Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985, he did what all new leaders of that country do. He went on a “walk-about” to meet the people of Moscow.
But then he did what no other leader has ever done. He did not go to places where people were waiting for him with flowers and flags — and with everything spic and span.
He went to a supermarket and spoke to shoppers about the food shortages. He went to a creche and spoke to mothers who were fetching their children.
Then he visited a hospital and asked the staff about their work. They told him everything was fine. Gorbachev looked them in the eye and fired some questions: Do you have bandages? Do you have gut for sewing stitches — I know that’s always in short supply? Then he went through a list of drugs —did they have those?
The doctors looked at each other in surprise — and then they opened up. They told him about the problems and the shortages — like not having enough sheets to change the beds often enough, and how the patients got cold food because the kitchens were too old and small.
“You have to learn to tell the truth,” said Gorbachev. “We can’t help you if we don’t know what you need.”
Then he saw a little old woman looking at him from around a corner. He went to speak to her. “Babushka (granny), what do you do,” he asked gently. She said she was a cleaner. What did she earn? Eighty roubles a month — the minimum wage. How did she live on that salary?
“She can always get a second job in the evenings,” chipped in the hospital director.
Gorbachev spun around to look at the director. “You have to start paying people enough so they don’t need to do a second job,” he said angrily.
A NEW KIND OF HONESTY
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the eighth general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, brought a fresh, new style to the job — and a new kind of honesty.
He came with a message — a message that he summed up by bringing an old Russian word back to life: “Glasnost”, which simply means “openness”. Under Gorbachev, the spirit of “glasnost” is sweeping through the Soviet Union. People are looking at themselves as they have never looked before. People are talking about things they haven’t spoken about for years.
There is open debate in the newspapers and on television, in the factories and on the farms. People who were banned have been unbanned. Books that could not be read are back in the libraries. The missing pages of Russian history are being collected — and the mistakes of the past are being studied and discussed.
There is the sweet talk of democracy in the air. State officials now have to answer to the people — and the crooked ones are being thrown into the dustbins of history.
THE ROAD TO SOCIALISM
The new winds of “openness” have breathed a new life into a people who have walked a long, hard road to socialism.
Since the Communist Party came to power in the Revolution of 1917, it has turned the Soviet Union from a poor, backward country into one of the strongest in the world. There may be shortages and problems — but it is a country where nobody goes hungry. Everybody gets free education and medical care, and nobody is out of work.
But the people of the Soviet Union have paid a heavy price for the journey they have made. Millions of people died in the two world wars — and millions more died at the hands of the Russian leader Joseph Stalin, who ruled the country with an iron hand from 1927 to 1953.
SILENCE UNDER STALIN
The methods of Stalin went against the true spirit of socialism — and against the thinking of Vladimir Lenin, the first general secretary of the Communist Party and one of the founding fathers of socialism.
Stalin let nothing get in the way of his plans — no matter what the cost. He believed this was the only way to build the country. A country that is so large that it takes eight days to cross by train. A country so huge that it can be day in one part and night in another. A country so big that its people speak over 100 different languages.
Stalin believed that to push the country forward, he could not allow people to ask questions. There was no room to disagree and people were forced to be silent.
Since Stalin, there have been times when some “openness” was allowed. This happened for short periods under leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Andropov. But they could not change the system that Stalin built. The silence remained.
WHO IS THIS MAN?
So who is this ” straight talking” Mikhail Gorbachev who is now breaking the silence — and who is speaking of the need for “glasnost” or openness?
Who is this man who is saying that there must be no “blank spots” in the history of the Soviet
Who is this man who has the courage to say his country has made mistakes — like the sending of Russian troops into Czekoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979?
Who is this man who is allowing his country’s writers, artists and newspapers a new found freedom — and who says that there will be no more political prisoners in the Soviet Union by the end of this year?
Who is this man who is now saying that it’s time to look at the problems and weaknesses of the Soviet economy — and who talks of the need for “perestroika” or “restructuring” to put it right?
Who is this man who is talking about making the world a better and safer place — and who says that there should be no nuclear weapons left on earth by the year 2000?
