In This Review

Gorbachev: On My Country and the World
Gorbachev: On My Country and the World
By Mikhail S. Gorbachev, translated by George Shriver
Columbia University Press, 1999, 300 pp

Mikhail Gorbachev left an imprint on the twentieth century that matches, in depth and durability, that of any other leader of the time. Once in power, he came to understand that the system he headed had to change. He also saw that fundamental change required an end to the Cold War -- and that the terms the West offered were consistent with his own country's real interests. Gorbachev may have failed to convert the Soviet Union to the democratic federation he sought in the last years of his rule, but this should not obscure his achievements. Only the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could have destroyed that party's totalitarian rule. And among the Communist leaders of his generation who might have occupied that post, only Gorbachev had the combination of insight, courage, and political skill to remove from power the self-perpetuating clique that held his country hostage for seven decades. Saving the Soviet Union in the process was probably an impossible task, although Gorbachev still imagines that, had it not been for Boris Yeltsin's intrigues, he would have succeeded in doing that too.


Those seeking scandal and sensation will find Gorbachev's latest book, On My Country and the World, dull. Those seeking a better understanding of how the Cold War ended and what motivated the last ruler of the Soviet Union to destroy the system that put him in power will find nuggets that enlighten. Those seeking to make sense of the world after the Cold War will find food for thought, although less insight into the present than into the past. But along with wisdom and passion, the reader will also encounter questionable judgments, evasions of the truth, and claims so patently mistaken that they make one wonder how their author ever managed to do what, in fact, he did. The thoughtful reader will, in turn, be fascinated and bored, inspired and enraged.

Gorbachev has divided On My Country and the World into three sections: his interpretation of Russian history, particularly the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet state it produced; an account of his failed efforts to preserve the Soviet Union as a democratic federation; and his view of Russia and the world today, with appeals to all governments for a change of course.

As he reviews Russian history since 1917, Gorbachev sticks to the belief that the Bolshevik Revolution was inevitable and that Lenin was a great leader. But his condemnation of the Soviet system that developed thereafter is unsparing. It was, he writes, a betrayal of "October" and the "socialist idea." He repeatedly describes the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime based on force, and quotes approvingly from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize address: "Anyone who has proclaimed violence his method inexorably must choose lying as his principle."

In tracing the course of perestroika, Gorbachev admits that he did not understand from the outset the magnitude of the task:

In the early stages we all said that perestroika was a continuation of the October revolution.... The delusion was that at the time I, like most of us, assumed [perestroika] could be accomplished by improving and refining the existing system. But as experience accumulated, it became clear that the crisis that had paralyzed the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s was systemic and not the result of isolated aberrations.

Gorbachev gradually came to the realization that the foundations of the system had to change. For a time he believed that the Communist Party could be the instrument for that change. Now he sees that this, too, was a delusion.

Gorbachev's description of perestroika's evolution is persuasive, as is his judgment that the end of the Cold War was not a defeat for the Soviet Union but a victory for all. The communist system was the loser, not the country or its people. Although he periodically takes swipes at Western policy and holds it partially responsible for Cold War tensions, he nevertheless stresses that his predecessors were incapable of coming to terms with the outside world. Ultimately, in his words, "the positions held by the Western system turned out to be superior."

But Gorbachev is less convincing when defending the proposition that the Soviet Union could have been preserved as a pluralistic democracy. He attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union almost exclusively to maneuvers by Yeltsin, Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, and those who joined them, but ignores his own errors. It was he, after all, who put and kept in office every one of the leaders of the attempted coup d'état of August 1991. It was during his watch that the Soviet currency lost much of its previous value (although it lost even more under his successors), goods disappeared from the shelves, and the country faced the prospect of famine in the winter of 1991-92. It was he, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, who removed most reformers from his government and entrusted it to those intent on reestablishing "order" by force. It was he who drove the "democrats" into Yeltsin's arms by rejecting their proposals and treating them as enemies. If Gorbachev could bring himself to honestly confront his own mistakes during the last few years of his rule, his views on the present and future would command more respect.


Even so, Gorbachev's picture of Yeltsin contains a large measure of truth. Over the past eight years, much of Gorbachev's earlier diagnosis of Yeltsin's shortcomings has been confirmed. But what Gorbachev fails to recognize is that the economic policies he himself pursued in 1991 were unlikely to have produced better results. There was no practical way to effect gradual economic reform when the existing system was designed to suppress any element of free enterprise.

The parallel between the two men does not hold when it comes to political decisions, however. Gorbachev most likely would have avoided Yeltsin's most egregious errors, such as shelling the Russian parliament building and launching the war in Chechnya. One of Gorbachev's most significant contributions to the Russian political tradition was a reluctance to solve problems by force; he was the first Russian ruler to use force as a last, rather than a first, resort. It is Russia's tragedy that Yeltsin has not followed his example in this respect.

Turning to the present and the future, few will dispute the importance Gorbachev attaches to the need for cooperative efforts to establish peace, defend human rights, protect the environment, and close the gap between the world's haves and have-nots. Yet he limits his advice to general aphorisms, failing to acknowledge that some of these conflict. For example, he would defend human rights, avoid any resort to force, and absolutely respect sovereignty. But what if a regime, under the cloak of sovereignty, commits atrocities against its own people?

