6.1 “New Thinking”
6.2 Retreat without withdrawal
So many fantastic lies have been created about Gorbachev and his “reforms” (not least by the man himself) that we can trust only the documents. The records of his period in power were extensively purged, however: after the failure of the August 1991 putsch his accomplices destroyed everything they could. During the trial at the Constitutional Court the documentary evidence of Gorbachev’s years as Party leader and then as President of the USSR was concealed and withheld from us with especial zeal. When I first wrote this chapter in the early 1990s I simply did not have access to the classified record on many subjects and was forced to reconstruct entire aspects of his time in office from open sources and indirect evidence.
It has not been easy to obtain any more since then. Those archives remain closed and after the French edition of Judgement in Moscow was published in 1995 I was not allowed into Russia again for the next 12 years. In the meantime researchers appeared who continued this work, in Russia and in the West. In particular, Pavel Stroilov copied and brought to the West an enormous collection of secret documents from the Gorbachev era. To this day the originals are inaccessible and remain in the Presidential Archive (the former Politburo archive) in Moscow. When Gorbachev left the Kremlin, he and his assistants took many copies, however, and kept them at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow for “friendly” researchers. In time the Kremlin learned of the existence of this duplicate archive and in 2003 the Putin administration demanded that Gorbachev close access to his collection. During the intervening period there were several years when the Foundation had a more relaxed attitude and Stroilov took full advantage of this. Almost every day, during the course of one year, my “spy” in the Russian archives (as he likes to call himself) sent me enormous files of material from the Gorbachev years. We now have a great deal more evidence, in other words, about that period. Yet when Stroilov arrived in the West he faced the same resistance that I had encountered. The world stubbornly refused to hear about the secrets of the Cold War and, especially, its final years.
Nonetheless, from the beginning the few documents in my possession bore no resemblance to the myth that Gorbachev was a bold reformer, liberal and democrat, a man who changed the course of history in the face of resistance from reactionaries and ideologues. Take this highly classified (Top Secret, Special File) report (“Of Particular Importance”) about the KGB’s activities during 1985 delivered to the new Secretary General by KGB head Victor Chebrikov (19 February 1986*, 321-Ch/ov):
The activities of the USSR Committee for State Security were wholly subordinated to the fulfilment of the demands of the Communist Party to ensure the dependable security of the Soviet State and society. State Security carried out a complex of measures to aid, through Chekist means, the all-round implementation of the decisions of the April and October 1985 plenary sessions of the CPSU Central Committee for the acceleration of the socio-economic development of the USSR, the overall progress of Soviet society, the strengthening of the positions of the USSR in the international arena, and to counteract the aggressive policies of imperialism.
Each year, for decades, the Party leader received such reports. It was an empty formality since the General Secretary was regularly informed about these measures as they were developed and implemented. The report is merely a convenient way of ascertaining the main trends in Soviet policy at a particular moment. If we look at the priorities set for the KGB by Gorbachev in 1985 we shall see where his true intentions lay. Foreign intelligence operations took first place in Chebrikov’s report. That in itself is instructive. The emphasis, as we can see, is on a more energetic pursuit of the former policies: scientific and technical espionage, campaigns of disinformation, and the “struggle for peace”. This is perfectly in accord with the policies that Gorbachev proposed to his colleagues when they elected him general secretary (11 March 1985*, Pb):
“the most important aspect of our meeting today is that it is proceeding in a spirit of unity. We are living through a very complex, crucial period. Our economy needs greater dynamism. Such dynamism is needed for our democracy and the development of our foreign policy. I see my task, first and foremost, as seeking, with you, new solutions, ways for our country to move further ahead, ways for us to increase the economic and defensive strength of our Motherland, and ways to improve the life of our people.”
He then added
“We do not need to change our policies. They are true, correct, genuinely Leninist policies. We must pick up speed, move forward, uncover and overcome shortcomings, with a clear vision of our radiant future.”
This was the “Acceleration” announced a month later at the April 1985 plenum of the Communist Party. In matters of ideology and foreign policy it represented a harsher application of existing policies, not their liberalisation (19 February 1986*, 321-Ch/ov).
Our main efforts were directed towards improving the quality and timely submission of information about the policies towards the Soviet Union of the ruling circles in the USA, other NATO countries, Japan and the Chinese People’s Republic and of the practical actions they are taking to undermine our country’s international position, and the peaceful initiatives of the Soviet State.
Paramount attention was paid to information about the military-strategic plans of the [Main] Adversary: his schemes to attain military superiority over the USSR, indications of preparation for the possible sudden unleashing of a nuclear attack, and other problems that affect the vital interests of the Soviet Union, and of socialist and other countries friendly towards us. […] measures were adopted to increase the efficiency of our scientific-technical intelligence gathering. A significant volume of documentary information has been obtained about the latest advances and discoveries of the leading capitalist countries in science, engineering and technology.
