Anatoly Chernyaev. My Six Years with Gorbachev. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. xxiv + 437 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-02029-7.
Reviewed by Kevin O'Connor (Department of Humanities, Spalding University)
Published on H-Russia (May, 2001)
The Apprentice's Sorcerer: A Perestroika Memoir
The Apprentice's Sorcerer: A Perestroika Memoir
Historians who study the Soviet Union's final years are blessed with an unparalleled wealth of memoirs written by the top leaders of the perestroika era. Gorbachev's ideological comrades in arms, including former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and ideologist Vadim Medvedev, have naturally tended to take a mostly favorable view of the CPSU's last general secretary and his reform program. Other memoirists, such as former KGB chief and coup plotter Vladimir Kriuchkov, Nikolai Ryzhkov (who was in charge of the economy), Valerii Vorotnikov (who headed the RSFSR government), and conservative rival Yegor Ligachev, are highly critical of perestroika--especially of the direction that reform took after 1988--and in most cases share a personal antipathy toward Gorbachev and his main ideological advisor, Aleksandr Yakovlev. In many ways Chernayev's book, first published in Russia in 1993, is among the most interesting and insightful of all the memoirs published by members of Gorbachev's circle. While sometimes critical of his former boss, Chernyaev presents readers with a perceptive analysis of the evolution of Gorbachev's political thought between 1986 and 1991 as well as a nuanced portrayal of Gorbachev's enigmatic and often frustrating personality.
Born in 1921, Chernyaev is a decade older than Gorbachev, old enough to have served in the Soviet military during World War II. Being stationed in the Baltic countries at that time, as Robert Service writes in the foreword, gave Chernyaev a certain appreciation for the USSR's nationalities issues that was lacking Committee's International Department, in February 1986 the nearly sixty-five year old Chernyaev was called upon to join Gorbachev's team as a senior foreign policy aide.
Much of this book consists of Chernyaev's journal entries, linked together by remarks and reflections added later for context and narrative continuity. While this technique allows Chernyaev to portray himself, with some justification, as a prescient observer of the unfolding realities of the 1980s (such as when he writes that in 1986 he advised Gorbachev to begin thinking about the matter of German unification), it also conveys a very genuine sense of the uncertainty of the times. The first chapter describes the anticipation of "waiting for Gorbachev's coming" (p. 5) in the early part of the decade--and the profound disappointment experienced by more liberal-minded Communists when the decrepit Konstantin Chernenko was selected to succeed Iurii Andropov as general secretary after the latter's death in February 1984. According to Chernyaev, Gorbachev's selection for the post was just a matter of time.
As Chernyaev recalls, the two had first met in 1972, and even then Gorbachev stood out "for his singular passion, his desire to change, improve and organize" (p. 3). Chernyaev's Gorbachev is a man who was well aware of the problems of the Soviet system even before taking power. Although the Soviet leader saw that his country was on the edge of collapse, his initial response upon coming to power was entirely traditional: he issued reprimands and called for greater discipline. A wiser Chernyaev reflects on the early days of perestroika: "Back then, of course, I was still thinking in the parameters of the old system. And so was Gorbachev" (p. 31). Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this memoir is Chernyaev's description of how that thinking began to change. After two years of tinkering, Gorbachev would begin, as an American corporate executive might put it today, to "think outside the box."
Where Chernyaev shows his greatest skill as a chronicler of perestroika is his consistent linking of domestic and foreign policy goals. A vital aim of perestroika was to ease the military burden on the Soviet Union's sputtering economy; to achieve this goal it was necessary to prevent the arms race from entering a new phase of escalation. Yet for the first year and a half of Gorbachev's rule, during which he struggled to find the CPSU's place in the USSR and in the world, the general secretary's foreign policy ideas were contradictory. The old policy of "global confrontation," Chernyaev writes, coexisted with "new thinking." For example, in meetings with socialists like Cuba's Fidel Castro, Gorbachev proclaimed that "our" analysis must be based on "the interests of the working class and class struggle." He also continued to speak to his colleagues about the necessity of maintaining control in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique and other countries that were taking the "anti-imperialist path" (p. 52). Yet at the same time Gorbachev was frustrated that the West wasn't taking his overtures seriously, mistaking his proposals as mere propaganda. Despite his bold initiatives at Reykjavik in October 1986, when Gorbachev proposed to cut strategic arms in half across the board, he was unable to reach an agreement with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless the two came to trust each other more, paving the way for future agreements. Such agreements made it possible to move forward on the domestic front of perestroika.