Who is this man who has given a new look to the Soviet Union — and who is taking socialism to new heights with his strong belief in democracy and the socialist way of life?
Who is this man who talks straight when dealing with other countries — and who has even won the respect of the “cowboys” who like to believe there is a “red under every bed”?
Who is this man who has brought a new hope and a fresh vision to his own country — and to millions of other freedom loving people all over the world?
“A COUNTRY BOY”
Mikhail Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in the village of Privolnoye near the city of Stavropol, about 1400 kilometres south of Moscow. This part of the country lies between the Black and Caspian Seas. It is one of the most fertile areas in all of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev came from a family of peasant farmers, who were loyal members of the Communist Party. His grandfather was a founder and chairman of a collective farm. His father, Sergei, was a tractor driver and a combine harvester operator. He was “a modest man, deeply respected for his skills.”
There is not much information about his mother’s side of the family — except to say that she is still alive today and that Mikhail has never forgotten to buy her a present on her birthday!
Three years after Gorbachev began his education at the village school, the Second World War broke out. His father went off to fight Hitler and never came back. He died in action.
In 1942 the Nazis came to Gorbachev’s village. The young Gorbachev saw the terrible cruelty of the enemy soldiers. He remembers travelling around after the war and seeing the great cities of Russia lying in ruins.
“A MODEL WORKER”
At the age of 14 Gorbachev began his first job. He was an assistant to a combine harvester operator at a “machine tractor station”. These stations ploughed the fields of the farms in the area. In the evenings Gorbachev and his fellow workers attended night classes to learn about the history of socialism and the Communist Party.
From the start, Mikhail Gorbachev was a “model worker”. At the age of 17 he got an award for his hard work — the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. This honour is not given to many.
Gorbachev was also a brilliant young student. He got another award — a silver medal — when he finished secondary school. He then went to study law at Moscow University.
The fact that the “young country boy” made it to one of the best universities in the country says a lot about the fairness of the education system in the Soviet Union.
“A POPULAR STUDENT”
At university Gorbachev was an official of the Komsomol — the Young Communist League. An old friend and fellow student remembers him as “intelligent, bright, popular and open- minded.” In 1952 Mikhail Gorbachev became a full member of the Communist Party.
The following year Stalin died and the chief of the KGB (the Committee for State Security), Lavrenti Beira, took over. But he did not last long before he was kicked out.
Nikita Khrushchev was the next teader — and, for a while, there was a new feeling of openness. It was an exciting time at the university — and Gorbachev “joined in happily”. Looking back, this was an important time in Gorbachev’s life. It shaped his thinking for the future.
This future was soon to be shared by a bright, young woman called Raisa. Mikhail met her at the university — and married her a few years later. Raisa, an expert on family life in the Soviet Union, believes strongly in her husband’s ideas. She has, in many ways, been the driving force behind Gorbachev’s wish to further the rights of women in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev passed his final exams “with distinction” — and in the summer of 1955 he went back home to begin his career as a full time party worker.
WORKING WITH THE YOUTH
At first Gorbachev worked with the youth members of the Komsomol. He organised lectures, parades and elections. He also recruited volunteer youth workers. In the Soviet Union the party youth help with harvesting, and the building of dams and power stations. Because they do this work on weekends and in their spare time, they are called “subbotniks” (little Saturdays).
In March 1956, after less than nine months in the job, Gorbachev read Khrushchev’s “secret speech” about the crimes of Joseph Stalin. It was secret because it was only read by party members. It was never made public.
Up till this time, Stalin was treated like a god. So Khrushchev’s speech was an important step in the political education of young party officials like Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a flickering of glasnost, a beginning of the wish to uncover the “blank spots” of history.
CLIMBING THE PARTY LADDER
Gorbachev rose quickly up the party ladder. He soon became first secretary of the Komsomol, which gave him a seat on the party’s ruling council in the region.
In 1961, he went to Moscow as a delegate to the twenty-second congress of the Communist Party. At the congress he voted for Stalin’s body to be removed from the place of honour in Red Square, where the body of Lenin lies.
