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November 28, 2006 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Diary of a Collapsing Superpower - "Seventeen years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later the Soviet Union broke apart. More than 1,400 minutes published earlier this month in Russia from meetings that took place behind the closed doors of the Politburo in Moscow read like a thriller from the highest levels of the Kremlin. They reveal Mikhail Gorbachev as a party chief who had to fight bitterly for his reforms and ultimately lost his battle. But in doing so, he changed the course of history and helped bring an end to the Cold War."
posted by Gyan (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Freedom! Horrible freedom!
posted by Artw at 8:12 AM on November 28, 2006


And Mikhail Gorbachev may finally get the historical recognition he deserves.

Ronald Reagan might also deserve some mention.
posted by three blind mice at 8:19 AM on November 28, 2006


Ronald Reagan might also deserve some mention.

But not too much.
posted by washburn at 8:23 AM on November 28, 2006


Ronald Reagan might also deserve some mention.

Yes, his role is much under valued. Remember when he died in 2004 and all they could talk about was his film career?
posted by vbfg at 8:27 AM on November 28, 2006


I'll always remember him as a lifesaver.
posted by Bravocharlie at 8:33 AM on November 28, 2006


Great link—thanks for the post! As always in discussions of Gorbachev, foreigners are obsessed with his achievements abroad (which mainly come down to accepting developments he couldn't have stopped anyway, but he did avoid sending tanks into Eastern Europe, so good for him) and tend to ignore his utter failure at transforming the Soviet Union, which is why its former citizens still hate his guts. Here's the perfect summary of Gorby:
Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he "listened, depressed and moved at the same time." But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: "They ought to be punched in the face." But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end.
Into the dustbin of history with you, comrade! He reminds me of those well-meaning cabinet ministers who tried to save tsarism and then the Provisional Government, not realizing that the people were fed up and not willing to put up with their temporizing any more.

For those who don't feel like reading the whole thing, here's a particularly enlightening section on Afghanistan:
Gromyko had been the one to initiate the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, even managing to implement the plan against the resistance of the military leadership, who believed it was unfeasible and pointless.

In October 1985, Gorbachev met secretly with Babrak Karmal, the General Secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the Russians' governor in Kabul. Gorbachev told Karmal that, beginning in the summer of 1986, he would be on his own when it came to warding off the mujahedeen. Karmal was taken completely by surprise. Convinced that Afghanistan represented a vital buffer zone for the Soviets along their southern border, he had not expected such a radical about-face.

Then Gorbachev took his plan to the Politburo. "We will do everything possible to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible," he told his comrades, "with or without Karmal."

That, though, was easier said than done.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority within the party leadership — as revealed by the Politburo minutes — suddenly began claiming to have seen from the start that the Afghanistan invasion was a risky adventure. But Gorbachev soon realized that there was also serious opposition to his plan for immediate withdrawal — and that the Afghans themselves were unwilling to accept the departure of Soviet troops...

Gorbachev's main concern was that the withdrawal be accomplished in an orderly fashion and that the United States and Pakistan not become involved. In other words, Gorbachev wanted to remain in control of the withdrawal. "The outcome must not look like a humiliating defeat. We have lost too many of our boys."
Remind you of anything?
posted by languagehat at 8:38 AM on November 28, 2006 [4 favorites]


Ronald Reagan might also deserve some mention.

He suffered for years from demention.
posted by hal9k at 8:39 AM on November 28, 2006


On non-preview: Yes, by all means let's talk about Reagan instead. Foreigners are so boring.
posted by languagehat at 8:39 AM on November 28, 2006


Thanks for the synopsis, languagehat. Without it I probably would've skipped the article and settled for the picture of Reagan in his swimsuit.
posted by mullacc at 8:54 AM on November 28, 2006


As always in discussions of Gorbachev, foreigners are obsessed with his achievements abroad (which mainly come down to accepting developments he couldn't have stopped anyway, but he did avoid sending tanks into Eastern Europe, so good for him) and tend to ignore his utter failure at transforming the Soviet Union, which is why its former citizens still hate his guts.

