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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 29: Preparatory Notes from Georgy Shakhnazarov for Mikhail Gorbachev for CC CPSU Politburo Meeting, October 6, 1988

Traduction de Vladislav Zubok

Texte intégral

1This document reveals some of the reasons for Gorbachev’s “non-policy” in Eastern Europe. The USSR “transferred” its own system failure (brought on by “factors rooted in the very economic and political model of socialism”) to Eastern Europe after World War II. After that experience, the Kremlin leadership now appears to want above all “to avoid criticism for trying to impose” Soviet-style reforms through force “on our friends.” In this memo, Shakhnazarov thus repeats the taboo expressed by Gorbachev in conversations with his advisers and at Politburo meetings: no more military interventions. Shakhnazarov reminds Gorbachev that “even the old leadership” renounced the use of military force towards Poland in 1980-1981. But Gorbachev, as a member of the Politburo at that time, remembers it well.

2At the same time, Shakhnazarov points to the dangers of a “non-policy” and compares the Kremlin attitude towards Eastern Europe to “bury[ing] our heads in the sand like an ostrich.” He suggests that the Kremlin should carefully consider its options, particularly for an economic and financial bailout of the bankrupt Eastern European regimes. Clearly lacking political stature for the task himself, Shakhnazarov proposes that the Politburo’s International Commission, headed by Aleksandr Yakovlev, tackle this “huge problem.” In January 1989 the Yakovlev Commission, indeed, would order analyses of the situation of Eastern Europe (see below), but the Soviet leadership never manages to identify any specific policy options.

3Why did Shakhnazarov never follow up this memo to convene an expert group—in effect, joining the ostrich in the sand? In the Musgrove dialogue, he explains that during these months more than 90 percent of his time was devoted to political reform, such as preparations for the March 1989 elections to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. As a result, Eastern Europe fell off even his radar screen. Into this vacuum of inattention rushed the Eastern European opposition movements.


4Mikhail Sergeyevich!

5Perhaps you will find these thoughts useful.

6Today we are discussing the results of our talks with leaders or prominent figures from a number of socialist countries—K. Phomvihan, Vo Chi Cong, E. Honecker, N. Ceauşescu, [J.] Czyrek. Now Zh. Batmunkh is asking for a meeting.

7Each country has its unique situation, and we would be correct not to approach them as one bloc; we are trying to figure out specifics regarding each of them and to build our policy on the basis of such an analysis.

8At the same time, today’s exchange and broadly speaking everything that we know, all the information we are receiving, encourages us to make a multi-faceted evaluation of the situation in the socialist commonwealth. With all the differences and nuances, there are multiple signs that certain similar problems are increasingly plaguing the fraternal countries. The very similarity of the symptoms of the disease testifies to the fact that its catalyst is not some kind of malignant germ that has managed to penetrate their lowered defenses, but factors rooted in the very economic and political model of socialism as it has evolved over here and has been transferred with minor modifications to the soil of the countries that embarked on the path of socialism in the post-war period.

9We have already laid bare the weaknesses of this model and are beginning to remove them in a systematic way. This is actually the super-task of perestroika—to give socialism a new quality. A number of countries have followed us and begun, even ahead of us, the process of deep reforms. Some of them—the GDR, Romania, the DPRK [North Korea]—still do not admit the need [for reform] but do it instead for political reasons, because their current political leadership does not want to change anything. In reality all of them need changes, although we do not say this to them publicly in order to avoid being criticized for trying to impose perestroika on our friends.

10But the fact is that obvious signs of a crisis require radical reforms everywhere in the socialist world. And subjective factors play a huge role. For instance, in more-than-backward Laos, Phomvihan is acting skillfully, and there are some good results. But those who stubbornly turn a deaf ear to the call of the times are driving the malaise ever deeper and aggravating its future manifestations.

11This concerns us directly. Although we set aside our rights as “elder brother” in the socialist world, we cannot renounce the role of leader, the role that will always objectively belong to the Soviet Union as the most powerful socialist country, the motherland of the October Revolution. Whenever any of them was in crisis, we had to come to the rescue at the cost of huge material, political and even human sacrifice.

12We should clearly see, moreover, that in the future any option to “extinguish” crises by military means must be fully excluded. Even the old [pre-Gorbachev] leadership seems to have already realized this, at least with regard to Poland.

13Now we must reflect on how we will act if one or even several countries simultaneously become bankrupt? This is a realistic prospect, for some of them are on the brink of monetary insolvency (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Cuba, the GDR). Even Czechoslovakia, which has so far stayed afloat, now finds its external debt rising rapidly.

14What shall we do if the social instability that is now assuming an increasingly threatening character in Hungary coincides with another round of trouble-making in Poland, demonstrations of “Charter-77” in Czechoslovakia, etc.? In other words, do we have a plan in case of a crisis that might encompass the entire socialist world, or a large part of it?

15We are worried by this. When we receive alarmist cables from time to time, we do what we can; but all this is at best like applying a lotion to a sore—not a systematic, thoughtful treatment strategy for the disease, not to mention a preventive measure.

16It is high time to discuss these issues at the Politburo in the presence of experts. We should not bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich, but should look to the future with eyes open and ask ourselves the most precise questions:

  • Could the socialist countries escape a pre-crisis situation without Western assistance?
  • What price would they have to pay for this assistance?
  • To what extent should we encourage such a course of events or put up with it?
  • To what degree are we interested in the continued presence of Soviet troops on the territory of a number of allied countries (excluding the GDR)?

17We should assign the newly established International Commission of the CC the task of preparing materials for this discussion. This is a huge problem, in scope as well as in significance; we should tackle it continuously, but the first exchange should take place as soon as late December—early January 1989. There will be a working conference of the leadership of the commonwealth in Prague in February and that gives us a chance to share some of our conclusions with our friends. They are already expecting it although each of them, of course, sees the situation from “his own angle.”

18[Source: Published in G.Kh. Shakhnazarov’s Tsena svobody [The Price of Freedom] (Moscow: Rossika-Zeus, 1993) Translated by Vladislav Zubok.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

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