Reading the documents feels like stepping back in time. All at once, they reveal the many problems of the calcified system, where farmers and miners alike were rebelling and intellectuals were demanding democratic elections. The people of the Baltic states, the Georgians and the Moldovans were revolting against the Russians, while the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine -- the Soviet Union foreign policy that countries could not leave the Warsaw Pact -- was looming in Eastern Europe.
Gorbachev, who had once been a provincial official in Stavropol, stood at the helm of this country, watching it suffocate as a result of its sheer size and the refusal of its bureaucracy to change course. The documents also show that even under Gorbachev, the bureaucracy was as inefficient as ever.
Gorbachev's aide Anatoly Chernyaev, for example, complains about incompetent leaders in the global communist movement, like French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais ("a dead horse") and Gus Hall, the chairman of the Communist Party USA ("a philistine with plebeian conceits"). Nevertheless, Moscow was still paying millions to support its representatives around the world.
At this time, shops in the Soviet Union had run out of eggs and sugar, and even vodka was in short supply. Conditions were so bad that, in September 1988, Chernyaev had to submit a written request to get a telephone connection in the apartment of his driver Nikolai Nikolayevich Maikov, so that the general secretary could reach him.
SPIEGEL is also mentioned repeatedly in the internal documents in the Gorbachev archive. For example, a June 1987 memo reveals that Chernyaev was clearly upset about 54 questions SPIEGEL journalists had sent to the Kremlin leader, which he characterized as "rather insolent." He suspected that SPIEGEL intended to conduct an interview it had requested with Gorbachev "as an interrogation." In the memo, Chernyaev writes that the Kremlin should "of course not react" to this request. The request is stamped "return with denial." As it happened, the interview did not take place. Now, 24 years later, it is clear why.
Gorbachev later used some of the documents in his books, much to the chagrin of the current Kremlin leadership. But many of the papers are still taboo to this day. This is partly because they relate to decisions or people that Gorbachev is still unwilling to talk about. But most of all it is because they do not fit into the image that Gorbachev painted of himself, namely that of a reformer pressing ahead with determination, gradually reshaping his enormous country in accordance with his ideas.
During a research visit to the Gorbachev Foundation, the young Russian historian Pavel Stroilov, who lives in London today, secretly copied about 30,000 pages of the material archived there and made them available to SPIEGEL.
The documents reveal something that Gorbachev prefers to keep quiet: that he was driven to act by developments in the dying Soviet state and that he often lost track of things in the chaos. They also show that he was duplicitous and, contrary to his own statements, sometimes made deals with hardliners in the party and the military.
In other words, the Kremlin leader did what many retired statesmen do: He later significantly embellished his image as an honest reformer.
Part 2: Did Gorbachev Know about Violent Crackdowns?