'They Were Truly Idiots'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Mikhail Gorbachev, 80, discusses the last days of the Soviet Union, his failure to resolve problems with the Communist Party and the ensuing bloodshed he says still troubles him today. He also accuses Vladimir Putin of pulling the country "back into the past."
SPIEGEL: Mikhail Sergeyevich, you turned 80 this spring. How do you feel?
Gorbachev: Oh, what a question. Do you have to ask me that? I've gone through three operations in the last five years. That was pretty tough on me, because they were all major operations: First on my carotid artery, then on my prostate and this year on my spine.
SPIEGEL: In Munich.
Gorbachev: Yes. It was a risky procedure. I'm grateful to the Germans.
SPIEGEL: But you look good. We saw you before the operation.
Gorbachev: They say you need three or four months to get back to normal after an operation like that. Do you remember the book "The Fourth Vertebra," by the Finnish author Martti Larni? It is a wonderful book. In my case it was the fifth (vertebra). I've started walking again, but every beginning is difficult.
SPIEGEL: And yet you are back in politics, and you're even making headlines again. Why don't you finally sit back and relax?
Gorbachev: Politics is my second love, next to my love for Raisa.
SPIEGEL: Your deceased wife.
Gorbachev: I will never give up politics. I've tried to give it up three times, but I never made it. Politics mobilizes me. I won't last long if I give it up. However, I would never have thought that I would make it to 80. I was about your age when I became general secretary.
SPIEGEL: At 54.
Gorbachev: I was already the youngest secretary in the party leadership in Stavropol. And here in Moscow I was the youngest member of the Politburo when (former General Secretary Konstantin) Chernenko died.
SPIEGEL: In fact, you were expected to become head of the party a year earlier.
Gorbachev: Chernenko was ill. Still, they elected him in 1984, and there were scuffles and clashes in the Politburo. They assigned the positions as they saw fit, even though (Yuri) Andropov…
SPIEGEL: … the then-general secretary and head of the KGB for many years …
Gorbachev: … had written, in a letter to the Plenary Assembly of the Central Committee, that he supported Gorbachev.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could fill us in on a detail from the decisive Politburo meeting following Chernenko's death in March 1985. Ironically, it was Foreign Minister (Andrei) Gromyko who nominated you as the new party leader. Why did he do it? He didn't like you and was envious of you. And there were other candidates?
Gorbachev: Because Gromyko was a very clever and serious person. Why was he envious of me? I don't know. But he had recognized the signs of the times. When Chernenko was ill, I was often called upon to manage the work of the Secretariat and the Politburo, and it went well, which didn't go unnoticed. In that regard, Chernenko even helped me. And I gathered important experience in the process. If I may modify something Voltaire once said about God: If Chernenko hadn't existed, someone would have to have invented him.
SPIEGEL: There were also important rivals who didn't want Gorbachev.
Gorbachev: Yes, a few. On the other hand, a group of regional party leaders had approached me and said, while Chernenko was still alive: The old guard are trying to put one of their own on the throne once again. If they do it, we will sweep them away. I said to them: Enough of this talk. When Chernenko was dead and the issue of the succession had to be resolved, I met with Gromyko 30 minutes before the critical Politburo meeting. I said to him: The situation is serious, and the people are demanding change. It can't be forced, even though it's risky, even dangerous. Let's tackle this together. Gromyko replied that he agreed with me completely. We only spoke to each other for five minutes. That night, I retuned to my dacha shortly before dawn -- and went for a walk with Raisa.
SPIEGEL: You never discussed important issues with your wife at home?
Gorbachev: You had to go outside. We also never discussed important things openly at the dacha. When I cleared out our Moscow apartment after stepping down as president, they found all kinds of wiring in the walls. It turned out that they had been spying on me all along.
SPIEGEL: What advice did your wife give you that night?
Gorbachev: I said to her: The new general secretary will be elected today, and it's possible that they will nominate me. Do you need that, she asked? I said: They've gone through three general secretaries in four years. I explained to her that I wouldn't turn them down, because people would interpret that as political cowardice.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Gorbachev, allow us to conduct an experiment.
Gorbachev: I don't participate in experiments anymore.
SPIEGEL: This one is completely harmless. Three or four reasons are always cited as to why your perestroika, the renewal of the Soviet Union, failed.
Gorbachev: Did you just say "failed?"
SPIEGEL: Yes, but we don't want to argue about the word. We could also use a different word. We'll give you the reasons and ask you for a brief comment. First: You only treated the symptoms of the sick communist system, but you didn't get to the core of the problem, namely that the planned economy and the party's monopoly on power remained untouched for too long. Was that not truly the case?
