The Political Tragedy of Russia

The most important events of the late 20th century began to unfold nearly 20 years ago on March 11, 1985, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Within a few weeks of his rise to power, the full-scale reformation he hoped to carry out inside his country and in its Cold War relations with the West was underway.

“Perestroika,” as Gorbachev called his reforms, officially ended six years later, on the day he stepped down from office in December 1991 -- the same day the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The historic opportunities for a better future that perestroika offered Russia and the world have been steadily undermined ever since.

The essential goal of the policy was to create alternatives to the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful and dangerous policies at home and abroad. Inside the country, it meant replacing the Communist Party’s repressive political monopoly with multiparty politics based on democratic elections. It meant putting an end to censorship (a process known as glasnost) and replacing the state’s crushing economic monopoly with market relations based on different forms of ownership, including private property. By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union had already ceased to be a Communist or, as it was often characterized, “totalitarian” system.

Abroad, Gorbachev’s reforms meant ending the 40-year Cold War and its attendant arms race, which had imperiled the United States and the Soviet Union -- and the rest of the world -- with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Here, too, having found willing partners first in President Reagan and then President Bush, Gorbachev’s initiatives were remarkably successful. By mid-1988, standing in Red Square, no less, Reagan had declared that the Soviet Union was no longer an “evil empire,” and in December 1989, at a summit meeting in Malta, Bush and Gorbachev announced that the Cold War was over. Treaties providing for major arms reductions were signed, and even more far-reaching ones were being negotiated.


Gorbachev’s policies bore historic fruit at home and abroad, so there was no reason for them to end when the state was dissolved in 1991 and Gorbachev was forced out. But they did.

Boris N. Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, abruptly jettisoned his predecessor’s evolutionary approach for the old Russian tradition of imposing unpopular changes on the nation from above -- first the abolition of the Soviet Union itself, then the economic measures known as “shock therapy.”

Not surprisingly, those acts led to more undemocratic ones in the 1990s (supported, it should be recalled, by the Clinton administration and most U.S. media and academic Russia-watchers). These included Yeltsin’s armed dissolution of the elected parliament, oligarchic privatization, the war in Chechnya, increasingly corrupted mass media and elections.

Today’s Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, may be further undoing Gorbachev’s democratic achievements, but the process began when Yeltsin abandoned perestroika.

The opportunities that Gorbachev created for international relations have also been missed, perhaps even lost, but this is primarily because of the United States. Instead of embracing post-Soviet Russia as an equal partner in ending the Cold War and the arms race, the Clinton and the George W. Bush administrations undertook a triumphalist, winner-take-all policy of extracting unilateral concessions first from Yeltsin and then from Putin. Among the counterproductive American moves have been: the eastward expansion of NATO (thereby breaking a promise the first President Bush made to Gorbachev); the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had discouraged a new nuclear arms race; the bogus nuclear weapons reduction treaty of 2002; and the ongoing military encirclement of Russia with U.S. and NATO bases in former Soviet territories.

Those unwise U.S. policies, which in Moscow are viewed as attempts to isolate and “contain” Russia, are leading to a new Cold War. They have already badly eroded the political basis for any pro-American orientation in Moscow and have persuaded most Russian officials that their country’s salvation lies in reverting to pre-perestroika governing traditions and in finding strategic allies again in the East. Militarily weak and financially unstable, the Kremlin has also reacted by clinging to its nuclear arsenal -- whose security is uncertain -- even expanding instead of reducing it. The current Bush administration has apparently decided, for other reasons, to do the same. A new nuclear arms race already looms.

Twenty years later, then, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Their loss may be the worst, and most unnecessary, political tragedy of our time. (Those of us who know Gorbachev have heard him speak of this with great sadness.)

Yet there remains the hope, at least in Russia, that as sometimes happens in history the memory of lost alternatives will one day inspire efforts to regain them. But that would require new perestroika-like leadership in both countries.