WITH sadness, anger, and flashes of defiance, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev ends a momentous six and a half years at the helm of his nation.The West sees Mr. Gorbachev as a singular figure. But in his role as unrequited Russian reformer, Gorbachev has trod a well-worn path. From Czar Alexander II to Nikita Khrushchev, leaders before him have broken their swords battling to prod the vast country forward. They all met with what history has revealed to be the futility of trying to save a dying system through reform. "During my tenure, I have been attacked by all those in Russian society who can scream and write.... The revolutionaries curse me because I have strongly and conscientiously favored the use of the most decisive measures.... As for the conservatives, they attack me because they have mistakenly blamed me for all the changes in our political system." These words could have been written by Gorbachev - indeed he said as much many times. But they were penned by another great Russian reformer, Count Sergei Iulevich Witte, in his bitter resignation letter as prime minister in 1906. Witte had saved Nicholas II and his autocracy from war and revolution, only to be discarded.
Decaying system Like Witte, Gorbachev was called in to save a society in collapse. The Russian empire was again weakened by foreign adventures, culminating in the disastrous war in Afghanistan. And underneath, the economic system was decaying, unable to meet basic needs. "Gorbachev took this country like my wife takes cabbage. He thought that to get rid of the dirt, he could just peel off the top layer of leaves. But he had to keep going until there was nothing left." That is the assessment of Vitaly Korotich, who was Gorbachev's designated spearhead in the campaign to reclaim lost history as editor of the magazine Ogonyok. Even before he took office as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, Gorbachev described his goal as the renovation of the socialist system. In a speech on Dec. 10, 1984, he delivered his later famous watchwords deep transformations in the economy and the whole system of social relations,perestroika [restructuring] of economic management,democratization of our social and economic life," and "glasnost" (openness). Gorbachev reduced fear in Soviet society and let a fresh wind blow through Eastern Europe. But when those reforms reached their limits - and they did so quickly - Gorbachev balked. The ultimate assault on the Leninist state and its state-run economy was always beyond his intent. In much of this Gorbachev was following a path laid out by his political sponsor, Yuri Andropov, who advanced from chairman of the KGB to succeed Leonid Brezhnev as party leader in 1982. Andropov was described by those around him as a closet liberal, a lover of jazz who sought to bring socialist democracy to the Soviet Union. But Andropov died in early 1984. Gorbachev had to wait more than a year until the Brezhnev-prot, conservative stalwart Konstantin Chernenko, came and went in similar fashion. Gorbachev began with familiar themes of Andropov: the need to restore discipline, to intensify production through technological progress and innovations such as giving state-run enterprises more freedom and workers salary incentives. These moves picked up the reformist thread of Khrushchev, lost during the long years under Brezhnev, which Gorbachev disdainfully referred to as "the era of stagnation." "Gorbachev did not have a clear plan of what kind of political and social system must be created," says Fyodor Burlatsky, a former speechwriter for Khrushchev, close aide to Andropov, and sometime adviser to Gorbachev. "He came from our generation, from the 60s. He had in mind what Khrushchev wanted but maybe more than Khrushchev. He shared the ... feeling that everything that came from the Stalinist system must be destroyed. It doesn't mean that the socialist system must disappear." Perhaps Gorbachev's clearest goal, Mr. Burlatsky suggests, was to improve relations with the West. Alone among Soviet leaders, Gorbachev had traveled extensively in the West. "He saw the terrible distance between our country and the Western countries.... He understood the West is more successful, but he did not understand the reason."
Party resistance Among the small number of reformers Gorbachev gathered around himself was Alexander Yakovlev, a party intellectual whom Gorbachev rescued in 1983 from a 10-year semi-exile as ambassador to Canada. Mr. Yakovlev become the theorist of perestroika. Earlier this month, in a little reported speech to the founding conference of the Movement for Democratic Reforms, Yakovlev reviewed the effort to reform Soviet communism. "While the system completely rejected any attempt at sensible reform, Stalinist obstructions could be crushed only by a powerful ram. Khrushchev's direct and brave attack ended in defeat, although Brezhnev's refurbishing failed as well. A time of uncertainty settled in, but the outcome was already near and it came in the form of perestroika, elite revolution meant to develop in a peaceful way. Perhaps it couldn't have been otherwise. It was born within the politically active part of the CPSU and the soci ety, and it was here that it encountered the most fierce resistance and rejection," he said. In a rambling, nostalgic, two-hour farewell session with Soviet reporters on Dec. 12, Gorbachev still defended the attempt to bring reform via the party. "Under us everything was already boiling, starting with the 60s. All those attempts to begin the reforms were stifled. All those attempts mean that the problems had been knocking at the doors of our society for a long time already.... It was in the party where the forces were born that had the courage to decisively start the reforms. They took upon them selves the heaviest burden of responsibility."
