’s, and personally Andropov’s, bidding. Thereby he steered Russia onto the road eventually leading to Putin and the current carnage in the Ukraine.
Yes, I’m familiar with the nil nisi bonum adage. But it shouldn’t apply to historical figures, especially those who undeservedly enter Western hagiography.
Historical figures belong, well, to history. They aren’t your friend Nigel, your colleague Kevin or your neighbour Tony. Gorbachev’s personality skewed his actions, his actions skewed history and, amicus Plato and all that, his career must be properly analysed and understood. If as a result of that exercise he emerges closer to demon than saint, then so be it.
Gorbachev means different things to different people. But for me his salient point is the illustration he provides to the West’s chronic inability to understand Russia, accompanied by ignorance and refusal to learn.
Thus the nausea I experienced in the late 1980s, early 1990s as a result of the emetic Western triumphalism still hasn’t quite subsided. Nor will it do so soon, aggravated as it is by the panegyrics for Gorbachev gushing over the past 30 years and especially now, in the fawning obituaries.
Gorbachev delivered Western victory in the Cold War. Liberal democracy triumphed, which – according to a particularly inane neocon – effectively ended history. Gorbachev saved the world from a nuclear Armageddon. He was a true champion of liberty, democracy, humanism and marital love. He set Russia on the road to freedom and prosperity. He ended the Afghan war. He single-handedly demolished the Soviet Union and pulled down the Berlin Wall. He enabled the West to get fat on the peace dividend. HE WAS THE ONE MARGARET THATCHER COULD DO BUSINESS WITH.
And look, he and his wife were refined, cultured people, so much unlike the previous Soviet leaders and their lumpy spouses.
This claim was first made the moment the Gorbachevs graced the West with their presence, leaving a trail of Raisa’s American Express receipts behind them. When the din reached Russia, educated people couldn’t believe their ears. The Gorbachevs were about as cultured as Coronation Street characters, and Mikhail couldn’t string two grammatical sentences together.
That’s about the size of it, although I haven’t read every obituary and hence must have left out some of Gorbachev’s towering achievements. All of them are as bogus as his supposed refinement.
True enough, some dramatic things happened on his watch. But we must avoid the well-known fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc – after this, therefore because of this. Most of those things happened not because of Gorbachev, but in spite of him, in spite of his desperate attempts to preserve the Soviet Union.
Much as I hate the I-told-you-so style of prose, so popular with a certain Mail columnist, over the past 30 years I’ve been writing that the much-vaunted glasnost and perestroika, both associated with Gorbachev, merely amounted to a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB.
In fact, the whole operation was charted by Beria, who, though as evil as his Politburo colleagues, was smarter than all of them. In fact, Beria was arrested and summarily executed after he tried to explain the facts of life to his doctrinaire partners in crime.
The Soviet Union, he said, couldn’t keep up with the West economically and therefore militarily. Yes, Lenin was right that sooner or later we’d hang the capitalists, but we can’t do that unless the capitalists give us the rope – in other words, help us modernise our economy to make it more competitive.
To make sure they do so, we must paint a rosy picture of liberalisation. How far can we go down that road? As far as it takes. Disband collective farms. Allow some private enterprise. Even encourage some free speech, naturally under our control. Let Germany reunite. In short, launch another gigantic disinformation op for which the Cheka has always been famous. And then, once the capitalists have strengthened our economic and military muscle – then, comrades, and only then we’ll strike.
That soliloquy was delivered just a few months after Stalin’s death, and his geriatric heirs almost suffered apoplexy there and then. Where was Marxism-Leninism in that plan? Where was ideological purity? Beria was arrested on the spot and hastily dispatched to kingdom come.
But, as the standard Bolshevik eulogy went, our comrade is dead, but his cause lives on. Beria’s cause survived within the KGB, an organisation staffed with people trained to express their evil pragmatically, rather than ideologically.
Andropov picked up the relay baton and passed it on to Gorbachev, whom he nominated as his dynastic successor. And so, after a short-lived interim tenure of another senescent apparatchik, Gorbachev took over as General Secretary in 1985.
