Imagine that you have been in prison all your life. The guards feed you but there’s no possibility of freedom. But then along comes a warden who unlocks the door and leads you out of the prison. Do you thank him?
For eighteen years I’ve been contemplating this question. The fact is, of course, that most Russian people hate Gorbachev and are completely baffled when a foreigner expresses immense admiration for him, as I do. (Yes, he’s just human, but his ratio of good to bad decisions is overwhelmingly constructive.)
During my recent stay in Moscow, I interviewed only one admirer of his, the scholar Dmitry Furman, who regards Gorbachev as the greatest political leader Russia ever had. Or to be more accurate, he thinks Gorbachev may be an even match with someone whose name I didn’t recognize. (I should track that guy down.) In my opinion, MSG is not surpassed by any other political leader in world history; probably he is matched only by Gandhi, who was an altogether different type. So I am always astounded that Russians themselves don’t see that.
The puzzle began for me when I read the memoir of the hydrogen bomb designer and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. (What a combination of qualifications!) He had been under house arrest in Gorky for years when he was unexpectedly released. One day a telephone man came to the Sakharov house and installed a phone. The next day that phone rang and it was Gorbachev telling him that he was free to move back to Moscow and resume his good work. Sakharov notes, with evident pride, that he hung up on him.
Thereafter, the relationship between Gorbachev and Sakharov was testy, for reasons that I could not fathom. At the end Sakharov was giving a speech in the Congress of People’s Deputies (the new democratic parliament). Though he had used up the time allotted to each speaker, he wanted to keep going but Gorbachev was chairing the meeting and cut him off brusquely. Sakharov went home and died during the night.
That final unpleasant scene is often adduced even today as the basis for disliking Gorbachev. As for myself, I keep wondering why he hung up on Gorbachev and never tried to cooperate with him. One of Gorbachev’s closest associates once explained it to me by referring to a Russian proverb: “Two bears cannot live in one lair.” But that isn’t really an explanation. It’s just another way of phrasing the puzzle. The two men were pursuing similar goals. They both wanted democracy and a government that respected human rights. Gorbachev was extraordinarily democratic and he jettisoned the tyrannical system that had prevailed for seventy years. Yet he and Sakharov never became allies – nor do ordinary Russians even today honor their liberator. How strange!
But now I think I understand. I can see two different explanations for the Russians’ lack of gratitude to Gorbachev for overturning tyranny. One explanation applies to Sakharov and the other dissident human rights workers. The second explanation applies to ordinary Russian citizens.
First, the dissidents believed passionately that their sacrifices were necessary in order to get a free and decent society. Most protesters were sent to prison camps (from which only about half would emerge alive), though Sakharov was kept under house arrest instead. Despite their heroic endurance of abuse, dissidents had no discernable influence whatever on the decisions made in the Kremlin. (One dissident did insist to me that somehow they had “forced” the party leaders to change, but I have never seen any evidence to that effect.) In any case, these protesters were true martyrs; they knew that they would be treated as criminals but they believed that what they were doing was necessary. I call these courageous people “Barking Dogs.” They could not bite, but they courageously made a commotion to stir up the population.
They were not, however, the only people who believed that the communist regime needed to be changed markedly. In fact, there were far more individuals who took a different course of action toward that goal. I call them “Termites” because they worked quietly within the Party, developing ideas for reform that they hoped someday to implement. Gorbachev was a Termite par excellence, just as Sakharov was a Barking Dog par excellence. Gorbachev believed that only the general secretary of the party could institute real reforms, and he was acquainted with many like-minded Termites who shared his values and principles.
Oddly, the Termites and the Barking Dogs were enemies and remained so throughout the turbulent 1980s and even beyond. Theirs was a highly-charged ideological fight about how best to promote social change. One dissident with whom I spoke even referred to the reformers inside the Communist Party as “whores.” Although today, such a controversy sounds abstract and theoretical, the stakes were extraordinarily high. Their whole lives had been constructed on the basis of their opinions on this subject. It was painful for Sakharov to acknowledge that Gorbachev had “given” freedom to the Soviet people, for he believed that he and his fellow dissidents had won it through their noisy protests. Therefore he continued to view Gorbachev as some kind of self-serving opportunist, wholly different from the “barking” moral exemplars such as Sakharov himself and his allies. I can understand their lingering antagonism, though it is only stubborn pride.