Reform crossroads For the first three years of his leadership, Gorbachev pursued his reforms in a series of thrusts, retreating slightly and advancing again on another front as each one met the opposition of Communist Party conservatives. By June 1988, when the 19th Party Conference dedicated to political reform was held, "the revolution from above ... was at a crossroad," Yakovlev says. At that moment, Gorbachev faced a choice: to turn perestroika into what Yakovlev calls "a truly, people's democratic revolution, going to the utmost, really bringing the society total freedom," or to remain a Communist reformer, operating in the familiar and controlled milieu of the party bureaucracy. The path through the party was fraught with danger, Yakovlev says. Perestroika could "either be defeated by Stalinist reaction, Brezhnevist conservatism, or risk being stolen from itself by those forces who just shield themselves with its slogans, striving in the meantime to redistribute power in the framework of the former social system." In early 1988, a major debate was under way over what kind of democratic system should be created. Burlatsky was a member of a small working group under the direction of Gorbachev's long-time associate Anatoly Lukyanov, which included close aide and politician-scientist Georgi Shakhnazarov. Two proposals came from this group, according to Burlatsky: one of his own and one from Mr. Lukyanov. Lukyanov proposed removing the Stalin era system and going back to Lenin's 1924 Constitution. That structure was based on indirect, two-stage elections of a parliament, while concentrating legal authority in local soviets (councils), with a vague definition of the relation between the party and the soviets. Some participants in this process claim the intent was always to introduce multiparty democracy, though carefully, with the party in control of the process. But Burlatsky says that when he proposed direct elections of parliament, president, and vice-president on a multiparty basis, he was strongly opposed by almost everybody except Yakovlev. Gorbachev opted for the Lukyanov plan, carrying out a complex election in March 1989 in which some deputies were directly elected and others sent by official organizations. They in turn chose a relatively tame standing parliament. Even this opened the political process. The live broadcasts of the first session of the Congress, with the dramatic appearance of long-time dissident Andrei Sakharov, captivated the nation. In the spring of 1990, Gorbachev again had an opportunity to overturn the political system. Article 6 of the Constitution giving the Communist Party a monopoly had been abolished and a presidential system was to be established. But he chose to be elected by the Congress instead of by the people. This was "his greatest political mistake," says Burlatsky. "Gorbachev is not like Khrushchev; he doesn't like risk." "Perestroika didn't manage to overcome itself," Yakovlev explains. "Public, social, and political forces awakened by it remained unclaimed, while the old structures continued to exist and act against reforms." But in a sense those forces were claimed, though not by Gorbachev. Perestroika brought another unforeseen, and for Gorbachev unhappy, result: the emergence of powerful nationalist movements in the 15 republics of the Soviet empire. From the Baltic republics to the heartland of Russia, democratic reformers won power by detaching themselves from the Communist Party. Boris Yeltsin, the brash Urals party boss whom Gorbachev had brought to Moscow to lead reforms there, rode this wind. He was helped by the party conservatives who, with Gorbachev's consent, ousted Mr. Yeltsin from their leadership ranks in 1987. Yeltsin's comeback, culminating in his defeat of Gorbachev's choice for the post of chairman of the Russian parliament in June 1990, marked the second crossroad for Gorbachev. Frustrated radical reformers quickly gathered around Yeltsin - men such as economist Grigory Yavlinsky whose plan for a quick 500-day march to a market economy had been buried by the plodding bureaucrats around Gorbachev. In August 1990, Gorbachev agreed to draft a new economic reform plan together with Yeltsin, based on the 500-day scheme, raising hopes that perestroika would finally breach the boundaries of the old system. The party and state bureaucracy fought back, warning Gorbachev of collapse if such a radical course were pursued. Gorbachev cracked, coming out in October in favor of a deeply compromised, cautious approach. "Since the autumn of 1990, the reactionaries and conservatives were launching open attacks," recounts Yakovlev. "I am convinced that the rejection of the 500-day plan served as an encouraging signal to them. It was a mistake with grave consequences. It demonstrated that perestroika was ready to retreat under pressure."
Missed moment "I missed the moment," Gorbachev said in a newspaper interview this week. "I should have formed a strong alliance with democrats.... And in general I paid an enormous price." In the months that followed, Gorbachev turned to the right, surrounding himself with foes of reform and losing the counsel of old friends such as Yakovlev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. "Thus the way was opened to bloodshed in Vilnius and to the putsch dress rehearsal held in Moscow on March 28, 1991," says Yakovlev referring to the military crackdown in Lithuania in January 1991 and the display of military force in the streets of Moscow, part of an effort to oust Yeltsin from power. In the end, it was Yeltsin who saved Gorbachev from the hard-liners who finally moved to overthrow him in August. But in the bargain, Gorbachev lost power to the new nationalist movements. "The main goal of my life has been accomplished," Gorbachev reflected in his Kremlin talk with reporters. "All the rest ... well, maybe someone else will come and do it better. But you must understand, I wanted to succeed. What's special about me is that I can't accept defeat."