More than 30 years have passed since that day. There was a strange mood when Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at Berlin-Schoenefeld Airport on October 6, 1989. Erich Honecker invited him to the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the GDR.
That must have been difficult for the SED General Secretary, because the leading comrade from Moscow is following a course that he rejects. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a policy of reforms, a radical restructuring of existing socialism.
Is there any reason at all to celebrate this 40th anniversary of the GDR. Since the summer, people have been leaving the country in droves via Hungary and the border to Austria or over the fence of the Federal Republic of Germany’s embassy in Prague. Those who stayed have been demonstrating in Leipzig for a month. They shout at Honecker and his Politburo: “We are the people!”
Mikhail Gorbachev is past the official dates when he takes a dip in the crowd on Unter den Linden on October 7th. People crowd him, cheer him on. He is their hope. Gorbachev speaks a few sentences, calmly, friendly, even smiling a little.
But the content of these sentences reveals how frustrated he must be after the talks with the GDR leadership. “Dangers do not wait for those who react to life,” says Gorbachev. “Anyone who picks up on the impulses emanating from life and society and shapes their politics accordingly shouldn’t have any difficulties, that’s a normal phenomenon.”
This passage takes less than 30 seconds. She went down in history with just eight words. Eight words that Gorbachev never said, an aphorism coined by the translator: “He who comes too late will be punished by life.” In doing so, Gorbachev finally pulled the rug out from under the feet of Erich Honecker’s leadership, as we shall soon see . A month later the wall falls, a year later the GDR is history.
Not only on anniversaries of unity do the Germans have to be grateful to Mikhail Gorbachev. The reunification would not have happened without him. At some point the division of Europe would probably have been overcome without him, but it would certainly have been different.
He was honored in the West for his contribution to overcoming the Cold War, but despised to the end in his homeland. Because what appears and is celebrated as a victory in the West, the vast majority of Russians now, three decades later, consider a defeat. Gorbachev – without intending to – gambled away the Russian empire.
In the theater, Mikhail Gorbachev would be a great tragic figure. What he wanted, he didn’t succeed. What he has achieved, he did not want. The more he reforms the frozen Soviet system, the worse it gets. Of course, Gorbachev also recognizes this.
This explains his hesitation, his inconsistency, which are increasingly becoming his nature. He has set forces in motion that not only bring down the prevailing world order, but that ultimately push him aside as well.
That’s probably why this man’s greatest political achievement isn’t written in the history books with his name. Just as the unspeakable Brezhnev Doctrine to gag Central and Eastern Europe is associated with the name of one of his predecessors.
Rather, in 1989 Gorbachev’s spokesman Gerasimov coined the term “Sinatra” doctrine to describe the liberation of this region from Moscow’s dictates: every country has the right to try its own way. It is probably even true that there is no such thing as a “Gorbachev Doctrine”.
He never aimed to go down in history as the liberator of Eastern Europe. Gorbachev’s intention was to improve and thus save the Soviet Union, not to bury it.
Mikhail Gorbachev followed the path of all communist functionaries: from his earliest youth up the ladder of the apparatus, straight and unobtrusively through the nomenklatura. When, at the age of 54, he was elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU in March 1985, that was not yet a sign of an imminent change of course.
After half a decade under the leadership of senile and terminally ill men – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko – the communist party is finally completing the overdue generational change.
However, even the most dogmatic officials knew that changes had to be made quickly. The Soviet Union had missed the most important developments of the scientific and technological revolution. The gap to the West did not become smaller and smaller, as the communist theory of progress, dialectical materialism, predicted.
He kept getting bigger. The war in Afghanistan sapped internal resources and damaged the country’s external image. In addition, US President Ronald Reagan had just initiated a new round of the arms race with his star wars program SDI, which would certainly overwhelm the capacities of the ailing Soviet Union.
It was not the belief in the victoriousness of socialism, but the naked instinct of self-preservation that made the CPSU think of reforms in the mid-1980s. Gorbachev, who alone with his fresh, apparently undisguised demeanor makes an unmistakable difference to his predecessors, becomes the most important protagonist of the inevitable change.