Gorbachev: Let's take one thing at a time. I would launch perestroika in exactly the same way today. "We can't go on living this way." That was our slogan. "I want changes," Viktor Zoi, the pioneer of Russian rock music, sang.
SPIEGEL: But you lacked a concept for these changes.
Gorbachev: If I had had a plan for it, I would have quickly ended up in Magadan.
SPIEGEL: The capital of the Stalinist gulag, 6,000 kilometers from Moscow.
Gorbachev: Both of you were very familiar with the Soviet Union. Don't you remember what kind of a country it was? All it took was a tiny political joke to end up in Magadan. And I was supposed to have a plan and a supporting team? First we had to lead the people out of torpor. The party establishment didn't need perestroika. Each of them had it made. The district party leader was the king in his district, the regional leader was a czar and the general secretary was practically God's equal. That's why we needed glasnost -- openness -- first. It was the path to freedom. We later conducted the first free elections in Russia in 1,000 years.
Part 2: Yeltsin Was 'Infatuated with Power, Thirsty for Glory'
SPIEGEL: Against the will of the party. But you weren't that critical of them at the time.
Gorbachev: The Soviet Communist Party was a huge machine. At some point, it began throwing spokes into the wheels. It was the initiator of perestroika, but then it became its biggest obstacle. I understood that nothing would work without deep-seated political reforms. After suffering a defeat in the first democratic elections, the establishment joined forces and openly attacked me at a meeting of the party leadership. That was when I announced my resignation and left the plenary chamber.
SPIEGEL: But that was only in April 1991, eight months before the end of the Soviet Union. Besides, you returned. You allowed yourself to be persuaded once again, instead of using the moment to send the old party packing.
Gorbachev: Yes, I came back after three hours. Some 90 comrades had already established a list for a new Gorbachev party, which would have created a schism. I joined the Communist Party at 19, when I was still in school. My father had been on the front and my grandfather was an old communist -- and I was supposed to blow the whole thing up? Today I know that I should have done it. But the man sitting in front of you is not a so-called statesman, but a completely normal person. Someone with a conscience, and that conscience tortured me constantly.
SPIEGEL: The next charge is that you lacked sufficient insight into human nature for the job. Many comrades whose advancement you facilitated betrayed you later on. That too is certainly hard to deny.
Gorbachev: There you go again! Yes, I did make (Vladimir) Kryuchkov head of the KGB, and he later staged a coup against me. But where else was I going to get an intelligence chief? Kryuchkov had worked under Andropov for 20 years, and I was on familiar terms with Andropov. Of course I got him from there, but I didn't know him well enough.
SPIEGEL: (Boris) Yeltsin, who, as Russian president, later chased you out of office, was someone you did know well.
Gorbachev: Okay, let's talk about Yeltsin. I did in fact know him a little. Even as district leader in Sverdlovsk…
SPIEGEL: … which is now Yekaterinburg …
Gorbachev: … he was already very, very self-confident. When we wanted to bring him into the national party, many advised us against it. They later elected him as party leader in Moscow. I supported it. He was energetic, and it took a long time for me to recognize my mistake. He was extremely infatuated with power, haughty and thirsting for glory, a domineering person. He always believed that he was being underestimated, and he constantly felt insulted. He should have been shunted out of the way and made an ambassador in a banana republic, where he could have smoked water pipes in peace.
SPIEGEL: The third issue: You are criticized for having criminally underestimated the national question …
Gorbachev: That's not true. I lived in a country in which the people spoke 225 languages and dialects, and where all religions existed. I grew up in the Caucasus, and I was familiar with the problems.
SPIEGEL: You really didn't know that the army violently suppressed the independence movement in Tbilisi and Vilnius?
Gorbachev: Yes, I know, that accusation has been leveled at me millions of times. But it really was all happening behind my back. Of course, this raises the question: What sort of a general secretary were you if you didn't know anything about it? That's the far more serious charge. Take Vilnius, for example. On Jan. 12, 1991, after the clashes there between supporters and opponents of independence had come to a head, the Federal Council convened. They sent a delegation to Vilnius to bring about a political solution. But in the night before its arrival, there were clashes and people were killed. It's clear today that there were forces in the KGB leadership that wanted to stand in the way of a political solution. It was a similar situation in Tbilisi.
SPIEGEL: Your leadership vacillated between harshness and indecision.
Gorbachev: It was said that Chinese harshness was unacceptable, while not shooting was a sign of weakness. Both are nonsense. You have to seek dialogue until the end.
SPIEGEL: Why didn't you use the Chinese approach with your perestroika: tough communist leadership but capitalist economic reforms?
Gorbachev: Each country is different. China is a good example, but reforms have to be advanced in different ways.
