March 02, 2016

Gorbachev Turns 85

Gorbachev Turns 85
Gorbachev in 1981 (RIAN CC)

On March 2, 2016, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's first and last president, whose efforts helped end the Cold War, whose reforms [unwittingly] brought down the Communist Party and, eventually, the Soviet Union, turned 85. Gorbachev's name is eternally associated with buzzwords and events of the 1980-1990s, such as glasnost ("openness"), perestroika ("restructuring"), New Thinking, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, a 1990 Nobel Prize laureate, founded Green Cross International, head The Gorbachev Foundation, and has no fear of breaking stereotypes, say by appearing in a Pizza Hut commercial, or narrating a new take on the story of Peter and the Wolf - which incidentally earned him a Grammy award in 2004.

Widely acclaimed in the West, where he became as recognizable a symbol of the USSR as Sputnik, the Bolshoi Ballet and the KGB, Gorbachev has nonetheless only enjoyed very moderate support in his homeland. According to a poll a decade ago, some 45 percent of Russians have a negative opinion about the former Soviet leader, while 34 percent say they are neutral and just 14 percent express positive feelings. The explanation is simple: many Russians still blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the country he took charge of, and the economic misery that followed.

But, looking back, the Gorbachev era seems like an intoxicating time, when walls were crumbling and a new picture of the world was being assembled from scratch. Never again will Russians learn their history anew, with glasnost daily revealing previously concealed facts. In mere months, history books became outdated and parents had to clip out newspaper stories to help their kids wade through history classes.

In the first romantic days that followed the 1990 Law on the Press -- which abolished censorship -- newspaper and magazine circulations skyrocketed. Everyone was keen to learn the truth. "Did you read this story in such and such magazine?" people would ask one another every morning, then exchange knowing looks. Everyone was dizzy with the pure oxygen of freedom, with guessing what would come next, wondering if there was a point where "They" -- the party leaders -- would say "Enough!"

Then there was the anti-alcohol campaign, the first and most ridiculed of the Gorbachevian reforms, launched at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party in February 1986. While a well-meaning move to staunch alcoholism, many of the campaign's measures were extreme. Famous wineries were destroyed; drinking in public places was banned; Societies for Sobriety were set up in many companies to keep an eye on others' drinking habits. A propaganda campaign promoted "no-alcohol weddings," mocking Russians' traditional drink-till-you-drop celebrations. Drinking scenes were removed from movies. Prices for alcohol surged and sales were restricted. Stores were only allowed to sell vodka after 2 p.m., and huge lines formed in front of stores long before opening time.

It was the days of lines, indeed. By the end of the 1980s, there were severe shortages of basic supplies -- meat, sugar, butter, soap -- causing people to stand in line for hours. "One kilo per set of hands," a sign over the counter often said, making whole families join the line to increase their "catch." As things got worse, the wartime system of talony -- ration coupons -- was reintroduced, limiting each citizen to a certain amount of sugar, butter, cigarettes or vodka. Allocating serious smokers just one pack of cigarettes per month was a joke, while non-smokers would rather receive a card for an extra kilo of sugar.

Cooperatives -- a first attempt at private enterprises, legalized by the Law on Cooperatives in May 1988 -- were another breakthrough of the Gorbachev era. Cooperative restaurants, shops and manufactures mushroomed, bringing more diversity into the streets, as people started changing drab factory-made clothes for the bright, but short-lived, attire made by mom and pop sewing shops.

In the end, however, Gorbachev’s economic reform ended in a flop, doomed by the sheer inefficiency and size of the economy it had inherited. By the end of the 1980s the USSR had an external debt of $120 billion and a domestic deficit of R109 billion. Coupled with the intoxicating air of freedom, which awoke long-suppressed nationalist feelings within the Soviet republics, this force eventually brought down the Soviet Union.

As General Secretary of the Communist Party, writes RIAN columnist Petr Romanov, Gorbachev managed to put the "perestroika train" in motion. But when it accelerated, Gorbachev lost control, and the train, now led by millions of hands, shot past the planned stop of "socialism with a human face." Public opinion polls notwithstanding, Gorbachev will remain a man who voluntarily gave up absolute power to make his country more democratic and less threatening, only to be swept away the avalanche of changes he brought to life.

For a fuller biography, see this link on the Gorbachev Foundation website, or read his Wikipedia entry. The foundation site also has some nice photos.

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