Setting the Record Straight

On My Country and the Worldby Mikhail GorbachevColumbia University Press. 300p $29.95

What do you do when you are the ex-president of a country that no longer exists, with a majority of your countrymen bitterly blaming you for their own troubled situations? How do you handle political retirement after being one of the most influential figures of the 20th century? Consider the situation of Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and President of the U.S.S.R., who inaugurated a breathtaking program of reform that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet state. Since his forced "retirement" on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev has resolutely striven to keep himself in the public eye through the work of his Gorbachev Foundation and the Green Cross International. He has also written numerous books, most recently On My Country and the World, a combination of personal memoir, political commentary and moral suasion. Here Gorbachev seeks both to "set the record straight" in terms of his own historical legacy, and to project himself as a statesman for the 21st century, capable of playing a continued role in global politics.

On My Country and the World is a running commentary on the past, present and future of Russia, as well as contemporary world problems. Gorbachev comes across as an unrepentant and avowed socialist. He asserts that it was not socialism that failed in the U.S.S.R., but rather it was the U.S.S.R. that failed socialism. Above all, he blames the establishment of a one-party system and the distortions of the dictator Joseph Stalin for the tragedies of Soviet history. Though it may shock Western readers, he defends the historical heritage of the Soviet Union, and projects the superiority of socialist values over the profit-driven, excessively materialistic tenets of "victorious" capitalism. It is to be truly lamented, he asserts, that the Soviet Union disintegrated, because as a state entity it preserved the best hope for maintaining peace and stability in Eurasia. Likewise, in his view, socialism is a better foundation for democracy than capitalism because it encourages social consciousness and collective responsibility.

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Gorbachev is equally unrepentant about the outcome of his policies as Soviet leader from 1985 to 1991. He clearly seeks to counter arguments that blame him for the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Through a chronological narration of events, which he backs up with numerous transcripts of speeches, meetings and deliberations, Gorbachev depicts himself as a tireless defender of the union, whose sincere efforts to reconfigure the federal structure were derailed by the selfish ambitions of nationalist "demagogues." The former Soviet president acknowledges mistakes but continually deflects blame onto outside "destructive elements" and political extremists. The real cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse, according to Gorbachev, is his former rival Boris Yeltsin, who undermined all efforts to restructure the Soviet federal system in order to further his own ambitions for personal power as president of Russia.

Gorbachev has strongly pronounced views concerning international politics. He emphasizes the significance of his own foreign policy, referred to as "New Thinking," for the construction of a new world order. The latter, he laments, has yet to be achieved, despite the end of the cold war. As he explains it, New Thinking emerged as a product of his realization that world problems demanded new strategies based not on selfish class or national interests, but on "universal human values." He insists that it was New Thinking, not the collapse of the Soviet Union, that brought an end to the cold war, and it is New Thinking that must become the basis for global politics in the 21st century. Modern conditions, according to Gorbachev, require that every country renounce narrow or hegemonic agendas and work with others to resolve common problems of poverty, terrorism and environmental degradation.

Within these pages is an impassioned man, still incredibly confident, resilient and with strong convictions. Regrettably, the book offers little insight into his personal role as Soviet leader. There are few behind-the-scenes revelations. One sees only the official Gorbachev, the public persona. On My Country and the World will settle few debates over Gorbachev and his role in history. His critics will not be convinced that he is not simply a self-serving opportunist who has learned to profit from capitalism while railing against excessive materialism. This is, nevertheless, an important and timely publication. The Gorbachev legacy remains an open book, and scholars continue to probe the mind and motivations of this man. But one can also argue that Gorbachev’s words merit attention not just because of his past historical contributions, but for his vision of the future. His message that global cooperation must prevail over conflict deserves a public platform; indeed, given his remarkable popularity in the West, he may be the most effective messenger for it. Gorbachev’s book is potentially provocative but nonetheless therapeutic for Americans, for it contains many challenges to our goals, policies and principles. Perhaps there are those who may willingly digest Gorbachev’s admonitions that the United States should not unilaterally set policy for the world, that Russians do resent the expansion of NATO and that capitalism has not necessarily "won" when so many socio-economic problems remain unresolved. Certainly his appeal to Western audiences remains strong, as witnessed by his recent speaking tour, when he filled American arenas to capacity.

Unfortunately, Gorbachev does not go much beyond moral platitudes in his discussion, and offers little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing his ideals, other than calling for a strengthening of the United Nations. Nor does he suggest how he is to get his message across to policy makers, except to make a proposal for an amorphous "brain trust" of individuals who could act as non-political advisors on global issues. No one knows better than Gorbachev the harsh realities of political leadership and the necessity continually to balance domestic and international interests. As a retired president, he can now be the "voice from the wilderness" and take the moral high-ground. But the real challenge will be to find the necessary mechanisms to transform platitudes into policies, and to exert real pressures on political leaders to "act globally." Regardless of whether Gorbachev is successful, one has to admire his energy and his social vision. As OnMy Country and the World shows, he has refused to step into the dustbin of history, and the world stands to benefit, if and when it chooses to listen.

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