Gorbachev: the wrong man for Andropov’s reforms


Gorbachev is hailed for doing away with Soviet totalitarianism, yet his predecessor Andropov was the man actually responsible for preparing liberal reform some twenty years earlier. With Gorbachev hopelessly unaware of the forces he was unleashing, failure was inevitable, argues Andrei Konchalovsky

Andrei Konchalovsky
30 March 2011

The title of this article may come as a great surprise to anyone who is not a student of late Soviet history. For many of my fellow countrymen (not to mention most foreigners), the name of Yury Andropov is firmly associated with the sinister abbreviation K-G-B. Yet what I write here is from the perspective of a witness (much of what I will say has also appeared in various source materials, particularly in Gorbachev’s own memoirs). Willing or unwilling, I observed an evolution in the Soviet political system, including in that grim and secretive organisation. And Yury Andropov, not Mikhail Gorbachev, was instrumental in bringing that evolution about.

The roots of liberal reform

Right from the death of Stalin, there were what I would call tectonic shifts in the structure of the party elite. Stalinists were desperately trying to cling on to power, and were busy  defending the criminal system, responsible as they were for the crimes of the Stalinist regime. Other, more pragmatic people — not necessarily young, for there were young defenders of Stalin too — understood that the Stalinist method of ruling the country restricted the development of society. Few of these “reformers” would have given much thought to the idea of a liberal government or to “equality of rights” – the fig-leaf slogan the Soviet authorities had always hidden behind. For them, it was more a question of modernising society: an issue which had arisen in Stalin's time but which was not able to be properly developed until 1956, when Krushchev made his famous speech at the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR (CPSU).


Some suggest Khruschev’s “secret” speech in 1956, in which
he denounced Stalin, was actually a counter-attack designed  
to protect himself and colleagues from history.

Krushchev's move has been interpreted in various ways. People in the know at the time, however, were quite clear that his attack on Stalinism was dictated less by a desire to liberalise, more by an attempt to save part of the party elite that had realised their time was up and they would soon be called to account for their actions.  Krushchev said as much in an unpublished part of his speech: “If we don't do this, we shall be swept away and end up in the dock ourselves”, he said. He didn't even attempt to keep his intentions secret.

From that moment the battle between the Soviet “conservatives” and “liberals” became ever fiercer.  The first victim was Beria.  Rumours circulating at the time suggested that if Khrushchev hadn't had Beria shot, then Beria would have meted out the same punishment to him: Beria was supposedly planning to embark on reforms under the guise of a campaign against the cult of personality, but this time with Khrushchev's group. Other more complex versions have it that Beria planned to dismantle the whole socialist system.  Everyone knows he was a great lover of life and a sybarite, so it would have been hardly surprising if he had been tempted to become a dictator of the “Latin American” type.

Khrushchev's next victim was the group of so-called Stalinists – Molotov, Malenkov and Shepilov.  After that the battle raged unabated.  The confrontation within the party between the “liberals” and the “conservatives” was particularly intense in the fields of economics and ideology.  The Soviet system was so rigid and unbending, virtually moribund, that it became ever more difficult to develop the Military Industrial Complex, let alone the well-being of the people.

The democratic interregnum

Paradoxically, however, there was a kind of democracy flourishing in the USSR, and that was inside the narrow circle of Politburo members — the governing body of the Central Committee (CC). All Politburo meetings were strictly secret, but the archives reveal that there were fairly heated discussions and confrontations between opposing points of view. No one was subsequently held responsible, or punished: people simply said what they thought. These Politburo discussions sometimes got as far as the CC itself, if it was necessary to publicise a new tendency. 

The next period of tension between the so-called liberals and conservatives blew up at the beginning of the 1960s. In the corridors of Dom Kino [the building at the centre of the film industry], I remember, there were intense discussions of the rumours about ideological debates going on inside the Kremlin. The new ideological head of the Party, Demichev, attempted to loosen control over literature and art, but this provoked a violent reaction from officials in the Soviet republics. Everyone was discussing the news that the Georgian Ideology Secretary had leapt on to the stage and shouted “I was a Stalinist and I still am! We will not permit the Party to be deprived of its leading ideological role!” A direct challenge to the Politburo!  Clearly these were no longer Stalinist times, when disagreement with the proposed party course meant instant death. But it was a sign that no reforms would get through without difficulty and that the party bosses were not afraid to protect their own interests.

