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Document Friday: “Some Views of the Gorbachev Era”

November 13, 2009

Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany, 1986. Photo by Hartmet Reiche.

Western analysts doubted the early assertion by Mikhail Gorbachev’s former roommate and close friend, Zdenek Mlynar, that the new General Secretary of the USSR was “a reformer who considered politics a means and the needs of the people an end,” according to a 1985 biographical report used by the CIA. The report, entitled “Some Views of the Gorbachev Era,” argued the opposite and concluded “it seems possible if not probable that the prospect of gradual reforms that would modify that [Soviet] system and affect the whole Soviet bloc exists more in the hopes of Zdenek Mlynar than in the intentions of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

The fourteen-page report, based primarily upon statements by European communists and written by the Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty research division, was unearthed by a 1993 FOIA request to the CIA by the Archive’s Deputy Director and Director for Research, Malcolm Byrne. Although the CIA ceased funding Radio Free Europe in 1971, the CIA’s possession of this document shows that the Agency continued to rely upon RFE/RL’s Eastern European contacts, analysis, and linguistic capabilities.

The report includes the following revelations about the young Gorbachev:

  • During Stalin’s reign, Gorbachev cited Lenin’s actions to privately reject the Party’s position that dissidents to the Soviet system “had to be liquidated, sentenced, [and] canceled from the pages of history.”
  • Despite Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalinism, Gorbachev did not regret his 1964 ouster, condemning his domestic policies for maintaining “the old method of arbitrary intervention of the center in the life of the whole country.”
  • Finally, although Gorbachev was an ardent believer in Socialism, he often used his favorite Hegelian quote, “The truth is always concrete,” to give credence to the present reality over the theoretic principles and oft-repeated axioms of Marxist philosophy.

“Some Views of the Gorbachev Era,” a 1985 Report by Radio Free Europe.

Some Views of the Gorbachev Era” is historically significant because it shows that the European communists initially held a more realistic impression of Gorbachev’s “positive direction of reform and innovation” than the Western authors who viewed his “ascent through the Soviet hierarchy of power” as evidence that he was of the stagnant Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko apparatchik mold. President Reagan was also initially leery of the new leader, journaling, “I believe that Gorbachev will be as tough as any of their leaders. If he wasn’t a confirmed ideologue he never would have been chosen by the Polit beaureau [sic].” The President also wrote that he was “too cynical” to believe that “’Gorby’ is a different type than past Soviet leaders & that we can get along” (pp. 317 and 337).

The celebrations and analyses of the fall of the Berlin Wall, including an article in the most recent Economist, have reconfirmed that Gorbachev was indeed the new type of Soviet leader that the West could do business with. He ended the Soviet War in Afghanistan. His domestic reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika began to modernize and open the Soviet Union. Even when the speed and scope of those reforms surpassed his control, he bravely acquiesced to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, pragmatically noting, “Life punishes those who come too late.”

One Comment
  1. Wendy Jones permalink
    November 14, 2009 8:08 pm

    While it made sense for westerners to believe Gorbachev would follow the direction of his previous Soviet predecessors, this article and connected links shed the light on why he saw the need to lead his country down a more modern and global path.

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