In an essay dated January 1, 1991, and published last July, on the day Mikhail Gorbachev met John Major in London, I forecast the former’s demise. “Sadly for his Western admirers,” I wrote, “even unprecedented dictatorial powers cannot guarantee political longevity in Gorbachev’s case. He is a dictator by the grace of the secret-police apparatus: what it giveth, it can also take away. The issue here is not Gorbachev’s ‘liberalism,’ of course, since if the KGB deems it expedient to stop or turn back the clock of reform he will have no alternative but to do its bidding, convincingly and with enthusiasm.”
“But should the KGB find Gorbachev outmoded or ineffective,” I went on, “it has at its disposal plenty of fiery ‘liberals’ ready to step into the dictator’s role, and will replace its super-Stalin as easily as Stalin used to replace his secret-police chiefs.”
Gorbachev’s Western admirers, John Major among them, did not believe me when I wrote that Gorbachev was the most powerful dictator since Stalin’s day. Nor did they believe me when I wrote that Gorbachev—despite the colossal power vested in him by the KGB apparatus that had wrested total control from the Communist Party in Brezhnev’s last years—did not matter. Two weeks later, George Bush was in Moscow to sign another set of meaningless arms-control accords.
If Gorbachev did not matter, who or what did?
Of the 22 strategically vital technologies officially designated by the Pentagon in 1989 as comprising the key to the balance of military power in the world, the Pentagon now admits that the Soviet Union is ahead of the West in missile antiaircraft defense, ballistic missile defense, antisatellite warfare, chemical and biological warfare, and mines technologies. In specific research fields, the Pentagon now admits that the Soviet Union is superior in pulsed power and at par in hypervelocity projectiles, high-energy density materials, and weapon system environments.
The Pentagon is an eternal optimist. It knows little or nothing of the growing Soviet superiority in fields like high-power microwave systems and directed-energy weapons. It closes its eyes to the fact that the Soviet strategic advance during the years of the Andropov-Gorbachev perestroika has permitted the 1986 launch of the permanent space station Mir, a feat which the U.S. hopes to duplicate in 1996. That advance is also the basis of the Soviet submarine-building program, with its Alpha class using the space metal titanium for its hull construction. Five new classes of ballistic-missile submarines have been launched in the Soviet Union since perestroika began in 1985, in contrast to a single one launched by the United States since 1964.
Perhaps such details are tiresome. Unfortunately they are more genuinely relevant to the story of Gorbachev’s rise and fall than all the Kremlinological insights of the past five years put together. Every Soviet “leader,” whether an individual totalitarian dictator like Stalin or a front man of the totalitarian oligarchy like Gorbachev, left the Soviet military-industrial infrastructure stronger than he found it.
Their representations of totalitarian reality varied, of course, depending on the relative strength of its military-industrial infrastructure. When the infrastructure was globally powerless in relation to the West’s combined industrial might, Khrushchev roared that the Russians could “make missiles like sausages.” He was lying. When the infrastructure became globally powerful, overtaking the West in many strategic fields, Gorbachev pleaded that the Soviet Union was “heading for chaos.” He was also lying.
The lie of Soviet weakness, complete with the emptiest shelves foreign correspondents in Moscow have ever seen, has served Gorbachev well, even as the lie of Soviet strength—complete with fake Galosh missiles—once served Khrushchev. Detente, launched by Brezhnev in the interim, has flowered under Gorbachev into the present disarmament of Western Europe, sanctioned by Washington. In exchange, Gorbachev “liberated” Eastern Europe. The liberation is also a lie, for without a meaningful deterrent against totalitarian blackmail, political liberties in all of Europe are as illusory as Khrushchev’s countless missiles and Gorbachev’s empty shops.
The shops were at their emptiest last year, incidentally, when the Soviet grain harvest exceeded two hundred million tons. The year Stalin developed the atom bomb the Soviet grain harvest was less than fifty million tons.
Yet instead of looking at the reality of totalitarianism, with its historic chasm between the burgeoning military-industrial and destitute civilian spheres, the West’s Sovietologists and the decision-making establishment as a whole chose to look at the “unprecedented” changes in Soviet ideology. Unable to grasp that the discarding of Marxism under Gorbachev had its analogue in the discarding of Bolshevism under Stalin, or that the new Soviet approach to Eastern Europe has its roots in Stalin’s restraint in Finland and Austria, Western observers convinced themselves that what they were witnessing was “irreversible.”
And so it was. In the context of growing Soviet military-industrial power, the massive infusions of Western science and technology that Gorbachev’s totalitarianism with a capitalist face has been able to secure have opened the way to irreversible Soviet dominance over the common Eurasian home. Even if Gorbachev’s fall from grace within the KGB oligarchy is permanent and has the effect of a Tiananmen Square, it is highly unlikely that Western business, gearing up since 1986 to sell Moscow whatever science and technology had been withheld before perestroika, can now walk away from it all. Nor are the West’s conservative governments, mindful of their debt to big business, free to reevaluate their foreign policy in the light of these rude realizations.
