Professor Reflects on Gorbachev’s Legacy, Russia’s Failed Legal Reform
University of Virginia School of Law professor Paul B. Stephan’s legal career took shape as the Soviet Union was collapsing — and as Mikhail Gorbachev’s influence reached its peak. The Soviet leader who helped end the Cold War died Tuesday.
As a Soviet scholar, Stephan had a deep interest in the country’s politics and economy; as a former CIA employee, he was barred from traveling there until 1982. Gorbachev rose to general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985.
During Gorbachev’s time as Soviet leader, Stephan traveled to the region regularly, advising the government as it transitioned to some form of a more open economy and greater democratic accountability. At home in Charlottesville, he and a group of influential UVA lawyers were teaching up-and-coming scholars and advising investors interested in opportunities in the former Soviet economy.
Stephan reflected on Gorbachev’s impact on ending the Cold War and why he couldn’t hold on to power — or retain the esteem of his fellow Russians.
How did you get involved in the reform of the Soviet economy?
Before law school, I went to graduate school for Soviet studies, I did Russian studies as an undergraduate and I had a job at the CIA for two summers doing Soviet politics. When I joined the faculty here, I taught Soviet law every year as long as there was a Soviet Union. There weren’t many other people around who were doing Soviet law at American law schools at the time.
Around 1981, a good friend of mine, Rich Dean [’80] — whom I still teach with — got me involved in a U.S. organization that organized U.S.-Soviet “youth” meetings, and I ended up heading it for much of the ’80s. This kind of became my pathway first to going there and then going there with increasing frequency and meeting people. When Gorbachev launched a new quasi-democratically elected Congress in 1989, many of my counterparts became staffers in the new legislature.
The period he was in power —1985 to 1991 — was a period of intense [U.S.] engagement with the Soviet Union. I was probably averaging four trips there a year, some years more. For me, it was a period of surprise, optimism, excitement.
How did you end up meeting Gorbachev?
The American Bar Association sponsored a big conference in the fall of 1990, promoting Soviet-American business ties. I was part of the leadership for that conference, just because I was sort of the only game in town. So he hosted a big banquet for us in the Kremlin, and I was the only Russian-speaking member of the American leadership. One of the leaders of our delegation was talking to Gorbachev when I showed up, and he didn’t speak Russian. So I swept in and Gorbachev just gave me the funniest look because here I was — a young redhead, speaking heavily accented Russian and wearing a bow tie in a place where only waiters wear bow ties. So he clearly thought I was a Latvian waiter, until I sat down at the head table, four chairs down from him. And then I met him again when he was here at UVA for Founder’s Day in 1993.
What were you hoping would happen during this period of engagement?
My specialty was management of the Soviet economy and the politics of the management of the Soviet economy. There was a hope that they could find a pathway that places like Hungary had managed somewhat. But the system was profoundly corrupt — that was the core problem. History has not found a single case where centralized planning of the economy has really worked, other than briefly to solve some problem, such as what happened in the U.S. and in Great Britain during World War II. But absent national emergency and high public morale, it very quickly gets corrupted.
Was Gorbachev a help or a hindrance to this reform, in your mind?
He seemed sometimes to get it, but he also seemed to be playing this game where he honored the system that installed him in power. He really didn’t know any other system. But he also listened to a lot of smart people.
Which parts would you say were successful?
One thing he was quite successful at doing was opening up the culture. As early as 1987, there were movies, there were plays, there was television, there were newspapers that were taking a good, hard look at the recent past and the 1930s. It was a very exciting time; the world of ideas was very vibrant and the people were great. Good liberals like myself thought, “Well, if you're doing this, then you must be doing the right things and you can also organize the politics of the economy in a way that will be successful as well.”
How did it go wrong?
It had all come down by the time of the August 1991 coup. After the attempted coup, the leadership of the republics — Yeltsin first and foremost, but other republic leaders, as well — saw their opportunity and by the end of the year, they had liquidated the Soviet Union. This meant all its assets dropped down to the republics and it became theirs to manage and control. The new leadership contained a mix of people that the Western institutions loved — the IMF and the World Bank — and other people who were kind of predatory.
The struggle between the president and the legislature in Russia reached its peak in 1993, when Yeltsin did to Moscow what the coup leaders were unable to do in August of ’91, which is to say, he used tanks to blow up buildings and kill people.
Once Yeltsin got maximum power, he had eliminated all his opposition within the constitutional structure, but he had not eliminated the deep dissatisfaction of the population with the way things were going. And things stumbled along until he chose Putin as his successor.
Where does the corruption of the oligarchy stem from?
The oligarchs were beneficiaries of Yeltsin. The deeper corruption went back to the Soviet system and was full-blown in the years before Gorbachev came to power. People tied to the KGB and other power institutions began to take advantage of the collapse of central authority under Gorbachev. Corruption extended to anything having to do with foreign trade — all commodities, grain and oil, loaning art — anyone connected with that was almost certainly on the take. Uzbekistan, which is the third- or fourth-largest of the republics, did nothing but grow cotton. At one point, half or more of the production of the Uzbek cotton industry existed only on the books. They got paid for selling cotton that didn’t exist. That was the scale of the corruption and the evidence of the dysfunction of the system. That was what Gorbachev was trying to fight, but he wasn’t bold enough to really go after it. He wasn’t clever enough to come up with a power base for that. The general population hated being robbed, but how could they possibly identify with a man who didn’t drink and respected his wife? He really had no mass political base and he didn’t try to create one.
