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Mikhail Gorbachev's Ex-Spokesperson: 1989 Set Off ''A Village Fire' In The USSR

Andrei Grachev served as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's spokesperson from August to December 1991.
Andrei Grachev served as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's spokesperson from August to December 1991.

The upheavals of 1989 that led to the collapse of eastern Europe’s communist governments would prove to be precursors of the USSR’s own collapse, but, at the time, this was far from clear. To find out firsthand how then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev interpreted the destruction of the Berlin Wall and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Current Time spoke with Andrei Grachev, Gorbachev’s press secretary from August – December 1991.

Was the declaration of an end of the Cold War, at the December 2-3, 1989 Malta summit between Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush, a general victory or a defeat for the Soviet Union?

Of course, this was seen as a general victory since the Cold War was a general problem, with all the risks and the threat of a universal catastrophe. If we look at the [December] meeting as a final political point for taking stock of 1989, then, of course, Gorbachev came there not as a person who had suffered a defeat, but, the opposite; as a leader of those historical changes that both the Soviet Union and the entire world lived through in 1989. We shouldn’t forget that he came there a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall …

How did the prospects for the future look?

What Gorbachev said there [at the United Nations in 1988]: that the Soviet Union proposes to others and takes upon itself the obligations not to use force to resolve political problems, not to interfere in other countries’ business, regardless of their political system. And this part of the phrase was important because this meant the ceremonial burial of the Brezhnev Doctrine [that advocated intervention in countries to defend communist rule].

That means that the Warsaw Pact countries were seen as completely sovereign, and not as countries with limited sovereignty. It means that the USSR will recognize each country’s right to choose; to choose a system, a leader, a way of life . . .

How did they react in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia?

There was an interesting and, in its own way, paradoxical situation here. And perhaps, the beginning of the critical moment in the existence of that political project of Gorbachev, when the processes it unleashed started, in some sense, to go out from under his control. In any case, to get ahead of his own calendar. Because his program – to put an end to the Cold War and confrontation with the West – was addressed first of all to Western societies, politicians. But they heard him in his own home – I mean the USSR and also the countries of eastern Europe.

Indeed, before all these “Velvet Revolutions” of 1989 started in eastern Europe, we should remember that everything was seething in our country over the first elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies. But events happened in Georgia [an April 1989 crackdown against protesters that killed 21 people – ed] …

And in the Baltic countries.

Of course. A conflict revived and flared up between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the summer … [we] observed the anniversary of the [1939] Molotov-Ribbentrop pact [that gave control of the Baltics to the Soviet Union]. This significant human chain, which passed through all the Baltic republics, was also a reverberation of that Gorbachev position. And this put a test before him: How serious was he when he declared that force will not be used to resolve political problems, both inside and outside [the USSR]?

The first test took place with the First Congress of People’s Deputies because the army had used force in Georgia to break up the demonstration and there were victims in Tbilisi. At the Congress, this was publicly discussed and condemned. And this was the first test of that very Gorbachev doctrine.

Then, the Warsaw Pact allies responded to this doctrine. First of all, because they had already built up experience by this time. The Hungarians also decided to jump into this window of sensed opportunities. And it began with their opening up free passage across the Hungarian-Austrian border for their own citizens; and then it ended up that residents of East Germany could also use this.

The situation in the GDR [German Democratic Republic], with the wall and Berlin, of course, was distinct from the other eastern European countries. Germany’s status was special. It was rooted in the decisions of the [World War II] victors.

I was in the group that accompanied Gorbachev in June [1989] during his visit to the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany]. And he had a meeting there with [West German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl.

He was met with fantastic hospitality, with triumph. One of his advisors openly said to him, “Mikhail Sergeevich, this delight from the Germans has not so much to do with perestroika, as with the hope that you [will fulfill] for the Germans this promise of a possible reunification of Germany.” But then, both Gorbachev and Kohl considered that this was a matter for the future because Gorbachev said, “Of course, sooner or later, this will happen.” But not in the immediate future.

But not only Gorbachev, but our Western partners – the French, the English – responded cautiously to this. With the French, with [President François] Mitterand, Gorbachev talked about how to speed up the reunification of Europe so that the reunification of Germany could be made part of this process; so that the reunification of Germany wouldn’t pull behind it the reunification of Europe, but the opposite. But everything happened spontaneously, as often happens in history.