Political repression within the USSR or, as Chebrikov termed it, “the struggle with ideological sabotage by the class enemy”, was intensified. The borders were put under tighter control, leading to the capture of 1,646 offenders. As part of the “disruption of ideological protests by the emissaries of foreign, anti-Soviet nationalist, Zionist and clerical organisations” three hundred individuals were expelled from the USSR, and 322 were banned from visiting the country again. Illegal nationalist organisations in the Ukraine and the Baltic States were closed down (25 arrests) and “the formation of 93 youth groups based on ideologically harmful ideas” was halted. A search for those who were merely “authors and distributors of anonymous and anti-Soviet materials” led to the arrest of 1,275 individuals, 97 of whom were imprisoned. The harvest of 1985 was especially rich:
“The following have been charged with criminal offences: especially dangerous State crimes, 57 individuals; other State crimes, 417 individuals; other crimes, 61. […] Preventive prophylactic measures have been carried out on 15,274 individuals.”
This deliberate toughening of the regime served many goals. It prepared public opinion, to some extent, to respond more gratefully to the subsequent “liberalisation”: such a change would be needed but in the meanwhile this helped to clear the country of those capable of exploiting the greater opportunities it provided. The regime was also raising the stakes before beginning dialogue with the West, and was planning to make minor concessions in return for vitally important gains. Before becoming engaged in these dangerous games, the Kremlin leaders were evidently probing the West for weaknesses one last time. Perhaps there would be no need to take such risks after all?
To achieve their end, the rebirth of detente, would probably require a more subtle approach and the Soviet leadership without doubt understood this. In parallel and, apparently, quite independently of “harshening” regime, they pursued, in Chebrikov’s words, “a complex of measures that would provide comprehensive support” for the plans of the Kremlin strategists “using Chekist methods”. Several months before March 1985 when Gorbachev was chosen as Party leader a flood of articles and reports began to appear in the Western press, praising him as “young”, “energetic”, “liberal”, “pro-Western” and so on. Once elected there would be no end to such eulogies. Gorbachev was presented to the West as its best (if not last), chance to reach agreement with the Soviet Union; his entire persona, especially his moderate Left-wing views, was calculated to appeal to the Western consumer.
It is no surprise, then, that this campaign was immediately taken up by the Left-wing press, the socialists and the social democrats. One of the newly-elected Soviet leader’s first meetings was with a delegation from the Socialist International. In April 1985 the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) instructed all its station chiefs in Western Europe to urgently restore cooperation with their former partners in détente, something which had slipped into the background over the last few years (9 April 1985*, 473/PR/54) :
“A serious exacerbation of the international situation and the intensifying threat of war, evoked by the sharp increase in the aggressiveness of imperialist – above all, American – policy, the consistent peace-promoting line adopted by the Soviet Union, and the broadly based anti-war movement developing especially in West Europe an countries, have combined to confront the Socialist International with the necessity of putting forward its own programme to fight for peace and disarmament.
“Such a programme was announced in its most complete form at the 16th SI Congress held in 1983, which declared that the” most fundamental” task of social democracy was to” ensure the survival of the human race”. This task was, however, formulated as an appeal to the two” superpowers” – the USA and the USSR.
“The Congress called on the USSR and the USA to reach agreement on issues linked to the arms race, virtually repeating many of the specific proposals put forward more than once previously by the Soviet Union: limiting and reducing strategic weapons; nuclear weapons in Europe; stopping production of new kinds of weapons of mass destruction, banning chemical and biological weapons; demilitarisation of the sea-bed and space, and establishing nuclear-free zones, etc.
The Politburo had asked the same of Willy Brandt and Kalevi Sorsa, the leaders of the Socialist International five years before (1 February 1980*, Pb 182/2). At that time “blaming both super-powers” was a convenient smokescreen for the basically pro-Soviet position of the Socialist International. This subtlety was no longer required, especially since the camouflage of “impartiality” had not prevented a split between a radical northern wing (the British Labour Party, the German and Scandinavian Social Democrats) and the more pro-Atlantic southern group (the French, Italian and Portuguese socialists).
The KGB’s suggested programme envisaged a range of “active measures” to exaggerate the differences of opinion between NATO member-countries and strengthen the influence of the “left-wing” within the Socialist International in the campaign to revive détente (9 April 1985*, 473/PR/54):
As the Americans speed up the arms race and implementation of their missile plans in Europe, the disagreements between the parties in the Socialist International on the issues of war and peace are becoming more and more noticeable. […] The divergence of views among SI leaders and their wavering and inconsistency on the key questions of the present day are the result, in the first place, of the opportunist nature of the parties which belong to this organisation, and the presence in them of various groupings holding right-wing, centrist and left-wing views.
Notwithstanding the disagreements inside the SI and pressure on it from without, contemporary social democracy continues to carry considerable political weight and influence. Objectively speaking, it makes a definite contribution to the struggle for peace and disarmament and a return to a policy of detente. Its representatives take part in various fora of supporters of peace and often adopt points of view close to, and sometimes even coinciding with, those of the socialist countries.