Meeting Andropov’s advisors was a complete revelation, because they were young, free-thinking, educated, polyglot intellectuals.  The freedom of thought enjoyed during our discussions at the dinner table made me think that Andropov was different from those that had gone before him.

In 1957, Yuri Andropov was head of the CC international department under Khrushchev.  He was then appointed Secretary to the Central Committee, in charge of interparty relations within the Soviet Bloc.  I remember the time very well: Andrei Tarkovsky and I were friends with some young people who were working in Andropov's foreign policy consultancy group in the CC administration.  There was Kolya Shishlin, Sasha Bovin, Zhora Shakhnazarov, Arbatov…. Andropov had employed them so as to inject some flexibility into the work of the all-powerful but cumbersome party apparatus. For Tarkovsky and me, meeting these people was a complete revelation, because they were young, free-thinking, educated, polyglot intellectuals. The freedom of thought that we enjoyed during our discussions at the dinner table — over lots of vodka — made me think that Andropov was different from those that had gone before him. If the likes of these people were his consultants, it indicated a wide-ranging world view, which didn't fit neatly into the dogma of the official elite. 

I should add that both Bovin and Shishlin, as well as other like-minded people in the department, were also responsible for writing the Secretary General's speeches. They told me that they always tried to see the text last, just before it was put in front of Brezhnev, and each time they checked to see that their paragraph condemning the cult of personality had not been taken out. The Stalinists working in the editorial section never failed to remove any negative references to Stalin or to the cult of personality.  Every time, Andropov's people would promptly put the offending paragraph back into the text and “guard” it until it was time for the speech. This was a legitimate way of putting their anti-Stalinist ideas into action.

As far as I can see, Andropov symbolised a wing of the Soviet “liberals”, to a certain extent anti-Stalinists, though of course he never revealed this publicly. He was interested in European communism, which was natural, as he had always had dealings with Western communists. At the time, Western Marxism was moving actively in the direction of revising Stalinist dogma.

This long preamble is motivated by a wish to remind readers that the ideas of liberalisation and reform began not just anywhere, but from the heart of the Central Committee, and were implemented by people I knew.

A false start

In the middle of the 1960s, and under constant pressure from the liberal wing, the party signed itself up to economic reform. Prime Minister Kosygin was charged with putting the reform into effect. Kosygin was an economist and was quite unenthusiastic about the reforms, knowing the resistance this liberalisation would provoke among the Stalinists.  Understandably, for at that time the party had the monopoly of hearts, minds and the subsoil – in short, the riches of the whole country. The party elite had unlimited control over everything that was produced at that time in the Soviet Union, so any liberalisation would deprive the communists of their monopolistic privileges.

I remember meeting my friend Kolya Shishlin as he was returning from talks between the leaders of the Communist Parties of Czechoslovakia and the USSR.  He came towards me with a tragic face. “It's all over”, he said. “We spent 10 years 'creeping up' on the enemy (Stalinist) trenches and that idiot (Dubcek) got up and 'ran for it', giving us all away. We’ll have to forget about reforms for another 20 years.”

The reforms and all the liberalising tendencies came to a tragic end, however, for Alexander Dubcek, Czechoslovakia's communist leader, sensed an opportunity and decided to get in first.  His Prague Spring (1968) set in motion an active programme to reform state organisations and the party.  Dubcek's project to decentralise the economy was christened “socialism with a human face”.  We watched what was happening in Prague with amazement and delight, in sharp contrast to my friends in the Central Committee, who were afraid that it could all come badly unstuck.  Which, in the end, is exactly what happened.  The Soviet Stalinists, exploiting the rapid growth of anti-Soviet attitudes in Czechoslovakia, sent in the tanks and immediately put paid to all reforms in the USSR.  The reason given was that reforms could result in a similar catastrophe: the turning of the Soviet people against the whole totalitarian system.

