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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

Heroes of our Time


We fight each war twice -- once in real life, and a second time with words, as contending forces try to mold our collective memory of the conflict. The Vietnam War, for example, ended decades ago, and today the United States enjoys friendly relations with the communist government of Vietnam. But Americans still battle over the meaning of the war and what lessons it teaches. The same is true of the Cold War, the great standoff between the United States and the USSR, which provided the rationale for American intervention in Vietnam.

The battles for collective memory have turned out better for conservative pundits than the actual wars. Everything went wrong in Vietnam, but conservatives have convinced many Americans that the military could have won the war if it had not been “stabbed in the back” by the press, the antiwar movement and the Democrats.

The Cold War presents a different scenario. Here conservatives claim credit for winning. Ronald Reagan, they would like us to believe, brought the USSR to its knees. The conservative view of history has become the conventional wisdom of the mainstream press, textbooks and even some social studies standards that guide how history is presented in high schools.

-- AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1995

Their familiar story goes like this: The Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship, and therefore unreformable from within. But its socialist economy was failing, and when Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, the country was reaching a crisis. Reagan’s military buildup, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, forced the Soviet leadership to surrender. Mikhail Gorbachev had no choice but to withdraw from Afghanistan, free Eastern Europe and reduce nuclear arms. When Reagan said in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the Soviets quaked in their boots and Germany was united. Then Boris Yeltsin led a democratic revolution and the subsequent “collapse of communism” in 1991 was a victory for Western-style capitalism. Yeltsin and his appointed successor, Vladimir Putin, then waged two bloody wars against Chechnya, but these were a legitimate part of the “global war on terror.”

-- AP Photo/Novaya Gazeta

Anna Politkovskaya

The two books discussed here challenge this triumphalist mythology. In Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective, Archie Brown, the distinguished Oxford University specialist on Soviet politics, demonstrates that Gorbachev rather than Reagan deserves most of the credit for ending the Cold War. In A Russian Diary:A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, a courageous Russian journalist, makes painfully clear that Russia is moving away from rather than toward democracy. Perhaps this is why she was murdered at the entrance to her apartment building Oct. 7, 2006, one of at least 12 journalists killed in Russia since Putin came to power.

Archie Brown’s 1996 book, The Gorbachev Factor, is the standard work on the remarkable transformation of the Soviet Union that began when Gorbachev was chosen as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. In his new book, he analyzes Gorbachev’s restructuring of the Soviet system from the historical perspective of two decades.

Mr. Brown deflates many myths, starting with the notion that the USSR was near collapse in the 1980s. To the contrary, the country had full employment, low foreign debt, excellent credit, no serious civil disorders, a formidable military and thousands of nuclear weapons. The economy was stagnating, but a real breakdown, Mr. Brown thinks, was still a few decades in the future. In any case, there is no reason to expect that an economic crisis would have resulted in the democratization at home and mutual cooperation abroad championed by Gorbachev. More likely, the Communist Party would have retreated into repressive Stalinism.

How can Gorbachev’s liberalizing turn be explained? Mr. Brown believes that the answer lies in the realm of ideas. Overlooked by the U.S. “intelligence community,” the supposedly monolithic Communist Party had many members who held divergent views based on differing experiences.

Gorbachev, for example, was influenced by the Prague Spring, the liberalization of Czechoslovakian communism cut short by the Soviet invasion in 1968. Like many of his colleagues, he felt the invasion was a mistake. Gorbachev traveled in Western Europe and saw first hand that Soviet propaganda about life in Germany or France was dreadfully wrong. Gorbachev quietly came to the conclusion that drastic changes in the Soviet system were necessary and he was hardly alone. When he came to power in 1985, he quickly promoted many reformist colleagues, such as his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. By 1988, he was releasing imprisoned dissidents, reducing censorship, planning for open elections, and engineering a U-turn in foreign policy that included a willingness to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and to negotiate drastic nuclear weapons reductions.

Mr. Brown insists on distinguishing the demise of the “communist system” on the one hand from the end of the USSR as a country on the other. In his view, Gorbachev had by 1989 dismantled the “communist system” by effectively ending the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and moving toward political pluralism. This led quickly to the overthrow of communist regimes in Eastern Europe since democratic reformers there no longer had to fear Soviet invasion. The Cold War, Mr. Brown contends, was over by 1989.

Mr. Brown does credit Reagan for playing a significant part in the end of the Cold War, but not the role assigned to him by conservative mythology. Reagan believed that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer. However, CIA officials like Robert Gates and conservative intellectuals like Jeanne Fitzpatrick told Reagan that Gorbachev was no different from his predecessors. Fortunately, Reagan followed his instincts.

-- Tass/Vladimir Rodionov-Sergei

Boris Yeltsin, left, and Vladimir Putin review the presidential guards during Putin's inauguration as Russia's president in May 2003.

The end of the USSR came two years later, in 1991, and was the work of Boris Yeltsin, a former communist apparatchik who had become president of the Russian Republic. He was, as Mr. Brown puts it, the product of Gorbachev’s democratic reforms rather than their creator. Gorbachev tried to hold as many of the 15 republics of the USSR together as possible by negotiating a new Union Treaty that would have given the republics more independence from the central government in Moscow. Fearing this, Communist Party conservatives tried to overthrow Gorbachev while he was on vacation in the Crimea. The botched coup provided Yeltsin with the opportunity to dismantle the USSR. This, however, was hardly a democratic move since a vast majority of Soviet citizens had voted months earlier to preserve the union.

