Gorbachev Watch: Waiting for Kremlingate


Many Americans like to "understand" foreign leaders by seeing them as versions of more familiar figures, and so Mikhail Gorbachev has been likened to a number of well-known political personalities. Some see him as a Russian John Kennedy, younger than his forebears, enthusiastic, prodding his people to new frontiers with "new thinking." Others who remember the Great Depression compare Gorbachev and perestroika to FDR and his New Deal, a pragmatist turning a decrepit and disheartened society toward new goals.

Still others see a smarter, well-tailored Nikita Khrushchev, a man who seems so much more pleasant in retrospect than he really was, thanks mainly to the unimaginative, turgid dullness of Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov. In that company, by the way, Gorbachev looked good even before glasnost. Gorbachev himself subtly links his star to Lenin's—that is, to the Soviet godhead. But few believe that.

On the more suspicious side, a friend of mine likens Gorbachev to Jesse Jackson—sly, plotting, glib, dissimulating, unscrupulous, 1,000 percent political, and decidedly ambivalent in his attitude toward Jews. Finally, one observer has likened Gorbachev to Louis XVI, a reformer bound to be overwhelmed by what he has let loose and cannot control, all to his own considerable peril.

This latter image comes closest to being interesting. From an old-fashioned imperial point of view, the new Soviet leadership is doing what may turn out to be inexplicably stupid things. It imagines that it can exploit the economic potential of the information revolution and other new technologies without radically decentralizing the economy and relying on market mechanisms. It imagines that it can allow political pluralism and still maintain the hegemony of the Communist Party. It imagines that it can release national energies in the Baltic states and elsewhere, not to speak of Eastern Europe, and then shut it all down at reasonable cost if it exceeds the limits of tolerance. It may even imagine that it can accept defeat in Afghanistan without really affecting the thinking of other Soviet clients and their oppositions.

Political elites sometimes do act like lemmings; liberals and their lapsed conservative imitators in the United States proved that in the late '60s and early '70s. Few Americans know who Louis XVI was, so if we must have a Gorbachev analogy, better to put it in more contemporary terms: Gorbachev is the Russian Richard Nixon.

Think about it. Brilliant in foreign policy, but with a country fixing to come apart at home. Trying to end a debilitating insurgent war inherited from the previous regime. Loves detente and arms control. Trying to co-opt left opposition, giving rise to right opposition. People love him and hate him, but no one is neutral; the old guard from which he comes is resentful. The economy is erratic; nobody works. Groups want to secede from the union (black nationalists, native Americans, Alabama; Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Jews…one could go on). There are promises of lower military spending, higher spending "for the people." A superficial concern for the environment is hip.

And, speaking of hip, there are hippies in the streets—beads, long hair, dreamy expressions, abhorrence for authority, drug culture, even the same music. (Sometimes it seems we exported the stuff and it's just taken 20 years getting through customs.) And amid a lot of noise about new beginnings, nothing is really changing for the better, people start seeing through the images, and leadership begins to reach too far.

But there are differences, one being especially important. We the People could get rid of Richard Nixon, who spoke of law and order out of one side of his mouth and violated it with the other. With some pain and a few detours we put ourselves back on an even keel without fatal damage to our political institutions; and we lost no foreign empire for the wear, because we had none to lose.

But in the Soviet case, frustrations have built up for a very long time. Social heterogeneity is of the old-fashioned patchwork variety rather than the melting-pot one. There is a foreign empire to lose. Russia has never been ruled by law but always by men; there is no check against uncontrolled upheaval, no anchor of accepted political value to cling to in hard times to restore balance. In short, it is impossible to save the Soviet system by half-measures; it must either return to the many poverties of a strict totalitarianism, or it must leap to revolution.

What will the Kremlin do when it finally understands this? To what measures will Mr. Gorbachev resort when he encounters the limits of his timid reformism?

It is by no means clear that the current delusion will persist, but if it does, if Mikhail Gorbachev is the Russian Richard Nixon, I shudder to contemplate Kremlingate.

Adam Garfinkle is coordinator of the Political Studies Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a contributing editor of Orbis.