In early 1990, Donald Trump appeared to understand that Moscow’s inability to reign in mass violence would soon finish off Gorbachev’s regime and the Communist state. He probably did not realize that the violence had been and would be driven by ethnic enmities rather than by purely political and economic agendas.
Playboy interviewed Trump in March 1990. He had visited the USSR six-seven years [actually, less than three] earlier, before Gorbachev’s election, judging by his remark that it was shortly after the Soviets had shot down the Korean plane. The USSR shot down Korean civilian planes twice, in 1978 and 1983, but ’78 looks too early to me. [His first visit was in July 1987; the KAL plane was downed in September 1983. – Updated Feb. 19, 2017.]
It turns out that Trump had the right idea of the Soviet Union’s future, despite misidentifying one or two factors of its impending collapse.
What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?
I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand…
Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?
I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere- which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish-their jobs.
Gorbachev was removed from power for three days in August 1991. Reinstalled as president of the USSR, he found his powers diminished by centrifugal forces, which pulled apart the country and ended the USSR’s existence by the end of the year.
The empire ultimately fell apart without a violent revolution, but it had been disintegrating against a background of brutal ethnic conflicts and outbursts of state-sponsored violence. The striking miners never got more violent than Arthur Scargill’s trade union a few years earlier. The millions who had taken up to the streets to protest the old, corrupt, late-Soviet order – in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk and so on – remained reserved and peaceable. To use Tiananmen-like measures against them would have been so blatantly wrong that it would have provoked a popular uprising.
Ethnic conflicts, in contrast, quickly flared up across the country, mostly in the southern regions, and claimed hundreds of victims. Using force, even disproportionately harsh, against their instigators, might have saved lives that are still being lost.
Already in 1988, Moscow failed to defuse the Karabakh conflict and prevent the pogroms in Baku and Sumgait. The show of impotence was unforgivable, encouraging ethnic and religious radicals to strike in Uzbekistan, Georgia, Tajikistan and Moldova. Trump was probably right: Gorbachev failed to show firmness in dealing with the leaders of the extremist factions and the Soviet state was exposed as a clay-footed colossus that could not provide basic security to millions of its citizens – in peacetime.
Instead of interfering where it would have saved lives, Gorbachev permitted, authorized or tolerated attacks by military or paramilitary forces to seize key building and installations in the Baltics, where independence movements were overwhelmingly peaceful and parliamentary. (That was after Trump’s interview, in early 1991.)
But what are the “brush fires”?
Incongruous, but only at first glance. Trump was actually referring to something that was obvious to those who lived through the Perestroika but is seldom mentioned in the media today. The average Soviet citizen who watched TV news regularly – under Gorbachev, people started following the news again – had an disturbing feeling that both man-made and natural disasters were striking the country with unprecedented, vindictive intensity during Gorbachev’s tenure. It felt like everything that could go wrong was going wrong, as if a motley crew of misanthropic genies had escaped from their bottles.
That impression was partly a result of Gorbachev’s policy of information openness (“glasnost”): previously, only disasters in the West and some third-world countries had been covered in the news. But the underlying reality was not a figment of the media: Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake of 1988, a string of horrible transport accidents. The authorities’ response to some of the disasters – such as the Soviet-Ukrainian leaders’ failure to cancel the May festivities days after Chernobyl – only made things worse.
It was like an uncontrollable brush fire with incompetent, useless firemen.