Many view Gorbachev as a failure because he was unable to manage the transition from a command to a market economy or to stem the separatist tide. Mr. Brown argues that his successes dwarf his failures. Not only did he leave to his successors a country “that was freer than at any time in Russian history,” but he also greatly lowered the level of international tension in the world. Based on his belief that both sides and all of humanity would lose in a nuclear war, Gorbachev argued that the global community had common interests that took precedence over those of individual states. When it comes to the problems of nuclear war, poverty and the environment, “we -- all humanity -- are in the same boat, and we can sink or swim only together.”

Could he have done better? Mr. Brown thinks Gorbachev made two tactical mistakes that weakened his hand. He could have become president by facing direct election in 1990 but chose instead indirect election by the legislature. Gorbachev was still very popular and would have come away with a powerful mandate. Secondly, he should have taken the risk of splitting the Communist Party. Mr. Brown argues that Gorbachev had evolved into a European-style social democrat but was hamstrung by hardcore communists in the party structure. A new Gorbachev-led social democratic party might have found broad public support and put Gorbachev in the driver’s seat.

Instead, Boris Yelstin, who had no interest in creating political parties, became Russia’s leader. He squandered the democratic culture that Gorbachev had worked to build by bombing the Russian legislature in 1993, launching a war in Chechnya in 1994, manipulating the presidential election in 1996, going to war a second time against Chechnya in 1999 and generally giving away Russia’s wealth to a handful of cronies who became “the oligarchs.” Yeltsin concluded his career by appointing Vladimir Putin prime minister and then abruptly resigning at the end of 1999. This assured Putin’s election and he returned the favor by shielding Yeltsin from corruption charges.

* * *

Anna Politkovskaya won an international reputation for her reporting on the second Chechen war, which began in 1999 and continues on a low level today. She worked for the independent biweekly Novaya Gazeta (The New Paper), probably the most important opposition media outlet in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev, by the way, has invested in the newspaper to keep it afloat and earlier donated part of his Nobel Prize winnings to the paper. Ms. Politkovskaya wrote about Russia’s brutal military tactics (bombing of cities, abductions, wholesale torture, extrajudicial killing, and so on) and the impact of the war on civilians. She was one of the few reporters willing to face the personal risks of traveling repeatedly in this dangerous war zone to describe human rights abuses. Some of her war reporting is available in English in A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya and A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya.

In 2004, she published Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy in the West, and now A Russian Diary has been released posthumously. The first book contains carefully wrought sketches of the dark side of post-Soviet life. She recounts the plight of recruits facing violent hazing in the Russian army. She tells complex stories of monumental corruption by gangster capitalists in the provinces. She documents the degradation of the courts as an independent branch of government. She interviews a submarine captain in a Far Eastern port who stays at his post although it means living in poverty because he feels a duty to maintain control over his vessel’s nuclear weapons (but for how long?).

A Russian Diary is a political journal of 20 months starting in December 2003 when Putin’s United Russia Party won overwhelming control of the Russian Duma. Ms. Politkovskaya also chronicles Putin’s re-election to a second term and the general collapse of any creditable opposition to his rule. Her disappointment with what she called “the death of parliamentary democracy in Russia” is palpable. She also continues to be concerned about the victims of terrorism and government abuse, especially the residents of the city of Beslan, where Chechen terrorists took 1,200 students, teachers and parents hostage during an opening school day ceremony in September 2004. Although she doesn’t mention it, she became ill, possibly from poisoning, while flying to Beslan to cover the crisis.

Looking for harbingers of change, she carefully records the meager attempts to protest and credits former chess champion Garry Kasparov for trying to organize an opposition against all odds. But if her book is short on heroes, it’s strong on villains, and chief among them is Putin, who she believed never shed his former identity as a KGB officer and is recreating Stalinism in Russia. She disliked him, she writes, because “he despises us.” Perhaps it is just a coincidence that she was murdered on his birthday.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who Putin placed in charge of pacifying Chechnya, takes second place for villainy. Ms. Politkovskaya interviewed him in his compound in Chechnya and presents him as a cowardly but frightening buffoon. Leaving him, she shed tears of despair “that someone like this can exist,” much less have real power. On the eve of her murder, she was finishing an investigative report on Mr. Kadyrov’s use of torture to control Chechnya.

Both books do more than undermine the fantasies of conservative ideologues. They also provide examples of creativity and courage. If people hunger for guidance on how to live in this troubled world, then these two Russian public lives are worth considering.

Gorbachev was the most visionary politician of the second half of the 20th century. He believed that the long-term interests of humanity took precedence over the short-term goals of the government he led, and he mostly walked the talk. The fact that the leader of a superpower could transcend narrow national interests is one of the great surprises of history. He is the standard against which we should measure the candidates currently auditioning to be the president of the only remaining superpower.

Ms. Politkovskaya’s brief life (she died at age 48) provides a model of how to be a responsible journalist in an era when many segments of the press fail to act as a check on state power. She didn’t worry about “balanced” reporting. Her beat was human rights, and she practiced an ethical journalism that continually put her at risk. She faced this danger with quiet, unassuming calm, and never allowed her stories to be about her rather than the ordinary people whose suffering she chronicled.

Greg Gaut teaches Russian and European history at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona.

Book Information
Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective
by Archie Brown
Oxford University Press, 378 pages, $45
A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia
by Anna Politkovskaya
Random House, 400 pages, $25.95

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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