All this opens up certain possibilities for exerting a positive influence on the views of the Socialist International and its member-parties on important international issues, above all on questions of war and peace, thus providing effective assistance in our Party’s struggle to improve the international situation and stop the arms race. With this end in mind, you must do your utmost to step up work among the leaders, prominent officials and activists of social democratic and socialist parties in the countries where you are stationed …
To attain these ends through intelligence gathering and active measures it was suggested that the KGB station chiefs in each country :
— take steps to make more effective use of the existing access and contacts in the SI bureau, in the headquarters of social democratic and socialist parties in the countries of Western Europe and to expand them;
— make special efforts to consolidate access and contacts in the SI parties which are in power or form part of coalition governments of their countries, bearing in mind the tasks to be achieved not only in the Socialist International, but also in relation to other issues of international politics;
— step up work in youth organisations of a social democrat persuasion which at times adopt more radical positions than the party, especially among the activists of such organisations who may be of interest in the future.
Outwardly the Soviet regime was becoming harsher. At the same time, it was preparing, little by little, for a new return to detente, the sweet dreams of which had never died among Europe’s social democrats. All it took was to wave this carrot in front of the Menshevik donkey and, forgetting all past hurts and deceit, it was again willing to pull the Bolshevik cart. The policies of the Soviet leaders indeed remained Leninist, and had been the same since the 1970s at least. Now, however, the crisis pushed them into proposing that the policies be intensified and achieve their goal at any price.
They were masters of deception.
Indistinct rumours, hints and, at best, vague promises by the new Soviet leader that something or other would be “restructured”, were at once transformed into “radical reforms” that, seemingly, had already taken place. In reality, nothing had changed. Soviet troops continued to devastate Afghan villages, political prisoners remained behind the barbed wire, spies went on stealing Western technology – but somehow the West itself was now to blame. It was not responding to the USSR; it did not believe in Gorbachev’s good intentions; it had made no concessions.
Even the catastrophe at Chernobyl in April 1986 did not work against Gorbachev and his regime, but against all other countries with atomic power stations. The Soviet leader was held blameless, although it was on his orders that information about the disaster was kept secret until the Swedes and the Finns raised the alarm. Any politician elsewhere would be damned by public opinion for such a deed and, in the West, face punishment for such a crime: as a result of Gorbachev’s silence many more people were contaminated by the radioactive fallout. It would be impossible to imagine the US President or the British prime minister attempting to hide a radio-active leak from an atomic power station. Yet the Soviet leaders did not cancel the May Day parade in Kiev. They hoped that no one would learn what had happened. The Party bosses of the Ukraine, in the meantime, secretly evacuated their families to Moscow, to get far away from Chernobyl …
The Western press was perfectly aware of this, but presented the news quite differently. The poor Russians had been very unfortunate with Chernobyl. That was what happened when you had atomic power stations. Gorbachev’s role in these events was not discussed. The Gorbomania of the West was based on nothing but a blind trust in an individual whom no one really knew. As absurd and irrational as the campaign for nuclear disarmament, it was supported for the most part by the same forces. The difference was that everyone else accepted the game this time and their only concern was not to “hinder perestroika” (providing the public with accurate information was of less concern). Doubt and scepticism were treated as little short of blasphemy; few had the courage to speak out.
“Give him the benefit of the doubt”, people declared in the West, though none could explain the grounds for such “doubt”. In Gorbachev they talked of someone who had passed through all the usual stages of a career in the Party: after November 1978 as a Central Committee secretary, and from October 1980 as a member of the Politburo, he had taken part in all the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. The only thing that could be done was to invent some distinguishing features of the new General Secretary. There were effusive reports, for instance, about his modern, pro-Western wife who taught “philosophy” (she was a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism). There was no limit to the ecstatic response when, in Paris, Larisa Gorbachev spent most of her time in the shops, buying jewellery at Cartier with an American Express card. At the very same time, and occasionally on the same pages, newspapers indignantly wrote about Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Filipino dictator: just imagine, the country was starving and she kept buying outfits and thousands of pairs of shoes!
There was, in other words, a well-planned campaign of disinformation. The culmination of the Soviet attempt to overcome the resistance of the West was the summit in Reykjavik in October 1986. It was portrayed as high drama by Soviet commentators. The world held its breath in anticipation. The very existence of the planet, or so it seemed, hung by a thread. Entire congregations gathered to pray for the success of the meeting, as if the world was about to end. In reality, nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Summit meetings by then had become quite familiar events. The programme of the talks contained nothing new: the same dreams of nuclear disarmament which the USSR needed but the West did not. Yet somehow it was presented as though everything was about to be resolved. If a decision was not reached only Ronald Reagan would be to blame. It’s amazing, is it not? The crisis was in the USSR. The Soviet Union was bankrupt and needed to find a way out, but the Americans for some reason had to make the concessions.
Extraordinary to relate, the Soviet side almost achieved its goals. It tried too hard, however. It was too greedy. Not satisfied with full nuclear disarmament, something Reagan almost agreed to, the Soviet negotiators also insisted on opposing the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars). As a result, they came back empty-handed and relations with the Americans became more complicated. Soon the Politburo responded (22 October 1986*, Pb):
GORBACHEV. We must exchange views about the measures to take regarding the new hostile action of the US Administration. The course of events since Reykjavik has shown that our “friends” in the US have no constructive programme and are doing everything to make the atmosphere more tense. They are behaving in an extremely rough, gangland way.