Heh. Interesting, you've described me to a T. I've admired Gorbachev for a long time without ever even stopping to consider whether he, y'know, actually accomplished anything he talked about.
posted by COBRA! at 8:55 AM on November 28, 2006


Still on the Reagan theme, I do love all the Republican revisionists who hold him up as the man who won the Cold War when, in fact he was the man who happened to be there when the Soviets lost. Still, compared to Bush, it's hard not to feel a little nostalgic.
posted by rhymer at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2006


I hate to tell you guys this, but Ted Turner claims to have ended the Cold War, too.
posted by tadellin at 9:21 AM on November 28, 2006


So I went back to my current reading, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record by N. N. Sukhanov (a leftist not affiliated with any party who wrote a superb eyewitness account of both revolutions of that year), and just hit the following, which fits Gorby perfectly:
The decree dissolving the Duma [the ineffectual Russian Parliament] had been published [on Feb. 27, the crucial day of the February Revolution], and the Duma had answered with a refusal to disperse, and elected a Provisional Committee... But did [this] mean the adherence of the Duma to the revolution?... The most categorical 'no' must be the answer; the revolutionary act of the bourgeoisie as represented by the Progressive Bloc and the Duma majority was intended to save the dynasty and the plutocratic dictatorship from the democratic revolution—by the help of trivial rectifications of the old order devoid of any principled significance. [My emphasis.]
For "the bourgeoisie as represented by the Progressive Bloc and the Duma majority" read "Gorbachev and his allies," and for "the dynasty and the plutocratic dictatorship" read "the nomenklatura and the Communist dictatorship." The ones on top can never see when it's time to let go.

Still on the Reagan theme...

Sigh.

posted by languagehat at 9:24 AM on November 28, 2006


Was the first revolution really so doomed? It was my understanding that the second revolution was basically Lenins power-grab - in osme alternate universe where Lenin never got put on his train would Russia have gone in a more democratic direction?

(In the "great bastards of history' stakes Lenin always seems to get off really lightly compared with Stalin. Possiby because it;s less easy to make Hitler comparisons. )
posted by Artw at 9:50 AM on November 28, 2006


Was the first revolution really so doomed?

Apparently so, or so my reading is convincing me. The problem was that as soon as the revolution succeeded, those who led it sat back and decided to continue the war and postpone the long-needed social changes like fixing the unfair and outmoded distribution of land in the countryside, whereas the overwhelming majority of the people who went into the streets, confronted the cops and cossacks, and actually made the revolution badly wanted the war to end and the social/economic problems to get fixed. Plus, nobody was willing to actually take power—both the Duma (representing the liberal bourgeoisie) and the soviets (representing the less radical elements of the working class and soldiers) insisted on putting everything on hold until the Constitutional Convention, which was on hold until after the war. Since the war had been going on for years and there was no end in sight, people were understandably unwilling to accept that. The only man willing to say "I'll take power now, and I'll end the war immediately" was Lenin, so his Bolshevik Party (which had been quite unpopular compared to the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks) was flooded with new members during the summer and was able to stage a successful coup in October/November. It's one of the tragedies of history that the Bolsheviks had the most effective leader; if the SRs had had a Lenin, the course of history would have been very different.

Oh, and the more I learn about Kerensky, the less I like him. He really was a self-important windbag, just like Lenin said.
posted by languagehat at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2006


. . . we might as well include the US as a collapsing superpower. Much of the problems the US is having in upholding hegemony stem from overzealous policy of the Cold War. The US has created a corrupt and wasteful military industrial complex (MIC) that is quickly eroding the economy and technological advancement. The USSR was struggling well before Reagan took office; however, it was in the interests of the MIC to continue to scare the American citizenry so they could accumulate wealth and power. The idea that the USSR collapsed because of anything Reagan did is largely a myth. Reagan's policy, in fact, has had an extremely detrimental effect on America to date. I say "to date" because this policy has been ongoing for quite sometime. Much of the current Bush's policies have been an extension of Reagan's policy which isn't surprising given the fact that Bush appointed numerous people who formerly worked with or under Reagan. Surprisingly, the senior Bush distanced himself from Reagan's aids and cabinet when he took office. The current war in Iraq, which neocons wanted to use as a statement of America's dominance to the world is really an extension of Reagan's attempts at rewriting history and remaking the Vietnam War. Right around the time of the Vietnam were there was a steep decline in American power which has yet to subside. Much of it is due to Europe and Asia (particularly Japan, but more recently China and India) becoming more involved in the world economy, but not taking part in sharing the burdens of upholding the capitalist system. To their defense, imperial America has acted arrogantly. Just because the Cold War has ended doesn't mean that “the good guys” have won. The new Russia, whatever that is, is still a force. America's record on human rights isn't particularly great when one takes into account its dependence on wage slaves in developing countries. Unfortunately, I doubt that many Americans realize just how harmful their government (which is a government of the people) has acted in allowing corporate exploitation of much of the world's population. On a concluding note, I should like to warn that the USSR and the US were never the opposite as we are all lead to believe.
posted by j-urb at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2006


