Long-time Russia watcher John Lloyd, a journalist with Britain’s Financial Times, has captured the essence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s book The New Russia in one word: ‘‘garrulous’’. Gorbachev was always long-winded. In this tome, he continues his struggle to glorify perestroika and to remain relevant in defining Russia’s place in the world. The book is not about the new Russia; it is more a rambling manifesto for Gorbachev’s brand of perestroika and his ‘‘New Thinking’’.
For those unsure of what perestroika (‘‘restructuring’’ in English) is, they should start not at the beginning of the book but at the conclusion. Here what is evident throughout the book becomes explicit.
Gorbachev believes the world needs socialism with a human face, just as the Soviet Union did in the 1980s. And it needs democracy; without democracy Russia is doomed.
Yet, as Gorbachev justifies his initial support for Vladimir Putin, he concedes that Russia also needs a strong president. In 2000 it was to clean up the mess left behind by Boris Yeltsin. Now, it is because of ‘‘Russian traditions, the mentality of the people, the vastness of the land, and the role and responsibility of the Russian state in the world’’.
Consistent with his repeated calls for more democracy, Gorbachev argues for a strong parliament and independent judiciary but, as his review of the politics of the past quarter of a century shows, these are as elusive as ever.
This retelling also reinforces, though it aims to dispel, the plain fact that Gorbachev is a peripheral figure in post-Soviet Russia. While his international network of dignitaries has provided him platforms on which to pontificate, his words have had little effect. Other gatherings of former leaders have also struggled to do more than discuss and analyse problems and conflicts; in Gorbachev’s case there is a large dose of preaching his lost cause and not much insight.
This is on display in the slabs of rambling articles and interviews reproduced in this book. These reveal an obstinacy that was part of Gorbachev’s downfall. Not, for example, even now to understand the nationalist genie he unleashed in the late 80s can only cast doubt on his interpretations of contemporary events. After all, it was this that finally brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin considers one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century.
The book has three parts: the first considers the 90s and Gorbachev’s failed attempts to reenter the political fray, as a presidential candidate and then head of a new Social Democratic Party. It also critiques, with considerable vitriol, the Yeltsin years, singling out the catastrophic The New Russia By Mikhail Gorbachev Translated by Arch Tair Polity Press, 464pp, $49,99 (HB)
Not eye to eye: Mikhail Gorbachev, right, with then Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1991