Vladislav Zubok: To Realize You Lose an Empire, You Have to Be a Conscious Imperialist

Nobody in Russia thought about Eastern Europe as a Soviet colony. This explains why public opinion in Moscow took the so-called loss of Central Europe with a remarkable equanimity—says Vladislav Zubok in an interview by Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: Why did Moscow let the round table in Poland happen in 1989 and subsequently agree to the partially free elections?

VLADISLAV ZUBOK: It was part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wider plan: to return the Soviet Union to Europe for security, economic, cultural and geopolitical reasons. He gradually formulated a new course between 1985 and 1989 based on the assumption, that the old course was inadequate and leading in the worst scenario to nuclear disaster and at best to continuing international escalation and ongoing economic decline, etc.

He wanted to end the cold war and open up the Soviet Union mostly to Europe in the field of technology, economics, know-how, in other words, all things necessary for future Soviet economic development. He knew that the ongoing Cold War affected negatively clearly everything: from science to the well-being of citizens.

Moscow was speaking about New Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok, even if many people in the West were extremely suspicious, viewing it a Soviet plan to undermine NATO. Their suspicions proved to be wrong because Gorbachev sincerely wanted to end the Cold War and reform the Soviet Union.

So what is the place of Eastern Europe in Soviet plans?

This region earlier had a crucial strategic position because of its location between NATO and the Soviet Union, but this position lost its meaning with the new project of Perestroika. Gorbachev began to view Eastern Europe as a liability, not an asset for the USSR, as a symbol of the division of Europe. He did not quite know how to proceed about it. They were communist countries ruled mostly by pro-Soviet communist leaders, in the style of the Brezhnev era. Gorbachev did not know how to speak to those people. The situation was better, however, in Warsaw.

In what sense better?

The Soviets did not invade Poland in 1980-81 when Solidarity was on the verge of turning Poland into a non-communist country. Instead, they helped Jaruzelski become the military dictator of Poland and cracked down on Solidarity. Also, General Jaruzelski was not a typical communist leader, he was rather a military leader, with whom it was easier for Gorbachev to talk than with somebody like Gustáv Husák in Czechoslovakia or Erich Honecker in East Germany.

Gorbachev gave the green light to the round table. He did this even though Poland was a cornerstone for the Warsaw Pact, the country that was a strategic corridor connecting the Soviet Union to East Germany, where the largest group of forces outside the USSR was located. So it was a risky step but Gorbachev assumed that Jaruzelski would be pragmatic, and he trusted his judgment.

So Gorbachev trusted Jaruzelski a great deal.

Gorbachev trusted him more than he trusted other leaders of Eastern European communist countries. At the same time, he warned Jaruzelski that the round-table would be his experiment, his responsibility, that Moscow would not be involved and that Poland could not count on Soviet intervention whatever happened.

Wasn’t it extremely risky for Moscow to give Jaruzelski that much freedom? Poland could turn—as it happened—into a non-communist state and Moscow could lose its crucial satellite within the Eastern Bloc.

Historians still discuss why Gorbachev took such a big gamble. Some historians connect it with his romanticism and naiveté. They say that the Soviet leader simply did not realize what risks he was taking. They also say that Gorbachev expected that instead of the old communist leaders, Eastern Europeans would choose somebody younger who would become “Eastern European Gorbachevs”. Another interpretation is based on the domestic situation in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s decisions were risky, but what were the other options? To keep on imposing Soviet will on Poland, which meant that the Soviet Union would be responsible for the plight of the Polish economy and a new political explosion in Poland? The last option also meant that the Soviets would have to bail out Poland financially. By 1989, Poland was dozens of billions of dollars in debt to Western banks. Even Leonid Brezhnev did not want to take responsibility for this debt.

Historians still discuss why Gorbachev took such a big gamble. Some historians connect it with his romanticism and naiveté.

Why didn’t they pay more attention to what was happening in Poland?

If you follow the documentation, you will see that they stopped paying attention to Poland in 1989. They were focused on other crises. The process of the dissolution of the Soviet Union had already begun a year earlier, in 1988, in the South Caucasus. But even before, I don‘t think that Gorbachev paid all that much attention to Eastern Europe.

Really? I was just going to ask you, is 1989 the only moment in history, when this region held a central place in Moscow’s foreign policy.

It didn’t hold a central place, not at all. Eastern Europe preoccupied the Soviet leadership for decades, one need only recall the Brezhnev doctrine. Any problem in the region could be a potential crisis for the Kremlin. Any small disturbance could result in a serious Soviet reaction. And then under Gorbachev, this obsession came to an end.

