Reviewed by Roger Keeran
February 3, 2024
Erreur ou Trahison? Enquete sur la fin de l’URSS. By Alexandre Ostrovski. [Translated into French from Russian by Bernard Reauzade.] (Paris, France. Editions Delga, 2023. Pp. 797. 33 euros.)
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said that “there’s more inspiration and human richness in defeat than in victory.” Darwish meant there is great poetry in defeat, but he might have meant that defeats more than victories force us to reflect and draw lessons. This book by Alexandre Ostrovski provides a rich source of lessons to be drawn from the defeat of Soviet socialism. Written by the Russian historian at the Academy of Sciences of Leningrad in 2011 and published in French by Editions Delga in 2023, Erreur ou Trahison (Error or Betrayal) represents the most thoroughly researched book on the Soviet collapse to have yet appeared.
Ostrovski has three objectives: first, to reconstruct the events that led to the collapse, second, to establish whether the collapse was “spontaneous” or “purposeful,” and third to discover the role Soviet leaders played in the events leading to the collapse.
As to the first objective, Ostrovski provides a finely grained account of the events from 1985 until the Soviet collapse in 1991. As to the second and third objective, Ostrovski argues that the collapse was neither spontaneous nor inevitable, nor was it the result of “errors” by the leadership. Rather, the collapse was due to the deliberate policies and actions of Mikhail Gorbachev and his close associates, in particular Alexander Yakovlev. From the start, these men had a general plan to weaken the Soviet Communist Party, abandon the planned socialist economy, and introduce a market economy with private property and a liberal parliamentary government.
Having written a book with Joe Jamison (who used the pen name of Thomas Kenny) on the Soviet collapse that appeared in 2010 (the year before Ostrovski’s), I was keen to learn where our two books agreed and differed, and what new information Ostrovski, with the advantage of Russian-language sources, may have uncovered. On the main outline of the events leading to the collapse and the overall responsibility of Gorbachev and his close allies for the collapse, the two books concur. Likewise, we agree with Ostrovski that the Soviet Union faced no crisis in 1985 and that the collapse was neither inevitable nor spontaneous.
Differences, however, do exist. Whereas we emphasized the roots of Gorbachev’s reform ideas in Nikolai Bukharin and Nikita Khrushchev and the role of the second economy (black market) in weakening socialism and preparing an ideological and material basis for Gorbachev’s opportunism, these ideas do not have an important place in Ostrovski. Moreover, at times Ostrovski’s understandable contempt for Gorbachev leads him to see conspiracies (such as in the Rust incident below) that may be true but are not supported by the available evidence. Also, where we attributed the growth of nationalism in some Soviet republics to Gorbachev’s ineptitude, Ostrovski views it as result of a calculated effort by Gorbachev to weaken the Communist Party and state.
With his access to a great variety of Russian sources, including newspapers and journals, minutes of meetings, reports and interviews, Ostrovski provides 800 pages of new facts and insights that make this book invaluable reading. Without attempting to report on all of the new information, I will focus instead on the light Ostrovski sheds on the most perplexing question surrounding the collapse: how did Gorbachev manage to get away with his destruction of the Party, the socialist economy, and the multinational Soviet state without being stopped by other Communists.
In the spring of 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary the vast majority of the Politburo, the Central Committee, the military and intelligence community and the population at large would have opposed Gorbachev’s and Yakovlev’s plans, if they had known them. Gorbachev and his allies later admitted this. Hence, Gorbachev and Yakovlev implemented their plans only by gradually revealing them and by unscrupulously using deception, duplicity, demagogy, and ruthlessness to outmaneuver their comrades. This is the key to understanding how they succeeded.
Gorbachev and Yakovlev understood the importance of preparing the groundwork for their reforms by taking control of Party ideology and undermining traditional Communist ideas and policies. One of Gorbachev’s first moves was to make Yakovlev the head the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department, putting him in charge of Party ideology and the country’s newspapers, journals and other media. Yakovlev then employed a tactic that in another context Mao Tse Tung called “using the red flag to fight the red flag.” As Yakovlev said later, his plan aimed “to use the authority of Lenin to take down Stalin, Stalinism. And then, in case of success, to use Plekhanov and social democracy to take down Lenin, and finally to take down the revolution in general on the way to liberalism and ‘moral socialism.'” The bitterest of ironies followed: an attack on Stalin, the man who more than anyone had built Soviet socialism, served as the thin edge of the wedge undermining socialism.