Gorbachev does not answer. He refuses to recognize that his high-minded principles can conflict with one another, and that political leaders often must determine which principle takes precedence. When he was in power, he understood this very well -- and expected his friends to condone his compromises. Out of power, however, he has become, in many respects, a quixotic absolutist.

Despite all of his accurate insights into Soviet political reality, Gorbachev, while president, failed to understand market economics and capitalism. And he seems to have learned little since leaving office, to judge from his discussion of the "socialist idea" and globalization. His concept of the "socialist idea" is so general and vague that it defies precise description, except to say that it stresses distribution rather than production and ignores the fact that goods and services cannot be distributed unless they are produced in the first place. Furthermore, there seems little in his broad definition of "socialism" that cannot be accommodated in the social democracy of, say, Sweden or, for that matter, even in some variant of the American welfare state. Ironically, his insistence that his "socialist idea" is in basic conflict with "capitalism" is based on stereotypes promoted by the Soviet system he condemns.

To Gorbachev, "globalization" is a bad thing. He often sees it as "Americanization," a calculated effort by the United States to impose its system on others. It has escaped his notice that globalization, as its name suggests, is a worldwide tendency to which the United States is as much subject as other countries. Feeling that ending the Cold War was a mutual achievement, Gorbachev exhibits a deep resentment of any hint of Western -- particularly American -- triumphalism. He takes President Clinton's braggadocio about the "American century" as an avowal of imperial goals. And he vehemently rejects Francis Fukuyama's claim that the collapse of the communist system demonstrated the superiority of liberal democracy, even though he himself has said much the same thing.

Gorbachev's thinking exhibits a tendency to lash out at the rest of the world whenever he discusses the sins of Soviet totalitarianism. His otherwise accurate analysis suffers from an irresistible urge to create mirror images, as if to say, "We were bad, but so were you." This leads him to make some of his most questionable statements, as when he compares British and French appeasement of Hitler at Munich to Stalin's virtual alliance with Hitler a year later. Gorbachev surely understands the difference, but he cannot refrain from outbursts that imply a symmetry between East and West.

If we leave aside such emotional obiter dicta, however, we find passages of perceptive analysis that we should not ignore. Take, for example, Gorbachev's list of the three "dangers" that confront the world today: a "new division of the world," particularly evident in a Europe with Russia left out of an expanding NATO; a "new arms race," most notably the production of nuclear weapons on the South Asian subcontinent and the proliferation of "smart weapons" in developed countries; and "a notable revival of traditional power politics, a preference for military methods in solving problems." Gorbachev may be wrong in some of his characterizations, but he is almost certainly correct in identifying problems that have become more acute since he was in power.

Each of the three dangers he cites embraces a range of specific problems. Let us take just one from each as examples. Regarding the first, Russia's effective exclusion from the NATO security structure and from decisions to use force in the Balkans has increased instability in Europe. Ways must be found to make Russia an integral part of European security. On the second danger, development of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, along with the Senate's 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, may require a substantial modification of traditional nonproliferation policy. On the third, it should be clear by now that waging war with a country over human rights abuses creates more problems than it solves. Serbia as a whole and Kosovo in particular are worse off today than they were before the NATO bombing began. Furthermore, the proposition that a military alliance is entitled to authorize acts of war for humanitarian purposes is not likely to be accepted by the world at large and would not be in the interest of the NATO allies if it were. Gorbachev is surely right when he observes that the bombing of Serbia was a setback to efforts to extend the effective reach of international law on humanitarian issues.

Gorbachev is wrong in attributing the U.S. resort to military action to "traditional power politics." But his strictures on American policy, while exaggerated and at times misplaced, are likely to be shared by many outside America's borders. His alarm can serve as a salutary warning of more trouble ahead if the recent U.S. penchant for seeking military solutions to political problems and acting unilaterally is not curbed.

The solutions Gorbachev suggests are, alas, of little help. Pious admonitions -- "we must advance through worldwide cooperation based on complete equality, without any use of force, and with peaceful development of all nations" -- are not helpful when hard choices are inescapable. His idea for a council of elders to advise the United Nations is hardly more practical. Nevertheless, the problems he identifies are real, and he is entitled to be dissatisfied with the way today's governments are dealing with them -- or failing to.

Gorbachev: On My Country and the World is flawed by unnecessary defensiveness, unfair aspersions cast on others, and outbursts of passionate utopianism. The prudent reader will, however, avoid overreacting to these lapses and will try to understand the message that lies beneath the rhetoric. Paraphrased, it is this: When my Western colleagues and I ended the Cold War and I delivered my country from a communist tyranny, we created the possibility of a better, more peaceful world. Those who came after us are closing, one by one, the doors we opened.

If that is indeed Gorbachev's message, one can only agree with him.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Jack F. Matlock, Jr., is George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and author of Autopsy on an Empire. He was U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.
  • More By Jack F. Matlock, Jr.