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Contracommunist Uskoreniye

In 1996, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president and Communist Party general secretary until 1991, ran for president of the Russian Federation against NATO-backed coup beneficiary Boris Yeltsin, and perhaps more notably, against the other front-runner in that race, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov (and still sitting State Duma member); the two interests Gorbachev points the finger at for not only his own fall from power, but of the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.

In the aftermath of the collapse, perhaps for the benefit of a marginally sympathetic western audience, Gorbachev was quick to point to failures like the response to Chernobyl as a proximate contributor to that collapse. Gorbachev considered himself a social democrat who was forced to do business with Communist Party ways of thinking that were not what the people desired, and that his reforms would have served their interests better then, just as they would now if he were elected. During the 1996 campaign, he (correctly) also cited a willingness on the part of NATO to exploit weakened economic fortunes of not only the USSR but of the Russian Federation precipitated by decades of sanctions of economic terror on anyone east of the Berlin Wall who did not fall in line. While there was merit to the latter assertion about NATO (as we've seen in the years since), the former, when interrogated by the Russian people, was found to be wholly untrue: he was knocked off in the first round of voting with less than 1% of the vote.

Meritorious claims aside by Gorbachev and other of fraud (even Gorbachev himself acknowledges he probably didn't do much better than reported, but that his showing indicates a manipulation of the result), Yeltsin was in a tight race right into the run-off with Zyuganov and, more broadly, Communism– 54.4% to 40%.

Gorbachev was considered various a spoiler candidate, a vanity candidate, but mostly just insincere and disconnected from the populace. During the Soviet Supreme Court trials of those responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, the defendants who were received by the public worst were not the ones who asserted they had done nothing wrong, it was the ones who were content to shift accountability and particularly where an ideologically liberal mindset would allow them to flatten accountability into a binary totality– you are wholly guilty, or you are innocent. Gorbachev's campaign rang this kind of sentiment frequently– seeking political alliances with other (Alexander Lebed, for example, whose party was chiefly a Russian national identity movement, and one that ultimately, upon his withdrawal from voting, endorsed Yeltsin) to win some kind of plurality rather than speaking to any real embedded social interest of the people he claimed he was uniquely suited to lead was typical of his form in this way.

The real story in all of this is that Gorbachev failed not only to understand that it wasn't communism that failed the Soviet people, it wasn't even the Soviet Communist Party, the people as we saw during the Chernobyl crisis itself believed in communism more than ever, but it was the elements of the Party and Soviet leadership that felt obligated to be responsive demands of western liberal reforms that no one wanted, and the impetus for the demand was a desire to see the Soviet Union fail in its entirety, which ultimately, because of this, it did. The reformism done on communism, in short; if this were not the case, Gorbachev would not have run exactly this in 1996 if he didn't believe it distinct from past Soviet ideological expression. What this led to was increasing amounts of recklessness seen in western capitalism where risk is taken for competitiveness, but this was a no win scenario, and one any previous Soviet leader would've seen for what it was, and he did not. Interrogating Gorbachev's views aside, more than most post-NATO intervention elections, 1996 was overtly supportive of communism (to the extent that 40% voted in favor of it over the immediate successor to it in their country, at the behest of foreign interests) and by running as he did, Gorbachev was rebuking of it (while also rebuking NATO as well as Yeltsin, so who does that even leave to back him), which is why he polled at half of 1% in the first round of voting.

In 2020, a poll's respondents demonstrated still large constituencies that not only recall the Soviet-era positively, but actively seek a return to this way of living; most gripes are of this era of cooperation and acceding to the west, rather than principled co-existence (i.e. Khruschev's positioning to Kennedy, rather than the submissive nature of leaders like Gorbachev who sought peace through acquiescence and liberal democratic reforms that, again, no one was asking for). The point isn't to advocate for the popularity or moral correctness of communism, but that Gorbachev clearly miscalculated not only his own unpopularity (he was spat on in his own hometown during the campaign), but that of communist and the Soviet state as a whole– this disconnection from public sentiment, as much as any other cause, contributed to the collapse, and it's telling that virtually every western account takes Gorbachev at his word, while Russians clearly could not have cared to hear someone speculate less than their former head of state.  

The popularity of Zyuganov's leadership of the Communists in the post-Soviet-era to that point had gained such traction that at one point, Yeltsin was trailing in the polls by nearly 10% before recovering steadily, and opponents invested in Yeltsin remaining in power (as much foreign as domestic oligarchy that traded political power for their secured economic stature) actively strategized to neutralize a charismatic and effective Communist Party leader from being a real high office contender. This was the true narrative of that election cycle; not a public exhausted by extremisms, as Gorbachev speculatively asserted by running on this platform, but by a public exhausted by the extremism playing out above them by the corrupt and actively anti-democratic. This was the naivety at work.

The things most westerners know about Gorbachev are his Uskoreniye ("acceleration"– as in reform efficiency, not accelerationism, though the result was more the latter than the former) programs of perestroika and glasnost, respectively reformist aesthetic and transparency, both of which have their place if you also ignore what that meant in practice (ideological compromise for the benefit of a spectator west also interpreting transparency as supplication). The other tenets of Uskoreniye all surrounded implementation of reforms that would model the USSR in his mind more towards a democratic socialist (at best, at the time, and by 1996 this had become even more liberal capitalist) model, one he speculated would be tolerated better by the Soviets' opponents; a gambit that not only collapsed a nation on his watch, but by 1996, created much of the circumstances the public had been suffering under since the the late 80's and increasingly in the early 1990s. I think it can be argued that he was a genuine believer in these politics, but that he fundamentally just didn't represent his nation's people well– just as he was right about NATO, he was right about media coverage being even less free post-1991 than during the previous era, for example. These were tenets that would've been just and appropriate if they were informed by, again, real material analysis, something you'd expect a Soviet leader to know how to put first.

The fascinating thing about this circumstance is that he was just one of many figures saying, if you're a western spectator favorable to western liberal democracy, all of the "right things" you'd expect from a compassionate reformer, someone passionate about "self-determination" and "democracy" but then viewed objectively (and in this case, in what was allegedly a far superior capitalist society's free election– something Gorbachev, again, correctly insists was untrue) the people simply determined he was wrong and/or was not speaking to or about them when he describes their problems and the necessary solutions.