Una Bergmane explores the complex and competing legacies of Mikhail Gorbachev, particularly in the Baltic states, and the incompatibility he encountered between the democratisation of Soviet society and the preservation of the Soviet empire.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a man of many faces. As one Politburo member wrote in his memoirs he had the unique ability to talk in a way that made people believe that he supported their position. Not surprisingly he is now a man of many legacies.
There are many shades between ”Gorby” the Western superhero and Mikhail Gorbachev the traitor who does not deserve a state funeral in Putin’s Russia. These nuances are especially apparent when Gorbachev’s legacy is discussed with people from the geographical space that was once the Soviet Union. Most will agree that Gorbachev’s reforms brought the long-awaited opportunity for change. But many will have something to add. A “but”, a nuance, a shade of grey, or even a shadow of something very dark. The mishandling of Chornobyl’s aftermath. The inability to prevent the war in Nagorno Karabakh. The killings in Tbilisi and Baku that happened under Gorbachev’s watch.
These and other grievances are often dismissed in the light of the greater good that Gorbachev did. This is wrong, as these grievances are more than valid. At the same time, they do not remove the positive marks on Gorbachev’s record: the end of the arms race, the abstention from the use of force in Eastern Europe, the acceptance of German reunification. Yet, these three major milestones of Gorbachev’s tenure were just the consequences of his most important achievement: the breaking of the Soviet status quo. It can be argued that he was obliged to do this for economic reasons but, in reality, there was no obligation. The Soviet economy was not doing well but Gorbachev could have chosen to handle the issue in the Chinese way: introducing elements of market economy without proceeding to democratisation. He could have followed North Korea, isolating from the world and increasing the level of repression. Alternatively he could have followed Brezhnev and just carried on as before.
Yet Gorbachev decided to transform the USSR. His economic reforms failed but his democratisation efforts unleashed a wave of changes that sank the old world. Among those who understood how to ride the wave were the three Baltic countries. They seized the opportunity given by perestroika and pushed for the restoration of their independence, lost in 1940 when the USSR occupied and illegally annexed them.
Yet in the Baltic states Gorbachev’s passing was acknowledged with mixed feelings. Gorbachev was the man whose reforms enabled the rise of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence movements but he was also the man who strongly opposed that independence. He was the man who in 1988 allowed popular fronts to be created in the Baltic countries thus challenging the monopoly of the communist party over local politics. But he was also the man who three years later enabled Soviet hardliners to attempt to stop the Baltic drive for independence by force. The story of Gorbachev’s relations with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is not just a story about the relations between the Soviet centre and the periphery at the time of perestroika, it’s also a story of a deep tension at the heart of the perestroika project: the incompatibility between the democratisation of Soviet society and the preservation of the Soviet empire.
Since the early days of the Soviet state, relations between the Soviet centre and the republics had been imperial. They were built upon a system in which the dominant metropole exerted political control over the effective sovereignty of the subordinate periphery. After 1985 the democratising effect of perestroika and actors in the periphery pushed for reform in centre-republic relations that would reduce this power asymmetry. Yet, Moscow was unready and unwilling to address this issue. As noted by Anatolijs Gorbunovs, a high-ranking Latvian communist who came to fully embrace the independence project between 1988 and 1990: “Gorbachev had no plan: neither how to let us free, nor how to keep us.”
Gorbachev indeed had no plan on how to handle relations between Moscow and the republics in general and the Baltic situation in particular. On one hand, it became more and more obvious that only the use of blatant force could stop the Baltic push for independence. On the other, abstention from extensive state violence was one of the perestroika’s core principles. Gorbachev’s own closest advisors preferred to see the Baltic states independent than to use force against them. Meanwhile, Yeltsin was willing to let the Baltic countries go, while hoping to preserve the rest of the union.
Yet, in January 1991, the KGB, the Soviet Ministry of Defence, and the Soviet Ministry of Interior coordinated a campaign to reduce the agency of Baltic governments and destabilise the situation to the point that imposition of direct presidential rule might appear justified. They failed but their attempt resulted in the deaths of 14 people in Lithuania and 6 in Latvia. The failure of the crackdown was due first and foremost to the resistance of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians who stood on the barricades ready to defend their democratically elected governments.
Gorbachev has always claimed that he did not know about the plans of his ministers and security services. That however is more than unlikely. In the “best” case scenario he knew what was planned without being actively involved, waited, and did nothing to prevent or condemn, hoping that maybe the hardliners would solve the issue for him. In the worst case, he was actively involved in decision-making.
These events show us the limits of Western ideas about Gorbachev as the man who was always on the right side of history. But it also challenges the Putinist narrative of Gorbachev as the traitor who single-handedly destroyed the USSR. During most of his tenure, Gorbachev tried to avoid the choice between democracy and empire, hoping to have both. During the winter of 1990-91, he prioritised the second. This move, however, was met with both domestic and international outrage. Gorbachev was shocked by the severity of the international reaction that followed the killings in Vilnius and Riga, but foreigners were not the only ones who feared that the use of force in the Baltics meant the end of perestroika. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens protested against the attempted crackdown, clearly choosing democratisation over the empire. Gorbachev ceded because he was a man for who domestic and international opinion mattered. At the same time, he did not start to prioritise democracy over the empire as a result. He just went back to not knowing what to do with the Baltic countries. Because he never wanted to destroy the Soviet Union.
Una Bergmane is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Her first book “Politics of Uncertainty: the United States, the Baltic Question and the Collapse of the USSR” will be published in February 2023 by Oxford University Press.
Photo credit: “File:RIAN archive 359290 Mikhail Gorbachev (1).jpg” by Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.