The next year, at the age of 31, Gorbachev was given a new job in agriculture – as an organiser for the collective farms in the area. He now studied part-time for a degree in farming. Besides being a trained lawyer, he was soon an expert on soil and on crop production.
In 1966 Gorbachev was made Secretary of the Communist Party in Stavropol city. Two years later he was Secretary of the whole Stavropol region.
At this time, Gorbachev became friendly with a powerful man, Yuri Andropov, who came to the Stavropol area for holidays. He was chief of the KGB. Andropov liked and respected the young Gorbachev — and helped him rise to the top of the Communist Party.
But it was not only powerful friends that sent Gorbachev to the top. He also had ability.
He showed this by starting a quick, new way of ploughing and harvesting. He sent “fleets” of tractors and combine harvesters to the corn fields. This helped to speed up the work of the farms in his area — and won him the praise of party leader, Leonid Brezhnev.
It was not long before Brezhnev called Gorbachev to Moscow — and put him in charge of farming for the whole of the Soviet Union.
A SKILLED POLITICIAN
As one writer puts it: “Gorbachev started with a bang. The harvest of 1978-9 was the best the Soviet Union had ever known…”
But the next year, the harvest was one of the worst. While others may have lost their jobs, Gorbachev showed a lot of political skill. He said he knew what was wrong and how it should be put right.
For example, he told the government to build better roads in the countryside. He said that lorries travelling from the farms to the railways lost a fifth of their load because of the bad, bumpy roads. But not all of Gorbachev’s ideas were accepted — like his idea to increase the size of private plots for farmers. He believed this would make farmers produce more.
When Brezhnev died in 1976 after 12 “stale” years in power, Gorbachev’s old friend Yuri Andropov took over. Under Andropov, Gorbachev became secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party. He and Andropov saw eye to eye on many things.
SOME IMPORTANT LESSONS
Andropov and Gorbachev believed that farm workers should have more control over their work — and that those who produced more should earn more.
But there was a problem. Even if farmers produced more and earned more money, there was no point if they could not buy anything with that money — or if the things they could buy were of poor quality.
Gorbachev was now learning some important lessons. When leaders like Andropov and Gorbachev said things “should be allowed to happen”, they often did not happen.
There was a reason for this. There were state officials who did not want to see changes in case they lost their power. This is an old problem in the Soviet Union, going back about 300 years.
Andropov began to remove those officials who were standing in the way of change. He wanted to put new people — like Mikhail Gorbachev — in their place. But Andropov was a sick man and did not live long enough to see the changes he wanted. He died early in 1984.
The next leader, Konstantin Chernenko, was a “Brezhnev man”. He believed in the old way of doing things.
But Chernenko was also a sick man. He died after only 11 months in the job. It was now the turn of Mikhail Gorbachev. He had learned much on his way to the top – and it was with these lessons in mind that he spoke of the need for “perestroika”
FACING THE PROBLEMS
Mikhail Gorbachev has explained the meaning of perestroika in his book “Perestroika — New Thinking For Our Country And The World.” Gorbachev says that the Russian people are proud of the great progress they have made since the Revolution.
But he says things began to slow down from the late 1970’s. The people on the farms and in the factories are not working at their best — and they are not using modern methods.
The Soviet Union is the biggest producer of steel in the world — but there are shortages because of wasteful use. The country is one of the biggest producers of grain — but they have to buy millions of tons of grain every year for animal food. The country can send rockets to the moon, but Soviet appliances — like TV sets and fridges — are of poor quality. “Our society is ripe for change. It has long been yearning for it,” says Gorbachev.
THE FIRST TASK
He writes: “People are the makers of history. So the first task of perestroika is to wake up those who have fallen asleep…”
He says it’s time to get the people going – and for people to have more discipline and self respect.
“Every single person must be part of perestroika….workers, managers, farm machine operators, journalists and politicians… everybody must look at their style and method of work….
“We must prick everybody’s pride….We must look at the way we live and the way we act. If we learn to work better, be more honest, and more decent, then we shall create a truly socialist way of life.”
