Washington D.C., August 30, 2022 – The National Security Archive mourns the passing today of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 1931-2022, first and last president of the Soviet Union, who ended the Cold War and enabled through his "glasnost" our work to open archives around the world.
Mr. Gorbachev deserves the credit, according to observers as disparate as Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, for the revolutionary changes in the 1980s that transformed the Soviet Union, brought down the Iron Curtain, reunited Germany, enabled Eastern Europeans to reclaim their countries, abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons, ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settled regional conflicts, and put forward a model of international politics that denounced violence as any real solution to political problems.
He lived to see his visions of a "common European home" and a demilitarized social democratic Soviet Union demolished by opponents. Power-seeking party apparatchiks and nationalists from both Russia and Ukraine led by Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Burbulis dissolved the USSR in 1991, chasing Gorbachev from the Kremlin; and their successors in Moscow continue to destroy Russia today. Western triumphalists in the 1990s took all credit for Gorbachev's courageous actions, and learned nothing from his "new thinking" but how it cost him power.
Mr. Gorbachev personally helped the National Security Archive open the primary sources on all this tumultuous history, even when the documents did him no favors. He empowered his former national security adviser Anatoly Chernyaev to release the transcripts of all his highest-level talks, which we took to the Reagan Library and George H.W. Bush Library and still had to wait a decade or more for the U.S. declassification process to disgorge the American versions.
His inspiration and dedicated aides like Chernyaev, Georgy Shakhnazarov, Vadim Medvedev, and Pavel Palashchenko, with the editorial guidance of Vladlen Loginov, built an extraordinary Gorbachev Foundation documentary series of volumes that ultimately published thousands of pages of the top secret transcripts and Politburo memos that the CIA would have killed for only a few years before.
Mikhail Gorbachev generously met with us on multiple occasions, answering our questions and contributing his recollections and retrospective analysis, in venues ranging from the Reykjavik shorefront where he met with Reagan in 1986, to the Milan conference where he proposed a green revolution, to the international speeches in Atlanta or Fairfax where he earned the money to keep his Foundation alive, to his own conference room in Moscow. We treasured his insights then, and his legacy today.
Read the Documents
This face-to-face encounter between British Prime Minister and the leader of a Soviet parliamentary delegation produced a conversation that both Thatcher and Gorbachev would refer to many times in the future. Gorbachev engaged Thatcher on all the issues that she raised, did not duck hard questions, but did not appear combative. He spoke about the low point then evident in East-West relations and the need to stop the arms race before it was too late. He especially expressed himself strongly against the Strategic Defense Initiative promoted by the Reagan administration. Soon after this conversation Thatcher flew to Washington to share her enthusiastic assessment with Gorbachev with Reagan and encourage him to engage the Soviet leader in trying to lower the East-West tensions. She told her friend and ally what she had told the BBC, "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together" - and described him to Reagan as an "unusual Russian.... [m]uch less constrained, more charming," and not defensive in the usual Soviet way about human rights.
Vice President George H.W. Bush hand delivered this first letter from President Reagan to the new leader of the Soviet Union, after the state funeral for Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985 ("you die, I fly" as Bush memorably remarked about his job as the ceremonial U.S. mourner for world leaders). The letter contains two especially noteworthy passages, one inviting Mikhail Gorbachev to come to Washington for a summit, and the second expressing Reagan's hope that arms control negotiations "provide us with a genuine chance to make progress toward our common ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons." Reagan is reaching for a pen-pal, just as he did as early as 1981, when he hand-wrote a heartfelt letter during his recovery from an assassination attempt, to then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev suggesting face-to-face meetings and referring to the existential danger of nuclear weapons - only to get a formalistic reply. Subsequent letters between Reagan and the whole series of Soviet leaders ("they keep dying on me," Reagan complained) contain extensive language on many of the themes - such as the ultimate threat of nuclear annihilation - that would come up over and over again when Reagan finally found a partner on the Soviet side in Gorbachev. Even Chernenko had received a hand-written add-on by Reagan appreciating Soviet losses in World War II and crediting Moscow with a consequent aversion to war.