He was a clever man by the abysmal standards of his Kremlin accomplices. So was Andropov. So was Beria. But even clever men can make stupid mistakes, and the KGB relay baton proved too slippery for them to keep hold of.
What they didn’t realise was that the Soviet system was too ossified to survive any reform. The blood of the 60 million people murdered by the Bolsheviks in their own country, and many more elsewhere, was coursing through the hearts of survivors and their families.
The moment Gorbachev began to loosen the reins, the horse started bucking. There was a real danger it might bolt.
Gorbachev felt perplexed. He was a career communist apparatchik, not only trained but viscerally predisposed to act the type. Thus, when the Chernobyl meltdown happened, he reacted the way any of his predecessors would have done: he lied.
Had the winds not blown radiation towards northern Europe, he would have denied the tragedy to his dying breath. As it was, Swedish Geiger counters caught Gorbachev red-handed, and he owned up.
When the Soviet Union began to creak at the seams, unable to keep pace with Reagan’s arms race, the constituent republics smelled their chance. Popular uprisings broke out, and again Gorbachev reacted true to form – with punitive Spetsnaz raids.
Hundreds of people were killed in Vilnius, Tbilisi and Baku – and the world rejoiced. Just hundreds? Not hundreds of thousands? Not the millions Stalin would have killed? Hail Gorby the humanist.
When the Baltics turned westwards, Gorbachev did all he could to prevent Georgia and Moldova from going the same way. To keep those republics on a leash, if a longer one than before, he systematically provoked internecine conflicts there, in Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact, Putin’s 2008 attack on Georgia was a continuation of Gorbachev’s policy.
Having squeezed the toothpaste out of the tube, Gorbachev desperately tried to push it back in. But that proved impossible. Control slipped out of his hands: nations at the outskirts of the evil empire rose in revolt.
By 1989 the bandwagon had gathered so much momentum it could no longer be stopped. When the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu tried to push a stick into the wheel spokes, he and his wife were riddled with bullets. Gorbachev got the message: if he wanted to keep himself and Raisa in one piece, he had to jump on the bandwagon, rather than trying to put the brakes on.
This he did with so much alacrity that the West was taken in. In the process he had to relinquish his power to the KGB, first de facto and then de jure. The KGB was the only Soviet institution flexible and farsighted enough to know that the First Law of Thermodynamics hadn’t been repealed.
The evil Soviet energy hadn’t disappeared. It had merely transformed into something else. And they, KGB officers, could channel it into new conduits. Yes, Beria, Andropov and their underlings had miscalculated. But even their miscalculations had worked out fine – that’s what genius is all about.
Russia might have lost her empire, but those marginal nations aren’t going anywhere. Let the West pour billions into Russia, making her great again – meaning inspiring universal fear. Meanwhile, the new ruling class made up of KGB officers, organised crime figures and the former Komsomol nomenklatura, will enjoy the best the West has to offer.
By accepting Beria’s and Andropov’s relay baton, Gorbachev sent Russia on a mad race to the finish line, with Putin running the last leg. In his last years, Gorby assumed the role of senior statesman, living in Florida, running his multi-billion foundation, occasionally offering mild criticism and avuncular advice to the new lad.
And the odd gesture of support, naturally. Thus Gorbachev supported the Russian invasion of the Crimea in 2014, the first act in the ongoing bloodshed. That hardly made the news in the West. Gorby was after all the Liberator, the Democrat, the star of the Pizza Hut ad.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. But remembering the past is no use in the absence of a proper understanding of it. Gorbachev proves that this understanding is sorely lacking in the West, certainly as far as Russia is concerned.
That could be his important legacy, but only if the lesson were properly learned. But it isn’t. Instead Gorbachev is mourned as the man who handed the West victory in the Cold War. Doesn’t seem like a great victory now, does it?
P.S. Down below there is a link to my piece of 23 May, 2016. Having re-read it, I’ve realised I said many of the same things then. One can only hope that repetition is indeed the mother of learning, not of senility.