MOSCOW — It's been nearly 10 years since Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the first and last "president" of the Soviet Union, was driven from power by the very forces of democracy he unleashed. These days, he's president of the Moscow-based Gorbachev Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting disarmament and environmental causes. In the space above his desk, once reserved for the portrait of Soviet founder Vladimir I. Lenin, now hangs a touchingly large portrait his late wife, Raisa, who died two years ago. He recently spoke with The Times about his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Question: Ten years have passed since the August 1991 coup attempt. Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Answer: I think that, in general, the August events could have been thwarted-through reforming the [Communist] Party. ... I hoped it would be possible to resolve everything in a democratic way and through democratic procedures, including finding the right place and the right role for the party. ... If we had reformed the party, we could have prevented the formation of forces of resistance inside the Communist Party. But as it turned out, it was the people from my entourage, the people whom I had placed in the Politburo, who turned out to be the coup plotters. To me, betrayal is the most abominable of all things a person can do, be it to friends or to colleagues. Especially when it is done for personal gain.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union was nothing but a catastrophe. Everything that is happening to us nowadays, the condition society is in--no less than half of that is connected with the collapse of the Union. ... [Former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin] is a person who is committed to the cause of democracy least of all. Even when he spoke in defense of it, even though he preserved the achievements of \o7 perestroika\f7 during his 10 years in power, he did it only to look respectable. The main thing about him, his chief political creed, is super-centralized power, the same as [in Soviet times], with the only difference that back then there was the Politburo and the Central Party Committee, while here it was just Yeltsin alone. Unlimited power and autocracy. And I think the feelings he cherished led him to favor the collapse of the Union. ...
As they say, no man is a prophet in his own country. In general, I have no one to blame. I did everything I could to prevent [the collapse], but it did not work. It did not work, and I regret it very much.
Q: Some historians say it would have been better to opt for the so-called Chinese model: concentrate on the economy and postpone political reforms.
A: We were doomed to political reform. In fact, we actually started the Chinese way. We thought that the system could be improved. We intended to carry out large-scale scientific and technical changes, large-scale decisions to start using new technologies, raise productivity, improve quality. But the system obstructed everything; nothing worked. ... All innovations, all measures to encourage the development of initiative among [work] collectives, to make them compete, to commercialize the entire economy--all this was vehemently rejected by the nomenklatura.
Q: Did it take you a while to realize this was happening?
A: Yes. Even shortly after the 1986 Congress, and especially in the fall of 1986 and early 1987, it had become clear that democrats were making an effort at the top, while nothing was changing at the bottom. I toured the regions [and] saw that ordinary citizens supported me. How were they to be included in the process, if not by means of political reforms, free elections? That was the only way.
Q: Many people believe your most important decision was not to resist the reunification of Germany.
A: This is an erroneous opinion. I can tell you why it is erroneous, because my most important decision was to begin \o7 perestroika\f7 . ... Since free elections were held in the Soviet Union, we could not deny other countries an opportunity to do the same. ... When the Soviet Union was conducting political reform, when Central and East European countries started to change, how could we have denied the Germans the right to self-determination and freedom of choice? That is why \o7 perestroika\f7 was the most important decision.
Q: Was there ever a moment when you feared civil war could break out?
A: Only once. It was when the "Belovezh" agreements [that dissolved the Soviet Union] were signed. ... If I had gone along the path of repression, it could have split the country and a civil conflict could have ensued. But that would have been a mistake on my part. I needed to adhere to democratic positions to the end.
Q: But after events in Tbilisi and Vilnius [the capitals of Georgia and Lithuania, where unarmed street protesters were killed by Soviet troops], you lost support from many liberals.