It was during the evening of March 10th 1985 that Communist Party General Secretary, Konstanin Chernenko, who had been slipping into decrepitude for at least a year, died. The Central Committee wasted little time appointing Gorbachev as successor.
Much revisionist ink has been spilt diminishing Gorbachev's reformist credentials. By some assessments he was simply engaged in a belated rearguard action, attempting to salvage a crumbling empire. However, at the time of the General Secretary's appointment, neither the shape of 'perestroika', nor the dismantling of oppressive structures which accompanied it, were inevitable.
Certainly Gorbachev aspired to breathe new life into a moribund Union. His aim of withdrawing Soviet forces from Afghanistan was not realised until 1989, but it was an ambition from the outset. The USSR still wielded incredible power when Gorbachev reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine.
Howell refutes the notion of the Soviet leader as little more than a Communist apparatchik, swept along on tides of history which he could not understand and hadn't the firmness of purpose to resist.
“He had a vision. This was of a gradual unfolding of great Russia, after the dark years of trauma, enshrined in the twin goals of perestroika and glasnost – breaking out from past stagnation and opening out Russian society. This required nothing less than the removal of the Communist party machine, with it myopia and its deadly dogma, from every walk and level of Russian life.”
In its eagerness to see the USSR broken up, and new markets opened, the west did not support Gorbachev's gradualist project. Instead he was bombarded by “facile advice poured into Russia by ill-informed western economists, ideologues and even statesmen – all telling Russian leaders that they only had to lift all controls and the markets would produce the goods”.
The result was chaos, disintegration and Yeltsin. It is clear how Howell ranks the first president of the Russian Federation, as against the statesmanship and vision displayed by Gorbachev.
“Yeltsin, although brave, was also lazy, bottle-happy and content to let the nastier Russian elements have their way. Criminal and official activities became sinisterly and indistinguishably mixed – and remain so.”