Didn't David Hasselhoff end the cold war?
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:35 AM on November 28, 2006


j-urb: Let's talk about the US. Fuck the Russians, it's all about how bad America is.

languagehat: I totally agree. Another reason, though, that the first revolution was doomed was that the White generals exercised personal power (for example, Lavr Kornilov); while Lenin's fear of Bonapartism was dramatically exaggerated, the threat of a coup was real. The Duma and the Provisional Government were not at all strong enough to hold together a country as riven with class, national, religious, ethnic, and political chasms as Russia was in 1917; inevitably, in the East the generals and local warlords would start running things. In fact, Siberia was going to break away entirely in 1917. The Bolsheviks solved the problem by killing every dissenter and terrorizing the rest; a regime committed to "constitutional legitimacy," as the Provisional Government was, even if it could let itself fire on protesters, could not have carried out this terror campaign.

But also, Lenin managed to seize power via some very clever manipulations that oftentimes had little to do with exhortations or rhetoric. (he created a personal subcommittee of the Executive Committee of the Council of Soviets and managed to authorize it to call a general congress composed almost solely of Bolshevik delegates. this sealed the Provisional Government's fate. he also managed to convince the Executive Committee (Ispolkom) to let him rule by decree...)
posted by nasreddin at 11:07 AM on November 28, 2006


> . . . we might as well include the US as a collapsing superpower.

A certain sort of person has been calling the US a "collapsing superpower" and predicting its imminent breakup since the nineteen fifties. If the USSR crashed and broke up two years after the Berlin Wall fell, what's taking the US so looooooooooooooooooooong? Until we see some actual signs of breaking up (the east and west coasts seceding from flyover country, for example, and Texas running up the Lone Star flag again) I have to ask if this isn't just increasingly desperate wishful thinking.
posted by jfuller at 11:07 AM on November 28, 2006


Good stuff, thanks for posting it. Interesting to have a German perspective on the end of the Cold War, too.
posted by russilwvong at 11:15 AM on November 28, 2006


Awesome article. languagehat, your commentary is excellent, but I think we can talk about Reagan, the current state of the U.S. (these are both relevant, topical issues w/r/t to the article), and also Gorbechev. You're the one who asked if it reminded us of anything, and yes, it does. I was thinking of parallels while reading the article and I'm thinking of more now.

What really struck me is that I'm finally old. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was something that happened while I was young, and I didn't (and probably don't) fully understand its significance. It's jarring to me to even think of Germany as two nations.

Reading this article really does bring home that the ideological difference between the countries was really never as important as it was made out to be, and in the end it really came down to political, diplomatic, strategic, and economic realities -- and almost nothing was ever done well or poorly for the right reasons. Especially striking in that regard is how the USSR treated the West German leader, who thought of himself as the vanguard of the Glorious Revolution -- and everyone else was far too concerned with what was happening over in the real world.
posted by spiderwire at 11:58 AM on November 28, 2006


I mean East German. Bah
posted by spiderwire at 12:27 PM on November 28, 2006


what's taking the US so looooooooooooooooooooong?

Good question. I don't see much positive uptick these days, what with our national negative savings rate, immense and growing trade deficits, consumer spending being supported by home equity withdrawal (to the tune of ~$500B/yr 2003-2005) not rising wages (which have been flat since the tech bust), the SSTF being 'raided' to fund tax cuts we can't afford, given the acturial requirements of the 2010-2020 time period, cost of healthcare inflating like crazy, a non-serious 'gee what can we do about the high cost of energy???' plan for dealing with the continuing decline of cheap oil.

