So long to Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at 91, defied convention in ways small and large throughout some of the most tumultuous years of the Cold War. He failed in his most basic ambitions. But the world was better for them all the same.
Born to peasants in a rural village that had been ravaged by collectivisation, Gorbachev grasped the failures and contradictions of Soviet life more acutely than most. Even so, he assiduously climbed the ladder of Communist officialdom. He impressed his superiors, accrued power and soon found himself in the Politburo.
When he assumed leadership, in 1985, he inherited a country that was economically moribund, stubbornly corrupt, endemically drunk and unproductive, and suffering through the final spasms of ideological failure. Its weaknesses relative to the West were increasingly obvious. A lesser leader might have tried to cover up or ignore such challenges. Gorbachev — selectively, inconsistently, sometimes cynically — took many of them on.
As he gathered power, he ousted mouldering bureaucrats, dispensed with totalitarian trappings, and invoked political slogans — glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) — that spoke to the yearning of many ordinary Russians for change. He allowed limited space for religious expression and democratic reform, while easing the country’s notorious censorship regime. These accomplishments are sometimes exaggerated, but they were significant nonetheless.
At times, Gorbachev was prone to poor judgment. (In defending his choice of Gennady Yanayev as vice-president in 1990 — the same Yanayev who would lead a coup against him less than a year later — Gorbachev exclaimed: “I want someone alongside me I can trust!”) Yet he could also be canny: he was able to see beyond differences in personality, temperament and ideology and find common purpose — and genuine friendship — with Ronald Reagan; in fact, he understood Reagan better than most Western liberals did.
That friendship played no small part in securing a lasting peace. In 1985, the two leaders initiated a series of “superpower summits” that would eventually lead to thawing relations, landmark arms-control treaties, and finally — in Malta, with George H.W. Bush, just weeks after the Berlin Wall fell — a formal recognition that the Cold War had ended. As the final Soviet leader would put it: “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another.”
Yet perhaps Gorbachev’s greatest achievement was to oversee the largely bloodless dissolution of his own empire — an event Vladimir Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. As one Communist domino after another fell to mostly peaceful revolutions, Gorbachev — in defiance of Soviet custom — resisted the urge to send in the tanks. Millions of people across central and eastern Europe gained freedom as a result.
Although he would survive the coup attempt in 1991, Gorbachev was soon a spent force. The openness and restructuring he had championed — noble in principle, shambolic in practice — hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse, and would leave Russia in a parlous state for decades to come. It is fair to say that Putin's eventual rise — and, indeed, his invasion of Ukraine this year — was a direct result.
Despite these failures, or more accurately because of them, Gorbachev remained a sensation in the West. He was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Decade” for the 1980s; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990; placed in commercials for Louis Vuitton and (memorably) Pizza Hut; and feted by singers, movie stars, and bien pensants the world over — even as he was loathed within Russia for his hapless attempts at reform.
This was broadly fitting. Gorbachev, perhaps uniquely among dictators, was an honourable loser. There is no shame in that.