Gorbachev Paved Way for Oligarchs: the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev as a weak and despised leader

Paul Jay, “Gorbachev Paved Way for Oligarchs: Interview with Alexander Buzgalin” (theAnalysis.News, 7 September 2022)

US journalist / film-maker Paul Jay is a co-founder of independent news and current affairs commentary show / website theAnalysis.news and features as one of a number of special guests the Russian Marxist economics professor Aleksandr Buzgalin. In a recent interview which will apparently be the first of a series of conversations, Jay and Buzgalin discuss the significance of the life and work of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the legacy he left behind after his death on 30 August 2022. Buzgalin’s argument is that Gorbachev’s actions and policies laid the groundwork for what would happen in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991: under Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999), much of the industry of the new Russian Federation, formerly state-owned and operated, was privatised and sold off to powerful and corrupt members of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union m(CPSU) and the Soviet state bureaucracy who became enormously wealthy and began buying influence in Russian politics. Much of this privatisation and the fire sale occurred under the guidance and advice of a team of Harvard University economists led by Jeffrey Sachs.  

In the interview Buzgalin posits that Gorbachev aimed to follow a vision of very Western-style social democracy for the Soviet Union. However as the head of a large Soviet bureaucracy, Gorbachev was unwilling or unable to change or reform this bureaucracy. Gorbachev’s unwillingness or inability to initiate real political change or reform meant that when the country collapsed, there was no real authority in the new Russia to stop individuals in the Party or the bureaucracy from looting the country’s assets. Gorbachev’s inaction to reform the Party and the Soviet bureaucracy goes hand in hand with his failure to encourage grassroots democratic socialism among the people and to help them build new socialist institutions and structures that could retain national assets in the hands of the people.

The hour-long interview then goes into details of the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s and what followed from it. The issue though remains: why didn’t Gorbachev reform Soviet politics and bureaucracy, and did his failure stem from some personal weakness or defect in his character? Why did Gorbachev not, as Jay suggests, follow the example of Deng Xiaoping who instituted capitalist-style reforms in China’s economy during the 1980s but kept most state enterprises, especially those in essential industries, under the control of the government? Buzgalin’s position is that Gorbachev lacked the leadership ability and a vision of a true democratic socialism that would be a credible alternative to the centralised bureaucratic control of the Soviet economy and which would inspire and encourage the Soviet people to support Gorbachev against those in the Party and in the bureaucracy who opposed him. Gorbachev might then have remained Soviet leader and the Soviet Union need not have fallen after making so many concessions to NATO and the US and allowing West and East Germany to reunite.

While Buzgalin may be correct, his position may not be the whole story: it may be that Gorbachev perhaps wanted the Soviet Union to be more like the West (and Western Europe and the Scandinavian countries with their socialist welfare state arrangements in particular at the time) in adopting capitalist reforms without having to change the Soviet system fundamentally – in other words, having some capitalist aspects that would stimulate the Soviet economy but not having to do the actual hard reform work of reorganising the entire system or parts thereof.

A video of the interview and a transcript of the interview can be found at this Naked Capitalism link.