What was Gorbachev’s power base?
He came up with KGB sponsorship. He was sponsored by Yuri Andropov, who had been the head of the KGB and [Leonid] Brezhnev’s immediate successor. Gorbachev was an outsider from the provinces. He had an undergraduate degree in law from the country’s greatest university and later got a graduate degree in journalism. He was a Communist Party apparatchik — a functionary in the Communist Party — for his entire career, from 1954 to 1978, when he was brought back to Moscow. He did come from a very important agricultural area, Stavropol, which is sort of the Mississippi of the Soviet Union.
Supposedly, he was the first Communist leader since Lenin to study law. How did that impact his approach to reform?
Almost not at all. When he was engaging the West and he was talking reform, he would bring in “the rule of law” as a rhetorical device. And he used other phrases like “common values civilization.” He was the first Soviet leader to use rhetoric like that, and he did have lawyers as part of his team. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, people had this idea that law could be the transitional bridge between the Soviet centralized economic and political system and something more open and responsive, although they weren’t clear what that would be exactly. But they thought law would be the way, although the model they looked to was Germany and France — it never was the United States.
What would be an example of that?
Their idea of the rule of law was that Russia would be a law-based state — in German, a rechsstaat — that state power would be wielded through law. It did not mean that law would constrain state power, or that no one is above the law. It was a kind of legitimacy — it’s an important kind of legitimacy, but it’s not the Anglo-American conception.
At what point did you realize that despite all the headiness of the early days, it just wasn’t going to happen?
The coup, really. Having spent that summer in Moscow, I went home the week before the coup and we were moving into a new house the day the coup started. My wife said that if the move hadn’t happened, I would’ve been on the plane back over there. But after that, it was absolutely clear that Gorbachev was no longer going to be leading reform and that the people who were going to be coming after him were very much in it for themselves.
What was the difference between Gorbachev and those successors?
The interesting thing about Gorbachev was that although he was certainly into power, he was not corrupt in the kind of peacock-display type of corruption, the way Yeltsin kind of was, and the way Putin and the prior Soviet leaders have been manifestly. He loved, honored and respected his wife, which made him a freak in Soviet circles — very different from Putin and Yeltsin —and he didn’t drink very much at all, which made him profoundly different from Yeltsin. (Although Putin is kind of like that.)
When I joined the faculty here, I took my Russian studies mentor from Yale to Monticello and he was shocked by how small it was. Even a minor Russian aristocrat would have a much grander place than this, much less the maximal leader. In that sense, Gorbachev was modest. He certainly didn’t live in poverty, but he did not live with grandiose wealth displays. People looked out for him after he lost power, particularly in Germany. But he did Pizza Hut ads because he had to — because he hadn’t stolen money from the state.
He wasn’t owned by anybody.
Not at all. Quite the contrary. He wasn’t very good at forming alliances that could protect him. He really relied on his office and his trusted advisers, but they didn’t represent the power of the ministries that were the coup plotters — the KGB, the ministry of the interior, senior generals, the head of the joint chiefs of staff. These were the people who ousted Gorbachev in August ’91. He was certainly not without his flaws, but for that period in time, and in the context of Russian history, I think he’s fairly admirable.
How did he survive so long, especially while being such a pariah in the former Soviet Union?
The demographics for Russian men are pretty bad, and it’s not any better for Russian leaders. He was remarkably old. Both Yeltsin and Putin understood that they faced the prospect of being former leaders one day, and they didn’t want to create a precedent. Although Gorbachev did run for president in ’96, he was not a serious threat. He got less than one-half of a percent in the popular vote. If he had been more popular in Russia, he might have been suppressed in some way. Instead, he became the scapegoat.
The Gorbachev-scapegoating still works for Putin?
To this day, Putin is as popular as he is because many Russian people think he is now respected and feared. Part of what it meant to be a proud Russian in Soviet times was to be at the head of this empire of nations and to be respected and feared by the West. It’s not just Russia — they ruled the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Baltics, the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians. And they lost both the empire and the respect and fear of the West. And they blame Gorbachev for that.
What’s the thread that connects Gorbachev’s legacy to the crisis in Ukraine today?
First of all, Gorbachev defended what happened in Crimea as did Solzhenitsyn’s widow [Natalia Solzhenitsyn] and Alexander Navalny. Everyone in Russia who was not a pariah thought it was great that they got Crimea back. By the time this Ukraine operation happened, Gorbachev was pretty sick, but he did not directly attack the invasion of Ukraine. Gorbachev’s legacy, from the perspective of Russia today, is as someone who gave up the empire — and most Russians think it’s a good thing to try and get the empire back.
What could he have done differently to build a power base?
My colleague Herbert Hausmaninger — we used to teach Soviet law together — felt that Gorbachev could have denounced the Communist Party sooner and run for president sooner to shift his power base from the party to the presidency. He could have liquidated the party altogether as Yeltsin did when he took power, and he could have tried to create a popular referendum for himself. He could have set up an electoral face off with Yeltsin earlier. He might have prevailed; he might have lost. But he was very averse to letting go of the structures on which his power was based.
Does it strike you as a tragedy the way everything’s turned out?
Nothing in Russia is not a tragedy.
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