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Life Under Gorbachev


The End of the USSR

When Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985, I was studying Russian at university.

Protestors in Red Square. May Day, 1990.

Later that year, a group of British language students from across the UK travelled to the Soviet Union as part of our ‘immersion’ year abroad. We were sent to universities in Moscow, Minsk, Voronezh and St Petersburg, where we experienced the early days of Gorbachev’s time in office.

During our briefing visit to the British embassy in Moscow, we were told we would be effectively on our own. There had been a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and the embassy was seriously understaffed. Such were the Cold War politics of the times.

There were no mobile phones, no direct-dial international telephone lines. Post sometimes arrived and sometimes didn’t, usually three weeks after being sent, and always opened.

I was fortunate to land in St. Petersburg, a strikingly beautiful city designed by Italian renaissance architects and modelled on the canals of Amsterdam. Its Europhile founder, Tsar Peter the Great, decreed the new city would be the Venice of the North and Russia’s ‘“Window on the West.”

In its heyday, St. Petersburg rivalled the great cultural and literary capitals of Europe. Daily life in the Soviet Union in 1985 was something else, however.

We shared rooms with Russian students in a hostel dating from the time of Peter the Great. Our historic accommodation was infested with cockroaches and we had to tape the window frames to keep out the cold.

The hostel was located on the banks of the River Neva, directly opposite the Hermitage Museum – formerly the Winter Palace residence of the Russian royal family and the site of the 1917 revolutionary uprising.

With its blue, white and gold facade, the Hermitage shimmered in the sun, reflecting in the water, and later on the frozen river as it turned to ice. It was an amazing view to wake up to.

Our Russian roommates were both called Lena, blonde, beautiful and studying Albanian. They came from Kyiv and Kaliningrad. I wonder where they are now.

We were cautious at first, but accepted their warm welcome and hospitality with gratitude. Bottles of wine and vodka were produced on our arrival, with accompanying salami, pickled cucumbers and bread.

President Gorbachev had just declared a blanket ban on alcohol, in an attempt to stem the country’s debilitating level of alcoholism. Was this a test, a trick to get us into trouble, or into their debt?

We noticed a crate of bottles covered with newspaper under the table and realised this was the norm. Russians were adept at getting around the rules that didn’t suit them.

During the months that followed, we met a cast of characters that revealed the Soviet Union to us: the sole survivor of a family that perished in the 1941-44 St Petersburg siege; a former gulag prisoner, who invited us to his book-lined room in a communal apartment, only for his informant neighbour to call the police; and a ticket tout who gave us passes to the Kirov ballet, in return for a copy of the censored Bulgakov classic Master and Margarita (unavailable to Russians but on sale to tourists in special hard currency shops).

There were also the academic parents of defectors to the UK, who invited us into their homes, desperately seeking word from their loved ones, and, of course, ordinary Russians going about their business, just trying to get by in the difficult last years of a failing Communist system.

By the time I joined the Foreign Office in 1987 and started work in the Soviet Department, Gorbachev had been in power for a couple of years. Overseas, he had embarked on a charm offensive with Western leaders, held unprecedented disarmament talks with US President Ronald Reagan and been feted as a man the West could do business with by Margaret Thatcher.

At home, the Soviet leader’s reforms were coming thick and fast. So fast, that every day it felt like there was a new development more groundbreaking than the last.

Those were heady days of excitement and optimism in the diplomatic world. We did not foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall that would bring down the Iron Curtain between East and West, but we did dare to dream that a new relationship could be forged based on trade and greater democratic freedoms. So much so, that I recall my male colleagues planning a first-ever social drink with their Soviet embassy counterparts in London.

I observed the arrangements with mild amusement. Being the youngest and only female diplomat in the department, nothing was appealing to me about the prospect of a night out with a group of Soviet officials. Which was just as well, because my boss belatedly realised I hadn’t been invited and explained it was ‘more of a boys’ thing’.

This was 1988, the year Russian KBG operative Alexander Lebedev arrived in the UK, tasked with getting close to the British establishment. Given there are questions to be answered about outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s personal contact with him, and the appointment of his son Yevgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords (against British security advice), I wonder how my former colleagues feel about that drinks meeting now.