Things don't look to rosy in my worldview. We'll see how it goes.

just increasingly desperate wishful thinking

wishful thinking, lack of pollyanna optimism, take your pick, asshole.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:31 PM on November 28, 2006


Imperial Overstretch.

I think that the US over the next twenty years will have a difficult time managing (1) Federal and Trade debts, but also (2) baby-boom crisis (3) the military industrial complex (4) lack of investment in education and (5) Asia's economic boom.

Even if (5) doesn't happen, the first three should provide a substantial blow to America's economy. Who is to say that American power (militarily and economically) isn't already exaggerated?

The person in the 1950s is not the same as the person of today. There are different issues. In a bipolar world, at the very least, the USSR was able to alleviate the burdons of trying to run the world. Still, the US was in much more control then what the USSR could have ever hoped.

Germany is still in the process of integrating the economies; however, Germany still actually leads the world in exports. I'm not sure if this accounts for service exports; however, in which case I suspect the US may still have an advantage.

Sorry everyone but 3BM mentioned Ronald Reagan and that was the secret word. . .
posted by j-urb at 12:33 PM on November 28, 2006


In a bipolar world, at the very least, the USSR was able to alleviate the burdons of trying to run the world

huh? More like trying to construct a ruble-bloc in opposition to the "Free World" USD bloc.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:51 PM on November 28, 2006


we might as well include the US as a collapsing superpower

What, like umpty threads ago? One thing you must keep in mind before making this sort of analysis is that Russia and China both face potentially crippling demographic crises. Russia's birthrate is below replacement and the health of its citizens is in the toilet. China is struggling to reduce its birthrate and will have scads of unattached males to handle, historically a problem for any nation. The US has a stable birthrate combined with immigration and a steady rate of growth. That's a tremendous rarely-noted advantage.

Gorbachev set the course of his foreign policy about three months after his election to the post of General Secretary by replacing the foreign minister. He reassigned the sullen, almost 76-year-old Andrei Gromyko, who, in his 28 years as foreign minister, had earned the nickname "Mr. Nyet"

That is the moment I knew everything would really change. We'd been through a succession of post-Brezhnev bureaucrats, none of whom was powerful enough to really change anything, let alone begin to attack the powerful structural issues of unemployment and underproduction. Despite right-wing rhetoric in the US when Chernenko and Andropov ascended, they were both pragmatics who simply tried to get a handle on a corrupted and diseased body politic that the years of Brezhnev's dotage had allowed to fester.

When this "young" man emerged from the shadows to lead, he was initially assumed to be the tool of someone else. Gromyko had been a fixture of East-West affairs for nearly half a century. He had first been Ambassador to the US (1943-1946), signed the UN charter and then the USSR representative to the Security Council (1946-1952) and then foreign minister for four successive General Secretaries including the entire Krushchev and Brezhnev regimes.

Gromyko didn't want to go, and there was a picture that was released around then that showed this famous sphinx pissed. He'd adroitly stepped past every minefield of the last four decades and many lesser men had been purged -- or even killed. His removal was an earthquake, and his replacement with the affable, straightforward Shevardnadze, I think, took even stalwarts in the Russian section at Foggy Bottom some time to adjust for.

Of course, ultimately Gorbachev did have a vision of a more energetic, more effective Communist bloc still led by Moscow. That was not to be. I'm willing to give Reagan some credit, as long as Carter gets credit for beginning the expansion of the Navy and support for the Afghan rebels (even if that didn't turn out the way we'd hoped, it was a coup in terms of US-Soviet chess moves). I'm also of the opinion that the Soviet system was doomed for years prior to Ronnie's ascension, so even if he did some things right, it's not like it really took a lot. The best part of Reagan's legacy, in my mind, isn't that he pushed over the Soviet sand castle. It's that he managed the situation so that we didn't have a civil war or a nuclear war. He was well advised in that regard.