SOLOMENTSEV. Yes, they behave like highway bandits.
GORBACHEV. One cannot expect any constructive actions or proposals from the U.S. Administration. In the current situation we must collect propaganda points and continue our aggressive work targeted at the American and general international public opinion. The Washington politicians are afraid of this.
The materials with my speeches at the Reykjavik press conference and on the Soviet television are being kept at the customs for three days already.
YAKOVLEV. Comrade Bugayev called me and told that these materials are still detained at the American customs.
GORBACHEV. We must go on pressurising the American Administration by explaining our positions to the general public and exposing the responsibility of the American side for the failure of agreements on reduction and liquidation of nuclear weapons.
Of late, the best thing Reagan and his entourage were able to invent was another hostile action of expelling 55 Soviet diplomats. As Washington explained, five of our employees were declared non grata in reprisal for our expulsion of 5 American diplomats, and 50 more will be knocked out under the pretext of equalising the staff of American and Soviet diplomatic representations.
We cannot leave this hostile anti-Soviet action unanswered. We should not hesitate to take the most resolute steps. The Americans threaten us declaring that if we retaliate they will take further steps against our diplomatic personnel in the USA. Well then, taking the limited extent of Soviet-American contacts I think our embassy in the U.S. would manage its tasks in this case, too.
On the whole, what I told the U.S. President in Reykjavik proves to be true: normalisation of Soviet-American relations is apparently a job we shall leave to coming generations.
Whom did the West blame for this chill in relations? Why, the reactionary Reagan was blamed, in the first place. He did not wish “to reject Cold War mentality” and give up the universally hated “Star Wars” programme. Two, the West blamed the Politburo’s conservatives and reactionaries to whose opinion the “reformer” Gorbachev still had to bow.
6.1 “New Thinking”
The Kremlin leaders could not sulk for long: the crisis would not wait. Their impudent stance in Reykjavik had not been successful and now they would have to go further and make concessions. Willingly or not, the Soviet leadership had to proceed beyond “Acceleration” to the next phase of the project. It was entitled “glasnost and perestroika” – human rights, Afghanistan, “New Thinking”, socialist pluralism, the socialist market and “our common European home”.
After the Communist regime collapsed, it was no longer a secret from anyone in Russia that the “New Thinking” was elaborated by various Central Committee think-tanks, long before Gorbachev became Party leader. Former Communist Party intellectuals, who took part in the work, became eager to speak and write of this. Gorbachev himself acknowledged as much in 1988 when the failure of perestroika became obvious and he had to explain why the whole plan had been so poorly conceived (see 3.14 — “The Letter of the Ten”). A hundred and ten studies and proposals (!) had then been drawn up and presented to the Central Committee. Later we learned that the plan to “reform” the Soviet regime was entrusted to the International Department, which was under the overall curatorship of Andropov. Typically, the boldest ideas of those thinkers did not extend beyond the limits of Marxism: it was merely a question of making certain revisions to its Leninist variant and bringing it closer to social democracy.
It is easy to understand what lay behind these attempts at rapprochement. On the one hand, the looming economic crisis could be fully perceived by the end of the 1970s, and there was an urgent need to find ways to save the system. Above all, a way must be found to revive detente, which had opened access for the Soviet Union to Western aid in the form of credits and technology. On the other hand, the phenomenal success of detente in the early 1970s and its unexpected collapse in the early 1980s suggested that it must be more thoroughly prepared, in the light of previous mistakes. Detente, as we remember, was first dreamed up not in Moscow but in Bonn (9 September 1969*, 2293-A). The Kremlin merely tried to use it for its own goals while changing nothing at home. If it were now combined with internal “reforms” of socialism and an appropriately social-democratic phraseology, detente would become irresistible to both the radical and moderate wings of the Socialist International. Minimal changes that in no way threatened the existence of the Soviet regime achieved the impossible: not only did they help avoid the crisis, they also opened the way to convergence with the Menshevik West. In simple terms, it was a strengthening of Soviet influence in Western Europe.
For what had obstructed the total success of detente in the 1970s? The question of human rights? The invasion of Afghanistan? The Polish crisis? Surely a certain flexibility, and help from European social democrats and the Left elite in the USA, would have been enough to surmount those obstacles. In 1977 Valentin Falin, then Soviet ambassador in the FRG, wrote of a possible solution to the human rights problem (2 March 1977*, No 74). It was not a question of introducing democracy, naturally, but of its successful simulation. Reporting to the Central Committee that the German Social Democrats, the Soviet Union’s partners in detente, were not at all enthusiastic about the campaign for human rights in the socialist countries, Falin wrote:
The Social Democrats already feel the danger to themselves of the anti-Communist hysteria. The slogan of the CDU-CSU “freedom instead of socialism” has shown that the SDP will not be last in line when the signal is given for a witch-hunt to begin. … At the same time, those I talk to note that the West has appreciated earlier than the East that changes in the international climate will not leave the internal weather in individual States unaffected. The NATO States have paid their own not inconsiderable price for detente, and are far from coping with the difficulties, including those of an ideological character. In the West, however, such difficulties are not so striking because they have learned not to raise or accentuate the threshold of legality in the struggle of ideas in ordinary situations. Social Democrats tell me that the socialist countries must also take the costs of a restructuring [perestroika] of international relations into account. …
It must be said that discussions about the way dissidents and non-conformists are treated in the socialist countries are actively held in circles that have a loyal and friendly attitude to the USSR and the CPSU. Often questions are asked that cannot be brushed aside or dismissed with general phrases.