Meanwhile, as perestroika floundered at home during his first two years at the helm, Gorbachev found himself rethinking the very concept of socialism. Calls for "acceleration" and increased discipline in the workplace proved ineffective. The Stalinist system itself, built in the 1930s, Gorbachev concluded in 1987, was the problem. On this matter, Gorbachev revealed himself only gradually--most openly to trusted advisors like Yakovlev and Chernyaev, and more diplomatically to other Politburo members. The key to rooting out the Stalin/Brezhnev model of socialism was the glasnost ("openness") policy, with one of its main goals being to rehabilitate the "Bukharin alternative," which was obliterated when Stalin assumed supreme power in the USSR.
According to Chernyaev, Gorbachev read widely, was familiar with samizdat and tamizdat critical of the Stalinist system, and in particular was heavily influenced by Stephen Cohen's book on Nikolai Bukharin. By 1987-88, the Soviet leader spoke of returning to the "true" Lenin (i.e., the Lenin of NEP), whom he constantly "consulted" in seeking answers to contemporary problems. Even though Gorbachev could never bring himself to let go of Lenin, eventually, partly under the influence of Aleksandr Solzhenytsin's Lenin in Zurich, he was able to see the first Bolshevik as an ordinary person capable of making mistakes (p. 213).
In the domestic sphere, Gorbachev's biggest problem was the resistance of the Party apparat and conservative intellectuals to his increasingly radical reforms. While the general secretary made overtures to the reform-minded intellectuals for their support, Chernyaev remarks that Gorbachev was really "more concerned with keeping the leaders of the traditional intelligentsia close by and making sure that none of them were offended" (p. 211). In his desire to bring both camps together, he kept one foot squarely planted in each and thereby succeeded in alienating both the liberal intellectuals--many of whom eventually defected to Yeltsin--and their conservative counterparts. Meanwhile, Chernyaev and Yakovlev consistently urged Gorbachev to purge those apparatchiks who did not support perestroika. Instead of making a firm alliance with the democratic-minded reformers, Gorbachev felt betrayed when they criticized him--yet, to the consternation of his liberal advisers, he abided the attacks of Soviet hardliners.
Chernyaev writes that by the summer of 1990, "conditions were ripe for a break with the Party, with socialist ideology, and with the old way of governance." It was time, in other words, "to admit that perestroika is a revolution that means transformation of the existing order." But, he sadly admits, "this didn't happen" (p. 293). The result was that Gorbachev remained beholden to a Central Committee that was full of Ligachev's and Polozkov's people, and therefore the Soviet leader was rendered powerless before the Party. A journal entry for late November 1990, when Gorbachev appeared to be moving closer to the hardliners, reflects this conundrum: "It's so sad. It hurts to see Gorbachev 'swaggering,' acting superior. But there's less and less of his old spirit left. He's repeating himself, and not only in his words and style. He's repeating himself as a politician, going around in circles. He's almost alone, but he still can't let go of the past: Ryzhkov, [Stepan] Sitaryan, Maslyukov, Boldin" (p. 310).
Chernyaev's memoir is a highly readable account of the period, and this is partly because it is very personal. Chernyaev describes himself as a loyal Party member devoted to liberalizing the system from within, a man who therefore had a huge stake in the success of perestroika. He praises Gorbachev for having the courage to take on such a monumental task in the face of tremendous resistance--how much easier it would have been for him to rule as a general secretary in the Brezhnev mold!