Gorbachev has done his KGB employers a lot of good. His abrupt dismissal had nothing to do with the “break-up of the Soviet Union,” which the West has been reading into the Union Treaty. Gorbachev was ousted, for interoligarchic reasons, as soon as his employers became concerned that he was seeking to accrue powers separate from those of the ruling KGB apparatus. So Khrushchev, who had done his Communist Party employers a lot of good, was ousted when his personal power began to threaten the Politburo’s collective leadership.
Is it likely that Washington will now risk “a new Cold War,” with which Gorbachev has threatened the West on many recent occasions, or merely beg Moscow to bring back the man with whom “the West can do business”? It is far more likely that the West will interpret Gorbachev’s downfall as a temporary wrinkle in the otherwise smooth East-West consensus. After all, it was only the unexpected death of KGB chief Andropov, Gorbachev’s mentor and the original architect of perestroika, that prevented him from becoming the treasured receptacle of Western wishful thinking that Gorbachev became in 1985. In the coming months, another such receptacle will doubtless be provided by the ruling secret-police apparatus, and Sovietologists will chatter about the personality of the new lucky winner in the Kremlin sweepstakes as exhaustively as the West had studied the old one.
The above political obituary of Gorbachev was published in Britain on August 20 and reprinted in the first days of September by the Hungarian dissident weekly Beszélö. I have not changed a single sentence of my original text because I stand by every word I wrote, as I stand by my words of last January.
Since then, the fake coup—which seemed real on August 20 because inter-oligarchic strife has been a genuine feature of Soviet rule since the death of Stalin—has lent the charade of perestroika a dimension so vast that unilateral disarmament can now be expected from the West without any further pretense to caution. As I write these lines I read that COCOM, the NATO-sponsored monitor of the West’s science and technology export restrictions, has been all but abolished. No Western newspaper so much as reported Gorbachev’s demand, for its abolition during his July visit to London. I read it in Pravda.
What really happened in Moscow? As I write these lines, looking back in September on the events of last August, one thing is immediately clear. The people’s power, which frustrated the inept plotters of Gorbachev’s downfall and made Yeltsin the hero of the hour, is a myth to many in Russia. Muscovites who watched it emerging in the glare of Western media coverage are increasingly cynical about the plot’s happy ending, which has left Gorbachev in effective control of both the military-industrial and the secret-police bases of power. Others are equally apprehensive about the rise of Yeltsin, whom they see as a nationalistic opportunist carving a personal fiefdom out of the totalitarian body politic.
Still other native observers, such as Boris Kagarlitsky writing in New Statesman & Society, have gone still further, raising the issue of Yeltsin’s complicity in provoking a coup that was never actually intended to topple Gorbachev. What all these eyewitnesses share is an unwillingness to accept the people’s power myth, conjured up in different ways by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin only to be echoed uncritically by Western politicians and media. Clearly, the explanation proffered on Soviet television by Gorbachev’s loyal ideologist, Alexander Yakovlev, to the effect that the plotters were “fools” and Gorbachev’s past association with them was a “mystery,” is less than convincing. Thus even the most elementary questions asked by the “coup skeptics” have gone unanswered, and deserve a hearing.
Why was no attempt made to arrest Yeltsin or to cut off his communications? Why did several of the alleged plotters “commit suicide” and one, KGB’s Kryuchkov, make use of a TV interview to advertise his “perfect health”? Why, on August 21, did Pravda describe the barricades as “stage-set props” and, in its last issue before closure, give space to “persistent rumors that Gorbachev had known of the planned coup in advance”? Why were the only orders received by the Commander of the Moscow Military District “to move out and remain in position”? Why were the tanks arriving in Moscow not battle-ready, without ammunition supplies, and with regulation and aircraft guns removed? Why were the tanks not accompanied by a single IMR, the unique Soviet military product capable of clearing any barricade in minutes?
These obvious questions frame the fundamental issue of the coup. Did Gorbachev’s former associates invent that they had seen him “lying unconscious in bed” when they first came to the Crimea, or did he feign illness to provoke them into their “unconstitutional action”? Did they later fly to the Crimea—instead of out of the country, for instance—in order to seek his explanation for how the misunderstanding had arisen? Had Gorbachev conspired with their deputies, such as KGB’s Leonid Shebarshin, to ensure that the apparatus of power would be decapitated yet capable of handling the consequences of the provocation? In short, was the reorganization of this apparatus, to be achieved by the eventual amalgamation of the internal security structures with the armed forces, the underlying aim of Gorbachev’s coup?
So long as Gorbachev remains in direct control of the apparatus of power, as he now is, this fundamental issue cannot be discounted out of hand. The parallel with Hitler’s purge of the SA—”the night of long knives” of June 1934 that is said to have inspired some of Stalin’s most subtle maneuvers of the 1930’s—suggests itself to those who fearfully watch the unanswered questions mounting.
