People in Russia don’t remember whether we won the First World War or not, but know for certain that we won the Second. For a time there was a depressing feeling that we had lost World War Three. From the end of World War Two until the late 1980s i.e. the life of an entire generation, Soviet people lived if not in the expectation, then in the realization that another war was inevitable. This realization, almost a sensation, was so routine and so much part of everyday life that people didn’t even notice it. But it played an important part in making people feel that they were leading such difficult lives and working so hard for a higher purpose. Only a future victory could compensate for daily difficulties or explain to us and to our children why our lives were so much poorer and more wretched than those of our future, and even former, enemies.
By the mid-1980s, the higher echelons of the Soviet leadership began to worry that we were lagging behind in the race for new armaments and systems, and might not be able to win World War Three. Gorbachev, the new General Secretary, was young by Politburo standards. He began updating the military and industrial complex to give it – and thus also the entire country working on it – “a boost” [uskorenie – acceleration ed]. It soon turned out that the system couldn’t work any better or more quickly.
Perestroika was planned as the modernization of not just the military and industrial complex, but its wider social and economic context too.
Then perestroika [restructuring ed] was announced. It had all the same strategic aims and was to be the modernization of not just the military and industrial complex, but its wider social and economic context too. It then turned out that liberalization measures to update the Stalinist system were accepted much more enthusiastically by our allies in the external belt surrounding the Soviet Union – its main booty in the Second World War. This happened several times during the forty years after the end of the war. In those countries freedom was interpreted as deliverance from the communist regime and the Soviet hegemony, rather than as spiritual liberation. It also became apparent that the new USSR leadership lacked the will, the power or the desire to continue holding on to this Stalinist belt with the help of tanks and the secret police. Just as quickly as the Soviet army had occupied these countries at the end of the war, now it suddenly left them. The Soviet bloc collapsed. Many people thought that this was the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Third World War.
For a different interpretation of these events Soviet citizens were offered the “new thinking”. This did away with the concept of the enemy, and thus the discourse of war, defeat etc. Surveys showed that the new thinking didn’t catch on, but it did overshadow the ideology of the “cold war” for a certain time. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, of course, is one of the epoch-making events of 20th century history. Freed from the stifling guardianship of the Soviet Union, the societies of Eastern European countries rushed to become part of Europe and the entire global political structure certainly changed. The division into “two worlds”, the political West and East, lost its fundamental significance. For a time, the world began to be seen by many people as one, as Gorbachev’s updated USSR seemed to have the intention of “returning to the European home”, to the “family of European peoples”.
For all its well-known rigidity, the “communist” system of views, ideas and practices had in fact always allowed for impulsive bursts of renewal and a kind of liberalism. Convinced adherents of these ideas had an easier time in European sub-systems of communism, like the French or Italian communist parties, which were large, but not in power. Even in the communist parties of Poland and Czechoslovakia it was easier than inside the “stronghold of socialism”, the USSR. The ideas of “socialism with a human face” and “Euro-communism” must have reached Gorbachev and he knew the future hero of the “Prague Spring”, Alexander Dubcek. We may suppose that he regarded the East German type of socialism as the best possible option. The power of the party was unshakeable, but, compared with our own Soviet model, there were (to the Soviet eye) striking differences – private hair salons and cafés were permitted, and women wore blouses “just like in the West”.
For the perestroika announced by Gorbachev in the USSR, the impulses in the system that he had absorbed when young may have been a kind of inner political ideal. If so, it must be recognized that Gorbachev failed to realize his dream. He was not able to reform socialism. Perestroika of the system ended in its deconstruction. One of the most grandiose social experiments in the history of humanity ended in failure. The powerful humanitarian idea – a society that was fair and free at the same time, where people do not own property, but live prosperously – a dream thought out to the smallest details, and grounded in theory like no other, will remain just that, a dream. Gorbachev was the last practical politician who thought it would be possible to put this into practice, and that the only things standing in the way were individual obstacles which could be eliminated.
Few people think about his failure. The rest of the world is grateful to Gorbachev for his peaceful dismantling of the Stalinist empire. It is regarded as his achievement. However, there is every reason to believe that, when Gorbachev rose to supreme power in this empire in 1985, if he did actually have the liberal-communist ideas mentioned above, then they were connected with goals of strengthening this geopolitical system, and certainly not destroying it. In this sense, we may say that he was unable to do what he dreamt of doing, and did not plan to do what he actually did.
In the Russian political tradition, committed liberal reformers and their ideas sometimes rose quite high. They became important people in the state, but always ended up resigning, if not worse, and their intentions in many cases simply remained intentions. Real changes, which later were called historic, were often made not by them, but by the rulers themselves, who were an integral part of the sluggish and far from liberal bureaucracy. They were motivated not by liberal conviction, but by political intuition, cunning, a special kind of political wisdom; they were acting not in the name of ideas, but of preserving their power and the empire entrusted to them (which means the same thing to them). This was how the fervent Stalinist Khrushchev carried out de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union. It is said that Beria planned an even more radical version of it. (This pattern of Russian political life still continues to function. There is a chance that we will see another wave of liberalization in Russia headed by a leader from a completely non-liberal background). This was what Gorbachev, who had been nurtured in the heart of the Communist party, did to the so-called socialist system.
The rest of the world, we repeat, is grateful to Gorbachev. Inside the country he ruled, he is blamed, not praised, for the “collapse of the system”. After a short period of extreme popularity, Gorbachev fell out of favour with his own people and the situation has changed little since then. On the list of politicians that Russians regard positively (around 30 politicians who people “trust”), he is currently third from the bottom.
Only by taking the above into account can we properly appreciate one of the results of a survey conducted by Levada Center in early July this year. Russians were asked what they think today about the results of “changes in the country’s foreign policy at the end of the 1980s”. This was the exact title of the policy that Russians have called betrayal, treason, compromise and defeat. The answer that fits naturally with this approach is “We lost out in the conflict with the West” and 27% of Russian citizens chose this reply. This average figure conceals major differences between the positions of individual groups of the population. It should in particular be noted that almost half of people in the military gave this reply. For them this conflict was clearly a world war that was lost without a shot being fired.
In general, however, the people who share the traditional grief for the lost hegemony are in the minority. 29% said that they didn’t know i.e. more than those who said that Russia lost out to the West. People have started thinking things over. In some groups, the percentage of these people who are not sure reached one third. What is the prevailing national thinking about Gorbachev’s historic upheaval? The majority, 43%, chose the answer: “We too were the victors, because the confrontation came to an end”. Again, there are major differences of opinion concealed in the average figure. Among the military, as we recall, many talked of defeat, but still more believe that we won. They were even more numerous (57%) among junior and middle managers in our survey. The country has thus indirectly expressed its gratitude to Gorbachev.
So, we didn’t lose the Third World War after all. But 50% of Russians believe that an external threat to their country still exists. Only now it’s not just the “West” (32%) which is one of the main threats. They are also worried about “Islamic countries” (29%). (16% worry about “countries of the former USSR” and 13% about China). Among managers surveyed, the greatest threat is the Islamic East: it was cited by over 50%. Very few (less than 10%) worry about the West. The replies are an expression of their disagreement with Russia’s leadership which, they believe, is overestimating the threat from the West and underestimating the threat from the East. So that’s the “new thinking” we have now.