Web money

“A significant but ultimately tragic figure”

Few world leaders have cut a more consequential but ultimately tragic figure than Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, whose death at the age of 91 was announced by Russian state media.

In a way, it was fitting that as the last leader of the USSR, Gorbachev was probably the only truly human one. And it is equally disturbing that Gorbachev died at a time when political repression in his native Russia has once again become stifling and the specter of conflict in Europe that long overshadowed the region during the Cold War has come true.

These are outcomes that Gorbachev strove to avoid. He was a man who associated himself with the openness of Soviet society, encouraging hope and debate rather than stifling it. He sought to revitalize the USSR, foreseeing a century of peace ahead in which the Soviet Union would join a “common European home”.

Gorbachev’s Achievements

Gorbachev’s achievements were many. They included negotiating arms reduction treaties with the United States at several summits with US President Ronald Reagan. His suggestion to Reagan in Reykjavik that the United States and the USSR should eliminate nuclear weapons blinded the American foreign policy establishment which initially viewed Gorbachev as a younger version of the gerontocrats he had succeeded.

After initially hesitating, he admitted the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, accepting that it would weaken him both at home and abroad. In 1988, he unilaterally pulled down Warsaw Pact forces in Europe without waiting for a reciprocal agreement with NATO countries.

Earlier in his term he had developed a personal relationship with Margaret Thatcher, who told the BBC he was a man with whom the West could do business. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988-9 and admitted that their presence was a violation of international law.

He refused to intervene in many spontaneous demonstrations aimed at overthrowing entrenched communist leaders through the Warsaw Pact, urging them not to use force against their own citizens.

And perhaps most notably, he was the chief architect of a grand plan to revitalize the Soviet Union’s economy (through “perestroika”, or restructuring), its society (via “glasnost”, which means openness) and its policy (“demokratizatsiya”, or democratization).

The rise of Gorbachev

There were few signs during Gorbachev’s unremarkable rise through the ranks of the Soviet elite nomenklatura system that he would come to champion such a radical agenda. Born in 1931 as the son of peasants in Stavropol, a region cataclysmically affected by the forced collectivization of agriculture, Gorbachev followed a well-established path to influence Soviet policy.

He joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth league, and was accepted to study law at Moscow State University. After becoming Stavropol’s first secretary and then provincial party leader, he began to cultivate an image as a moderate reformer, offering bounties and private plots to farmers who exceeded agricultural production standards.

Gorbachev’s political career could have ended there. But like many successful political elites, he benefited from patronage networks, with the Communist Party’s main ideologue Mikhail Suslov and KGB chief Yuri Andropov both seeing him as a valuable new face in an increasingly ossified Soviet leadership.

Presenting himself as a vigorous opponent of corruption, Gorbachev was promoted to the Party’s Central Committee and then to the Politburo, the main decision-making body of the USSR. When Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov took over the reins and gave Gorbachev increasing control over the economy. He was effectively the second most powerful figure in Soviet politics until he finally took over as General Secretary in 1985, following the death of Andropov a year earlier and then the ailing General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko. .

Although Gorbachev was revered in the West as the man who ended the Cold War, he became almost just as reviled at home like a foolish leader who caused something he didn’t even foresee: the collapse of the USSR.

And while in Europe and the United States he will be best remembered as one of history’s great peacemakers, Russians saw Gorbachev in a whole different light, as the personification of instability. and decline.

As the communist dominoes of Eastern Europe fell in 1989, culminating in the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November and the defection of much of East Berlin’s workforce to the West virtually overnight, the USSR had lost its empire. It was also losing its unifying national idea.

The main reason for this was that Gorbachev’s social reforms were far too successful, while his economic reforms were a dismal failure. Perestroika only served to reveal how deeply inefficient and corrupt the Soviet command economy had become. Beginning as an economic acceleration program and eventually morphing into a 500-day plan to take the Soviet economy from plan to market, Gorbachev relied on a new cadre of young technocrats to push through his reforms while many members of the old guard remained. in the highest positions.

Campaigns against alcoholism saw him publicly derided as “mineral water secretary”, and his wife Raisa’s expensive taste in Western clothing became an object of popular ire. As the gap between economic performance and the people’s ability to criticize it widened, Gorbachev blinked too late. In 1990, he intervened to quell civil unrest in Baku and blocked Lithuania, which had voted for independence.

As Gorbachev struggled to hold the USSR together, the Soviet old guard launched a sweeping coup in August 1991, placing Gorbachev under house arrest at his villa in the Black Sea resort of Foros. Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Federation, became the face of the resistance, emulating Lenin by climbing into a tank and demanding Gorbachev’s release and free and fair elections. With the Russian army refusing to fire on the crowd of demonstrators, the coup failed.

Gorbachev returned to Moscow but as a diminished figure, resigning as General Secretary of the USSR and eventually its President after the constituent parts of the USSR negotiated the end of the Union Treaty and the start of their own sovereign state. As president of Russia, the main component of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin inherited the USSR’s seat on the UN Security Council and ultimately its entire nuclear arsenal.

After losing power, Gorbachev first ran in Russian presidential elections (never winning more than a tiny fraction of the vote), wrote books and memoirs, and later, as he gradually withdrawing from public life, he came to express his regrets about the way the story had unfolded. Gorbachev first praised Putin’s ability to unite Russia, but as a Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov revealed in 2022, he became bitterly disappointed that Putin had destroyed everything he had worked to create.

Ultimately, Gorbachev’s tragedy was his misplaced faith in the Soviet economy and how he confused the desire for national self-determination of the people of the USSR with a desire to revitalize the Soviet idea.

Yet his enduring belief in enlightened progress and his willingness to take risks to achieve it stand in stark contrast to the caricature that Russia looks like today, which celebrates what divides rather than what could unite us.

Unfortunately, Gorbachev’s humanism, flawed as it is, has no place in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, which has turned its back on modernity, cultivating a culture of victimhood and glorifying Russian chauvinism in the cynical pursuit personal power.

Like other tragic reformers in history, Gorbachev’s main legacy is therefore to remind us of what could have been, rather than what happened next.

Matthew SussexFellow, Center for Strategic and Defense Studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.