But now let us consider the attitude of ordinary Soviet citizens who had not struggled against totalitarianism. Gorbachev had flung open the prison doors and urged everyone to come out and build a new, democratic society together. Why did most people not feel grateful for that? It took me longer to understand them than the disgruntled Barking Dogs. But now I do understand them. This is the second explanation.
The answer finally came to me after I had heard liberals and former dissidents in Moscow predict that it would take between fifteen and fifty years for Russians to be able to live in a democracy. I considered that a terribly insulting thing to say about one’s own society. But Lyudmilla Alexeeva explained it to me in our interview. (See her photo, along with the director of the EU-Russia Centre.) She is an old lady now, having struggled as a Soviet dissident for many years. And now she is optimistic, for she believes that the mentality has been developing very quickly. The society is far from being democratic, but it is changing and within fifteen years people will be ready. She told me,
“It’s our way to democracy. It’s a long way, of course because we were a totalitarian country for three generations. It’s not so easy to forget it, you know. For Germany, for example, it was much easier because it was only twelve years. But we were a totalitarian country more than 70 years. We forgot the free way to live. ... Remember the first World War, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s terror, industrialization in Stalin’s time, the Second World War. In the Second World War we lost 26 million people. That’s the official figure; I would believe it’s much more.... We have democratic problems because those who were the best people were destroyed during the terror, during the wars, and so on.”
I started to ask, “The quality of the people around you?” She replied,
“Entirely changed. They are more vulnerable to fear now. Of course! Of course! ... Many features in our characters were formed by our tragic history. ..We will be a democratic country but we cannot do it so quickly. We cannot! Be more patient! ... In fifteen years, I believe we will reach democracy.... People now are very different from those in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, people couldn’t do anything for themselves. Either the state did something for the people or it wasn’t done at all. For example, I would like to have a good apartment. If the state didn’t give it to me, I could not have it. It was impossible. We lived in such a way for three generations. And when the Soviet Union was crushed, we were like kids. We didn’t know how to do anything.”
We were not speaking about Gorbachev in this conversation, and I doubt that Lyudmilla Alexeeva herself resents him; she is one of the most generous-spirited persons I have ever met. But later I kept recalling her words, which actually provided the second explanation for the widespread hatred of Gorbachev.
Suppose you had been in prison all your life. You would not know how to take care of yourself. If suddenly your jailer unlocked the door for you and your whole society, you would be afraid, knowing that chaos awaited you outside. The institutions were not ready for you to take care of your own needs. Gorbachev was that kind jailer, conferring freedom on people for whom it was unfamiliar. No wonder they hated him! In fact, their fear was well-founded. The Soviet economy was in a shambles, and genuine poverty followed the collapse of communism. This was not entirely the fault of Gorbachev; militarism had already depleted the country’s wealth, and his rapprochement with the West improved their prospects – but only after a terrible transition.
Bill Clinton’s campaign manager was right in ways that apply to Russia too: “It’s the economy, stupid!” A ruler’s popularity is determined, above all, by the financial well-being of his society. The most imminent danger after leaving the prison of totalitarianism was simple hunger. At some points during Gorbachev’s term of office, the world price of oil was $7 per barrel. Today it is $143. We should not be surprised that Putin is wildly popular and Gorbachev was not.
Should he have known better? Should he have realized the difficulty of the transition that he launched? Perhaps. And, had he known what lay ahead, should he have kept the prison door locked? Of course not! (I hope you agree with me.)
When I visit Moscow it is with a longer perspective than that of the Russians I meet. They are reacting to the immediate predicaments that they face, day by day, and they are grateful to any ruler who makes their lives more comfortable and prosperous, even if less free. For me, the question is a more general one. I want to know how to oust any totalitarian state, wherever it arises — or, in the case of today’s Russia — an authoritarian state. Political tyranny is far harder to overcome than an economic downturn.
The Russians have learned little about freeing a society from the trap that is totalitarianism. And today this question does not interest them as it interests me. I want democracy for them. They do not wish it for themselves. It’s too difficult. But I think Medvedev may be a genuine democrat. During his first two months in office, he has been unlocking lots of doors again. And in fifteen years — who knows?