This lengthy first letter from the new Soviet General Secretary to the U.S. President displays Gorbachev's characteristic verbal style with an emphasis on persuasion. The Soviet leader eagerly takes on the new mode of communication proposed by Reagan in his March 11 letter, and plunges into a voluminous and wide-ranging correspondence between the two leaders - often quite formal and stiff, occasionally very personal and expressive, and always designed for effect, such as when Reagan would laboriously copy out by hand his official texts. Here Gorbachev emphasizes the need to improve relations between the two countries on the basis of peaceful competition and respect for each other's economic and social choices. He notes the responsibility of the two superpowers for world peace, and their common interest "not to let things come to the outbreak of nuclear war, which would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for both sides." Underscoring the importance of building trust, the Soviet leader accepts Reagan's invitation in the March 11 letter to visit at the highest level and proposes that such a visit should "not necessarily be concluded by signing some major documents." Rather, "it should be a meeting to search for mutual understanding."
Perhaps as a reflection of the internal debates in Washington (and even in Reagan's own head), it would take more than a month for the administration to produce a detailed response to Gorbachev's March 24 letter. The first two pages rehash the issues around the tragic killing of American Major Arthur Nicholson by a Soviet guard, before moving to the sore subject of Afghanistan. Reagan vows, "I am prepared to work with you to move the region toward peace, if you desire"; at the same time, U.S. and Saudi aid to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets was rapidly expanding. Reagan objects to Gorbachev's unilateral April 7 announcement of a moratorium on deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, since the Soviet deployment was largely complete while NATO's was still underway. The heart of the letter addresses Gorbachev's objections to SDI, and Reagan mentions that he was struck by Gorbachev's characterization of SDI as having "an offensive purpose for an attack on the Soviet Union. I can assure you that you are profoundly mistaken on this point." Interestingly, the Reagan letter tries to reassure Gorbachev by citing the necessity of "some years of further research" and "further years" before deployment (Reagan could not have suspected decades rather than years). This back-and-forth on SDI would be a constant in the two leaders' correspondence and conversations at the summits to come, but the consistency of Reagan's position on this (in contrast to that of Pentagon advocates of "space dominance"), not only to Gorbachev but to Thatcher and to his own staff, suggests some room for Gorbachev to take up the President on his assurances - which never happened.
British MP John Browne, member of the Conservative party, was part of the Receiving Committee for Gorbachev's visit to London in December 1984 and spend considerable time with him during his trips (including to the Lenin museum). This long essay, sent to President Reagan, and summarized for him by his National Security Adviser, describes Gorbachev as an unusual Soviet politician-"intelligent, alert and inquisitive." Browne notes "that Gorbachev's charisma was so striking that, if permitted by the Communist Party system, Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev could well become the Soviet equivalent of the Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy team." On the basis of his observations in 1984 and after Gorbachev was elected General Secretary, Browne concludes that politicians of Western democracies are likely to face an increasingly sophisticated political challenge from Mr. Gorbachev both at home and abroad.
In this long and wide-ranging response to Reagan's letter of April 30, the Soviet leader makes a real push for improvement of relations on numerous issues. The date June 10 is significant because on this day in Washington Reagan finally took the action (deactivating a Poseidon submarine) necessary to keep the U.S. in compliance with the unratified (but observed by both sides) SALT II treaty. Here Gorbachev raises the issue of equality and reciprocity in U.S.-Soviet relations, noting that it is the Soviet Union that is "surrounded by American military bases stuffed also by nuclear weapons, rather than the U.S. - by Soviet bases." He suggests that all previous important treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union were possible on the assumption of parity, and that Reagan's recent focus on SDI threatens to destabilize the strategic balance - yet again demonstrating Gorbachev's deep apprehension about Reagan's position on strategic defenses. The Soviet leader believes that the development of ABM systems would lead to a radical destabilization of the situation and the militarization of space. At the heart of the Soviet visceral rejection of SDI is the image of "attack space weapons capable of performing purely offensive missions." Gorbachev proposes energizing negotiations on conventional weapons in Europe, chemical weapons, the nuclear test ban, and regional issues, especially Afghanistan. He calls for a moratorium on nuclear tests "as soon as possible" - the Soviets would end up doing this unilaterally, never understanding that the issue is a non-starter in Reagan's eyes. Here, the Soviet leader also welcomes horizontal exchanges between government ministers and even members of legislatures. However, Gorbachev's position on human rights remains quite rigid-"we do not intend and will not conduct any negotiations relating to human rights in the Soviet Union." That would change.
