I am no fan of Gorbachev

VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA

When I heard last week of the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union, I remembered an early evening debate that ensued in my bachelor’s house at Kwatarkwashi Road in Sokoto, sometime in 1988. We held those debates almost every night as young, idealistic, left-wing university lecturers.

Present at the debate that evening was, to use their present titles, Professor Tijjani Bande, Dr. Bello Aliyu, Prof Mohammed Kuna, Prof Abdullahi Sule-Kano and Dr. Abdurrahman Umar, the later now deceased. We debated whether Apartheid will end in South Africa before establishment of an independent Palestinian state. After a robust argument, the consensus was that Palestine will become a state before Apartheid falls. We thought, wrongly as it turned out, that liberals and left-wingers in Israel’s Labour Party would overcome Likud and religious parties’ conservatives and broker a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] earlier than English-speaking liberal White South Africans will overcome National Party’s Afrikaner hardliners and end apartheid. Within a year of that debate, Apartheid began to crumble in South Africa but 33 years after our prediction, the end of Israeli Occupation of Palestine is not in sight.

Another interesting debate ensued that night. We discussed and laughed heartily about a certain passage in Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Devil’s Alternative. It was about [fictional] Ukrainian militants who hijacked a Soviet plane over East Germany and flew it to West Germany. After their arrest, the incredulous West German investigator asked them why they did so. They said their goal was “to establish a free, independent and democratic Ukraine.” The West German cop muttered to himself, “That will never happen!”

In 1988, to advocate for an “independent” Ukraine, in other words to secede from USSR, was the height of fantasy and, as far as we could see that night, the nearest thing to impossible. Over the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, my friends and I have rued our 1988 consensus and have said the impossible happened.  Maybe we spoke too soon, as events in Ukraine since February this year have shown. Impossible things happened due to the severely unpredictable quantity called Mikhail Gorbachev.

During my early school and teen years, Communist rulers around the world seemed to be there for eternity. They included General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Albanian Party of Labour leader Enver Hoxha, Polish United Workers Party leader Edward Gierek, leader of the Yugoslav League of Communists Josif Broz Tito, East German Socialist Unity Party leader Erich Honecker, Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Gustav Husak, Hungarian Socialist Workers Party leader Janos Kadar, Bulgarian Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov, Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae Ceausescu, Vietnamese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh and North Korean Workers’ Party leader Kim Il-Sung. Communist party leaders in the Western world were also long-lasting, including Italy’s Enrico Berlinguer and French Communist Party leader Georges Machais.

Tumult however arrived in the 1980s, beginning with the emergence of Solidarity trade union in Poland led by the dock electrician Lech Walesa. An independent trade union challenging the party was unheard of in the Communist bloc up to that time. The tumult led to the declaration of martial law in Poland and the rise of the unsmiling General Wojciech Jaruzelski as Chief Martial Law Administrator.

In November 1982, I heard on the radio the death of Leonid Brezhnev. TIME magazine’s cover story for that week was, “Half a world lies open!” Brezhnev stood on top of the Communist heap.  Knowing as I did all the members of the Politburo [Political Bureau] of the CPSU Central Committee, I did a personal shortlist of Brezhnev’s likely successor. On my shortlist were Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, First Deputy Premier Heydar Aliyev, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Defence Minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin and CPSU chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov.  CPSU Central Committee however disregarded my list and chose KGB Chief Yuri Andropov as General Secretary.

The stern Andropov, once described in a Time magazine story as “having a dry sense of humour,” died 15 months later in 1984. CPSU then chose Brezhnev’s former chief of staff Konstantin Chernenko to lead. He also had an uneventful tenure and died after 13 months. Probably learning this lesson, CPSU then chose the youngest Politburo member, Mikhail Gorbachev, to succeed Chernenko.  

He turned out to be a different kettle of Communist fish, to put it mildly. Young and energetic, unlike the aged Brezhnev who once had to be helped to his feet during a visit to Bonn, Gorbachev soon dazzled the world as he travelled to Western capitals. In a message that greatly pleased Western ears, he espoused a new policy of “glasnost”, i.e. openness, a complete departure from the Soviet tradition of secrecy. In line with it, USSR was forthcoming with information during the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident of 1986.

