Rethinking Europe

Understanding Gorbachev‘s True Challenge

My 2001 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit: Geir Halvorsen - www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • "Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system -- and it can't resolve the problem of women's pantyhose.
  • “Our society was pregnant with the idea of reform. But there was also the international aspect of our problems. We could only solve our problems by cooperating with other countries.”
  • “It was possible to do things in a way that could have led to civil war and to the destruction of the world. In a chaotic situation, one nuclear submarine could have caused havoc. “
  • “We needed to put an end to the Iron Curtain, to change the nature of international relations, to rid them of ideological confrontation and particularly to end the arms race.”
  • “What could we destroy? We could destroy ourselves. So it took a new generation, a generation that was free of dogma.”
  • "People felt unfree. They felt like they could not take the initiative, and that was extremely constraining for the individual."
  • "We are one planet, one human civilization. There are others living in the world, so why should we act in a way that could blow up our planet, our spaceship Earth?"

Editor’s note: Daniel Yergin conducted the interview with Mikhail Gorbachev in 2001 for the television documentary “Commanding Heights: Battle for the World Econom,” based on his book of the same name.

Daniel Yergin

What was your diagnosis of what was wrong with the Soviet economy, and what did you hope to do about it?

Mikhail Gorbachev

Well, perestroika – that is to say, restructuring of the Soviet system – was not an idea born from scratch. It was not some revelation of mine or a dozen other people.

It came about because our country, our society, which was a very well-educated society, one of the best-educated societies, already rejected the system of total control, of suppressing dissidents and such like.

The lack of freedoms was being rejected at the cultural level. The people had outgrown the system — that was quite clear. We knew what kind of country we had. It was the most militarized, the most centralized, the most rigidly disciplined. It was stuffed with nuclear weapons and other weapons.

The threat of civil war

It was possible to do things in a way that could have led to civil war and to the destruction of the world. In a chaotic situation, one nuclear submarine could have caused havoc. So we had to act very seriously.

So the domestic reasons for reform were very important but just as important were personal and private reasons, because people felt unfree. They felt like they could not take the initiative, and that was extremely constraining for the individual.

There were two other important aspects. The first was the structural changes in foreign countries. In the Soviet Union, those structural changes were being postponed or deferred indefinitely. And that was because our system was so cumbersome that it was not capable of reacting to the challenges of the science and technology revolution.

Therefore it was clear that we needed to change. We needed to move toward new ways of management and decentralization. We needed to have plans only in major strategic areas to achieve certain major goals, but all the rest should be decentralized and done in accordance with the needs of the people and society.

It was a shame, and I continue to say that it was a shame, that during the final years under Brezhnev, we were planning to create a commission headed by the secretary of the Central Committee, [Ivan V.] Kapitonov to solve the problem of women’s pantyhose.

Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system, and it can’t resolve the problem of women’s pantyhose.

There’s no toothpaste, no soap powder, not the basic necessities of life. It was incredible and humiliating to work in such a government. And so our people were already worked up, and that is why the dissident movement occurred.

Ending the monopoly of the Communist Party

And in addition to open dissidence, people who protested openly, who demanded democracy and demanded that the monopoly of the Communist Party be ended – people who paid with their lives, who sometimes were imprisoned or had to spend time in mental hospitals – in addition to that, there was a lot of similar sentiment among our scholars, scientists and inventors who had many discoveries that were not used.

And that kind of protest was also very important, because it affected all spheres of life at various levels. So their pressure, their memoranda played an important role.

I remember under Andropov [Yuri; general secretary, 1982-84] we started to really consider those proposals. I still have a 110 memoranda from our outstanding scientists and others. They called for immediate reform.

So our society was pregnant with the idea of reform. But there was also the international aspect of our problems. We could only solve our problems by cooperating with other countries. It would have been paradoxical not to cooperate.

Ending the arms race

And therefore, we needed to put an end to the Iron Curtain, to change the nature of international relations, to rid them of ideological confrontation and particularly to end the arms race.

And another imperative, the number one question for the survival of mankind, something that we knew very well, if our arsenal and the American arsenal were to be used, we could destroy mankind 1,000 times over.

You mentioned my first meeting with Margaret Thatcher in December 1984, when Chernenko [Konstantin; Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor as general secretary] was still alive. I went to Britain and talked with Mrs. Thatcher for several hours.

We had a very open dialogue and discussed this problem as well. I showed her a kind of diagram with 1,000 little squares, and every little square represented 1,000th of the nuclear weapons accumulated in the world by that time.

And every square contained enough to destroy life on earth. So life on earth could be destroyed 1,000 times over, and the arms race continued.

A new generation

What could we destroy? We could destroy ourselves. So it took a new generation, a generation that was free of dogma; people of the postwar generation, men and women of the 1960s who were fired up by the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev’s secret report, and the criticism of Stalin.

The Soviet thaw, as you remember, [began] when people were leaving universities and starting active life. So those various movements and trends combined and resulted in a peaceful revolution, a peaceful change of leadership, and then the policy of perestroika.

So that’s how I would sum it up, sum it up briefly, because this was the most important analysis on the basis of which we decided whether we should start reforms, whether we should start perestroika.

Starting reforms from above

Starting reforms in the Soviet Union was only possible from above, only from above. Any attempt to go from below was suppressed, suppressed in a most resolute way. And therefore a reformist leadership was necessary. That leadership came in 1985 when we started to lay down our plans for our country, perestroika and new thinking for the International Community.

The new thinking postulated [that] we are one planet regardless of confrontations, ideological and physiological struggles; we are one planet, one human civilization. There are others living in the world, so why should we act in a way that could blow up our planet, our spaceship Earth?

Writers, intellectuals and others as a result of glasnost could speak out freely and openly, could call a spade a spade.

Global thinking

This entire mechanism was set in motion, and as a result, in February 1986, less than a year after my coming to power in our country, at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party, we said as a result of summing up our thinking, our analysis, our conclusions, we stated that the world, even though there were many conflicts and contradictions, is interrelated, interdependent, and that the world is becoming increasingly a single whole.

And if we are one, if we’re all a single whole, if we are all mutually interdependent, then we must act differently. That was one of the most important points of departure in thinking about the future.

It was very important for developing our plans, for developing domestic policies and particularly foreign policy.

Copyright Daniel Yergin 2022

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