I am planning another trip to Russia to re-interview a lot of people whom I had met many years ago, during the glasnost and perestroika period. My preparation consists largely of preparing myself to find that the people known then as “new thinkers” have turned into supporters of Putin. I am thinking about what to ask them, since it’s hard to suppose that this is a reasonable position for them to take.
But Russians turned against “New Thinking” quite a long time ago, and many of their reasons are defensible. It was the West that let them down. For example, when Gorbachev was struggling to get the USSR on its feet, he asked for financial support from the West, but was turned down. That set the stage for Yeltsin to pull the rug out from under him. No wonder he is sore.
But he, Gorbachev, is now apparently a Putin supporter too. That’s what I find hard to imagine. Reportedly, he thinks that Russia needs a strong leader — which he can hardly claim to have been. Surely he knows that the evidence is pretty conclusive that Putin is an autocrat, supporting state-controlled capitalism but hardly any democracy whatever. How could Gorbachev say good things about him?
But actually, that is not entirely out of character. During the last year of his presidency, he appointed people to the highest posts who were themselves opponents of new thinking, opponents of glasnost and perestroika. At the time, I thought that he had lost control of his government and that there had been a “silent coup.” When I asked his associate Georgy Shakhnazarov, about that he explained that politics requires flexibility. Gorbachev was trying to hold both ends of the political spectrum together, and sometimes that requires sharing power with his political enemies. Another Russian whom I asked said that Gorbachev always was a consummate centrist. He was bobbing and weaving between two extreme and polarizing positions, and his method was always that of inclusiveness. He gave part of his regime away just to try to keep it.
But friends in Moscow today say that Gorbachev is no longer even taken seriously. He justifies Putin, and then he will say that he’s going to form a new social democratic party — which would be just the opposite of Putin’s politics. You can’t tell what Gorbachev stands for, if ever indeed you could when he was in power.
I think you could tell his politics early on, when he had sufficient power to implement his decisions. It was latter, when power was slipping through his fingers, that he became increasingly inconsistent, and remains that way today. I don’t exactly blame him, but nor can I respect him as much as I did in the eighties.
Now let’s compare that to the US politics of today. Some people are predicting that John McCain (see photo) may win the South Carolina primary, winning support from even the people who strongly oppose his position on the Iraq War and other military policies. I saw Bill Moyers interview Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania. Moyers asked her why McCain would get support from those who oppose his views. She said it was because he is consistent. People say, “I may not like his position, but at least I know where he stands, and that matters.” She says that's how George W. Bush got elected in 2004: people didn't like his position, but they knew he was consistent.
I want consistency from a politician too. That’s why I dislike Hillary Clinton. She is forever testing where the wind blows before she will take a stand. It’s not surprising that she voted for the Iraq invasion. Everyone else took that position at the time too, except one brave California Congresswoman, Barbara Lee. And Barack Obama, who was not in the Senate yet. But I don’t find it as easy to forgive Hillary Clinton for her inconsistency as I do Gorbachev. Nevertheless, I think it has to diminish his position in Russia -— which was already so low it could hardly drop lower, exactly because (I think) he was so inconsistent as a president.