SPIEGEL: There is a theory that you often repeat, but that we are unable to understand, namely that the Soviet Union could still have been saved even after the coup.
Gorbachev: And it could have. It's just that we were too late in beginning to reform it. Some wanted a federation, but the majority of the republics wanted a united state with elements of a confederation. Then I proposed a referendum. When we voted on the proposal, Yeltsin angrily slammed his fist on the table. He was against it, of course. He announced openly that he could no longer work with Gorbachev, and that they had to part ways with him. Then came the referendum, and the people supported me.
SPIEGEL: Seventy-six percent.
Gorbachev: That means that the union was destroyed against the will of the people, and it was done deliberately -- with the participation of the Russian leadership, on the one hand, and that of the putschists, on the other.
Part 3: 'I Was Tired and at My Limits'
SPIEGEL: You always sought dialogue, probably for too long. When the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met near Brest in December 1991 and dealt a death blow to the USSR behind your back, the deputy head of the Presidential Chancellery advised you to send out two or three helicopters with a special unit and to place the three men under house arrest. Would that have been an option? You had the results of the referendum to support you.
Gorbachev: It wasn't like that. Yeltsin had discussed the trip to Belarus with me and said that he also wanted to invite the Ukrainian president, (Leonid) Kravchuk, to attend. He said that it would become difficult to convince the Ukrainians to participate in the new union agreement after the Kiev referendum on independence. I argued that this would not stand in the way of their signing the agreement at all. After all, all other republics had already declared their independence, as a sign of greater sovereignty. Then Yeltsin asked: But what happens if the Ukrainians refuse to sign the new agreement? I replied that they would undoubtedly sign it, but that it was a decision for the Ukrainian parliament to make, and that Moscow would not oppose Ukrainian independence. Then I reminded him that after his return, a meeting was to be held, and that I had already invited the presidents of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to attend. Yeltsin and his supporters were in fact acting as secret conspirators against the constitution. When this became clear, I said immediately that three people alone could not dissolve the union.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that you couldn't have used force against the three presidents?
Gorbachev: That might have led to a civil war, which was to be avoided at all costs. Secondly, the country was in a state of shock. The press was silent, and no one went out into the streets to defend the union. The people were confused. They didn't understand what sort of a "Commonwealth of Independent States" Yeltsin and his allies had launched. It sounded harmless, like something that would provide more freedom for the republics in the union. It wasn't until later that they realized that this large country had imploded. Even today, a majority of people surveyed say that they regret the fact that the USSR collapsed. But only 9 percent say that they would want it back.
SPIEGEL: Nowadays most people, including Americans and Germans, claim that they would have supported the preservation of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev: Because they didn't know whether the parts would descend into chaos after its demise. Because what had happened before that? President Bush held back the Ukrainians, even though others in Washington were already rubbing their hands together, even secretly working to bring about our downfall. When I went to the G-7 summit in July 1991 and asked for loans to address the difficult economic situation, the Americans and the Japanese were opposed, while (then German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl said nothing. Only (then French President Francois) Mitterand and the European Commission supported me.
SPIEGEL: Kohl was opposed? That's not what he says today.
Gorbachev: What I said was that he remained silent. (German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich) Genscher was in favor. We expected $30 billion, but it was in vain. Our partners lacked vision.
SPIEGEL: Then came the coup. But the Americans had already warned you against it early enough -- two months earlier, in fact. And they had even named names, including that of KGB chief Kryuchkov. Is that true?
Gorbachev: Bush called me. He referred to information from the Moscow mayor, Gavriil Popov.
SPIEGEL: You didn't believe him?
Gorbachev: The conservatives had announced several times that they wanted to get rid of Gorbachev, and they had already tried it in various committees, but without success. By then, we had the anti-crisis program, which was supported by all republics. The new union treaty was to be signed on Aug. 20, and an extraordinary congress was to reform the party. The opponents of perestroika had suffered a defeat, and then they organized the coup.
SPIEGEL: And you chose to go on vacation in Crimea at a time like that?
Gorbachev: I thought they would be idiots to take such a risk precisely at that moment, because it would sweep them away, too. But unfortunately they were truly idiots, and they destroyed everything. And we proved ourselves to be semi-idiots, myself included. I had become exhausted after all those years. I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake.
SPIEGEL: What would be better today if the Soviet Union still existed?
Gorbachev: Isn't that clear to you? Everything had grown together over the decades: culture, education, language, the economy, everything. They were building cars in the Baltic republics and airplanes in the Ukraine. We still can't get by without each other today. And a population of 300 million was also a plus.
SPIEGEL: Are there other things that you did that still torment you today?
