In some ways, it was fitting that Gorbachev, as the USSR’s final leader, was likely its only truly humane leader. It’s also worth noting that Gorbachev died at a time when political repression in his native Russia has become suffocating once more, and the spectre of conflict in Europe, which long loomed over the region during the Cold War, has become a reality.
These were the outcomes Gorbachev sought to avoid. He was a man who became associated with opening up Soviet society, encouraging rather than suppressing hope and debate. He sought to revitalise the USSR, envisioning a century of peace in which the Soviet Union would be a part of a “Common European Home.”
Gorbachev accomplished a great deal. They included the negotiation of arms control treaties with the US during a series of summits with US President Ronald Reagan. His suggestion to Reagan in Reykjavik that the US and USSR eliminate nuclear weapons caught the US foreign policy establishment off guard, as Gorbachev was initially viewed as little more than a younger version of the gerontocrats he had succeeded.
He admitted the 1986 Chernobyl disaster after initially hesitating, accepting that doing so would weaken him both at home and abroad. He unilaterally dismantled Warsaw Pact forces in Europe in 1988, without waiting for a reciprocal agreement with NATO nations.
Earlier in his presidency, he had developed a personal relationship with Margaret Thatcher, who famously told the BBC that he was a man with whom the West could do business. In 1988-9, he withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, admitting that their presence was illegal under international law.
He refused to intervene in many of the spontaneous demonstrations across the Warsaw Pact aimed at deposing entrenched communist leaders and pressuring them not to use force against their own citizens.
And, perhaps most notably, he was the mastermind behind a grand plan to revitalise the Soviet Union’s economy (via “perestroika,” or restructuring), society (via “glasnost,” or openness), and politics (via “demokratizatsiya,” or democratisation).
There were few indications during Gorbachev’s unremarkable rise through the ranks of the Soviet elite “nomenklatura” system that he would come to champion such a radical programme. Gorbachev, born in 1931 as the son of peasant farmers in Stavropol, a region devastated by forced collectivisation of agriculture, followed a well-trodden path to influence in Soviet politics.
He joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth league, and was accepted to study law at Moscow State University. He began cultivating an image as a moderate reformer after becoming Stavropol’s First Secretary, and then the province’s party chief, by offering bonuses and private plots of land to farmers who exceeded crop production norms.
Gorbachev’s political career might have come to an end there. However, like many successful political elites, he benefited from patronage networks, with both the Communist Party’s main ideologue Mikhail Suslov and KGB head Yuri Andropov seeing him as a valuable fresh face in an increasingly sclerotic Soviet leadership.
Gorbachev was promoted to the Party’s Central Committee and then to the Politburo, the USSR’s main policymaking body, after portraying himself as a staunch opponent of corruption. When Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov took over and gave Gorbachev greater economic control. He was effectively the Soviet Union’s second most powerful figure until he took over as General Secretary in 1985, following the deaths of Andropov a year earlier and then the ailing General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko.
Although Gorbachev was revered in the West as the man who brought the Cold War to an end, he was almost equally reviled at home as a foolish leader who brought about something he had no intention of bringing about: the collapse of the USSR.
While Gorbachev will be remembered as one of history’s great peacemakers in Europe and the United States, Russians saw him as the personification of instability and decline.
The USSR had lost its empire by the time the East European communist dominoes fell in 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the defection of a large chunk of East Berlin’s workforce to the West almost overnight. It was also on the verge of abandoning its unifying national concept.
The primary reason for this was that Gorbachev’s social reforms were far too successful, whereas his economic reforms were a colossal failure. Perestroika only served to highlight how inefficient and corrupt the Soviet command economy had become. Beginning as an economic acceleration programme and eventually morphing into a 500-day plan to transition the Soviet economy from plan to market, Gorbachev relied on a new cadre of younger technocrats to push through his reforms, while many of the old guard remained in top positions.
During anti-alcohol campaigns, he was publicly mocked as the “Mineral Water Secretary,” and his wife Raisa’s expensive tastes in Western clothing became a source of public outrage. Gorbachev blinked too late as the gap between economic performance and people’s ability to criticise it widened. He intervened in Baku in 1990 to quell civil unrest and blockaded Lithuania, which had voted for independence.
While Gorbachev was struggling to keep the USSR together, the old Soviet guard staged a hard-line coup in August 1991, imprisoning Gorbachev at his villa in the Black Sea resort town of Foros. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation’s leader, took on the role of the resistance leader, imitating Lenin by climbing onto a tank and demanding Gorbachev’s release as well as free and fair elections. The coup failed because the Russian army refused to fire on the crowd of demonstrators.
Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but as a diminished figure, resigning as General Secretary of the USSR and later as President after the constituent parts of the USSR negotiated the end of the Union Treaty and the start of their own sovereign statehood. As President of Russia, the Soviet Union’s main component, Yeltsin inherited the USSR’s seat on the UN Security Council and, eventually, the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal.
After losing power, Gorbachev ran in Russian presidential elections (never receiving more than a sliver of a vote), wrote books and memoirs, and later, as he gradually withdrew from public life, came to express his regrets about how history had unfolded. Gorbachev praised Putin’s ability to unite Russia at first, but as Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov revealed in 2022, he became bitterly disappointed when Putin destroyed everything he had worked to create.
Gorbachev’s tragedy was his misplaced faith in Soviet economics, and how badly he mistook the desire of the people of the USSR for national self-determination for a willingness to resurrect the Soviet idea.
However, his unwavering belief in enlightened progress and willingness to take risks to achieve it contrast sharply with the caricature of Russia that exists today, which celebrates what divides rather than what might unite us.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev’s humanism, flawed as it was, has no place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has abandoned modernity in favour of cultivating a culture of victimhood and glorifying Russian chauvinism in the cynical pursuit of personal power.
Gorbachev’s main legacy, like that of other tragic reformers in history, is to remind us of what might have been rather than what actually happened.
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