A LITTLE STORY
Gorbachev says that perestroika will only work if people are positive in their work. He tells a little story:
A traveller went up to some people who were building something. “What is it you’re doing?” he asked. One replied angrily: “Oh look, from morning till night we carry these damned stones.” Another got off his knees, straightened his shoulders and said proudly: “You see, it’s a temple we’re building!”
Gorbachev says that if you see your task as the building of “a shining temple on a green hill”, the heaviest of stones are light, and the most tiring work becomes a pleasure. “Any job one takes on must be grasped and felt with one’s soul, mind and heart — only then will one work an extra bit harder…”
“DEMOCRACY IS THE KEY!”
The key to perestroika is more democracy, says Gorbachev. Workers must be in control of their work, as well as all other matters in their lives. There must be more self management in the factories and on the farms. Managers must be elected by the workers.
Factories and farms must start paying their own way. Those that make a loss will be closed down. Once farms and factories meet the production targets set by government, they will be free to decide what to produce and where to sell.
Farmers will be given bigger plots of land to farm for themselves — and people will be able to start small family businesses.
“Does perestroika mean that we are giving up socialism?” asks Gorbachev. “No,” he says. “We are looking within socialism, rather than outside it for the answers to the problems…We will proceed towards better socialism rather than away from it. We say this honestly without trying to fool our own people or the world.”
SEARCHING FOR PEACE
Gorbachev believes that perestroika will only succeed if there is a lasting peace in the world. He believes that a country cannot grow properly if it has to spend money on guns.
“We are all passengers on one ship, Earth, and we must not allow it to be wrecked… We want a world free of war, without arms races, nuclear weapons and violence.”
“We are all students, and our teacher is life and time…We want freedom to reign supreme in the coming century….We want people of every country to enjoy prosperity, welfare and happiness…”
Gorbachev believes that there is only one way to end wars: “Every people and every country must have the freedom of social and political choice.”
A MEETING WITH TAMBO
There are some people who believe that if Gorbachev wants perestroika to work, the Soviet Union will have to start saving more money and looking after its own needs. This means cutting down on the help they give to the people who are struggling for freedom in different parts of the world.
Gorbachev says this is not so. He says his country has always supported, and will keep on supporting, liberation movements around the world.
The ANC is one of the liberation movements Gorbachev has in mind. He writes: “When I met Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress, I said to him: “We side with you in your struggle against the apartheid regime and its henchmen, for a democratic state…”
Gorbachev says some people like to believe there is “a communist plot” in southern Africa. But this is not so. “The Soviet Union has no special interest in southern Africa. We want only one thing…peace and stability.”
IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE
The chances for such peace and democracy in South Africa — and other troubled spots — are now much greater with the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.
He believes that openness and common sense is the only way to solve the problems of the world — and that people should sit around a table and talk to each other.
But we should not fool ourselves. Gorbachev’s vision for his own country and the world will not last if it stays just a vision for too long.
Gorbachev needs results — and to get these results he needs help and support. He has, in many ways, put the future of his vision and himself in the hands of his people — and everybody else who believes in what he is doing!
THE ROAD FORWARD
The conditions in the Soviet Union and South Africa are quite different – and we are at different points in our struggle. But there is still much we can learn from Mikhail Gorbachev and the people of his country.
Perhaps the most important thing we can learn is the need to keep looking at ourselves honestly. And to ask questions: like — are we doing enough in our lives? Are we grasping the task at hand with all “our soul, mind and heart?” Is there enough “openness” among us?
And even with the great difficulties of detentions, state of emergencies and sometimes even death, can we truly say that the spirit of “glasnost” and democracy burns bright in our organisations? And for those of us in these organisations to stop and think: Are we working well enough? Is there a better way of doing things? Would some re-structuring help?
Perhaps we can even take it further and ask: When apartheid is dead and buried, will “glasnost” be part of our every day language? Will we learn and build on the lessons of “perestroika”?
If we can answer these sorts of questions honestly and truthfully, then we will surely have taken a step forward on the road to our “shining temple on a green hill!”