Mikhail Gorbachev: The West Could Have Saved the Russian Economy

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Mikhail Gorbachev should never have become the Soviet premier. When he was six years old, his grandfather was taken in the middle of the night, a victim of one of Stalin's purges. And he grew up in Stavropol region of the Soviet East, which was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, when Gorbachev was eleven. Both facts should have stunted his climb through the Soviet ladder, but he clawed his way into the ruling Politburo nonetheless.

"Russians speak of 'two Gorbachevs,'" wrote Robert Kaiser, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, in his 1991 biography: "the apparatchik and the reformer." The duality seems to remain. He maintains his penchant for long, winding speeches, honed in the Soviet days. The first time I heard him speak, he concluded by noting that his beloved daughter, Irena, who almost always travels with him, had put her hands together, a signal that he should conclude his remarks. I was certain it was a joke; I was assured it was not. His high-school girlfriend, Yulia Karagodina, recalled the bipolarity in Gorbachev even as a teen. "Once at a Komsomol meeting, in front of everyone at the local movie house," she told the Post's David Remnick, speaking about the local branch of the communist youth that Gorbachev led, "he reprimanded me in front of everyone, saying that I'd failed, that I was late. He was shouting a bit, disciplining me. Then afterward, it was as if nothing happened. He said, 'Let's go to the movies.'"...

Almost everyone I've interviewed agrees that, in the long lens of history, the first post-Cold War leaders will be judged harshly for not seizing that moment from 1989 to 1991 to reimagine the world, for not better handling the twilight of the USSR. Given that the fall of the USSR was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, decline of a superpower, what lessons should my generation pull from this?

Western leaders could have moved more quickly and recognized the changes we were implementing and provided the Soviet Union with serious financial assistance that would have made it easier for us to make structural reforms in the economy.

But that did not happen. There was a critical year during the Bush administration between l989 and l990 when substantial aid from the United States could have made a difference. At the time, we were not asking for subsidies or handouts. I am sure that we would have been able to avoid economic collapse and repay any loans. But Western leaders stood on the sidelines, remaining forever skeptical. Doubtlessly, the reason was lingering suspicions from the Cold War....

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