“In particular, the legislative and administrative practice of the FRG demands study. The West German State has flexible and reliable means at its disposal to prevent and halt disagreeable activities, and the emphasis is placed on prosecuting dissidents not for distributing information unfavourable to the regime but for ‘anti-constitutional activity’, public disorder, and so on. The local judicial system is also of interest. It makes its possible, before sentence is passed, to isolate any individual for months and years, and persecute him long before his case has been heard before the court of last instance.
“This system functions successfully because it is combined with a well-conceived openness [glasnost] and is enhanced by other quasi-democratic attributes that make it possible to keep the pressure in the boiler at an acceptable level. A considerable part of the work in suppressing the opposition is carried out by the press, the church, schools and bourgeois public organisations under the open and covert supervision of the authorities.
Let Falin’s interpretation of the West German political system be a matter for him and his conscience. Much more important is that his “political letter” was most attentively studied by Gromyko, Andropov, the Central Committee Propaganda Department, and the group of Party intellectuals who were drawing up “alternative models”. (As to which of them underlined certain passages in the text I would not hazard a guess.) The ideas Falin presented made a great impression on his superiors, it would seem, since he was soon promoted and in ten years’ time, when the “impression that the system has purified and renewed itself” was finally being created in the Soviet Union, he was in charge of the International Department.
Certainly, Falin was not the only clever person in the Soviet regime. These ideas were already in circulation and particularly popular among that part of the elite which was engaged in foreign policy: the KGB, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Central Committee International Department and their think-tanks. Learning of the death of Brezhnev, Anatoly Chernyaev (International Department deputy head), without more ado, wrote out a programme which he hoped Andropov would implement (Chernyaev’s diary, 11 November 1982):
Goal, to feed the people and restore interest in work.
Methods and main problems:
- Eliminate the Brezhnevite infrastructure – all these relatives, spongers, favourites, and others he brought up from Moldavia and Dnepropetrovsk: the Trapeznikovs, Pavlovs, Golikovs, Tyazhelnikovs, Shchelokovs … The villas, country dachas, hunting reserves, overstaffed bodyguards, and hundreds if not thousands of underlings. That is needed to revive the moral right of the leader.
- Leave Afghanistan.
- Tell Jaruzelski that he should put things in order himself and let everyone know that we shall not get involved in Poland under any circumstances.
- Adopt a declaration with respect to the socialist countries like that of Khrushchev in 1956 (which he immediately flouted in Hungary). Discard the principle that if they don’t do like us, then down with them, it’s unacceptable and we shall not permit it. Let them do what they want.
- Withdraw the SS-20 missiles from Europe.
- Bring the military-industrial complex under control. Disregard American blackmail and reduce the numerical size of the army by three quarters.
- Put the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the control of the Central Committee. Appoint a plenipotentiary Central Committee for international affairs. But who? B.N. [Ponomarev] is clearly not the man for the job.
- Let all dissidents emigrate, with Sakharov at their head – those who are imprisoned and those whom Andropov has not yet managed to imprison.
- Do the same for Jews who want to leave. Simultaneously declare anti-Semitism illegal. Raise Jews to the status at least of Armenians in the “system of Friendship of Peoples”.
- Pension off 70-80% of government ministers.
- Give the [Union] Republics real autonomy, including the autonomous republics. Give Regional Party Committees real rights. All-round encouragement for horizontal ties between the Regions.
- Supplies to the cities and industrial centres to come from Regional and district resources. Reduce the central reserves to a minimum, covering the capital and a few other population centres.
- Give all unused agricultural land to pensioners and, in general, to any who want to take it on, no matter for what reason.
- Reduce the apparatus of the Central Committee, while enhancing the role of Central Committee departments. Place them above the ministries as a warning so they tremble. Free the departments from daily concerns and from administrative and regulatory functions.
- Propaganda. Put an end to the Cult [of Brezhnev] – that goes without saying – but keep a very careful eye that it does not find a way back again.
Give the press more freedom, including the criticism of Party authorities. Freedom of expression for thoughts, ideas and a way of issuing rebukes, exhorting and inspiring the people, telling them the truth, and in general communicating with the people, explaining and discussing things. Draw on the literary journals, works of fiction that again approach the grandeur of Russian literature. “Pravda” should demonstrate all this in a concentrated form.
