Observations of an Expat: Gorby’s Object Lesson

Mikhail Gorbachev is revered in the West for his part in ending the Cold War and reviled in the East for losing it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to attend the funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev.

By Tom Arms

Mikhail Gorbachev is an object lesson in the dangers inherent in moving a corrupt, highly-centralized autocratic government in which the individual is a servant of the party and state to a fairer and more open society in which the state is the servant of the people.

That is not to detract from Gorbachev’s greatness. His policies of perestroika and glasnost helped to bring an end to the Cold War. But it also opened the door to the rise of dangerous Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev did not set out to topple the Soviet empire. He was a true believer who was convinced that communism was the path to political nirvana. His mentor was Mikhail Suslov whose primary role was to keep the Politburo on the ideological straight and narrow.

The problem was that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was not communist. It was a planned economy with the financial levers in the hands of the Party. But even more so, it was a corrupt, oppressive geriatric oligarchy with a rapidly failing economy that was unable to support its military establishment and political control of Eastern Europe.

The “Era of Stagnation”—As Gorbachev dubbed it—started in the mid-1970s under Leonid Brezhnev with a clampdown on human rights and emphasis on heavy industry and the military establishment. Soviet consumers were ignored. Between 1975-1985 the Soviet economy grew at a miserly average rate of 1.8 percent a year. The income of Soviet man dropped. Bribery, long queues and shortages were endemic. The state-controlled media and statistical bureau reported the exact opposite. Everyone knew they lied.

The exception to this economic plunge was the Party faithful. They were allowed to buy Western consumer goods in special hard currency shops and the Politburo were chauffeured from office luxurious dacha in Zil limousines.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982 there was a power struggle between the reformist wing led by Yuri Andropov and the old guard led by Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov won and then died 15 months later. Chernenko succeeded him only to die after just 13 months in the top job. The hierarchy swung back to the reformist wing and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev immediately announced that he wanted to improve living standards and political freedoms and was prepared to cut non-productive military expenditure to achieve those aims. His policies were summed up by the terms perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political and social openness). The economy was decentralized, incentive schemes were introduced for workers and managers and state subsidies reduced along with Soviet aid to satellite countries. Nuclear arsenals were reduced and Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan.

Reduced subsidies in Eastern Europe were accompanied by increased freedoms—political and economic– in the hope that increased productivity would replace the need for handouts. But it only created a taste for more Gorbachev was easing the lid off the pressure cooker which his predecessors had kept tightly bolted in place. The boiling discontent it had contained very quickly blew it off.

In April 1989 the border between Hungary and Austria was opened and 50,000 East Germans drove across it on the way to West Germany. The iconic Berlin Wall had become redundant and on 9 November 1989 it came toppling down. Over the next two years the wall was followed by one communist government after another, culminating in the formal end of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991.

As well as being an object lesson on how not to democratize a dictatorship, the collapse of the Soviet Union was an instruction in the law of unintended consequences. For decades the West beavered away at undermining the Soviet Union. Understandably so. Moscow made it clear that the Cold War was a them or us, win or lose, situation. The West won. The former Soviet satellites secured their independence and most of them moved into the Western camp.

The Russian rump (which is still the biggest country in the world) crumpled into chaos. In an attempt to rescue the economy, Gorbachev’s successor Boris Yeltsin, sold off Russia’s vast natural resources at bargain basement prices to an unholy coalition of ex-KGB men and organized crime. What emerged from the political vacuum was a Western nightmare of a kleptocracy fuelled by anti-Western ultra-nationalism which mirrors the rise of Nazi Germany from the ashes of World War I.

Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, is revered in the West for his part in ending the Cold War and reviled in the East for losing it. The poster boy of a resurgent Russia, Vladimir Putin, has refused to attend his funeral.

World-ReviewWorld Review

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    This is how Sindh Minister Manzoor Wassan treats the poor people in flood zone.
  • China doesn’t dare invade Taiwan. And the United States doesn’t dare send in the troops to defend it. The reason has nothing to do with the military prowess of either Beijing, Washington, or for that matter, Taiwan. It has everything to do with the peacekeeping attributes of globalization and Taiwan’s lock on the semi-conductor or computer chip industry. In today’s computer-driven world, semi-conductors are THE vital component in everything from cruise missiles to the braking system of the family car to the smartphone in your pocket. A severe shortage of semi-conductors would cause major global economic dislocation. In fact, the recent covid-induced supply chain bottlenecks forced several multinational car manufacturers to stop production because of a global shortage of computer chips. If there is a war over Taiwan then troops will fight in Taiwan. If troops fight in Taiwan the island’s computer chip industry will be severely disrupted at best and obliterated at worst. The Chinese and Americans wouldn’t be able to fire their artillery at each other. About half of the world’s semi-conductors come from Taiwan and almost all of them emerge from the premises of the Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in Hsinchu in the northwest corner of Taiwan. Small is beautiful in the computer world and TSMC and its next nearest competitor Samsung in South Korea are the only two companies capable of manufacturing 5 nanometer chips. Later this year TSMC will become the only company in the world to produce a 3 nanometer chips. Both the US and China are trying to boost their production of semi-conductors. China is being hampered by US reluctance to allow the export of chip technology that will enable China’s Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Industrial Corporation to increase production and move onto the next generation. Last month President Biden signed the bi-partisan CHIPS Act which provided $52 billion investment money in the US semi-conductor industry. The stated purpose was economic security for this vital industry, especially in regards to China. But in practice the CHIPS Act could make America less secure by freeing up America to fight in Taiwan. As for Taiwan, their best deterrent is Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) of America and China that would occur if the TSMC foundries stopped turning out computer chips.


Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and is currently working on a rewrite of his Encyclopedia of the Cold War.

 [The views expressed by the author are his personal and do not reflect the editorial policy of Sindh Courier]

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