Gorbachev: My goal was to avoid bloodshed. But unfortunately there was some bloodshed, after all. It also troubles me that I didn't resolve the problem with the Communist Party in time. And that I underestimated the fact that the establishment in the other national republics wanted to decide issues relating to their own lives on their own, without anyone from the central government getting involved. Now they have this possibility.
SPIEGEL: Let's jump forward in time to present-day Russia. When Putin came into office in 2000, you supported him. Had you already known him for some time?
Gorbachev: He helped me when I ran in the 1996 presidential election.
SPIEGEL: You thought he was clever at the time. Now you say that under his leadership Russia came to resemble an African country, where dictators rule for 20 to 30 years. What do you suddenly find so objectionable about him?
Gorbachev: Careful: It is you that is using the word "dictator." I supported Putin during his presidency, and I still support him in many ways today.
SPIEGEL: You asked him not to run for president again.
Gorbachev: What troubles me is what the United Russia party, which is led by Putin, and the government are doing. They want to preserve the status quo. There are no steps forward. On the contrary, they are pulling us back into the past, while the country is urgently in need of modernization. Sometimes United Russia reminds me of the old Soviet Communist Party.
SPIEGEL: Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev want to decide between themselves who will be the next president in 2012.
Gorbachev: Putin wants to stay in power, but not so that he can finally solve our most pressing problems: education, health care, poverty. The people are not being asked, and the parties are puppets of the regime. Governors are no longer directly elected. Direct mandates in elections were eliminated. Everything works through party lists now. But new parties are not being allowed, because they get in the way.
SPIEGEL: Like the social democratic party that you have tried to found several times.
Gorbachev: And yet we need new forces to bring progress to the country. And we need parties that bring together the interests of politics and the economy, can achieve a social partnership and guarantee democratic development.
Part 4: 'Democracy Will Prevail in Russia'
SPIEGEL: The seemingly liberal Medvedev is sometimes compared to you. Do you think that's justified?
Gorbachev: Comparisons are deceiving. Medvedev is an educated man, and he is gathering experience. But he needs forces on which he can depend.
SPIEGEL: How will the process you began in 1985 end for Russia? Will the country become a democracy, will nationalists assume power or will the communists return?
Gorbachev: It will be difficult, even painful, but democracy will prevail in Russia. There will be no dictatorship, although relapses into authoritarianism are possible. That's because we, or so it seems to me, have only come halfway.
SPIEGEL: Mikhail Sergeyevich, let's take a look at the period following your resignation. You ran for president again in 1996, but you captured only half a percent of votes. Only someone who hasn't realistically assessed the mood in the country would be willing to put himself through a candidacy like that.
Gorbachev: Why? How do you know how many votes I actually received? One of Yeltsin's allies said publicly that, according to his information, I had 25 percent of the vote. In effect, I got 15 percent. On the morning after the election, one of my delegates called me from Orenburg and said that I was at just under 7 percent. That evening it was 0.65 percent. What was it that Stalin said? The most important thing is who counts the votes.
SPIEGEL: In recent years, you've spent a lot of time on the road as a kind of traveling salesman, effectively selling your past and making a lot of money in the process. You give lectures, appear in advertisements for the luxury goods firm Louis Vuitton and open banks and furniture stores. Is this appropriate for a man who changed the political map of the 20th century like few others?
Gorbachev: Wait a minute. Let's examine what people consider to be moral, including you Germans. Yes, I give lectures, and I write articles. Do you prefer someone who steals in secret? As opposed to someone who openly approaches Louis Vuitton? In Russia, there are those who make their money in criminal ways, but I earn everything myself. How else is my foundation supposed to function? The government doesn't give us a single kopeck.
SPIEGEL: You fund the rest with your books?
Gorbachev: I have just completed my 13th book, which is a completely private memoir. And a 25-volume set of the collected works will be published soon. Soon you'll be calling me a "speculator."
SPIEGEL: Half of Moscow reproaches you for the gala event that was held at London's Royal Albert Hall in late March to celebrate your 80th birthday.
Gorbachev: Let me clarify: First we celebrated here in Moscow on March 2, in a group of people close to me. It wasn't a small group, about 200 people.
SPIEGEL: But no one from the Kremlin was there.
Gorbachev: The Russian president and prime minister sent me their best wishes. And I was awarded the highest state medal, the Order of St. Andrew. The benefit event took place in London a month later. It was an initiative organized by my friends and Irina.
SPIEGEL: Your daughter, who is the vice-president of your foundation.
Gorbachev: A Gorbachev award was inaugurated there.
SPIEGEL: Why do so many Russians hate you?
Gorbachev: I don't have that impression. On the contrary: I've felt supported during all these difficult years.
SPIEGEL: Mikhail Sergeyevich, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Matthias Schepp and Christian Neef in Moscow; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.