Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Melting the Cold War: Gorbachev at 80

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, turned 80 on 2 March and this evening a gala concert is being held in London to mark the event and seek to raise millions for cancer charities in memory of his wife Raisa, who died of the illness. International pop stars and singers have gathered at some cost to remember a man whose time in power marked the end of an era, of a system and a country.

This evening, RT ran an interview with his translator and assistant, Pavel Palazchenko, the mustachioed man who seemed constantly at his side as he shuttled from Rekjavik to Helsinki and New York in the round of diplomatic initiatives that marked the end of the thirty year "Cold War". He mentioned his regrets about many of the things that happened in Russia following Gorbachev's downfall at the end of 1991, but, he remarked, compared to the world of 30 years ago, he had no regrets about his involvement with Gorbachev and his "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (reconstruction) initiatives.

In some ways, he is very right - for those of us who remember the constant international tensions of the 1970s and 1980s, the Americans' increasing belligerence under Reagan with their talk of the viability of "limited nuclear war" and the ludicrous "Star Wars" programme, it does well to stop and consider that the world of today, for all its multiple ills, no longer has an international system constructed on such appalling concepts as "Mutually Assured Destruction" by mass nuclear conflagration. The very worst of the dreadful acts played out in Iraq and Libya, or the very worst imaginable al-Qaeda attack, are as nothing to the crisis of 1961, when Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over Cuba. Nor do they compare to the potentially much worse 26 September 1983 incident when an accidental nuclear war was avoided only by the prompt thinking of Soviet airforce officer Stanislav Petrov, who correctly diagnosed as false an attack alarm.

And in the former Soviet Union, some states enjoy a degree of political freedom that was unprecedented in the Soviet era. Gorbachev's liberalism has flourished in places such as Estonia, though in others, such as Lithuania, it has been tarnished by deep seated anti-semitism, persecution of the Romany and even of ethnic Russians. Elsewhere, many of the nationalist hatred suppressed (though sadly not removed) by the Soviet era have resurfaced, often violently, and some successor states, like Belarus and Uzbekistan, have become the personal fiefdoms of dictators with powers rivalling Stalin at his worst.

And of course Russia itself, the heartlands of the former Soviet Empire, is today far from free. Putin's methods of autocratic rule are not of the level of the old days, but we see a nationalist state, with limited political choice, a managed media, over-powerful private corporations and a willingness to squash genuine dissent by extra-legal means - rather like its old rival, the United States.

In addition, the early 1990s saw the destruction of many of the highly successful social gains of the old Communist states - health and education services collapsed as industry was privatised into the hands of robber-barons, inequality rocketed and political freedoms became meaningless as people went hungry. I well recall some friends who went on a school exchange to Moscow to be hosted by a Russian family who had saved up all year to treat them to a meal in the then sole branch of McDonalds in the Russian capital - in spite of my friends' offers and protests, their hosts waited outside while they ate, unable to afford to join them but too proud to accept a treat from their guests. For many Russians, they could say what they wanted, but with empty mouths. Little wonder then that at his final shot at the Russian Presidency, the hero of Glasnost polled less than 1% of the vote.

To be fair to Gorbachev, much of the privatisation and full-on rush to naked capitalism happened under his successors, egged on by the Thatcher Foundation and other western think tanks and well-paid economic consultants. The emergent, oil-soaked kleptocracy has been labelled with all manner of opprobrium by the West, but the truth is that Russia today is a strong reflection of its critics, perhaps discomfited that it has succeeded in rivalling them once more as a world power, though one more in the Czarist than Communist tradition.

We should thank him for his positive achievements - it is too easy to forget (and for growing numbers born since the mid-1980s, something completely unknown) how truly frightening some periods of confrontation were in the early 1980s. It was not just peace campaigners who thought the holocaust could be imminent - both then and now we know many American military planners were quite eagerly contemplating circumstances where they might turn Europe into a radioactive desert, somehow believing America might acceptably survive such a scenario.

Yet on the other side, the fall of the Soviet Bloc also, bizarrely, marked a headlong rush from socialism by the Left. In country after country, Communist and Socialist groups renounced their ideologies and even their names, pandering to a zeitgeist a la New Labour that, as Fukyama prematurely declared, we had reached the end of history and liberal capitalism was the only game in town.

Gorbachev - architect of glasnost
I like to think that we know better now, understanding that the old Soviet states were neither socialist nor Marxist in the true sense of these words. And that many people across the world are slowly re-embracing the concepts of social justice, community and equality, not least to face the challenges of resource depletion and climate change. In a number of countries, the Communists or their successor parties have even been re-elected to office, amply demonstrating that the old claims that these regimes were universally hated by their citizens were nothing but western myths and lies.

So I wish Mr Gorbachev a happy 80th birthday, and hope that an evening with Elton John and Shirley Bassey does not spoil it too much for him. But his legacy is a mixed one. While we should undoubtedly be grateful that his bold efforts made the world much safer, for a time at least, and perhaps gave it the breathing space it needed to reconfigure itself to face the new, equally fatal challenges of climate change, we need to cut past any uncritical celebration of the man to remember that the "New World Order" that subsequently emerged is not the one we need to save our species from itself.

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