This is the minimal programme. During Andropov’s first year people should feel its effects. Otherwise everything will become bogged down again.
Why not give it a try? The Party, the avant-garde of the proletariat, was bankrupt and had nothing to lose, so to speak, but its chains. There was a whole world it might win. The task did not seem so difficult to the Soviet leadership. Without repression or censorship they had manipulated millions of people in the West and the Third World, the free Western media and independent social movements. What could prevent them from doing the same in the Soviet Union where they had much more control and almost everything was in the hands of the Party? The techniques applied in this manipulation had been refined to perfection, and “Soviet Man” (homo sovieticus) was much more dependent on their regime than, say, a Western peace supporter.
The variant of detente that they had developed truly did seem invincible. They took the most successful elements from the old model: social democracy, the Left establishment in the USA, friendly businessmen and a targeted campaign of disinformation (including the old ploy of a struggle in the Soviet leadership between hawks and doves, now renamed conservatives and reformers). The new aspects were: one, Gorbachev, the main performer who, unlike Brezhnev, could easily be presented as a liberal reformer; two, internal reforms – in reality an attempt to save socialism with minimal changes to the economy; and, finally, the imitation of “a human face” while maintaining full control, in Falin’s expression, “a well-conceived openness [glasnost]”. If this proved insufficient to revive detente then, ready and waiting, were other “quasi-democratic attributes” such as a fictive multi-party system, “free elections” to a “parliament”, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and “liberalisation” of the regimes in Eastern Europe.
The team was selected accordingly. When Andropov became leader of the Party and, especially, when Gorbachev was chosen general secretary the people who were promoted with them for the most part had experience in foreign policy. This was understandable. It was their task not only to revive detente with the West but also shift the system of harsh administrative-repressive control within the Soviet Union to a more subtle and manipulative style that had formerly only been applied in foreign policy. No one apart from the professional manipulators could have coped with this task.
They did not begin to implement their plans, however, until late in 1986. After the Reykjavik Summit it was clear that they could not achieve their ends by making promises or surprise attacks. As for the West, it was in raptures and had no wish to see the vast deception that was unfolding before its eyes.
6.2 Retreat without withdrawal
A professional liar, there was only one matter about which Gorbachev told the truth. His new policies were truly Leninist. His colleagues understood this. As good pupils of Lenin the Soviet leaders knew very well that they could do whatever they pleased as long as power remained in their hands. Like Lenin in 1921, Stalin in 1941, or Khrushchev they did not fear to “shake the foundations” of their regime in order to save it. They just had to retain the initiative and not allow their change of course to escape the control of the Party.
At the outset, none of their “reforms”, which so powerfully astonished the feeble imagination of the world, threatened any loss of control. At the time I described in some detail how “glasnost” and “perestroika” were introduced, how Sakharov and Soviet political prisoners were released, and a fictive multi-party system was established and called “socialist pluralism” while firmly preventing any attempt to create a real opposition. As a result, the Soviet authorities achieved a growth in the authority of the Party leadership, something that 18 years of Brezhnev’s repressive rule could not do. For the first time since Stalin died society greeted the decisions of Party congresses and conferences with enthusiasm. The more the past crimes of the regime were exposed, the less responsibility the Party seemed to bear for those transgressions. When public criticism of the local Party leadership was unleashed, this merely strengthened the control of the central Party authorities over the bureaucracy which was threatening to break up into regional mafias. To a certain extent, glasnost helped to purge the Party like the Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse Tung.
A new form of supervision and control, both internal and external, was introduced throughout the empire. The 15 Republics that made up the Union were offered a degree of cultural and economic autonomy; the Soviet satellites were obliged to accept it. The bankrupt regime could no longer wholly support them and its foreign policy goals demanded a change in the image of the “evil empire”. It was hard, for example, to hope for detente as long as Soviet troops were fighting in Afghanistan. The other “local conflicts” provoked by Soviet global expansion also had to be put on hold, at least.
This did not mean a rejection of empire or global expansion. They only gained from such apparent change and Soviet control was in no way lessened. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan was the most vivid example. The Soviet leaders had decided to occupy Afghanistan with great hesitation and against their will. They had never considered this a final decision. The withdrawal of Soviet troops was discussed when Andropov was Secretary General (10 March 1983*, Pb).
GROMYKO. In accordance with the resolution of the Politburo, a group of high-ranking Party, Soviet, military and production management officials travelled to Afghanistan. This group put in some good work there. …
On the whole, the situation in Afghanistan is, as you know, difficult. Lately, certain elements of consolidation have been examined, but the process of consolidation is moving slowly. The number of gangs [rebel groups] is not decreasing. The enemy is not laying down its weapons. The negotiations with Pakistan in Geneva are moving slowly and with difficulty. This is why we must do everything to find a mutually acceptable political settlement. In advance, it can already be said that this process will be a lengthy one. There are questions which must be discussed separately. One should only keep in mind that for now we cannot agree with Pakistan on a specific schedule for the withdrawal of our troops from the country. We must exercise caution here. Yes, the situation is stabilizing. It is good that the Afghan army has grown to 140,000. But the main trouble is that the central authorities have not yet reached the countryside: [they] rarely interact with the masses, about one third of the districts is not under the control of the central authority, and one can feel the fragility of the state government.