Soon after taking power, the new man presented qualities that the Soviet people had not seen in their leaders for a long time: Gorbachev approached them. Not in a figurative sense, but directly on the streets. incarnate. With outstretched hand.
He can speak freely, with a sympathetic, dark voice and a soft southern Russian tinge in which the spoken letter G becomes a breathy H. Chorbachev. He has unusual, outrageous ideas. This KP General Secretary calls his course “perestroika”: Restructuring. And “glasnost”, openness, that is Gorbachev’s promise.
Something unimaginable happens. Soviet citizens listen to a general secretary again, they voluntarily read his speeches. They give Gorbachev what they haven’t given a party official for a long time: a leap of faith
Glasnost, the politics of opening and openness, is more than just an empty phrase. Suddenly the fatal stagnation into which the Soviet Union had maneuvered itself under its gerontocratic leadership is expertly analyzed. Of course, much will continue to be kept secret, such as the devastating Chernobyl disaster at the beginning.
But a start has been made. In addition, the archives are opened and the confrontation with the crimes of Stalinism, which had started under Khrushchev but was then abruptly broken off, begins again. But not everyone is willing to endure the pain that exposure of the truth causes.
At the same time as the social upheaval, resistance was forming. Georgi Arbatov, one of Gorbachev’s confidants, would later write: Perestroika “began with a romantic phase. This phase was followed by the usual pattern of political polarization. In 1990 the battle between the conservatives and the reformers turned into a crisis.”
In the West there is enthusiasm for Gorbachev. It is hardly surprising considering his first steps in foreign policy. Barely four weeks in office, the Secretary-General announces a moratorium on the deployment of SS-20 medium-range missiles.
Not just anywhere, but in the heart of Europe, the stationing of nuclear missiles had led to the most dangerous confrontation between East and West since the Wall was built and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently, Gorbachev takes the lead with a simple explanation.
But behind it are tough negotiations that culminate in Gorbachev’s meetings with US President Ronald Reagan: Geneva 1985, Reykjavik 1986 and Malta in December 1989, when the Iron Curtain had just fallen, are particularly important.
But the most dramatic meeting of all is in Iceland. An agreement between the Soviet Union and the USA on actual nuclear disarmament never seemed closer than at this historic moment. It fails because Reagan does not want to let go of an idea that was illusory at the time: his star wars program. Above all, it is the disarmament initiatives that rightly help Gorbachev to achieve a high reputation and the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the West, Gorbachev is more a pop star than a politician. He is “Gorby”. His sayings become much-quoted aphorisms. Not just the sentence that he didn’t even say – at least not like that. Conservatives like Helmut Kohl only discovered their sympathies for the Soviet General Secretary late and for a specific purpose.
In the fall of 1989, the Federal Chancellor needed Gorbachev’s approval of German unity. Just three years earlier, the chancellor had tried to dismiss the Soviet party leader as a communist leader who knew public relations. “Goebbels, one of those responsible for the crimes of the Hitler era, was also a public relations expert,” Kohl had added contemptuously.
The longer Gorbachev is in power, the more he seems frightened by the actual consequences of his ideas and reforms. Then he turns around abruptly, alienating those who just helped him and bringing in opponents who want to get rid of him sooner rather than later.
The impression is increasingly being created that his own reforms have to be pushed through against his will. At times Gorbachev must have felt like someone who was trying to nail planks to a sinking ship while being constantly criticized by the ship’s officers on the bridge. Towards the end of his term in office, Gorbachev’s inner contradictions came to light: he talked about democratization and at the same time allows the security forces to bloodily suppress democratic expressions of will in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, in Baku in Azerbaijan and then also in Vilnius in Lithuania. In Baku there are more than 80 dead, killed with the folding spades of the special forces, which the crowd disperses.
However, the point of greatest suspense in a play starring Mikhail Gorbachev is not in the fall of 1989. It is the afternoon of August 18, 1991. At his vacation home in Foros, Crimea, Gorbachev is reviewing a speech written for him by his staff and which he intends to hold two days later in Moscow when the union treaty is signed.
He would announce a new beginning for the Soviet Union in the capital, based on real equality for the republics, on openness and democratization. Gorbachev is now 60 years old and determined to continue the transformation of the largest country on earth.
