Sunday, May 9, 2010

Our Man in the Old Soviet Union

Recently a commenter raised a question on my view of Mikhail Gorbacev. To gain greater insight on the question, I turned to Richard Ebeling, who spent time in what was then the Soviet Union. Below is my email and Richard's response:
Dear Richard,

In a recent post (here) a bit casually I wrote that Mikhail Gorbachev took the "noble" way by letting the Soviet system collapse.

The first commenter to the post took me to task and said Gorbachev cut a deal with the international banking elite.

I don't recall this happening. Perhaps it did. But the sense I always had was that at various points during the collapse Gorbachev could have used troops in an attempt to hold together parts of the old Soviet Union, but he did not. I often thought this was somewhat remarkable in that I think many other Soviet leaders would have attempted to use much more force in a naive attempt to hold the Soviet Union together.

I know you spent some time in Russia in roughly this period and am wondering what your view is of Gorbachev. Should he be viewed positively for his restraint in not using the Soviet military? Or was his hand forced in this direction by events? Or did he cut some kind of deal with banksters that I am not aware of?

Thanks for any light you can shed on this.


Ebeling's reply:
Dear Bob:

Gorbachev is neither "black" nor "white." First, he actually believed in socialism -- but he wanted a socialism "with a human face." He looked back to the "good" Lenin, the Lenin who introduced the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) in the early 1920s following the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). The Lenin who permitted limited private commerce after the failure of "War Communism" during the Civil War. And the "good" Lenin who permitted a wide degree of cultural freedom in the arts.

But it was also a Lenin who kept the "Commanding Heights" of the economy -- heavy industry, foreign trade, and banking -- in the hands of the government. And all monopoly political control remained in the hands of the State.

Gorbachev considered this a model to revive the economic and social status of the Soviet society. Thus, he introduced economic liberalization with small private enterprises and some limited joint ventures with foreign companies. And he permitted some of the "blank pages" of Soviet history concerning the Stalinist years to be filled in. But any significant criticisms of the Leninist period were "off limits," since this would have challenged the foundations of the existence of the Soviet State.

It is true that Gorbachev was willing to allow the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe to leave the direct control of the Soviet Empire.

But he was not as willing to accept the break-up of the Soviet Union, itself. He approved the use of Soviet force against nationalist movements in Azerbaijan and in Georgia.

The most dramatic instance of this was in January of 1991 in Vilnius, Lithuania, when the Soviet security forces and military attempted to crush the democratic freedom movement in that country, a freedom movement that also demanded a restoration of the national independence that had been lost as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 that divided Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

I was in Lithuania at that very time doing consulting work on market reform and privatization with the government of Lithuania. I was on the streets of Vilnius with Lithuanian friends, and personally witnessed some of the 13 people killed that day by Soviet forces, three of them crushed under tank treads. I was in a crowd at the radio station when the Soviet forces opened fire on us.

Gorbachev was not willing to preside over the demise of the Soviet Union. The coup attempt of August 1991 was under taken by those who were fearful he was already going too far and that things were getting out of his control.

(I was in Moscow during the coup-attempt and was at the Russian Parliament building for most of the three days of the failed coup with thousands of Russians supporting Boris Yeltsin's defense of Russia's budding democracy. We faced down a ring of KGB tank units surrounding the Parliament building.)

Gorbachev set in motion a chain of events that he could not control. He wanted to save Soviet socialism, but in a world of "unintended consequences" his attempt at reform in the spirit of his concept of "true" Leninism led to the end of the "evil empire."



  1. Just a few things from an ex-local.

    1. The letter is mostly a patchy review of common knowledge, the things "Gorbi" said, not the things he did. Even Soviet TV at the time had more substance on the events than mentioned in the letter. In fact, the letter has not answered your question at all.

    2. What Gorbi started, Yeltsin almost finished. And recall that BOTH of them were liked and praised by foreign elites. Compare USSR-1988 to Russian Federation 1998 in any way you like, statistic is available. That's some piece of work. Make your conclusions on who's been the beneficiary.

    3. KGB did not have any armored units at the time. Armor was called in from the regular army units stationed near Moscow -- those who responded and followed those orders. KGB's very own "Alfa" elite forces unit did not follow orders to storm the parliament.

  2. @anonymous

    Actually, I was quite satisfied with Richard's email to me.

    I asked a number of questions and he focused in on the one about Gorbachev. Richard's insights into Gorbachev's Lennist thinking I found very informative.

    It is probably difficult for most to understand how many emails writers get. I get tons of them, some very thoughtful, but it is impossible to answer them all in detail. I'm sure Richard is in the same situation.

    I had a discussion about this once with Bob Murphy when an emailer asked both of us a question that would have taken hours to research. Bob said, " Many just don't understand how many emails we get and how busy we are."

    Thus when a Richard Ebeling responds to me with more than a two word answer, I am very grateful, I know how busy he must be.

    That said, as an "ex-local," you may have some insights into the collapse of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev that neither Richard nor I, as Americans, understand. I would be more than happy to post your insights on these matters as a guest contribution, if you would email them to me.