Ostrovski appreciates Yakovlev’s guile but fails to recognize that its success occurred only because Khrushchev had prepared the way by making the condemnation of Stalin the reigning ideology of the Communist Party. In 1977, while teaching at Cornell University, I hosted a Ph.D. candidate from Moscow State University who was doing research on the U.S. One day, I broached a discussion of Stalin’s “mistakes,” and this young Communist protested: “Stalin did not make mistakes. He committed crimes.” The complete repudiation of Stalin earmarked Soviet ideology after Khrushchev’s cult of personality speech at Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956, and it differed markedly from the Chinese who concluded that Stalin was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. By attacking Stalin, Yakovlev and his allies were pushing on an open door, and by linking their reforms to an attack on Stalin, they were preemptively stigmatizing the opponents of reform as Stalinists.
At the beginning Gorbachev cultivated the support of such honest and widely respected Party leaders as N.I. Ryzhkov and Yegor Ligachev, who favored economic reforms along the lines proposed earlier by Yuri Andropov. Later when they opposed moves to weaken the Party and socialist system, Gorbachev turned against them. In general, Gorbachev and Yakovlev masterfully rewarded and promoted their allies while demoting or marginalizing their opponents.
Ostrovski shows how Gorbachev introduced new ideas and policies outside the Party and sometimes to foreign leaders without first discussing them with the Politburo. Also, in order to promote his agenda, he cleverly engineered some events and opportunistically exploited other events.
In Ostrovski’s account Gorbachev emerges not as a provincial, naive bumbler whose reforms produced unforeseen consequences and unintentionally led to the collapse of the Communist Party, socialism and the Soviet Union. Instead, according to Ostrovski, Gorbachev and his close associates knew that the Soviet Union was not facing any imminent crisis and consequently addressing a crisis or even imminent crisis was not the real motivation for their program of glasnost and perestroika. Gorbachev magnified existing concerns over the stagnation of the Soviet economy and the arms race in order to achieve his real end which was to transform Soviet socialism into a version of social democracy.
Ostrovski provides compelling evidence and arguments for every link in this chain. (Though even he admits that a conclusive history of the collapse cannot yet be written because some documents remain unavailable.) On whether the socialist system faced an imminent crisis in 1985, Gorbachev’s close associates, V. A. Medvedev and G. K. Shakhnazarov, as well as Gorbachev himself admitted years later that no such crisis existed. In 2008, for example, in answer to an interviewer’s question, Gorbachev said that without his actions that Soviet Union would have lasted for years.
Did Gorbachev have a reform plan, when he became General Secretary in 1985? Gorbachev lacked a well-worked-out plan, but he and Yakovlev had a general idea of what he wanted to do, and he immediately established a working group outside the structure and approval of the Politburo and Central Committee to develop a plan in secret. Headed by the ubiquitous Alexander Yakovlev, whose fingerprints are all over every aspect of glasnost and perestroika, the working group developed this plan between March and June of 1985. Though participants in the working group attest to the plan, the document itself remains unknown, and Gorbachev never submitted such a plan to the Politburo or Central Committee.
Gorbachev’s duplicity revealed itself from the very start. On March 11, 1985, when he was proposed as General Secretary, Gorbachev affirmed: “We have no need to change our policies.” The same day, after his approval in the new post, Gorbachev called for “radical changes in production and economic mechanisms, as well as in management of the country.” The duplicity of Gorbachev and his inner circle was openly admitted by Yakovlev in 2003. Commenting on Gorbachev’s approach, Yakovlev said it was “Janus-faced,” speaking on the one hand of the continuity of building socialism and on the other hand of restructuring existing conditions.
Another example of Gorbachev’s duplicity concerned his early foreign policy moves. Gorbachev was convinced that he could only make the internal reforms he desired by reducing Soviet military expenses, and he could do this only by reducing the threat from abroad by cultivating cooperation among European and American leaders. Gorbachev thus introduced the idea of “a common European home,” the idea that the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Western Europe should cooperate to promote peace, trade and ultimately economic integration. This seemingly innocuous and visionary idea actually implied a radical shift in Soviet ideology and policy. No economic integration was possible, for example, as long as the USSR had a planned economy and the Western Europe a market economy. Some were attracted to the vision of peace and prosperity without realizing it meant abandoning a planned socialist economy. Yet, Gorbachev discussed this idea with Western European leaders like Francois Mitterand of France and in the Soviet media before raising it with the Politburo.