So what was Moscow focused on?

Firstly, the Gorbachev leadership refocused its attention on another task: rapidly improving relations with the Americans. They were searching for a new model of cooperation with Washington. 1986-88 was the time of the Soviet-Western summits, between Gorbachev and Reagan, then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, etc. Secondly, the Soviet leadership became preoccupied with domestic issues. The crisis of Perestroika became visible already in 1988 and led to serious problems with political and economic governance.

We should recall that the first semi-free elections in the Eastern Bloc took place not in Poland but in the Soviet Union—in the spring of 1989. It started even before the Polish round table. In May-June 1989, the First Congress of People‘s Deputies took place and it had a mind-blowing effect on the entire country: not only on the intelligentsia but on everyone. That was a political revolution.

Then there were ethnic conflicts. There was fighting between Azeris and Armenians and many other unrests. On 9 April 1989, the Soviets used force in Georgia and it led to bloodshed. Soviet control over Georgia was gone. then the three Baltic republics revolted peacefully against Soviet rule. What was the place of Eastern Europe in Soviet priorities at this time? It was probably number twelve for Gorbachev, after many other regions.

You mentioned Georgia and the Baltic states that were at the forefront. But Moscow wasn’t worried that the example of a peaceful revolution in Poland might inspire some nations within the Soviet Union like the Armenians or Ukrainians?

Let me provide you with one interesting episode that took place in Beijing. Gorbachev normalized relations with China and he happened to be there during the student revolution. He left shortly before the Tiananmen massacre because the Chinese officials were too embarrassed to do anything in his presence. When he then watched the Tiananmen massacre on CNN, he turned to one of his advisors and said: “Look what happened there—you want me to follow the Chinese path? I don‘t want what happened there to happen on Red Square”. Of importance in that story is the chronology. Already before the Polish elections, Gorbachev was determined not to use force any longer.

Speaking of 1989, did Moscow have any idea how to renew its relations with countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, how to build it on a new basis? Many people, who were active political figures at that time, have been saying that Finlandization was the maximum, what the Polish or Hungarian opposition was counting on.

You touched on something very important. Gorbachev was expecting that the Soviet Union would become a pillar—together with the West—of new world order. And that was, in a sense, out of hubris, because he overlooked the special role in Eastern Europe in all this. When Gorbachev was trying to reach to western partners like Reagan, Bush, Mitterrand or Kohl, he ignored the fact, that Eastern European countries would do the same. They would try to become members of NATO, they would join the European Union. And of course, the Soviet Union began to fail and collapse, instead of becoming a pillar of the new order.

What I also found strange was the absence of an alternative economic strategy. What would happen with the economic relations between the countries within the Eastern Bloc and the Moscow if they established a new world order? Will we lose it? Yes, that is exactly what happened at the end of 1989. The trade between the USSR and Eastern Europe just collapsed, because in January 1990 the Soviet government demanded that all trade should be denominated in dollars, at world prices. It was madness: nobody in Eastern Europe had enough money to pay for Soviet oil and other goods. And the Soviet Union as well, instead of obtaining trade profits, ended up with a trade deficit. It tells us something important about this time: a lack of background planning. What a remarkably myopic idea: let’s skip relations with Eastern Europe and trade directly with Western Europe, Germany or the United States!

In the late nineties, most of the Central European states became members of NATO. Do you think that that scenario crossed anyone’s mind in the Kremlin in 1989 when they let Poland or Hungary go? Was in imaginable that the geopolitical situation might change that drastically?

Of course, it crossed their mind. That was a standing geopolitical fear, especially among the military and people of old-thinking (Gorbachev and his crew were called “new-thinkers”). The justification for the Warsaw Pact and for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was exactly that: “We cannot lose the Czechoslovak strategic corridor between our borders and West Germany.” It was openly and publicly discussed. Hardliners raised the issue: “What if we give freedom to the Eastern European states and NATO will consequently come to our borders?”. But it was dismissed.

In the 1988-1989 period, however, that kind of thinking was utterly discredited and dismissed in the Soviet Union. It was the peak of Gorbachev‘s Perestroika and the rise of democratic pro-western movements among the Moscow intelligentsia. Those movements had a pro-Western and anti-communist character. People who joined those movements believed that NATO was no longer an enemy. Those people believed that the Soviet Union should become part of Europe, taking up Gorbachev’s idea of Europe and lauding it to the skies.

