"This is my Egyptian friend,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, “who wanted to ignite civil war in our country.” As a correspondent based in Moscow I had met him several times on different occasions. The date of this particular gathering of foreign journalists was 26 December 1991, the day after he had resigned and just a few days before the final declaration - on 31 December - of the end of the Soviet Union. I had asked why he hadn’t used his authority as Supreme Commander of the armed forces to preserve the Soviet Union. “It would have resulted in civil war,” he replied, “and I could not allow blood to be spilled”.
So was it Gorbachev who was ultimately responsible for the collapse and dissolution of the USSR? While he admitted to mistakes over centralising too much power in Moscow at the expense of different republics and nationalities, it was his 'eternal rival' Boris Yeltsin whom he held responsible.
In January 1991 Yeltsin had backed the secession from the USSR of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and invited other Republics to extract more powers and rights from the centre. Indeed, when he went to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, he told its leaders to “take as much independence as you can swallow”. And of course we know that at the meeting held in Belarus on December 8th 1991 the three Presidents - Yeltsin of Russia, Kravchuk of Ukraine and Shushkevich of Belarus - decided to 'leave' the Soviet Union and informed America’s President George H.W. Bush before Gorbachev even knew. They described this as the will of their peoples despite an opinion poll in their three countries that purported to show that more than 76% supported the unity of the Soviet Union.
There were of course other factors contributing to what Vladimir Putin described as 'the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century'; whoever does not live in pain because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has said, is heartless, but those who believe in its return are brainless. The Russian journalist and politician Alexander Khinshtein draws attention to various factors in his recently published book 'The end of Atlantis', factors which he sees as countering the idea of the historical inevitability of the collapse.
He quotes the former US Secretary of State James Baker: "Nobody could have foreseen the collapse of the Soviet Union in that way,” he said.
Khinshtein compares conditions in China and the Soviet Union when economic reforms began in both countries in 1985; China had Deng Xiaoping, while the Soviet Union was led by Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia had overcome many challenges in its history, had lost 38 wars, including World War 1, but had emerged from the loss of much of its territory in 1917, including eastern Poland, the Baltics and Finland, to become more powerful than ever before. Khinshtein sees three main reasons for the collapse in 1991: a week economy dependent on raw materials whose prices had collapsed; pressures from Western powers, and the power struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
However, Khinshtein sees the confession that Gorbachev made in his memoirs, 'At the Ruins of the Temple', as a blatant declaration of 'treachery' that deliberately or unintentionally resulted in the collapse of the Soviet state. Gorbachev frankly admitted that "the most important goal of his life was to eradicate communism”. This is what Anatoly Chubais, the architect of privatization, said during the years of former President Boris Yeltsin: what he did during the 1990s in selling the Soviet Union's resources was only aimed at 'destroying communism'.