Coming to terms with Gorbachev

Barbara Amiel April 13 1987

Coming to terms with Gorbachev

Barbara Amiel April 13 1987

Coming to terms with Gorbachev


Barbara Amiel

I remember when Mikhail Gorbachev first began to attract attention as the new Soviet leader. I was on the telephone in those early months of glasnost to Arnold Beichman, a fellow of the Hoover Institute and author of a number of books including a biography of Yuri Andropov.

“This man is very dangerous to our side,” said Beichman. “The most dangerous of all.”

I knew what he meant. By “our side” he referred to the network of commentators and activists who were strongly anti-Communist and fierce opponents of woolly minded thinking about rapprochement and detente with the Soviet Union. It’s a point of view to which I have subscribed virtually all of my adult life. The idea that one breaks bread and signs cultural agreements with the sort of people that run the Soviet Union seems ludicrous to me—rather like having supper with Hitler and Goebbels and agreeing to a festival of Leni Riefenstahl films.

As well, I knew what he meant by saying Gorbachev was “the most dangerous of all.” The appeal and charm of this man in the well-cut suits and with the nice smile was quickly apparent. Watching Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her first encounter with Gorbachev was not encouraging. Her assertion that here is a “man I can do business with” had a peculiar resonance. There was a glow about her, a dewyeyed wonder. I thought of Little Red Riding Hood approaching the wolf in grannie’s clothing and it was not the way I was accustomed to thinking of Thatcher.

“And remember,” said Beichman to me, “this man is ony 56. He’ll be around for a long time with no elections to worry about.”

It has been a curious time for those of us who see the scientific socialism of the Soviet Union as the single most malevolent system in history. Each day, there has been a new report of initiatives by Gorbachev that seem to point to serious changes in his society: economic reforms, relaxation of censorship, the release of such prominent dissidents as Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Shcharansky. While others rejoice in these things, one finds oneself struck with a peculiar gloom. Is it arteriosclerosis of my attitudes, I thought? Am I frozen in a neolithic anti-communism?

Of course, the generally pessimistic

view I hold on such initiatives is not simply a reflex, it is based on the lessons of history. After all, there has not been a single occurrence of an established Communist country voluntarily turning itself into a free society. But one is reminded of the anecdote of Mark Twain’s cat that jumped on a hot stove and after that would not jump on a cold stove. That cat got eaten up by a dog because of its intransigence.

There are, I think, two sensible responses to Gorbachev for “our side.” The softer response is to wish him well. This response assumes that Gorbachev is indeed a reform Communist and that his actions and words are not simply a “ruse de guerre.” There have been a number of genuine reform Communists in the past—Hungary’s Imre Nagy, Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek, and Poland’s Lech Walesa. So far, reform communism—which is the attempt to show that communism can be turned

Is it arteriosclerosis of my attitudes, I thought? Am I truly frozen in a neolithic anti-communism ?

into a pretty decent system without dispensing with its ideology—has failed everywhere.

It fails either because its proponents abandon it, or because others overthrow those proponents (as with Khrushchev) or because it blossoms into a full-scale repudiation of communism (as in Hungary). But if one cares about values of liberty and justice and human decency, it is hard not to wish well to a man who is trying to bring some of those values to his country. If he succeeds you will at least have a better bad system.

In taking this supportive attitude to Gorbachev, however, there is no need to give away the shop. Margaret Thatcher understood that when she went to Moscow this time and extolled the merits of nuclear deterrence, insisted on seeing dissidents and lit a candle at the church in Zagorsk. A reform Communist is someone with whom you can drive a bargain and that bargain should not jeopardize Western interests or ideals.

I remember when the Kremlin hinted that Anatoly Shcharansky’s mother might be allowed to visit her son in prison. The New York Times was so

enraptured with this sign of goodwill that in an editorial it mused that perhaps the United States should stop making threatening noises about deployment of the cruise missile. This was ludicrous on the face of it. One cannot compromise Western interests because the Soviets have decided to treat their own citizens marginally better.

There is a harder line we might take, although it requires some courage to voice it now that even Thatcher has closed her eyes as she was kissed by a handsome young man in national costume in the Georgian capital of Tblisi. That line is voiced by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, now living in Cambridge, England.

“It is the usual muddle,” said Bukovsky. “People think the Soviet Union is a dictatorship. But it is a totalitarian system. In a dictatorship, if there is a good dictator, things go well. But this is not the same. Gorbachev may be good, bad or ugly—it makes little difference.”

I have some sympathy with this view. One remembers an early speech of Gorbachev’s in which he told the Politburo that unless the Soviet way of thinking and its economy was radically changed, the position of world socialism would be endangered. That, said Bukovsky, is the motivation of Gorbachev’s so-called freedoms.

The Soviets are in such dire economic straits that unless there are radical improvements, they will be unable to maintain their position as a world superpower. Their economic disadvantages are endangering what they call “the correlation of forces”—a phrase they use to describe the Soviet Union in terms of everything else, including geographical expansion. Currently, it is too expensive for them to try such initiatives as a move closer to the Persian Gulf. If we help Gorbachev make these changes, said Bukovsky, we help him gain the needed strength to challenge our interests.

Of course, when one starts to tinker with a totalitarian system, more forces may be set off than intended. All the same, something in me hardened again when I watched a physically destroyed Andrei Sakharov on television. He was a walking dead man, his body and speech impaired by the trauma of the stroke he is said to have suffered while on the fourth bout of force-feeding. A system that can do that to such a humanitarian as Sakharov is stronger than the best impulses in Mr. Gorbachev and may be the truest reflection of his worst ones.