Official meetings between President Gorbachev and Prime Minister Thatcher were highlights of British diplomacy during those years. There was a special relationship and a feeling of mutual respect between them. So we could push boundaries and propose new initiatives: the first-ever UK/USSR human rights talks, meetings with dissidents, lunch in a Jewish cooperative restaurant.

Before that, restaurants in the Soviet Union were exclusively state-run, serving barely edible canteen food. A flurry of cooperative restaurants sprang up as private enterprise began to be allowed.

Famously, Pizza Hut was one of the first Western restaurant chains to open in the Soviet capital, in a joint venture model that set the trend for foreign investment.

Years later, Gorbachev was criticised for appearing in one of its adverts, where Russian diners debated his achievements. Those of us who relied on imported food deliveries at the time because the local shops were literally empty know what a milestone it represented.

Gorbachev’s 1988 speech at the United Nations in New York was another memorable highlight. The city ground to a halt as his delegation drove through Manhattan and gridlock set in.

It was to the UN that he proposed his initiative for an international environmental rapid reaction force — the Green Helmets – an idea ahead of its time. It followed the Chornobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986, just a year into his tenure. Mikhail Gorbachev had learned the hard way that international cooperation was essential to avoid future such disasters.

Quietly, the International Atomic Energy Agency and British Nuclear Fuels experts were helping with the safe decommissioning of other similar reactors.

Meanwhile, radioactivity was leaking from the USSR’s old nuclear submarines in the arctic naval port of Murmansk. Its nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk had been contaminated for decades, and parts of the Central Asian Soviet Republics had been devastated by state irrigation schemes that had damned and redirected rivers, bringing drought and devastation to whole regions.

Despite, or perhaps because of his country’s own appalling record, the environment was a lifelong concern for Gorbachev. His Green Helmets idea was not taken seriously by the UN, so he founded his own environmental NGO, Green Cross International, instead.

In June 1989, a month-long CSCE conference on human rights was hosted in Paris on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

President Mitterrand and his government pulled out all the stops to get a breakthrough agreement with the Soviet Union. Even if that meant ditching the conference document that we had been painstakingly negotiating for weeks between EU, NATO and Warsaw Pact governments.

Our effort was replaced by a French-Soviet Memorandum of Understanding produced unexpectedly in the final hours of the conference. I never forgot that lesson in French diplomacy.

Just a matter of months after that human rights milestone, borders between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe began to come down, as citizens literally pushed for freedom of movement and eventually forced their way through border fences and checkpoints.

We rejoiced at the thought of our Hungarian, Polish and Czech counterparts finally tasting the freedoms they had been clearly thirsting for in our human rights talks.

The situation in East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria was not so straightforward. Their governments had been more difficult interlocutors. When East Germany’s leader called on his Soviet ally to send troops, Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal effectively opened the floodgates.

I was staying with diplomatic friends in Vienna that Christmas in 1989, when Czechs tested their newfound freedoms by driving across the border into Austria, thronging the streets of its wealthy capital and staring longingly into the festively decorated shop windows.

My colleague and I argued passionately over the rights and wrongs of Romania summarily executing its former dictator, Nikolai Ceaușescu, and his wife. “That’s not the way to start a democracy,” I argued from the rule of law perspective. “Better to make a fresh start, unhindered” my colleague countered. I’m still not sure which of us was right.

The following year, in 1990, Gorbachev opened the traditional May Day victory parade to ordinary Muscovites.

Red Square was filled with trade unionists, local community representatives, environmentalists, and anyone and everyone wanting to protest a cause or express their support for what glasnost and perestroika had unleashed: openness, transparency, media freedom, the right to protest, practice religion, travel abroad, breathe clean air, fight corruption…you name it.

But in 1991, all that almost came to an end.

In the now infamous failed coup that saw Gorbachev detained under house arrest in Crimea, and Boris Yeltsin climb aboard a tank in Moscow to defend the Russian Federation, the seeds of the next phase of Soviet Russia’s history were sown.

Yeltsin seized the moment to oust his presidential rival and assert the primacy of Russia. He subjected Mikhail Gorbachev to a humiliating public dressing down for his failure to prevent the coup.

Considerably weakened, there was no coming back for Gorbachev, try as he might to hold the country together. The forces of freedom and independence he had unleashed were too powerful to hold back.