Like Roehm’s Sturmabteilung, Andropov’s KGB helped to make the dictator but still held enough power to unmake him if necessary. In his drive to maximize personal power, Gorbachev reached the point of no return in January 1990, when he told the Politburo that the state was independent of the Communist Party. Thereafter, Gorbachev was the state, albeit by the grace of the KGB that had elevated him and humbled the Communist Party in the process. Like Hitler in 1934, Gorbachev had another move to make: to bite the hand that fed him, decapitating the existing apparatus of power and “subordinating it,” in none other than Shebarshin’s words of April 1990, “to the state.”
Has Gorbachev miscalculated? It is precisely his benevolence toward Yeltsin, whose authority over local government and economic decisions has now increased dramatically, which suggests that the answer is no. By allowing Yeltsin, with or without direct complicity in his own maneuvers, to take center stage and establish alternative authority structures, Gorbachev has distracted the West’s attention from the one and only issue that matters: his own control over the reorganized apparatus of power.
Historical precedent supports this conclusion. Hitler’s purge of the SA appeared to weaken the state so decisively that, in June 1934, the international diplomatic consensus and Soviet intelligence experts briefing Stalin were unanimous in predicting collapse. Stalin disagreed: “The events in Germany,” he remarked, “will lead to the strengthening of Hider’s personal power.” Today, many would argue that the rise of Yeltsin in Russia, combined with the “breakup” of what was once the Soviet Union, has made a nonsense of Gorbachev’s ambitions.
Yet, as a historian of the Third Reich has written, “contrary to popular opinion totalitarian rule in no way implies a compact and monolithic system of organization,” as when Hider’s “federal state was changed into an inextricable system of satrapies” in which many different authorities appeared to rule. “This,” Kari Bracher observed, “quickly proved not to be the teething troubles of the new system but part of the system itself,” while the Führer “with his control over the direct means of compulsion” emerged as the system’s overseer and mediator welcomed or at least tolerated by Germany’s future victims.
The precise deployment and future evolution of Gorbachev’s power are still to emerge. What seems certain is that both Yeltsin’s probable “innovations,” such as the restoration of monarchy in Russia, and Gorbachev’s own likely “reforms,” such as the new, nonconscript, professional army fused with the KGB internal troops, will further disengage international public opinion from the reality of the dictator’s permanence. To the West, until last August it still seemed that Yeltsin was a puppet and Gorbachev the man to do business with. Now the roles have been reversed; yet Yeltsin’s gains, like those now made by other leaders in the nominally independent Soviet republics, may well advance rather than impede the cause of Gorbachev’s newly decentralized totalitarianism.
Thus the KGB-led perestroika, which has now ended in the subjugation of the KGB to the state, mirrored Hider’s Gleichschaltung, or coordination, which prepared the ground for his pogrom of the SA. In fact, a fuzzy blueprint for the future penned by Gorbachev in September. The August Coup, bears comparison with Mein Kampf. “As for control over nuclear weapons,” he muses, “no one should have any worries on that account. The centre and the President as commander-in-chief remain.” Lapsing into the monarchic plural, he writes that “we decided to retain, in addition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Committee for State Security as Union bodies.”
Gorbachev’s book barely mentions the coup but assures the Western reader that his newly consolidated rule is a “new epoch in [Russia’s] thousand-year development.” He explains that “what is collapsing” is only the pre-Gorbachev “command structure,” and in the end “our renewed Union will be filled with life.” The “battle,” as Gorbachev puts it, “testifies to the modern state” on “the territory of practically a whole continent,” an “unprecedented state” involved in “a great integrational process on one-sixth of the territory of our planet.” His aim for the “renewed Union,” the “originator of the idea of a common European home,” is “to be included organically into world civilization” and “moving our country more quickly to acquire the achievements of science and technology.”
Above all, “using Lenin’s words,” what is needed is “one more change in our understanding of what socialism should be.” It is this redefined socialism based on concealed military strength that the “renewed Union” will introduce into Eurasia. Gorbachev speaks of socialism and Christianity in one breath, and holds out the “Leninist principle of self-determination” as a workable and trustworthy model for the unified Eurasia to follow. There is no point deceiving ourselves: Gorbachev is in charge, and his book is a chilling insight into the mind of a dictator who is likely to outlast the 20th century.
It was once said that the Reichstag Fire, used by Hitler to insinuate the Nazis into the mainstream of political life, was the longest fire in history, 12 years in the burning. The Soviet Union has now been collapsing for six, with the aim of integrating Gorbachev’s postcommunist totalitarianism into the political mainstream of Europe. Provided Gorbachev can continue “applying the principle of divide and rule,” as Bracher wrote of Hitler, “with a skill amounting to virtuosity,” the fulfillment of that aim is imminent.
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