In their first face-to-face meeting at Geneva, which both of them anticipated eagerly, Reagan and Gorbachev both spoke about the mistrust and suspicions of the past and of the need to begin a new stage in U.S.-Soviet relations. Gorbachev described his view of the international situation to Reagan, stressing the need to end the arms race. Reagan expressed his concern with Soviet activity in the third world--helping the socialist revolutions in the developing countries. They both spoke about their aversion to nuclear weapons. During this first dinner of the Geneva summit, Gorbachev used a quote from the Bible that there was a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones which have been cast in the past to indicate that now the President and he should move to resolve their practical disagreements in the last day of meetings remaining. In response, Reagan remarked that "if the people of the world were to find out that there was some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley's Comet, then that knowledge would unite all peoples of the world." The aliens had landed, in Reagan's view, in the form of nuclear weapons; and Gorbachev would remember this phrase, quoting it directly in his famous "new thinking" speech at the 27th Party Congress in February 1986.
The last session at Reykjavik is the one that inspires Gorbachev's comment in his memoirs about "Shakespearean passions." The transcript shows lots of confusion between just proposals on reducing ballistic missiles versus those reducing all nuclear weapons, but finally Reagan says, as he always wanted, nuclear abolition. "We can do that. Let's eliminate them," says Gorbachev, and Secretary of State George Shultz reinforces, "Let's do it." But then they circle back around to SDI and the ABM Treaty issue, and Gorbachev insists on the word "laboratory" as in testing confined there, and Reagan, already hostile to the ABM Treaty, keeps seeing that as giving up SDI. Gorbachev says he cannot go back to Moscow to say he let testing go on outside the lab, which could lead to a functioning system in the future. The transcript shows Reagan asking Gorbachev for agreement as a personal favor, and Gorbachev saying well if that was about agriculture, maybe, but this is fundamental national security. Finally at around 6:30 p.m. Reagan closes his briefing book and stands up. The American and the Russian transcripts differ on the last words, the Russian version has more detail [see the forthcoming book, Last Superpower Summits], but the sense is the same. Their faces reflect the disappointment, Gorbachev had helped Reagan to say nyet, but Gorbachev probably lost more from the failure.
Again, Margaret Thatcher informs her ally Reagan about her conversations with Gorbachev. The cover note from National Security Advisor Carlucci (prepared by NSC staffer Fritz Ermarth) states that "she has been greatly impressed by Gorbachev personally." Thatcher describes Gorbachev as "fully in charge," "determined to press ahead with his internal reform," and "talk[ing] about his aims with almost messianic fervor." She believes in the seriousness of his reformist thinking and wants to support him. However, they differ on one most crucial issue, which actually unites Gorbachev and Reagan-nuclear abolition. Thatcher writes, "[h]is aim is patently the denuclearization of Europe. I left him with no doubt that I would never accept that."
This remarkable letter arrives at the White House at the very moment when Kohl is presenting his "10 points" speech to the Bundestag about future German unification, much to the surprise of the White House, the Kremlin, and even Kohl's own coalition partners in Germany (such as his foreign minister). Here, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German leader encourages Bush to engage with Gorbachev across the board and to contribute to peaceful change in Europe. Kohl points that Gorbachev "wants to continue his policies resolutely, consistently and dynamically, but is meeting internal resistance and is dependent on external support." He hopes Bush's upcoming meeting with Gorbachev in Malta will "give strong stimulus to the arms control negotiations." Kohl also reminds Bush that "regarding the reform process in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the CSSR [Czechoslovakia], and not least the GDR [East Germany], we have General Secretary Gorbachev's policies to thank. His perestroika has let loose, made easier, or accelerated these reforms. He pushed governments unwilling to make reforms toward openness and toward acceptance of the people's wishes; and he accepted developments that in some instances far surpassed the Soviet Union's own standards."