The promises of renewal and acceleration made five years previously have remained unfulfilled. Instead, there is frustration and lack. Over the years, the initial intellectual euphoria met with an increasingly scarce supply of goods in the shops. That August 1991, even in the capital Moscow, which is always much better supplied than the provinces, matches and toilet paper ran out.
Gorbachev’s reforms had awakened the long-sleeping nomenklatura, comfortably settled in the conditions created by his predecessors. In July 1991, the opponents of perestroika published a pamphlet entitled “Word to the People” in their central organ, Sovietskaya Rossiya.
It was a blatant call to rebellion, and it didn’t come from outsiders. Even if they did not openly identify themselves, the authors came from the closest circle of the party leader and state president. Gorbachev nevertheless went on vacation to the Black Sea.
As he later wrote in justification, he wants to continue working on his plan to prevent an “explosive solution to the accumulated contradictions: I wanted to take tactical steps to gain time so that the democratic process would gain sufficient stability to push back the old”. The next of these steps is to be the new union treaty. He is supposed to wrest the argument from his opponents that Gorbachev’s policies are leading to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
At 4:50 p.m., Gorbachev’s chief of bodyguards reported that guests had arrived. He had invited no one, no one had announced their attendance. Gorbachev tries to make a call, but all the lines are dead. A delegation from Moscow is waiting for the President in the reception room.
Four men are standing there, all from the closest circle of leaders, from the Politburo and the National Security Council. You tell your boss that he has to resign from his post “for health reasons”. In Moscow, an emergency committee has already taken over the business.
The next morning, August 19, it will be presented on television. “Health reasons” was the wording used when a top Soviet functionary was forced out of office or even liquidated before his death. At that moment, a deadly danger also loomed over Gorbachev.
He tries to save the situation with speeches. Gorbachev has always preferred to talk than to take matters into his own hands. Now he insults the delegation as traitors. General Valentin Warennikov, one of the planners and commanders of the lost war in Afghanistan, brusquely cuts the President off:
“Resign!” With these three words, Gorbachev’s time at the head of the party and the state came to an end. After six years he failed completely.
The putschists held Gorbachev in Foros for 72 hours. The President of the Soviet Union, or at least in title, is returning to Moscow and another country. There, the people have meanwhile repelled the putschists. But not only they lost, also Gorbachev.
He tries to ignore his disempowerment. Russian President Boris Yeltsin humiliates him in front of cameras during a press conference. He forces Gorbachev to make a radical change in the leadership of the Soviet Union, otherwise he would probably have continued to govern with the deputies of the putschists, the second row of traitors.
Eduard Shevardnadze analyzed the situation clearly immediately after the August coup. As a friend and foreign minister, the Georgian had come a long way with Gorbachev. In December 1990, however, he resigned from his positions, disappointed and deeply hurt.
Immediately after the coup in 1991, Shevardnadze wrote about Gorbachev: “He was a prisoner of the junta. But when he returned and appeared at the press conference, I saw that he is still a prisoner ¬ a prisoner of his character, his ideas, his way of thinking and acting.”
Gorbachev himself “pumpled up the junta through his negligence, his indecisiveness and his tendency to maneuver, through his lack of knowledge of human nature, through his indifference towards his real comrades-in-arms, through his distrust of the democratic forces”.
But is Gorbachev’s failure really due to his personality, did he actually have a chance of success? A thought applies to Gorbachev that the ancient historian Christian Meier coined with reference to another historical dimension: power and powerlessness can unite in one person.
That certainly applies to Gorbachev. As Secretary General he had formal power like Stalin or Brezhnev. A crisis made him grow up. But at the same time it robbed him of the opportunity to solve it, because there were too few forces around him striving in the same direction.
These few stood against an established system of exercising power. Above all, however, people no longer knew where they stood. The Soviet household may have been poor, that was for sure. Now, under Gorbachev, it wobbled menacingly before inevitably collapsing. To the very end, Gorbachev remained convinced that the world would be a better place if the Soviet Union still existed. He passed away on Tuesday evening, August 30th, 2022 at the age of 91. Gorbachev was the most important failed politician of the 20th century.