Soon afterwards, Gorbachev rolled out his policy of Perestroika, i.e. restructuring. He met several times with the fiercely anti-Communist US President Ronald Reagan to discuss nuclear arms reduction. They became quite close despite Reagan provocations. During a 1987 visit to West Berlin, Reagan pointed at the Berlin Wall and shouted, “Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” On another occasion, while auditioning for a radio interview in the US, Reagan said, “I am signing a law to outlaw the Soviet Union. We will begin bombing in ten minutes.” Yet Gorbachev cozied up to him!

One thing led to another. East Europeans began fleeing to the West, the Berlin Wall fell, some Soviet soldiers mounted a very incompetent coup in Moscow, which failed when President of the Russian Republic Boris Yeltsin mobilized massive crowds to resist it. Not long afterwards, Yeltsin met with presidents of the 14 other Soviet Republics and they dissolved the USSR, creating 15 independent countries, including Ukraine. Gorbachev tried to stop them, but he was soon a president without a country.

Yeltsin got a good deal for Russia. The 14 smaller countries agreed that Russian Federation should retain all USSR’s mighty nuclear arsenal, all USSR’s embassies around the world and also USSR’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

One Nigerian writer said last week that Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable “due to internal contradictions.” Is that so? If it is internal contradictions, I would have expected the capitalist system to collapse much earlier. What was inevitable about CPSU’s collapse when Communist parties are still ruling in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba?

Western propagandists wrote much about USSR’s allegedly inefficient agricultural system and shortage of consumer goods. Maybe, but in 70 years in power, CPSU transformed the country from an essentially agrarian society to a heavily industrial one that produced everything from trains to aircraft to weapons to rockets to satellites. USSR was the world’s number one in many areas of heavy industry from steel to chemicals to cement to aluminum. Westerners later rubbished these as “smokestack” industry. USSR had a very efficient health care system and an educational system so efficient that it identified every child’s potential from basic school, according to a 1978 Time magazine cover story. CPSU built millions of houses, built some of the world’s most powerful weapons, including a blue ocean navy, sent the first man into space, had the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and one of its most active space programs, and it regularly topped the Olympics medals table, followed by East Germany. To boot, USSR under CPSU made the biggest human and material contribution to the defeat of Fascism in World War Two.

We Africans are mighty grateful to USSR and CPSU for their invaluable political, diplomatic and military support to our national liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe, at a time when the Western world backed colonial, UDI and Apartheid powers and resolutely stood against imposing sanctions.

As I saw it, three things overreached the USSR. One was excessive central planning. Second was its heavy defence spending due to the superpower arms race. The Brezhnev Doctrine, which promised to “defend the gains of socialism worldwide,” was also costly. The Afghan intervention enabled the CIA to heavily arm the Mujahedeen. The claim that Afghan Mujahedeen defeated USSR and forced its withdrawal in 1989 was recently countered by a Western writer, who pointed out that USSR’s best forces were deployed in Eastern Europe to face NATO and in Asia against China, while only secondary forces were sent to Afghanistan.

Among the wars that would never have happened since 1991, had USSR still been around, include the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Chechnya war, Abkhazian separatist war in Georgia, Kosovo, Armenia/Azerbaijan war, the second Gulf War of 2003, NATO bombing of Libya, Syrian civil war, eastward expansion of NATO, not to mention annexation of Crimea and the current Russia-Ukraine war.

Anyone who was a victim of any of these wars would not be fond of Mikhail Gorbachev, who dislodged CPSU, dismantled the USSR, ended COMECON and Warsaw Pact, ended super power balance, handed USA a blank cheque to rule the world, unleashed previously caged nationalist and religious extremist forces, and severely retarded progressive politics around the world. I don’t celebrate anyone’s death, but I am not a fan of Mikhail Gorbachev.

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