Francesca Bed­die

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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