I remember meeting my friend Kolya Shishlin at the airport.  He was returning from talks between the leaders of the Communist Parties of Czechoslovakia and the USSR.  He came towards me with a tragic expression on his face. “It's all over”, he said. “We spent 10 years 'creeping up' on the enemy (Stalinist) trenches and that idiot got up and 'ran for it', giving us all away. Our generation won’t be able to carry out reforms now: we’ll have to forget about them for another 20 years.”

Wise Kolya turned out to be absolutely right. It was 20 years later, in the middle of the 1980s, that the idea of progress dawned again, when Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the scene as a reformer. He had been transferred to Moscow at the end of the 70s under the direct protection of Andropov, who often took his holidays in the south, where he had treatment for his kidneys and where Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee of the CPSU. Andropov took a shine to him and introduced him to Brezhnev, who also liked the young, educated, modern party activist. This was how Gorbachev came to Moscow in 1978 as CC Secretary of Agriculture.

Andropov’s legacy

The idea of reform and liberalisation was entirely Andropov’s. As head of the KGB, he was better informed than anyone else about the catastrophic economic situation in the USSR. When he became head of state, he was able to start putting into effect the plan he had been hatching for a long time.  I don't think Andropov completely trusted Gorbachev. He, Andropov, belonged to the older generation and was not intending to dismantle the system; the maximum he was prepared to consider was that a new type of person should be able to rule the country.

In many ways Heydar Aliyev was Andropov's more obvious successor and student. It was Aliyev that Andropov counselled to embark on reforms in his country, Azerbaijan, without worrying about the Soviet leadership.  He also recommended to Aliyev that he should study the Hungarian economy and visit Hungary more often. There, economic reforms were in full swing after the 1958 uprising and there were even private companies, something quite unimaginable in the USSR.


Strongman Heydar Aliyev was arguably Andropov’s more obvious (some say preferred) successor.

Andropov rang Aliyev and invited him to Moscow as First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers (Sovmin), which was an important economic post. To my mind this offer of an All-Union [central] position meant significantly more than we can imagine.

Perhaps Andropov realised Gorbachev did not have the required authority to introduce reforms in the empire that was the USSR. Perhaps he understood what was needed was a politician of a different calibre.  I've heard many times from friends of Aliyev that the terminally ill Andropov was torn with uncertainty over whom he should appoint as his successor.  Many thought it might be Aliyev who would become the head of this great state.  But Aliyev himself realised the impossibility of this for a non-Russian.  After Stalin, the Russian people would not have wanted to see an Azeri from an Islamic republic as their head of state.

Thus there were two fairly strong political figures in the CC Politburo when Andropov left the scene:  Heydar Aliyev, believer in a strong state and national hero of Azerbaijan; and Mikhail Gorbachev, young and raring to go out and make historic changes. Gorbachev denies that he did everything to ensure Aliyev was not part of a possible leadership battle. At the same time, Heydar Aliyev told me himself that when he had a heart attack in 1987, Gorbachev failed to visit him in hospital, and even ignored repeated requests to meet once he had recovered. This belied the fact that Aliyev had been one of Andropov's closest disciples and had many times spoken out in favour of Gorbachev. The battle between these two powerful figures ended when Gorbachev achieved supreme power, while Aliyev was left under a cloud and forced to retire from the scene.

Gorbachev didn’t expect the course that events took, and for most of his time in power he was completely lost. The simple reason is that he didn't have (nor could he have had!) any real political experience which would have enabled him to perceive the results of his historical actions.

As a “new man”,  Gorbachev (who was born in 1931) probably thought he could free the Soviet system from all its economic and ideological encumbrances. He probably hoped that this would guarantee unprecedented economic growth and inspire the people to new heights of achievement in the field of labour and so on. But it didn't happen. What happened was exactly the opposite. 