His time had come and gone.

Yeltsin Takes the Reins

Boris Yeltsin, however, was on the up.

From a regional party leader who liked a drink, and often found himself in opposition to the Soviet establishment, he had ascended to the presidency of newly independent Russia. He probably couldn’t believe his luck.

Western leaders mistook his power grab and embrace of capitalism for that of a liberal democrat. What today’s commentators often fail to mention is that it was Yeltsin who brought Russia to its knees, economically speaking.

Boris Yeltsin embraced the economic ‘shock therapy’ experiment advocated by his young team, advised by the IMF and western experts in free market economics. The argument ran that since there was no competitive market for goods, money and prices in a wholly state-run system, the only way to create one was by devaluing the rouble, freeing prices and letting them find their level.

It was a disaster for the Russian economy, but even more so for the population whose savings disappeared and salaries became worthless overnight. A period of crushing poverty, crazy pyramid schemes, and yet enrichment for a new, corrupt few followed.

This was how the country’s wealth shifted to the oligarchs. Those who were in a position to snap up privatised state assets at criminally deflated prices emerged as the new power brokers.

In 1993, key opposition politicians in the parliament rejected Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic economic reforms and his attempts to govern by decree. Yeltsin dissolved the parliament and they seized the building known as the White House to defend their power base.

The standoff was doomed to fail. I recall driving home towards the parliament and having to reverse suddenly, as protestors ran towards me away from tanks and clouds of tear gas. Yeltsin’s fightback had started.

There followed days of unrest, martial law and the final rout of the rebel parliamentarians which according to reports led to over a hundred dead and many more injured.

Boris Yeltsin had won the political power struggle. But he had effectively ceded control of the country.

I travelled in Russia and Kazakhstan during the mid-1990s, working for the energy company British Gas. It was a simple scenario. The West needed oil and gas, and the former Soviet republics needed Western technology to extract it.

Production sharing agreements ensured that each party got what they needed until the privatised Russian companies realised their newfound wealth gave them leverage. Their oligarch owners began to push out the Western partners who had facilitated their fortunes.

By changing ownership law, legal sleight of hand, sometimes blackmail, often violence, even murder, they ushered in a black gold rush, Wild West-style, that saw rules-based international business replaced with mafia-like kleptocracy.

I asked to be reassigned to the UK when I could not stomach any more.

I finally left Russia for good in 1999. I had spent the best part of a decade working in one of the most geopolitically challenging regions of the world during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history.

Putin Becomes President

At the end of that year, Boris Yeltsin resigned, seemingly exhausted and in poor health. His appointment of an unknown KGB officer as his successor made no sense. Unless that is, he needed a safe pair of hands to ensure that he and his family would be safe from prosecution after he left office. There had been accusations of embezzlement and misuse of state funds for years.

In my opinion, that is the most logical explanation for why Vladimir Putin came to power. Yes, he had navigated his way through St. Petersburg’s political circles and Yeltsin’s oligarchs to Moscow’s power centre. But in himself he was unremarkable. An unremarkable man who so far had an unremarkable career.

Putin looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights when he assumed office, in a Kremlin ceremony fit for a Russian tsar. Contrast that with his inflated displays of power and pomp since. And his small-minded failure to accord the last leader of his beloved Soviet Union a state funeral.

It is said that when asked recently about Putin’s war on Ukraine Mikhail Gorbachev, replied: “He has destroyed my life’s work.”

We are unable to confirm these words. But for a man who was half Ukrainian and grew up in a time of Stalin’s famine and Hitler’s war, we should not be surprised.

Those of us who witnessed how Gorbachev sought to change the world for the better, through disarmament, democracy and avoiding a repeat of the bloodshed of the Second World War, we can only hope that a leader of his stature comes around again soon. Perhaps even a Ukrainian.

In the meantime, I am thankful for the thirty years of relative peace that Mikhail Gorbachev gifted us, the Chechen wars, and the conflict in Ukraine notwithstanding.

Who knows how things might have turned out if he had sent tanks into Berlin.

Instead, Gorbachev’s non-intervention allowed us to experience a mostly reunited Europe, and to understand that there is an alternative to war, however fragile.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.