Gorbachev also used the threat “Star Wars” as an argument to promote detente and make unilateral concessions to the West. In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan had declared the intention of the United States to build a missile defense system, called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars. Many in the Soviet military and scientific communities thought that Star Wars represented an idle threat since a laser defense system was not feasible (a judgement that proved historically accurate since the U.S. never built such a system). Gorbachev, however, rejected this opinion and argued that Star Wars represented a real threat and that countering it would require an expense that the Soviet Union could ill afford, and thus it was imperative to seek disarmament with the West even if it meant the Soviet Union making one-sided concessions. This was exactly what happened.
Ostrovski gives many other examples of how Gorbachev created or exploited events to remove opponents from office and bulldoze his reforms. In May 1987, a minor uproar occurred when a small Cessna plane piloted by a young German, Matthais Rust, landed on the grounds of the Kremlin. Ostrovski argues that no plane could have penetrated Soviet defenses unnoticed and/or unreported without some kind of cooperation from Soviet intelligence. Ostrovski thus implies that only a conspiracy involving Gorbachev, the KGB and military and maybe even American intelligence, could account for this incident. If Ostrovski is correct, (though no smoking gun revealing such conspiracy has come to light), it would reveal an astonishing level of deceit. Whether Gorbachev engineered this incident may be debatable, but incontestably Gorbachev used this breach in Soviet defenses as a reason to remove some of his opponents from office and replace them with his supporters. Among those removed was the Minister of Defense S. L Sokolov. Afterwards, Yakovlev came into Ligachev’s office, gloating and jovially said: “Look. All my hands are covered with blood up to my elbows.”
In the end, honest Communists who wanted to improve the socialist system but oppose Gorbachev, faced huge obstacles. They had to abide by the restraints imposed by their own adherence to Communist principles of discipline and democratic centralism while challenging the leader of the Party who had the power, influence and respect that came with that position, and who was willing to trample Communist rules, ideology, policies and ethics. Yakovlev admitted that the Communist Party could only be destroyed by using Party “discipline” and the “confidence” of Communists in the general secretary that the Party had inculcated for years. To succeed with the reform program, Yakovlev said, demanded retreats and trickery. He confessed later that he often distorted things and “spoke more than once about ‘renewing socialism,” while knowing full well that the course taken would lead to the destruction of socialism.
Another question in Ostrovski’s account deserves mention. Did Gorbachev succeed because American intelligence services played a role in the Soviet collapse? Ostrovski points out that American diplomats and intelligence agents were generally surprised by the Soviet collapse, and this provides the best evidence that the collapse was not primarily their doing but an internal affair. Ostrovski notes, however, that American diplomats and intelligence agents encouraged and promoted Gorbachev’s reforms at every step, and afterwards some took credit for the collapse. Moreover, Ostrovski discusses in depth the suspicions that arose about Yakovlev’s possible connections to the CIA. Such suspicions arose during his stay at Columbia University in 1960 and later during the Gorbachev years. Most seriously, V. A. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, wrote in his memoirs that beginning in 1989 “extremely alarming information indicating connections of Yakovlev with the American special services began flowing in.” So concerned was Kryuchkov that he took the matter up with Gorbachev, who naturally deflected a serious inquiry into the behavior of his closest collaborator. Ostrovski suggests that Yakovlev’s claim of wanting an investigation to clear his name remained highly dubious and inconsistent with his behavior. In the end, Ostrovski says that Yakovlev’s relations with American intelligence, whatever they were, remains an unclarified aspect of the Soviet collapse.
Even though Ostrovski provides a thorough examination of how Gorbachev and his allies got away with their destruction of socialism, one could still ask: Why were such Communists as Ligachev and Ryzhkov not tough enough or savvy enough to see through the lies and deceptions? How did Communists as traitorous as Gorbachev and Yakovlev manage to rise to positions of power? What motivated Gorbachev and Yakovlev to want to transform the system? (On this latter question, Ostrovski provides some evidence that Gorbachev and Yakovlev got or at least expected financial reward from the West for their treachery.) Of course, an infinite regression of whys can bedevil any explanation. Such questions do not diminish Ostrovski’s accomplishment. They do, however, underscore the importance of looking beyond the motivations and actions of individuals to the underlying social, economic and ideological problems (such as the growth of the second economy and the persistence of opportunism) that facilitated the Gorbachev’s betrayal.
It is terribly unfortunate that Americans who want follow to Darwish’s idea and seek inspiration and lessons in the Soviet defeat lack an English language version of one of the best books on the subject. If it becomes available in English, jump at the chance.