In a nutshell, Reagan was more effective than he really deserved to be, and Gorbachev far less than he deserved. I'm not sure that quarrelling with the results is what anybody really wants, though.
posted by dhartung at 1:11 PM on November 28, 2006


> The Bolsheviks solved the problem by killing every dissenter
> and terrorizing the rest;

The most remarkable and impressive thing about Gorbachev is that he didn't solve his problems this way. Any guesses about how Khrushchev or Brezhnev or Putin (or Lenin or Stalin, or Catherine or Ivan) would have handled things, had any of them been in charge instead of Gorby? He could have tried the machine guns, virtually any other Russian leader in history would have, but he didn't.


> wishful thinking, lack of pollyanna optimism, take your pick, asshole.

I know how stressful it must be for you, Haywood, standing there on the mountaintop going "Well? Where's the End? You said it was going to be the End. You Promised! WHERE THE FUCK IS IT?!?"

Never mind lad, same time tomorrow. You must get a winner one day.
posted by jfuller at 1:26 PM on November 28, 2006


the affable, straightforward Shevardnadze

Who later presided over terminal corruption and thuggery in his native Georgia and didn't know when it was time to go. It doesn't do to romanticize Old Bolsheviks.
posted by languagehat at 1:35 PM on November 28, 2006


TBH I think the decline of the US will probably be more like the end of the British Empire than the fall of the USSR, though hopefully without the world wars. You'll wake up one day, and though you'll still be america nad no apreciable disaster will have happened you'll find you don't actually own the world that way.

Personally I think you'll be better off that way. Certainly the average American isn't going to be affected by it too much and It'll certainly make you more likeable.
posted by Artw at 1:46 PM on November 28, 2006


languagehat: consider a "comparatively" retroactively inserted.

Despite what happened later, he had his moment of principle.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 PM on November 28, 2006


spiderwire: Reading this article really does bring home that the ideological difference between the countries was really never as important as it was made out to be--

"Never"? By the end, the ideological differences weren't as important, because the Soviet leadership and the Soviet people had lost faith in Communism (a process that can be traced back to Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956, denouncing Stalin's crimes). But in the initial stages of the Cold War--when the Red Army had defeated Nazi Germany, adding enormously to Soviet prestige, while Mao and the Chinese Communists overthrew Chiang Kai-Shek and then fought the US to a standstill in Korea--that wasn't true at all. Here were two vast and backward countries which had struggled to catch up to the West; Communism had transformed them into great powers, with the promise that they would soon overtake the West (recall Sputnik).

Hans Morgenthau, writing in 1964, describes the vitality of Marxism even earlier, in the 1920s:
Marxism as a system of political thought and a guide to political action is today dead where it once had its greatest vitality: in Central and Western Europe. This sweeping statement is not contradicted by the fact that in France and Italy Communist candidates are supported by approximately one-fourth of the voters; for those votes are cast not so much for Marxism as a political philosophy as against the social and economic status quo. And in Germany and Austria Marxism is an historic memory altogether. One needs only compare this state of affairs with the enormous intellectual ferment—largely sterile politically, it is true—which Marxism caused in that part of the world in the Twenties, and the faith in its intellectual and moral rightness and promise which it aroused in its followers—to realize its decline, as an intellectual, moral, and political force. One of my earliest and most vivid childhood recollections is of a visit I paid with my father, a doctor, to the house of a German workingman who was dying of cancer. "Doctor," the man said, "when I am dead, will you please see to it that this book is put in my coffin," and he pointed to a small volume lying on his night table. "Was this the Bible?" I asked my father after we had left. "No, it was his Bible," my father answered with a trace of acerbity in his voice, being as class conscious as his patient was. "It was The Communist Manifesto." Can one imagine a German workingman, East or West, uttering such a last wish today?
posted by russilwvong at 3:45 PM on November 28, 2006


Yes, "never" isn't a wholly appropriate term, although the cynic in me thinks that the "ideological" justifications are almost always secondary, it's still an overgeneralization.

I should have been more specific; I was just marveling how painfully mundane and realpolitik-ish the inner circle of the USSR really was (and I'm sure the same could be said of the US leadership).
posted by spiderwire at 6:10 PM on November 28, 2006


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