There’s a popular story that the Soviet Union’s ambassador to East Germany slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall.

No, those are legends, myths. In reality, although he couldn’t set the date and didn’t want to play the role of an anti-Khrushchev [Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev], who gave [East German leader Walter] Ulbricht the green light to build the wall, Gorbachev also didn’t want to send masons to take it apart on his orders. He wanted, I think, that he’d wake up one day and find out that the Wall no longer exists.

And it turns out that Gorbachev’s dream worked out: The Wall is gone.

He also spoke about this in his last interviews; that he had found out about this at a later date. Whether or not he’s fudging, I don’t know. In any case, he removed any suspicion from himself that he had given the order to destroy this wall. And for that reason, he says that the Berliners destroyed the Wall, and his role amounted to creating conditions for this; creating conditions so that its foundation would be destroyed. And let the Germans themselves decide how to behave further.

At the time, you were in the international department of the Central Committee [of the Soviet Communist Party]. Do you remember this day? How did this all look?

The way it looked was based on information from [state news agency] TASS about the events of the preceding night [on November 8]. At the time, we didn’t have any breaking news on television. This was an account of the night’s events and that a barrier had been erected at the checkpoint and that masses of people from East Berlin were heading into the West without hindrance. We all – I, at least – took [this turn of events] as a relief since this meant that we had one less problem.

There wasn’t a feeling in Moscow that all this can lead to the government’s collapse in the Soviet Union?

At the time, it still appeared that these processes, since they were unleashed by initiatives from Moscow, would all be for the good. Moreover, in 1989, the main problems that led, finally, to the collapse of the USSR, to the August [1991] putsch [against Gorbachev] and, then, to Gorbachev’s resignation [in December 1991], were not that apparent.

Can we say that 1989 ended with Gorbachev’s resignation?

We can say that 1989 continued until 1991. The wind of those changes, whipped up by perestroika and passing through eastern Europe, simply spilled over into the Soviet Union. Right after [events in] the countries of eastern Europe, fires [of change] broke out on the periphery of the USSR, in the republics, starting with the Baltic and Caucasus [republics] and in others as well.

We can say that, as in a village fire, this 1989 revolution passed from one house to another, and ended with the Baltics in 1991, in Vilnius and Riga [where violent clashes occurred between Soviet forces and protesters]. Then, the Moscow events – both the conflict in the Supreme Soviet and on the streets of Moscow, and the opposition headed by [Russian Supreme Soviet Chairman Boris] Yeltsin, already led to Gorbachev, in an emergency, having to find a way to save the Soviet state. From that, the Novo-Ogaryovo process [to turn the Soviet Union into a federation of sovereign countries] was born.

And then, the August putsch. We can say that the political history of perestroika ended with that because the remaining months and attempts to glue together the hopelessly cracked cup ended with [the] Belovezha [Accords, which dissolved the Soviet Union].

You probably spoke many hours with Mikhail Gorbachev about what happened. You just mentioned a broken cup. If this was a broken cup, who broke it?

The cup is a figure of speech. But, one way or anоther, he wasn’t afraid to raise the issue that that model, that standard of measurement, according to which this overcoat – the Soviet Union, the Soviet state – had been tailored did not suit the time or peace.

What Gorbachev dared to do was to declare this out loud and to express, to formulate, a program about how, I would say, to realize his own type of preventive revolution. That is, to avoid a crisis that could turn into a crisis for a large amount of the population, into a large number of ethnic conflicts … It was obvious that this society and this country were heading into an unsolvable crisis.

I said to him that he essentially played the role of an anti-Lenin. Because he led the country out of the dead end of the Leninism and Bolshevism model, while leading the country along a political path that [allowed it to] avoid the fate of Yugoslavia. That is his enormous service.

And the second service was that he remained faithful to this project. For him, it was important that the country and society developed toward an open world, democracy, civilization. This was more important for him than his own political fate. And he showed this by his example …

I think that it’s not a big exaggeration to say that Russia’s history in the 20th century is divided into the phases before and after Gorbachev.