The novice leader

Gorbachev certainly didn’t expect the course that events took, and for most of his time in power he was completely lost. The simple reason is that he didn't have (nor could he have done!) any real political experience which would have enabled him to perceive the results of his actions. It's unlikely that he could have imagined dismantling the system without being buried in the resulting wreckage. His lack of experience, education and intellectual potential meant that he had no idea of what was needed to embark on such a grandiose plan. Of course, it's easy for us to say this now. Back then, few people had any understanding of how complicated everything was – the one passionate desire was to destroy everything “quickly and for ever”. 

Glasnost [openness] was not Gorbachev's invention: there was already a crying need for it. Likewise, the system no longer operated by itself, so it had to be changed in some way, which is what Gorbachev called perestroika.

I myself was in America at the time and I remember listening to Gorbachev's speeches with such enthusiasm that my delight brought tears to my eyes. I started living in expectation of different times: dreaming about how Leningrad would once more become St Petersburg and the bells would once more ring in St Isaac's Cathedral, as they had before the Revolution.  I know that I had enormous hopes of Mikhail Sergeevich, and I think all my generation were the same. And a great deal of what he did for the country and for the world deserves a positive historical assessment — these was his achievements and no one else’s. At the same time he should never have forget Lenin’s sage words: that you must know where the crowd is going and be ahead of it. In other words, you have to forsee the currents of history and be in time to exploit them. Gorbachev failed on both counts.

By the time Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Union's economy was in ruins and the country was on the edge of total bankruptcy.  I remember reading one of Kissinger’s articles where he argued the socialist system was destined to collapse since there was no free access to information within the Soviet Union, and development of the military-industrial complex is impossible without it. It was indeed absolutely true that there could not have been a free access to information in the Soviet Union at that time, since that would have threatened the whole system.

In other words, glasnost [openness] was not Gorbachev's invention: there was already a crying need for it. Likewise, the system no longer operated by itself, so it had to be changed in some way, which is what Gorbachev called perestroika. Perestroika began very promisingly, but almost immediately the cracks appeared, and these eventually brought Gorbachev to his political demise.

The Gorbachev reforms took no account of the mentality of party officials.  Most of these people were Russians: some 8-10,000 individuals who represented the nucleus of the party across the whole country. They would certainly not have been happy about losing their economic privileges. Economic reforms without wresting control of the economy from the party were therefore simply an impossibility. Whatever reform Gorbachev undertook – the party always blocked his way forward. His assumption that liberal reforms would bring democracy to the country were naïve and that was his fatal mistake.


The great statesman Pyotr Stolypin was sure of one 
thing: liberal reforms are only possible in Russia if you
first toughen the system, and are in control over society.

Gorbachev would probably not have known the wise words of the outstanding Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, but perhaps it is worth repeating them here: “in Russia liberal reforms can only be possible if the regime first clamps down, because for a Russian any relaxation in the system represents weakness”. To wrest control of the economy from the party, it was essential to strengthen the control of both the party and the state. Gorbachev didn't do this, though I think that the wiser Aliyev would have done. For Gorbachev, it was exactly as Stolypin: neither popular nor understood, and rejected by his own people as a “man of no guts”, “hiding behind his wife's skirts”.

In failing to to establish any control over society and within the party, Gorbachev allowed it to splinter into factions over which he no longer had any say. This gave rise to strong groups, and in particular to the Yeltsin bloc.

Gorbachev's greatness is not that he was a strong politician or a visionary, but that he was at the helm of government at that unique moment when internal and external forces created a gigantic tsunami wave in the Soviet Union:  first it lifted him up, then it cast him down. He will, of course, go down in history as the opposite: a strong politician who liberated the Soviet Union from totalitarianism, and as the man who brought down the Berlin Wall (which, incidentally, he neither expected, wanted, or had any control over). 

I shall never forget Gorbachev's bewildered expression as he protested indignantly on TV: “Can you believe it?  Yeltsin came into my study with someone I can’t remember.... and they drank all my brandy!”

Or did I dream it?


* This article was amended on 31 March in view of an error. Kadar's economic reforms in Hungary did not institute private banks, as was suggested in the original article: the new policy concerned only private enterprise. 

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