Mikhail Gorbachev has died.

Plenty of glowing tributes to him in the Western media. Russians up to and including V Putin may be rather less forthcoming. Here’s a nice account of his various visits to the UK over the years.

Gulp. It’s now nearly 40 YEARS since 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At 53 he was relatively young for a Soviet leader: the USSR had gone through some awkward leadership disarray following the death of the mouldering Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and then the deaths in office of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Time for someone to lead the USSR who looked unlikely to keel over embarrassingly! But would this new chap, who seemed oddly willing to meet and talk to actual Soviet citizens, make any real difference?

The then British Ambassador Sir Bryan Cartledge thought not. In his final despatch to London argued that it would take Mikhail Gorbachev ‘20 years, perhaps a generation’ to change the Soviet Union: ‘I do not believe that Gorbachev and his allies can bring about a moral, social, psychological, political and economic revolution in the Soviet Union more quickly than that.’

This assessment built on another spectacularly wrong prediction from Sir Brian’s own predecessor a few years earlier, who had argued that if Gorbachev came to power in Moscow he would be unlikely to make any significant changes. 170 weeks after Sir Brian left Moscow, the Soviet Union collapsed.

It soon became clear that the new Soviet leader really did want to bring in radical changes. In successive keynote speeches such as this one in Vladivostok in 1986 Gorbachev signalled a willingness to engage with the Western side of the Cold War in a quite new, constructive spirit, not least in ending the nuclear arms race. Perhaps above all, he sounded to Western ears like something approaching a normal person, not a cold communist ideological machine.

Gorbachev soon started to score above US President Ronald Reagan in opinion polls in European countries. The Foreign Secretary in London called a meeting to see what might be done about that. The assembled mandarins thought that we should inspire a quizzical article or two in The Economist. I as the maverick speechwriter for Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe suggested to collective mandarin scowling that some punchy article in The Sun might be a better way to meet the challenge.

Perhaps getting over-excited at his soaring poll ratings in the West, Gorbachev pressed time and again two new phrases that seemed to sum up what he wanted to achieve. Glasnost (гласность) meaning ‘openness’, and Perestroika (перестройка) meaning ‘restructuring’ or ‘rebuilding’. Hurrah! What was not to like here? At last we all had a smiling communist who was open! And wanted to restructure! All with a (short-lived) renewed nationwide campaign to try to reduce the consumption of vodka! Fight drunkenness!

The Paris Review - Booze in the USSR: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Propaganda Posters  "Socially dangerous" -- a Soviet anti-alcohol poster in 1985.

But restructure … what exactly? Could Soviet communism be ‘restructured’ at all, even in theory? What would that look like if it happened?

As a commiephobic FCO speechwriter I had to find words to help shape the UK’s official response to these certainly very different and in fact quite positive goings-on in Moscow. So I managed to arrange a meeting in 1986 with top KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky about a year after he was exfiltrated from Moscow by MI6.

We talked about what Gorbachev was trying to do at that time to reform Communism, not least his campaign to cut Russians’ massive vodka consumption to make the Soviet economy more effective.

Gordievsky said that Gorbachev (whom he knew very well) utterly misunderstood the problems. He really believed that the Soviet economy was like a car whose only problem was a badly running engine: if it stopped running on vodka and tried running on petrol, the Engine of Socialism would whir into action and propel it off into a bright future.

I said that Communism assumed that the fuel of disciplined creativity which ran a society was like milk from a magic cow which could be milked greedily without limit. When the cow finally collapsed and died, the ensuing starvation was never the fault of the people who had flogged it to death. But there were no magic cows.

In other words,” I said, “Gorbachev believes in witchcraft?

“Exactly – he believes in witchcraft!”

And so it proved. Whereas China’s communists took seriously the idea of unleashing market forces while maintaining tight political control (ie not much Glasnost but drastic Perestroika), Gorbachev’s USSR did it the other way round. All sorts of critical voices were suddenly tolerated but actual economic reform was close to zero.

Thus the global hugely hyped global roadshow featuring lively young Russian reformer Grigory Yavlinksy and Graham Allison from Harvard to try to drum up international support for their supposedly bold plan to transform the USSR to a market economy. We all raced to Chatham House, wanting to be impressed. Senior officials from HM Treasury sat there agog, open to serious ideas for pumping in large resources to support a good smart plan.

But it was a flop. Their energetic pitch amounted to a detail-free appeal: “Give us lots of money – and trust us to use it wisely!”. Everyone shuffled away unimpressed, even embarrassed.

Thus in 1991 the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Scientific Socialism had turned out to be a fine way of teaching us about some Iron Laws of Economics. Namely that if you don’t let anyone work out a good business plan for importing bananas, there will be no bananas across 11 time zones. Gorbachev as the CPSU General Secretary had no job once there was no SU.

But he believed in PEACE! Maybe, although the nasty 1989 massacre of Georgians by Soviet security forces demonstrating for their own freedom (and in 1991 some killings in Latvia) showed that peace for Soviet citizens had to come on Moscow’s and Gorbachev’s faltering terms.


Mikhail Gorbachev – even when appointed to the USSR’s highest position – did not understand what communism was. His cack-handed supposed reforms unleashed forces and ideas that he could not control.

That’s probably why Putin and other Russian leaders today have not granted Gorbachev the honour of a state funeral, and instead are going through the motions of honouring him without really meaning it. In their eyes Gorbachev was something close to a traitor because he allowed Russia’s power to be hugely diminished but got next to nothing from the West in return.

In short? He incompetent. And for top Russians, that is unforgivable.