… evidently we need to take the steps outlined in the recommendations given to you for examination. It will be necessary to hold a meeting with Karmal and a group of leading officials of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan sometime in April. It seems that it would also be expedient for Yu. V. Andropov to meet personally with Babrak Karmal. …
ANDROPOV. You remember how arduously and cautiously we decided the question of deploying troops in Afghanistan. L.I. Brezhnev insisted on a roll call vote by the members of the Politburo. The question was examined at the Plenum of the Central Committee.
In deciding the Afghan problem we must proceed from existing realities. What do you want? This is a feudal country where tribes have always been in charge of their territories, and the central authority was far from always able to reach each kishlak [Afghan settlement]. The problem is not in Pakistan’s position. We are fighting against American imperialism which well understands that in this part of international politics it has lost its positions. That is why we cannot back off.
Miracles don’t happen. Sometimes we are angry at the Afghans because they act illogically and work slowly. But let us remember our fight with the basmachi [resistance to Soviet regime, tr]. Why, back then, almost the entire Red Army was concentrated in Central Asia, yet the fight with the basmachi continued up until the mid-1930’s. And so in our relations with Afghanistan there must be both demands and understanding.
As concerns the recommendations of the Commission, they are a little demanding, perhaps, with exact instructions as to what the Afghan side and what we should do.
GROMYKO. Of course we will work to complete the recommendations.
ANDROPOV. Yes, it should be a political document. It must be much more flexible.
The approach did not change under Gorbachev. The need to withdraw the troops became more urgent, but no one intended to give way to “American imperialism”. It was a question of withdrawal without surrender by preserving the regime in Afghanistan and Soviet control there. The Politburo began making preparations for this decision in 1986 when it replaced Babrak Karmal with the head of the Afghan KGB Nadjibullah, a move typical of all Gorbachev’s so-called reforms (20 March 1986*). The new reformer from the KGB in Afghanistan, like his boss a little later in Moscow, carried out “liberal reforms”. He entered into contact with the enemy, introduced a new constitution, and made himself president: he even changed the name of the country, dropping the word “democratic” as a sop to the Muslim opposition. Perhaps Afghanistan was a testing ground for the Kremlin reformers of the “new thinking”. If the experiment was successful it would be extended throughout the empire. That was why the Politburo was particularly nervous and prepared the withdrawal of troops with great thoroughness.
The Politburo Commission on Afghanistan — now made up of Shevardnadze, Chebrikov, Yakovlev, Yazov and Kryuchkov — could not decide until the last moment how to implement this measure. They reported (24 January 1989*, Pb 146/VI):
In the difficult situation characterizing the state of affairs in Afghanistan, one can increasingly feel the inner tension arising from the impending withdrawal of the remaining units of Soviet troops. The attention of the regime and the forces of the opposition is totally focused on 15 February, when, in agreement with the Geneva Accords, the term of stay of our military contingent must end. In addition, the given timetable for Kabul is even more constrained, as the last Soviet military units must leave the Afghan capital in the beginning of February. …
… the Afghan comrades are seriously worried as to how the situation will turn out. In general, their resolve to resist the enemy is strengthening; they are taking a number of emergency measures and trying to arrange the available forces more rationally. The Afghan comrades are counting, to a certain extent, on the continuation of their contacts with a fairly significant number of commanding officers within armed detachments of the enemy, on the strong disagreements which continue to exist within the opposition, and on the incompatibility of some of its leading political groups …
The Afghan comrades have expressed and affirmed once again their understanding of the decision to withdraw Soviet forces. But having soberly assessed the situation, they point out that they cannot manage completely without our military assistance. Such assistance, in their opinion, could be rendered in forms different from today and on a limited scale, but it would still be a serious support both practically and psychologically. The Afghan comrades believe that if, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the opposition is unable to capture the principal centres in a swoop, then the Peshawar “alliance of seven” and the Teheran “union of eight” will have to enter into negotiations with Kabul over the future government in Afghanistan, which they steadfastly refuse to do at this time.
In the given situation there arise for us a number of difficult elements. On the one hand, if we depart from decisions, made and announced, to complete the withdrawal of our forces on 15 February this may cause extremely undesirable complications in the international arena. On the other hand, there is no assurance that shortly after our departure there will not arise a very serious danger to a regime that is, throughout the world, associated with us.
Despite these difficulties the problem of the regime’s survival was reduced to that of supplying the main urban centres, especially Kabul, with food and fuel.
It is very clear that the opposition plans to organize an economic blockade of Kabul, close off its supply of foodstuffs and petroleum products, and provoke discontent and even direct insurgence among the population. Such a blockade is already being implemented by the opposition in the form of highway robberies, and the intimidation and bribery of drivers of Afghan ground-based freight vehicles destined for Kabul. The present complications with flour and foodstuffs in Kabul are to a significant degree related to the failure to defeat Ahmad Shah, whose detachments present the greatest threat to the road between Kabul and Hairatan, when the time was ripe. At present, Kabul’s monthly flour requirement alone is around 15,000 tons. Recently, several thousand tons of flour were delivered by Soviet motor and air transport. However, it is imperative to have provisions for at least 2-3 months, which would be controlled by the President and give the Afghan Friends the chance of feeling secure in this matter.
