It was an exciting sight. Communists and allies from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America filled the Kremlin’s great hall. Present were also NATO generals and their allies. They sensed that this was an important day that would go down in history. Delegations from the vast empire came to swear allegiance to the czar.
Chance would have it that I was there. I stood by the entrance that led to the hall where the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was held in the last week of February 1986.
Journalists were barred from entering and inspections were strict. Luck intervened. An Arab communist gave me his pass and I used it to slip into the hall. The truth is, I was worried and afraid that I would be caught. I was young and my appearance belied the fact that I had witnessed hardships as much as those I sat with.
Senior officials and top members of politburos flocked to the hall. Among them was stone-faced Andrei Gromyko, whom the new leader pushed out of his fortress at the foreign ministry.
The truth is that Lenin’s party had a year earlier committed an unforgivable error when it turned to the youngest member of the leadership, Mikhail Gorbachev, to fend off concerns over its old age. It was obvious that the Kremlin was tired of successive funerals. It witnessed three funerals in three years, bidding farewell to Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
Also present at the hall were leaders of socialist countries. Among them were Germany’s Erich Honecker and Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie. The hall erupted in applause at the arrival of Fidel Castro, with his beard, aura and kakis. Castro had long been a thorn in the American side.
The gatherers then stood up and applauded once more when the man seated on the throne of the empire arrived. The show of allegiance was absolute and complete.
Gorbachev would deliver a long speech at the conference. Two words would stand out and turn into ticking bombs. The first, Glasnost, meaning transparency, and the second, Perestroika, meaning rebuilding.
The gatherers felt that the “boy of the Kremlin” was seeking to embark on an operation of development and modernity. It never occurred to them that the body of the Soviet empire would resist this cure and fall apart in five years.
The reality was that the Soviet Union was dying and for many reasons, including the costly arms race with the West, the technological gap, especially with the United States, the open wound that was the military intervention in Afghanistan, and the stagnation of the regime and its rampant corruption.
The West admired the master of the Kremlin who wanted to decrease arsenals, end the Cold War and pave the way for cooperation. But Moscow’s allies, whose very veins were pumped with weapons, discovered that Gorbachev was unlike his predecessors. They realized that the Soviet Union was no longer stable.
Experience proved that Gorbachev, who dreamed of saving the Soviet Union, did not have the accurate diagnosis of the patient he was treating, nor the necessary tools to salvage what was salvageable.
When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, the winds of change sweeping the Soviet Union would grab the attention of editorial rooms in the media, including Asharq Al-Awsat. I requested the archive of photos of the officials who attended the 27th conference.
And I waited. Soon the names of “comrades” would start to tumble. The collapse reached its peak with the earthquake that was the suicide of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was an unprecedented sight and not a single bullet was shot.
The harrowing scene quickened the republics’ abandonment of the Soviet train. They soon declared their independence, washing their hands clean of the not-so-distant past, which was now viewed as an indictment.
The earthquake was violent, toppling the vast majority of the leaders in the photos. All but Castro remained even though his economy relied on Moscow’s generous aid.
It struck me at the time that Gorbachev was an inadvertent major killer. He killed regimes, parties and leaders when he paved the way for reforms because that opened the door for a violent storm of demands that are impossible to achieve.
The contradiction between Gorbachev’s rising popularity in the West and its resounding collapse at home was terrible.
The survivors of the Soviet collapse suffered from economic, security and ethnic problems. Many sensed that the secure job and services provided by the party were no more. Many blamed Gorbachev. People started to yearn for the days of Stalin, in spite of their horrors, and of Brezhnev, in spite of their dreariness. Communists inside Russia and beyond did not hesitate in calling Gorbachev a criminal, murderer and loser.
The truth is that the “criminal” was punished on several occasions. We can even go far as to say that he was killed twice. He was killed the first time when the West missed the opportunity to expand the European Union and bring in Russia and perhaps even Türkiye.
Some believe that the West was arrogant and hasty in dealing with Gorbachev and that it should have been generous in managing the defeat of the Soviet Union. It erred when it began to lure countries that escaped the Soviet cage to join NATO and consequently turn its weapons towards Russian borders.
Gorbachev was killed a second time when Russia threw its fate in the hands of Vladimir Putin, who was still a humble KGB officer when he stood at the Kremlin and delivered his bombshell.
The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. Putin and several others felt orphaned and abandoned. The military and security institutions chose this orphan to lead the operation of vengeance against the West in retaliation for the Soviet collapse.
Gorbachev was killed again when Putin launched Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Ukraine wall is now replacing the German one. The ghosts of the Cold War are awakening again at the sound of European artillery in a battle where all weapons – from gas to misinformation - are being used.
Carrying a bouquet of flowers, Putin bowed before Gorbachev’s coffin. It was as if he were blaming him for state of affairs. His busy schedule prevented him from attending the funeral of the last Soviet leader. The message was clear. He did not want history to write down that he walked in the funeral of the man who organized the Soviet funeral. Asking him to attend the funeral would have been like asking a wounded man to attend the funeral of his mother’s killer.