However, despite his reverence for Gorbachev as a politician, Chernyaev pulls no punches in his portrayal of Gorbachev as a man. While Gorbachev could be brilliant, he was also condescending, insensitive, aloof, and dismissive. Chernyaev describes the pain felt by Aleksandr Yakovlev when his boss failed to protect him from the attacks of the Ligachevites. Chernyaev himself complains that over time Gorbachev grew increasingly distant and never took the least bit of personal interest in him despite his dogged loyalty. By January 1991, when Gorbachev had shut out everyone but the likes of KGB chief Kryuchkov and longtime friend Anatoly Lukyanov (both participants in the August coup), and took the blame for the shootings in Vilnius, Chernyaev was tempted to resign. In his letter to that effect (never submitted), Chernyaev wrote:
"The point is that I faithfully and honestly served 'that' Gorbachev, the great innovator and father of perestroika. But now I don't recognize or understand him...Mikhail Sergeyevich! Since I've been with you, I never thought that I would ever again be tortured by such burning shame for the policies of the Soviet leadership as I was under Brezhnev and Chernenko. Alas! That's what it has come to..." (p. 323) [ellipsis included]
Anyone interested in Gorbachev's nationalities policy, especially in regard to the Baltics, would be well advised to read this book. Chernyaev believes that Gorbachev's Marxism-Leninism clouded his understanding of the power of nationalism. In Gorbachev's thinking, the Baltic countries would not leave if they fully appreciated the economic benefits they derived from being part of the USSR. Economic bonds were greater than national ones. Still, one wonders why didn't Gorbachev go further in meeting the nationalities halfway earlier, say, in 1989? Chernyaev writes: "[W]hat restrained him was not the anticipated reaction from the Central Committee and the Party leadership as a whole; at that time he was sure he could handle them. He was more concerned about the reaction of the Russian people. Several times he told me that the Russians wouldn't forgive him for 'the collapse of the empire,' and that 'great-power forces are rumbling louder and louder'" (p. 189). For Gorbachev, presiding over the disintegration of the empire was as out of the question as using force to maintain it, hence the protracted negotiations for a new Union treaty in the spring of 1991. But for several Soviet republics, notably the Baltics and Georgia, it was too late for such a compromise.
As the Soviet Union experienced its greatest crisis since World War II, Gorbachev was enjoying tremendous popularity in the West. One senses that Gorbachev felt far more comfortable with George Bush and James Baker, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, than he did with his own inner circle of Soviet advisers. In contrast to his impersonal relations with his fellow Soviet politicians, Gorbachev's relations with the Westerners were often of a more personal nature; moreover, by 1990 he could count on nearly unqualified moral support from the West for his domestic program. With the German leaders in particular Gorbachev shared a "deep personal trust" (p. 239) that allowed German unification to proceed with Soviet acquiescence despite the occasional misunderstandings. To his credit, Gorbachev understood the inevitability of this process, and was willing to let go of the GDR despite the ideological ramifications for the socialist world. On the other hand, Chernyaev subtly suggests that Gorbachev was helpless on the matters of Germany and Eastern Europe, as any attempt to use force to stop events would have meant the end of perestroika (p. 240).
Nevertheless, perestroika came to an end in August 1991, when a group of high-ranking Soviet officials attempted to depose Gorbachev. Chernyaev, who was vacationing with Gorbachev at Foros at the time, seeks to lay to rest the persisting rumors that Gorbachev was party to the conspiracy (pp. 400-423). Although the coup was defeated, Gorbachev's days as Soviet leader were numbered. The Soviet Union was coming unraveled. As Chernyaev concludes, Gorbachev "didn't want to believe that people in their right minds would act against what seemed to be the obvious advantages of a common life. What apparently let him down was his Marxist-Leninist training in rationalistic thought" (p. 394). If one wants to understand the thought and actions of the last Soviet leader, one could hardly do better than this book.
. Eduard Shevardnadze, The Future Belongs to Freedom (New York: Free Press, 1991); Vadim Medvedev, V komande Gorbacheva: Vzgliad iznutri (Moscow: Bylina, 1994).
. Vladimir Kriuchkov, Lichnoe delo, 2 vols. (Moscow: Olimp, 1996); Nikolai Ryzhkov, Perestroika: Istoriia predatelstv' (Moscow: Novosti, 1992); V.I. Vorotnikov, A bylo eto tak... Iz dnevnika chlena Politbiuro TsK KPSS (Moscow: Sovet veteranov, 1995); Yegor Ligachev, Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).
. Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Knopf, 1973).
. Ivan Polozkov was an influential Party boss from Krasnodar who, beginning in June 1990, headed the reactionary Communist Party of the RSFSR.
. These were some of the conservatives upon whom Gorbachev increasingly relied from autumn 1990 through the following spring.
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Kevin O'Connor. Review of Chernyaev, Anatoly, My Six Years with Gorbachev.
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.