Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of 91, ought to be remembered as one of the great, but flawed, heroes of the twentieth century.
A builder of bridges and a breaker of walls, a champion of peace and a tribune of oppressed peoples, a bold, courageous reformer and a reckless, impatient idealist. Gorbachev was all of these things and more. It is impossible to write about his political life without conjuring up competing images: on the one hand, the man of high principles who brought about an end to the decades-old division of Europe and, on the other, the out-of-touch intellectual who sat in his office drafting constitutions, dipping bookishly in and out of the works of Marx and Lenin for inspiration while his country’s communist empire collapsed around him. If the first image has made him a heroic symbol in the West and among Russian liberals, it is the second which has earned him the loathing of many Russians who – unfairly – blame him for all of the turmoil and decline which followed the end of the Soviet Union.
Yet for all his flaws, Gorbachev is, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, one of the most consequential and morally courageous statesmen ever to have lived. A reforming visionary who sought to bring the blessings of peace to the world, he stands in the pantheon of Russian rulers alongside Tsars Peter the Great and Alexander the Second. Like these two very different figures from Russia’s past, his achievements as well as his failures are immense. Like both of these predecessors he sought (to borrow Pushkin’s famous phrase) “to prise open a window to the West”.
Yet, in contrast to Peter and Alexander, he sought to do so not in order to compete militarily with the West, but rather to bring about a thaw in the Cold War and radically reform the Soviet Union itself through glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring. Never lacking in ambition, his political career was defined by his endeavours to end the global economic, military, and ideological conflict that had structured world politics for nearly four decades by the time he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics in 1985.
Gorbachev’s desire to bring Russia and the Soviet states through a transition away from communist dictatorship and towards constitutional, democratic socialism – a mission which was combined with his sincere desire to usher in a new era in international relations, particularly in Europe – has much to commend it. Not only did his reforms liberate millions of souls in Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia from the bondage of self-serving totalitarian police states, the economic exploitation of the Soviet system, and the dehumanising collectivism of communist ideology, they also held out the prospect of a new world in which the rule of law, democratic government, and international norms could bind together former adversaries. In the words of Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy adviser, he wanted “the October and Stalin syndromes” to “disappear from world politics.”
This was not merely fine rhetoric, however. Taking this path often required great bravery and steely determination to turn high principles into concrete actions, even when it was uncertain precisely where those actions might lead. At home, his policy of glasnost ushered in an unprecedented freedom of the press and for the first time opened the state archives to enable a reassessment of the Stalinist period and the crimes of the Soviet system.
Then, in the fateful years of the late 1980s, when there was no shortage of hardliners in the Kremlin and its satellite states calling on him to tighten or reverse domestic freedoms and to send in the Red Army or KGB to prop up Kremlin-friendly regimes in the Eastern Bloc, he held firm to his ideals. Soviet troops were not sent to Estonia in 1988 when elections put more than 80 per cent of the seats in the federal assembly in the hands of non-communist candidates. When, from May 1988, a younger cadre of reformers took control in Hungary under the leadership of Károly Grósz, he did not stand in the way of their lifting of censorship and travel restrictions. And when, in August 1989, a non-Communist government, under the leadership of Solidarity, was voted in by the Polish Sejm, Gorbachev declared to the Council of Europe that “Any interference in internal affairs, or any attempts to limit the sovereignty of states…is impermissible.”
He could have succumbed to the knee-jerk response of the system and sent the tanks rolling into any of these countries, much as his predecessors Khrushchev and Brezhnev had done when reformist movements took hold in Budapest and Prague in 1956 and 1968 respectively. Instead, he stayed the course. Having been in Beijing on a state visit during the violent crackdown on the protesters who had gathered in Tiananmen Square to demand change, he told his aides and confidantes that he had no intention of following “the Chinese Road”: “I do not want Red Square to look like Tiananmen Square.” Accordingly, he made it clear that he would refuse any request made by Erich Honecker to clamp down on mass protests against the East German regime. The fruit of this policy would be the tearing down in the winter of 1989 of the most conspicuous scar that had divided Europe: the Berlin Wall.
The stakes were extraordinarily high: at any moment, Gorbachev might have been deposed by rival forces within the state or assassinated by political opponents. Ultimately, in August 1991 a group of hardline conservatives within the Communist Party attempted to keep him and his wife prisoner and roll back his reforms with his own acquiescence. He refused to submit and become their puppet. The fledging coup fell apart.
In the new, post-Cold War world as envisioned by Gorbachev, superpower conflict and the threat of nuclear extinction could be replaced by collaboration in resolving international problems and reducing tensions. The global economy, freed from the demands of expensive and environmentally damaging arms races, could finally be geared towards providing people the world over with a better life for them and their children. And in this new world, a common European home, Gorbachev hoped, invoking De Gaulle, would flourish between the Atlantic and the Urals, bound by ties of culture and history as well as trade and diplomacy.
In today’s political landscape, shaped as it is by 9/11, the War on Terror, the Global Financial Crisis, rising tensions with China, and Vladimir Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine, this is a rather agonising vision – it feels much like an echo of a world that might have been, a mirage remaining tantalisingly out of reach, and which recedes ever into the distance as we make to move towards it.
