Sometimes I joke that I lived through four currencies and three leaders of the Soviet Union. I was born in 1981, Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov in 1984, and Chernenko in 1985. Compared to the previous Soviet Leaders who spent a lot of time in hospitals, some even chairing meetings via video link, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took the helm in 1985, seemed young, fresh, and a reformer.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday in Moscow at age 91, to this day is regarded by many in the West as someone who could have reformed the Soviet Union. An overall impression among many is that things could have been much worse, had someone more bloodthirsty occupied the Kremlin at a time. Sure, he did not tear down the Berlin Wall like Reagan encouraged him to. But he also did not send in the tanks when Germans started tearing the wall down themselves.
Conversely, many in Russia, especially the ruling circles, lament that Gorbachev was too weak, did not send enough tanks, and thus allowed the Soviet Union to collapse.
Interestingly enough, what Gorbachev tried to do with the Soviet Union is surprisingly relevant today.
Communism Cannot Survive Without Totalitarian Oppression
Gorbachev introduced the policy of “Glasnost” or “Publicity,” which, in broad terms, allowed people to acknowledge that everything was not alright in the Soviet Union. Prior to Glasnost, even complaining about mundane issues (e.g. lack of meat in the supermarket) could get you in trouble for being a rablerouser, counter-revolutionary, or an “agent of imperialism.”
Even though Glasnost was not what one would call freedom of speech or freedom of press (you still could not criticize communism), it was a big step for regular Soviet citizens, who for the first time could complain that there was no meat on the shelves and not risk being jailed. Everyone started acknowledging that things were not just bad, but very bad. People started questioning whether they would be better off if they governed themselves.
This, combined with desire for national self-determination, created a situation where public dissatisfaction could not be contained; the voices of discontent were simply too loud to be silenced. There were attempts though. The Tbilisi massacre in 1989 (also known as the April 9 tragedy) saw Soviet soldiers hack Georgian demonstrators (mostly women) to death with field spades In Lithuania in 1991, hundreds of Lithuanians gathered in Vilnius in a bid to reclaim independence, prompting Soviets tanks to drive over peaceful protesters, killing more than a dozen people and injuring hundreds more.
After Gorbachev, surviving and aspiring tyrants concluded that in order to maintain power they had to curtail freedom of speech and freedom of press.
Many Politician Today Are as Socialist as Gorbachev
“Perestroika” (rebuilding) was another of Gorbachev’s policies. It recognized deficiencies in central planning, especially in the provision of consumer goods. It tried to inject some capitalism into the economy, and even allowed for limited private companies to be established. This was very significant because the entire Soviet central planning rested on the Marxist premise that private enterprises are inherently exploitative.
Of course, private enterprises were limited to consumer goods sectors. The general thinking was that if Soviet citizens want jeans and chewing gum—fine, let local small companies make jeans, maybe then people will stop complaining. The government, however, would retain complete control of all the so-called important industries—energy, manufacturing, mining, and the like—while the willing masses would be allowed to play in the little sandbox of consumer goods.
It is easy to spot a fault in Gorbachev’s thinking: if central planning does not work for consumer goods, it would not work for even more complex production. What is horrifying is how many politicians of the free world hold the same basic assumptions as Gorbachev. Even worse, how many Americans on the left (or even the centrist right) call for the government to regulate or nationalize a company whenever they decide that the thing they want costs too much?
Once again, the aspiring tyrants studied Gorbachev’s attempts carefully and concluded (perhaps correctly) that inherently faulty systems cannot be fixed. It is impossible to fix central planning without abolishing its central premise that the government, not consumers, know best what to produce and in what quantities. In order to maintain power, the governments have to control the entire economy, or at least most of it.
Hardliners Sow the Seeds of Their Own Destruction
As mentioned, those who wish that communism and the Soviet Union never collapsed like to blame Gorbachev. But what really finished off the Soviets was the attempted coup by the hardliners in August 1991. Gorbachev was put under house arrest, TV stations started showing Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”—a Soviet version of “everything is fine, nothing to see here,” and later a group of elderly men declared that they were taking things into their own hands to salvage the ideals of the Socialist revolution.
That did not go well with people who had had enough. The masses had turned against the continuation of the Soviet Union and socialism, which had wrought pain, poverty, and oppression. After the armed forces agreed to go with Yeltsin, the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. It dissolved on December 26th, 1991, giving the world the best Christmas present imaginable.
How does that apply to today’s America? You can’t have a free country without truly free speech. You cannot have empowered citizens if all aspects of economic life are decided by the government. And hardliners? They often overestimate how much support they really have.