Being rocked by the waves on the Soviet ship Maxim Gorky, President Bush greets his Russian counterpart for the first time as President. A lot has changed in the world since they last saw each other on Governor's Island in December 1988-elections had been held in the Soviet Union and in Poland, where a non-communist government came to power, and the Iron Curtain fell together with the Berlin Wall. After Bush's initial presentation from notes, Gorbachev remarks almost bemusedly that now he sees the American administration has made up its mind (finally) what to do, and that includes "specific steps" or at least "plans for such steps" to support perestroika, not to doubt it. Gorbachev compliments Bush for not sharing the old Cold War thinking that "The only thing the U.S. needs to do is to keep its baskets ready to gather the fruit" from the changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Bush responds, "I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That's why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall." Gorbachev says, "Yes, we have seen that, and appreciate that." The Soviet leader goes on to welcome Bush's economic and trade points as a "signal of a new U.S. policy" that U.S. business was waiting for. Gorbachev responds positively to each of Bush's overtures on arms control, chemical weapons, conventional forces, next summits and so forth, but pushes back on Bush's Cuba and Central America obsessions.
The bulk of discussion at this first session of the summit of the industrialized nations is devoted to the issue of how the club of the rich countries should react to the events unfolding in the Soviet Union and how much aid and investment could be directed to the support of perestroika. The summit is taking place at the time when Gorbachev is engaged in an increasingly desperate search for scenarios for radical economic reform, and fast political democratization, but he needs external financial support and integration into global financial institutions in order to succeed - or even to survive, as the events of August 1991 would show. Just before this 1990 G-7, Gorbachev wrote in a letter to George Bush that he needs "long-term credit assistance, attraction of foreign capital, transfer of managerial experience and personnel training" to create a competitive economy. Yet, the U.S. president throws only a bone or two, like "step up the pace of our negotiations with the Soviets on the Tsarist and Kerensky debts [!] to the U.S. government" (instead of forgiving or at least restructuring the debt), and "expand our existing technical cooperation." Bush concludes his speech by stating flatly "It is impossible for the U.S. to loan money to the USSR at this time. I know, however, that others won't agree." The leaders who do not agree are Helmut Kohl (in the middle of providing billions of deutschmarks to the USSR to lubricate German unification) and Francois Mitterrand. The latter decries the double standards being applied to the Soviet Union and China, even after the Tiananmen massacre. Mitterrand criticizes the proposed political declaration of the G-7 as "timid" and "hesitant," imposing "harsh political conditions as a preliminary to extending aid." He believes the EC countries are in favor of contributing aid to the USSR but that other members, like the U.S. and Japan, have effectively vetoed such assistance.
On April 10, 1991, the National Security Council staff asked the CIA for an analysis of the Gorbachev succession, who the main actors would be, and the likely scenarios. The assessment opens quite drastically: "The Gorbachev era is effectively over." The scenarios offered have an eerie resemblance to the actual coup that would come in August 1991. This might be the most prescient of all the CIA analyses of the perestroika years. The report finds that Gorbachev is likely to be replaced either by the reformers or the hard-liners, with the latter being more likely. The authors point out that "there is no love between Gorbachev and his current allies and they could well move to try to dump him." They then list possible conspirators for such a move-- Vice President Yanaev, KGB Chief Kryuchkov, and Defense Minister Yazov, among others, all of whom whom participate in the August coup. The report predicts that the "traditionalists" are likely to find a "legal veneer" for removing Gorbachev: "most likely they would present Gorbachev with an ultimatum to comply or face arrest or death." If he agreed, Yanaev would step in as president, the conspirators would declare a state of emergency and install "some kind of a National Salvation Committee." However, the memo concludes that "time is working against the traditionalists." This turned out to be both prescient and correct - the August coup followed the process outlined in this document and the plot foundered because the security forces themselves were fractured and the democratic movements were gaining strength. But indeed, the coup, the resurgence of Boris Yeltsin as leader of the Russian republic, and the secession of Russia from the Soviet Union during the fall of 1991 did mark the end of the Gorbachev era.