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Yet Gorbachev’s actions as a statesman, for all his profound moral courage and for all his intense idealism, all of which was animated by a desire to remake the world anew, also birthed new ills and crises, the consequences of which we are still living with today. The tragedy of Gorbachev was that, in the process of dismantling the totalitarian architecture of the Soviet Union, he discovered that his reforms had also crippled the state, unleashed severe economic turbulence, and unravelled the bonds of Russian society. Like the hero of any tragedy, he found himself brought down by his virtues as much as by the vices in his character.
This was not all Gorbachev’s fault: the economic and political challenges faced by Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse might have been better mitigated against had more international financial support been forthcoming. It has been, perhaps justifiably, pointed out that more loans, delivered in a timely fashion, from the United States and others could have helped to assuage the disruption of the 1990s and guide Russia through the transition from a communist empire to a democratic nation state.
Nonetheless, this argument, which is easy to make in hindsight, might ignore some of the constraints that existed at the time, both political and psychological. For in the early 1990s it was not yet clear how a shift away from the old Cold War relations with Russia ought to be affected. It was difficult for contemporaries, President George H.W. Bush among them, to imagine how Russia could be turned from enemy number one into a recipient of generous aid within the space of a few years. On a practical level, policy makers were also uncertain as to whether pumping Russia full of aid money would work, even if more generous funds were made available by the United States and its NATO allies.
Another portion of the blame for how things have turned out must be laid at the door of Gorbachev’s immediate successors, including the first president of the new Russian nation state created in 1991: Boris Yeltsin. It was Yeltsin who made the fateful decision to sideline Gorbachev in 1991 and who, after helping to reverse the attempted counter-revolution directed against the author of glasnost and perestroika in August of that year, then turned against Gorbachev and steadily dissolved the dwindling sources of the General Secretary’s power.
It was also Yeltsin who presided over a decade in which the Russian government – during a period of economic breakdown and personal hardship for most ordinary Russians – turned a blind eye as some of the best assets of the former Soviet state were parcelled out among favoured courtiers and lucrative new contracts were doled out to the president’s allies and cronies. Again, the shift away from a centrally planned and statist to a market-driven, capitalist economy would never have been smooth, but the corruption that became engendered into the process under Yeltsin undermined faith in democratic government and entrenched powerful interests at the expense of most Russians. By the year 1999, when Yeltsin handed over power to Vladimir Putin, oligarchy had already become a major force in Russian politics.
In all likelihood, such a profound process of transformation as that experienced by Russia in the 1990s would always have been fraught with pitfalls and challenges, even if there had been greater financial support for Russia’s ailing economy. But it did not help that, in the triumphalist mood of the ‘90s, many economists, policy makers and leaders in the West continued to champion the increasingly unpopular Yeltsin and promote the “shock therapy” of rapid privatisation programmes, rather than encouraging a more gradual, and less socially disruptive, transition to a market economy. All the while, ordinary Russians’ standard of living continued to decline.
In this way, Gorbachev’s life and its frustrated ambitions represent the high hopes and bitter disappointments of the world that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing better illustrates that tantalising, tragic gap which exists between our hopeful visions of how our world ought to be, and the sad reality of how it is distorted by human greed, damaged by the nefarious effects of pride and envy, and disfigured by ruinous conflicts. Within Gorbachev’s life, there resides a humbling parable for our endeavours to build a better world. For his life’s story encourages us to remake the world anew, exhorts us to believe in the power of human beings to bring about regeneration and change, even as it warns us of the potential consequences of unbridled idealism and the cruel twists and turns of fortune.
There is, ultimately, a great deal of tragic irony in Gorbachev’s fate. He appears to us as the man who sought to save the system through reform, only for the logic of his reforms to lead to the destruction of the entire system itself. He is the peacemaker whose overtures for peace have created the conditions from which new wars, fuelled by issues of identity, culture and nationalism, have emerged – from the killing fields of the former Yugoslavia to the battlefields of Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine.
An intellectual and serious man, Gorbachev has had a long time to reflect on these humbling experiences after stepping down as the final General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the USSR in 1991. He had, in private and in public, expressed concern and regret regarding the political trajectory of his country over the last three decades – particularly concerning its return to a state of estrangement and hostility with much of the rest of Europe. In 2016, he penned an article for TIME magazine, in which he described Putin’s policies as “an obstacle to progress”.
According to those who knew his mind, he was dispirited and saddened to see his life’s work being undone, particularly after he had dedicated – indeed sacrificed – so much of his later political career to the mission of overcoming barriers of mistrust and building a rapprochement, however imperfect, with the NATO powers. Most recently, he appears to have expressed to friends, and trusted journalists, that he was horrified by the way in which Putin has continued to run roughshod over his legacy both at home and abroad. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he seems to have believed, represented a gross betrayal of Russia’s obligations under international law, and a folly that would ultimately strengthen NATO and weaken Russia.
And yet, despite Putin’s best efforts to reverse his legacy, Gorbachev will forever be one of the flawed heroes of the twentieth century. For, however humbled he may have been by his experiences, however chastened by the cruel tides of fortune, he remained always a man of immense moral courage. The legacies of his successes and his shortcomings are profound; the tremors and aftershocks of both continue to shake and shape the world today in ways that are still unfolding before our eyes.
Jack Dickens is an historian of the modern world who will be starting post-graduate study at the University of Oxford later this year.