The Politburo discussed possible alternatives, each of which is striking in its own way and most characteristic for the Kremlin “reformers”.
First scenario. Citing the difficult situation of the civilian population, leave one division, i.e. approximately 12,000 people, on the Hairatan-Kabul highway. This scenario is hardly desirable, as it may be asked at the UN why we did not completely withdraw our forces. Despite the fact that Pakistan is not fulfilling its obligations under the Geneva Accords, one may assume that the majority of countries at the UN would not support us because, for many, the question of the military is the crux of the problem.
Second scenario. Citing the threat of starvation in Kabul and other cities, appeal to the UN to urgently provide a shipment of foodstuffs and petroleum products to the cities and send UN troops to keep the highway in operation. Until the UN forces arrive, leave our military units in these positions to carry out strictly humanitarian functions, providing the population with foodstuffs and petroleum products. Affirm that the withdrawal of the Soviet military contingent has taken place. Announce that, after the arrival of the UN forces, our units will immediately return to the Soviet Union.
However, this scenario is unfeasible, since the deployment of UN forces requires a decision of the Security Council, on which we cannot depend.
Third scenario. Withdraw all troops by 15 February, as planned; affirm this in the international arena with pronouncements by the governments of the USSR and the Republic of Afghanistan. Then, at the request of the Afghan government, which will appeal to the countries of the world, begin to escort convoys of civilian cargo with Soviet military units for their defence. The escort of such convoys could start within approximately two weeks after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Prior to this, we should create a wide public opinion condemning the actions of the opposition, which has sentenced the population of Afghan cities to death from starvation. Against the backdrop of this opinion the escort of convoys by our units would appear to be a natural humanitarian step. In this scenario there would be a battle each time to clear certain sections of the road.
Fourth scenario. Withdraw almost all Soviet troops by 15 February. Officially affirm the withdrawal of the Soviet military contingent in a corresponding statement. But, on the pretext of transferring some posts on the Afghan side of the Hairatan-Kabul highway, leave Soviet units at some of the more important posts, including in the Salang Pass. Avoid creating too much noise, on our part, about this action; note that this concerns a only small number of Soviet military personnel who were slightly delayed because the Afghan side has not yet taken over from them. After some time, as in the third scenario, begin escorting convoys to Kabul under our military protection.
In all these scenarios we can begin from the fact that these operations would be undertaken by our regular units, but they must be formed on a volunteer basis, primarily from among military personnel who are serving their time in Afghanistan or have served their term and are now in Soviet Union. Offer a salary of 800-1000 roubles per month, partially in Afghan currency, for the rank-and-file and significantly increase the officers’ salaries as well.
Give international observers the right – and announce this widely – to verify whether we are actually escorting civilian goods. In the nearest future, talks should be held with the Aga Khan, the UN Special Coordinator of humanitarian and economic assistance programs so as to use these programs and the office of the Special Coordinator in order to counteract the extremists’ plans to stifle Kabul and other large Afghan cities with an economic blockade.
In the talks with the Aga Khan it should be suggested that UN convoys of foodstuffs, petroleum products, and medical supplies go not only through Pakistan, but, to a significant extent, through Soviet Union.
In all of the four enumerated scenarios it is intended that at certain number of Soviet troops will be left behind after 15 February 1989.
There remains yet another, fifth, scenario: Soviet forces are withdrawn completely before 15 February, but we give the Afghan side additional assistance, including funding, to organize the defence of the Hairatan-Kabul highway using their own forces, even providing completely for these Afghan units for a determined time-period, though, undoubtedly, this would be tied to considerable difficulties, especially in ensuring a dependable convoy escort.
They approved the Fifth Scenario (including a little of the Third) but there was no starvation in Kabul or other major urban centres. There was, of course, also major aid in military equipment and weapons (31 July 1989*, No 312/1/0297), including missiles, and “Soviet airmen were used on a voluntary basis, in return for the corresponding material remuneration, in the airplanes of Afghan transport aviation or in Soviet transport planes that could be leased to the Afghan side.” In 1989 alone military equipment to the value of 2.5 billion roubles was supplied to Afghanistan and the next year no less than 1.4 billion roubles worth, including military aircraft and helicopters (21 March 1990**, No. 318/2/0354). As a result, the regime survived until 1992 and only collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
On the day appointed, 15 February 1989, Soviet forces triumphantly and without any losses, crossed the bridge over the Amu River, from Afghanistan to the USSR, under the gaze of the entire world’s TV cameras. That was what withdrawing forces meant to the Soviet leaders. It was nothing like the US withdrawal from Vietnam.
 Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985, Sceptre (pbk): London, 1993, Chapter 8, “The Socialist International”, pp. 253-257.