The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
Today, the People’s Republic of China continues to feel the effects of the policies of it most popular leader, the late Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Known as Chairman Mao, his successful campaign against the Nationalist led by Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975) set the stage for the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Mao ruled the nation until his death on September 9, 1976 at the age of eighty-two. During his tenure he came a controversial figure and is credited with causing millions of deaths through the failed policies of collectivization and the infamous “Great Leap Forward.” The aura of promise and hope that surrounded the commencement of his administration subsided as millions of Chinese endured long periods of poverty and famine while Mao enjoyed unlimited perks through his role as Chairman. Propaganda is a power tool used by the darkest of dictators to enforce their will on the masses of people they wish to control. An official story of triumph supported by an unwavering commitment to the revolution by ordinary men and women, helped cast an illusion of a progressive new China, modeled on its Soviet counterpart. In reality, the story is far different and in some cases, horrific as can been seen in this study of the early years of the Chinese Revolution by Dutch historian Frank Dikötter. (1961-)
Chairman Mao is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in world history. His image can still be found on walls throughout mainland China and his name is still mentioned in articles about the country he ruled even today. Following the communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and the establishment of the new republic, the left-wing government under Mao instituted radical changes to transform the nation’s economy and enforce its rigid ideology. Behind the parades and strong rhetoric of a society that helps everyone, were bare truths far uglier and more sinister than anyone could have imagined. And as we learn in this book, the revolution was nearly a complete failure in all regards.
Carefully reconstructing the past, Dikötter takes us back in time to experience life as an ordinary citizen in the new Mao controlled China. And what we see is a regime that encourages suspicion, deceit, paranoia, fear and destitution. For decades following his death, there were many aspects of Mao’s regime that had remained puzzling. His former doctor, Liu Zhisui (1920-1995) published his memoirs entitled The Private Life of Chairman Mao which gave readers an invaluable look into Mao’s personal life, the ugly truths that formed basis of Mao’s plans for the country and the treacherous atmosphere that had engulfed his cabinet. Dikötter makes reference to the late doctor recalling his words on several occasions throughout the book. Both works help to paint the most accurate picture of what Mad had in mind as he made many decisions, some of which nearly brought about the destruction of China.
As a communist nation, China had been closely aligned with the Soviet Union, then under the leadership of the infamous Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Mao and Stalin formed a partnership based on Marxist-Leninist beliefs and shared opponents; Chiang Kai-Shek and the United States. The animosity between the parties peaked in 1949 resulting in the defeat of the Nationalists but the war was far from over. Here, we revisit the events leading up to the Korean War, the conflict that permanently changed the relationship between China, Korea, Russia and the United States. Mao’s actions and beliefs prior to and during the war are examined providing answers to questions surrounding China’s entry into the conflict.
The true tragedy in the book however, is the fate suffered by millions of Chinese under Mao’s rule. The book ends before the implementation of the Great Leap Forward but the events that transpire serve as premonitions of the disaster that had yet to come. The policy of collectivization combined with the infusion of suspicion of “right-leaning” civilians, created a system of dysfunction that eroded the trust of the people in the government and among each other. Their life savings and property gone, once well-off Chinese were reduced to peasantry, forced to work for next to nothing on a diet rationed by government bean counters. Today it is mind-boggling to think that such a system even existed. But it did and the effects of it were nothing short of devastating and left a dark stain on Mao’s legacy. The atrocious conditions in which people were forced to live is beyond comprehension and highlights the inefficiency and lack of knowledge and planning that plagued the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Today China is a world superpower but Mao’s legacy and ghost still haunt the nation as a reminder of a not too distant past in which China came to the brink of total collapse under a ruler focused more on his political enemies than the well-being of his own people.
For those who seek to learn more about Chairman Mao and the Chinese Revolution, Dikötter’s compendium is an excellent place to start.
On September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) died in Beijing, China at the age of eighty-two. The late Chairman served as ruler of the People’s Republic of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. The People’s Liberation Army, under the guidance of Mao, pushed the KMT to complete physical exhaustion before claiming victory. To some, Mao represented the face of a new frontier for the people of China. To others, his regime was viewed as an expansion of Soviet influence as Communism became embraced in Europe and Asia. His failed policy of the Great Leap Forward resulted in mass starvation and is viewed as an epic failure in planning at the highest levels. Over time, many became disillusioned with the “Cultural Revolution” as the reality of a Communist government drearily set in. Mao, seemingly impervious to the deadly effects of his actions, continued to live the opulent lifestyle he had created for himself as the new leader of China. And the “Closed Door” policy afforded him with a shield to protect his empire from the prying eyes of the western hemisphere. But Mao’s meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 offered a glimmer of hope that the two world powers could form a bond that would in turn bring the two countries together through mutual understanding. Today relations between China and the United States remain tense and show no signs of changing in the foreseeable future. China continues to go through social change but the nation remains haunted by the legacy of Mao Zedong.
Propaganda plays a pivotal role in any ruler’s playbook. Mao created a very carefully crafted image of the supreme leader, unfazed by foreign governments and determined to change China by any means necessary. The public facade largely worked and even today, decades after his death, his name alone is enough to cause a change of expression during conversation. But behind the public facade, there existed another Mao who lived a life that could only be described as unorthodox. He had hired a personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui to monitor his health and make any recommendations and/or changes when needed. Unbeknownst to the Dr. Zhisui, his left would never be the same again as he took a ringside seat to watch the show that was the private life of Chairman Mao. By his own admission, his wife urged him to write the book before her death. Knowing ahead of time that the publication of the book would require that he leave China, he embraced the project and pulls no punches, revealing the daily insanity that was Mao’s administration. From the beginning it becomes clear that Mao rules with an iron fist and those that serve him do so not out of low but mainly fear. To Mao, nearly all were talked tough were what he called “paper tigers” and he was not afraid to use force when necessary. His ruthless nature and shrewd mind tricks created a climate of suspicion and distrust that gripped everyone working in his inner circle. And as the doctor explains, the wrong words or even suspicions were enough for removal and in some cases far worse.
No story about Mao is complete without a word regarding his widow, Jiang Qing (1914-1991), who served as the Spouse of the Paramount Leader of China from 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976. A former actress, she married Mao on November 28, 1938 becoming his fourth wife. Their marriage and the tribulations contained therein, serve as the back story to the topic at hand. Mao’s infidelities and Qing’s insecurities are key issues in the book and a constant source of tension between her and his chosen physician. She serves as the books antagonist and a mental game of chess develops as she seeks out any chance to put the doctor in the cross hairs of suspicion. At times, the scenes are nothing short of comical and reveal the desperation in Qing’s actions. Her rage at Mao’s philandering were typically directed as other for she lacked the backing or resolve to directly challenge and change the nation’s leader. Following Mao’s death, she was convicted as part of the “Gang of Four” for treason and initially sentenced to death before her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died in 1991 after taking her own life while suffering from the effects of throat cancer.
If there is one section of the book that hits home with the reality of Mao’s callousness, it is the doctor’s comments about Mao’s true purpose behind the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it might seem unreal to some readers at first but Dr. Zhisui was there next to Mao witnessing firsthand the Chairman’s erratic behavior. And there is a high probability that Mao never intended for the Great Leap Forward to succeed in any shape form or fashion. There are many cold hard truths in this book but to understand Mao Zedong, his public and personal life must be examined and it is here that Dr. Zhisui has written the best account of crazy, unorthodox and complicated life of Mao Zedong. Highly recommended.