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Gorbachev’s Seven Mistakes In the August 19th Incident

An article by a Chinese professor that reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s views of former Soviet leader Gorbachev.

[Editor’s note: Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev made history with his contribution to democratic advancement and the dissolution of the communist camp in Eastern European countries. Having survived the crisis of the student-led democratic movement in 1989, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards Mr. Gorbachev as a lesson in failure and has been particularly wary of an emergence of a Chinese Gorbachev. The following article was written by a professor from the College of International Relations, Renmin University of China on August 18, 2004.]

The August 19th Incident in 1991 in the former Soviet Union that shocked the world is a significant event during the dramatic change of the Soviet Union. Thirteen years have passed. Still when reviewing the incident, people react with emotion.

The August 19th Incident was a fight by the conservatives of the former Soviet Union to save the nation in the face of deep crisis. The goal was to protect the solidarity of the federated country, the dominance of the Communist Party, and the choice of socialism.

Back then the Soviet Union was in a desperate situation, where there were a lot of fierce political conflicts, and the radicals were growing rapidly and were anxious to take over power. The socialism of the Soviet Union was in dire peril. On the other hand, the conflicts within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were surging and the Party was deeply divided. As Mikhail Gorbachev said at the July Plenary Assembly of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee that year, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was experiencing a crisis; there were 4.2 million people who quit the Party in the last one and half years, and many party factions were emerging. Reportedly there were 10 large factions. In addition, a national split was forthcoming. A crisis in which the Soviet Union was heading toward collapse appeared.

At this critical moment, the Central Committee of the Union, led by Vice President Gennadi Yanaev, a conservative leader, decided to launch a coup against Gorbachev when the latter was out of his office on vacation. They launched the coup on August 19 and declared a national emergency. However, the government was very weak in its functions, the military was divided, the social ideology was in extreme chaos, and the situation was very unfavorable for the conservatives. The conservatives’ coup not only failed to get positive support from various organizations of the Soviet Communist Party, but also faced intense opposition from the radicals. As a result, the conservatives’ coup lasted for only three days and quickly failed. Instead, the failure of the August 19th Incident further accelerated the fall of the Soviet Communist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tragedy of the fall of the State and Party finally occurred.

Later, Gorbachev simply attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to the August 19th Incident launched by the conservative leaders. Many people also talk about how the August 19th Incident led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Evidently such a conclusion is wrong. The key to the dramatic change and to the fall of the Soviet Union was the serious and directional mistakes that Gorbachev made, which led the Soviet Union’s reform astray.{mospagebreak}

Generally, Gorbachev’s reform made the following seven mistakes:

1. Overzealously promoting so-called "openness" and negating the revolutionary history and realistic socialism. Gorbachev preached the so-called "absolute openness," and advocated "unlimited openness without any reservation." He turned openness into a "one way street" that was dedicated to uncovering the dark and negative side of the history and the present. In particular, Gorbachev belittled and smeared the era of Brezhnev and called the Stalin era "the totalitarian bureaucracy," thus putting the Communist Party and the socialist system in a false light. Such "openness," in fact, became the breaking point leading to the final collapse of the Soviet Union.

2. Widely promoting "democracy" and encouraging anarchism and social riots. At the 19th Plenary Assembly of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev stated that the Soviet Union must implement an "unconditional democracy." The promotion of such "democratization" resulted in mass gatherings, the surge of demonstrations, frequent rallies of political dissidents, and the founding of various unofficial organizations, which jumped from 30,000 in December of 1987 to over 90,000 in 1990. These unofficial organizations aggressively held anti-communist and anti-socialist rallies. Later they united to become various political parties, waging a war to gain control from the Soviet Communist Party.

3. Arduously advocating "pluralism" and denying the guidance of Marxism and Leninism. Gorbachev wanted various publications to be "filled with pluralism," and proposed to "abandon spiritual monopoly." Introducing pluralism into the ideological sphere, he allowed the rampage of bourgeois freedom, thus thus leading to pluralism with regard to the guiding thoughts and to chaos with regard to the idealogy both inside and outside the Communist Party. In the meantime, Marxism and Leninism were subject to vicious attacks. Grigoriy Yakovlev, an assistant close to Gorbachev and also a member of the Political Bureau of the Soviet Communist Party, said publicly, "Marxism finally has led us to destruction, backwardness, and degeneration of morality," and "deep in its genes, communism consists of original sins." As the facts proved later, denying Marxism and Leninism resulted in the destruction of the theoretical foundation of the Communist Party and the socialist system, and in the destruction of the ideological guarantee of a multinational unitary country. This is one of the very reasons that led to the dramatic change and collapse of the Soviet Union.