In 1990, the Warsaw Pact still existed but everyone understood that Gorbachev was not going to use force. Even among the military in Moscow, there were people who began to believe that Soviet security interests did not require the preservation of the Warsaw Pact. But they were quite shocked in 1991 when they began to see that their former colleagues, the Eastern European militaries, began to distance themselves from them and made approaches towards NATO.

Gorbachev accepted it fully?

He wanted to create a new security architecture of Europe, where the Soviet Union would be a major sponsor and a pillar. In other words, he believed that NATO would start disappearing after the end of the Cold War, just like the Warsaw Pact. He did not believe that NATO would invite Eastern Europeans to join.

At the time the Bush administration was extremely cautious because the last thing they wanted to do was to provoke Soviet security fears. They didn’t want an invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia to be repeated. Later on, directly after the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, they even began to say that NATO was changing its nature, it was no longer a military pact but was becoming a political association.

So Gorbachev believed that the Central European countries and the Soviet Union would actually remain allies within one camp, but that this would be just a bigger camp from Vancouver to Vladivostok…

But what Gorbachev didn’t expect was that Americans didn‘t fully share this New Global Order idea. The Bush administration wanted to lock American gains in. President Bush never said publicly that the United States won the Cold War—until January 1992—but he meant it. The most important thing was to keep Eastern Europeans in the western sphere of influence.

And they succeeded.

Yes, they did. But of course, they couldn‘t use that language at the time. Instead, they kept saying that they had no plans to move NATO eastward of West Germany. It was not a formal commitment not to expand NATO, but a kind of gentleman‘s understanding.

The official version was that Central Europe would remain neutral?

There was no language of neutrality. You mentioned Finlandization, but if you read the Soviet documents at that time, you won‘t find any usage of that term applied to Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. There was only one Soviet attempt to impose the principle of non-alignment. That policy was as follows: we will not sign any bilateral treaties with Prague, Budapest or Warsaw until they pledge not to join any hostile alliances. But Eastern Europeans rejected that idea saying that it would be a limitation of their freedom to choose alliances. The Soviets did not push them further.

You have underlined numerous times that Gorbachev was convinced not to use force and keep things as they were. But let me ask once again: had he ever at least hesitated?

Gorbachev faced a choice many times to do something drastic that might be highly damaging to his political international image or not do anything at all. And almost every time—he ended up doing nothing. He did nothing not only about Central Europe in 1989, but also nothing in 1990 about a much more important thing, which was the future of Germany.

In Lithuania in January 1991 he decided to use force.

Yes, the same was in Georgia in 1989 or in Azerbaijan in 1990. And every time Gorbachev refused to take responsibility for the bloodshed. Every time he said: it was not my decision. Which in the end cost him the support of the army.

Speaking of the army and the hardliners—what could have happened to Central Europe if the Yanayev coup in August 1991 had prevailed?

It is remarkable that those guys did everything imaginable to lose. President Bush learned about the putsch during the night. He woke up and make a few phone calls: one of the first was to Warsaw. He warned him not to provoke the Soviet troops that were stationed in the Polish territory. But today we know that those fears were greatly exaggerated.

Nobody in Moscow thought about Eastern Europe as a Soviet colony. We were rather envious that they, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, had more freedom and higher living standards.

The Yanayev government, even if had survived for a little bit longer than it did (not just 3 days), probably would not have done at thing about Eastern Europe. And this not because they were nice people, but because they were sitting on a volcano in their own country: a considerable part of Muscovites were against them, the republics had already declared sovereignty, and the President of the Russian Federation, the largest of the fifteen Soviet republics, opposed them. Also, they needed Western credit and had no idea what to do about the economic crisis.

So in retrospect, we see no reasons for fear for Eastern Europe, but again people in Prague, Warsaw or Budapest didn‘t know what we know today.

Do Russians consider Central European countries former Russian colonies?

This language did not exist in Soviet discourse. Nobody in Moscow thought about Eastern Europe as a Soviet colony. We were rather envious that they, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, had more freedom and higher living standards. And that explains why public opinion in Moscow took the so-called loss of Central Europe and the so-called external empire with remarkable equanimity. Because to realize you have lost an empire, you have to be a conscious imperialist and be aware that you have colonies. Stalin built an empire and he was an imperialist but he sold this to the Soviet people as an expansion of the great socialist experiment, not the territorial expansion of the Soviet Union.

Vladislav Zubok

is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He is a specialist in the history of the Cold War and twentieth-century Russia. He is the author of numerous books, including A Failed Empire: the Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev.

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

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