4. Sparing no effort in pushing "fundamental reform" of the political system and introducing the Western-style political model. Gorbachev preached the "three-branch theory" and "free elections," and stressed "parliamentary democracy," the "multi-party system," and "presidential accountability," which all targeted the Communist Party and the socialist system. In particular, the "multi-party system" was actually to encourage the anti-communist and anti-socialist forces to become more organized and united in fighting against the (Soviet) Communist Party for power. In February of 1991, there were 20 nationwide parties in the Soviet Union, and over 500 political parties at the republic level, most of which were against the Communist Party and socialism. Right before the August 19th Incident, the Soviet Communist Party had already lost its power and become the opposition party in seven of its republics and in a number of important cities. Later the anti-communist forces continued to take power, the Soviet Communist Party fell to its knees, and the socialist system was completely destroyed.{mospagebreak}

5. Greatly ignoring ethnic issues and turning a blind eye to national separatism. As a multi-ethnic republican country consisting of over 100 ethnic groups, the Soviet Union had very complicated ethnic relationships, with Russians accounting for 51 percent of the total population. Initially Gorbachev did not pay much attention to ethnic issues, because he frequently reiterated the view of Leonid Brezhnev, and stressed, "The Soviet Union has destroyed various forms and representations of ethnic oppression and ethnic issues." As national separatism rapidly spread and more republics declared independence, Gorbachev, instead of taking immediate measures to stop the spread of separatism, left it alone and conceded step by step. In the three drafts of the new Union Treaty he proposed, he made further concessions from deleting the terms "Socialist" and "Soviet," to emphasizing the "sovereignty rights" of various republics, and ruling that the new country would be a confederation instead of a federation. In spite of his concessions, the Soviet Union embarked on the road leading to separation.

6. Extensive implementation of "complete innovations," which, step by step, brought the Communist Party to its end. Instead of relying on the Soviet Communist Party to reform, Gorbachev took the Party as the enemy of the reform. He targeted the reform directly at the Communist Party, claiming that, "in decades, the Soviet Communist Party has been the servant of the totalitarian bureaucracy." Not only did he confuse the minds of many Party members, but he also fired veteran leaders group by group, and rebuilt the leadership structure of the Party at his own will. At the 28th Plenary Assembly of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev further altered the characteristics of the Communist Party and abandoned the Party’s principle of centralized democracy, which led the Soviet Union to organizational division. Additionally, after the August 19th Incident, he published a statement as President of the Soviet Union, announcing his resignation as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee and asking the Central Committee to dissolve itself. Step by step, he destroyed the Soviet Communist Party.

7. Thoroughly denying the class struggle in the world and fostering Western countries’ strategy of peaceful transformation. While the "New Thinking" diplomacy that Gorbachev put forward corrected the mistakes of expansion and hegemony in the past, he went to the other extreme by taking as the core of his diplomatic policies "the interest of humankind first" and by completely denying the objective existence of class struggles around the globe. Gorbachev stressed to "eliminate the confrontation between the two major social systems," cooperated with Western nations to peacefully transform the Soviet Union, acquiesced to the interference of Western countries in the internal matters of a socialist country, and supported the anti-communist forces. All of these won him high praise from the Western countries. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in her speech on January 1, 1999, "the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe are attributed to Gorbachev and Gorbachev should be commended." On December 25, 1991, the U.S. government issued a written statement, speaking highly of the achievements of the Gorbachev era. In a public speech, President George Bush said, "the recent incident (the collapse of the Soviet Union) obviously is in the interest of our country." Former U.S. President Ronald Regan also said, "Gorbachev will be remembered forever."{mospagebreak}

As shown above, the erroneous course of Gorbachev’s reform was indeed the critical reason behind the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, however, never acknowledges his mistakes. On the eve of the fall of the State and Party, Gorbachev made a speech on December 14, 1991, feeling at ease and justified. He said, "The main purpose of my life has been accomplished and I’m feeling peaceful." In his book, The August Coup, Gorbachev states, "Somebody asked me what I would have chosen if I were able to return to the spring of 1985. ‘I would have taken the same path without any hesitation,’ I answered." This is the true Gorbachev.

Translated by CHINASCOPE

Wang Zhenquan is a professor at the College of International Relations, People’s University of China.