In contemporary history, few people arouse so many conflicting opinions as Mikhail Gorbachev. Some extol him as the man who saved the world from nuclear apocalypse and also as the man who gave freedom to the peoples of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Others, however, especially in Russia, regard him as the man who destroyed, not only a great state, but also the lives of countless citizens, who were reduced to misery by the reforms he introduced, or even lost their lives in the wars that to this day rage over the rubble of the USSR.
Not only in Russia is Gorbachev seen from different perspectives. Even in relations between the West and China he has become almost a symbol, either of democracy or ultimate failure, if not betrayal. The New York Times wrote: “The West might celebrate Gorbachev as a hero, but for the Communist Party in China his career was one crowned by failure, and the loud applause of the West only confirmed that.”
These extreme views are obviously a caricature that, while no doubt distorting the full reality of the man and his time, has not arisen entirely without foundation. It is difficult to write about Gorbachev, because, if one wants to remain objective about what he did and what he was like, one must always distinguish, “on the one hand…,” and then, “on the other hand.” Those who have a definite opinion of him see him more as a symbol on which to transfer their own ideas than as an actual man. If we read the comments that are made about him today, we sometimes learn much more about the political conceptions of those making them than about Gorbachev himself.
A controversial figure
As for the West’s opinion of Gorbachev, it is quite clear and needs no further comment. He was lauded as a hero who liberated the peoples of the USSR and Eastern Europe from the domination of Communism, even though the Lithuanian Minister of Defense called him a “criminal gang leader,” the one who gave the order to violently suppress protests in Baku and Vilnius, without ever regretting it. However, considering the fact that now, as in the early 1980s, we are again faced with the danger of a nuclear war, we must ask ourselves what went wrong. In addition to the question of the causes of the failure of liberal democracy in Russia, we must try to understand why economic reforms failed under Gorbachev and what are the roots of the negative developments of the 1990s, which in turn led to what in the West is called “Putinism.”
In Russia, too, Gorbachev is an often discussed figure, although he is judged much more negatively than in the West. He is criticized not only by those nostalgic for the greatness of the USSR, but also by liberals, who blame him for having wasted the opportunity to make Russia a Western liberal democracy with a market economy.
Immediately after his death, much was written about him. In particular, instead of talking about the man and his time, his death has been the occasion to discuss current political and geopolitical conflicts. In the West, he is held up as a symbol of democracy, which – at least the form of liberal democracy according to the Western model – has failed in Russia. He is pitted against the current Russian government, which has supposedly rejected all the achievements made by him. But in this regard one forgets that the fall of the USSR and the collapse of the system itself happened against the will of Gorbachev, who to the last not only tried to reform the system, but also to maintain it.
Our current opinion of Gorbachev and our statements about him, particularly after his death, are influenced by the more than 30 years of history that have passed since the collapse of the USSR. But how did his contemporaries view him, when it was not yet clear what would result from his reforms?
Although today Gorbachev is presented as a symbol of reform and liberal policy, at the time when he was still in power he was seen differently by the supporters of reform. In this respect, we must note that those who were on the liberal side and who criticized him then, especially toward the end of his time in office, now see him as someone who, despite his weaknesses and mistakes, gave them personal freedom and believe that without him life in Russia would have been very different, much darker.
To better understand Gorbachev, not as a symbol but as an active politician, it is necessary to go back more than 30 years, to 1990. Gorbachev then was still the secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party and at the same time he was also the president of Russia; it was not yet known that he would remain as leader of the USSR only one more year. He remained in power for five years, not a very long period, but not a short one either. Lenin had been in power for the same number of years, yet succeeded in completely transforming the country. Stalin had taken about the same amount of time to consolidate his grip on power.
Reforms and the crisis of the system
Gorbachev was able to build his power, at least his formal power, even more rapidly than his predecessors. Five years after the start of perestroika he was in full control as secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party and also, as of March 1990, as president of the USSR.
He was seen as the only alternative to the stagnation and crisis the country was in. In 1985 he thought he could overcome the crisis with some improvements in the system. But after five years almost everyone could see that the system, the ideology and the country were still in a critical situation. In five years he made many changes. He allowed freedom of religion, freedom of the press and also private property, but only under the control of the party and the state, which he could revoke at any time.
Gorbachev’s five years were characterized by a paradox: the higher his theoretical authority rose, the less real power he had. His power – and that of the central government – was crumbling because of economic, social and bloody ethnic conflicts. At the same time, he had the final say on all decisions. The president was held responsible not only by those who had become accustomed to a poor but to a certain extent secure life, but also by the supporters of reform. Particularly significant in this regard was the change of heart of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. In December 1986, Gorbachev released him from confinement in Gorky (present-day Nizhny Novgorod). Even before he could speak freely in the USSR, Sakharov had told an American journalist that life in Russia had become incomparably freer and less controlled.
But, starting in 1988, his opinion began to gradually change. He affirmed that perestroika had failed. In a speech at the Soviet embassy in Paris, he said that Gorbachev certainly deserved support, but also that some of his character traits troubled him, for example, his propensity for undemocratic compromises and his claim on personal power. As a member of the Congress of Deputies of the USSR, Sakharov did not vote for Gorbachev in the election for president, arguing that he was concentrating almost unlimited power in his hands. In 1989, he claimed that Gorbachev had certainly initiated reforms, but that he implemented them so incompletely that the impression was created that the only real change consisted in his own rise to power. “It may seem quite exaggerated, but at the end of the day that is the way it is,” he added. In November 1988, in an interview with the representative of striking miners, he asserted that the Soviet economic and political system of the time was basically nothing but Stalinism with a slightly more humane face.
One of the main leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Yury Afanasyev, believed that ultimately Gorbachev would have to choose between being the head of reform or the head of the nomenklatura. This dual role, which Gorbachev never gave up, was probably his undoing. In the words of political scientist Andranik Migranyan, on the one hand he wanted to reform the system, on the other hand he embodied it in himself.
Even in the eyes of the liberals this concentration of offices in Gorbachev’s hands constituted a complete paralysis of power, the cause of which was also to be attributed to his own personality. His main problem was uncertainty in the implementation of concrete measures. It came to the point – just as would happen later in Yeltsin’s time – that liberals spoke of the necessity of an authoritarian regime that would serve as a transitional phase between totalitarianism and democracy. Migranyan asserted that there had never been in any country a direct transition from totalitarianism to democracy; there had to be an intermediate authoritarian phase. Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn had stated in 1973: “It is not authoritarian regimes that are scary, but those that do not take responsibility for anything in front of anyone.”
Today it is not surprising that there are so many conflicting opinions about Gorbachev. Even his contemporaries could not answer the question, “ Who exactly is Gorbachev?” One journalist, Nikolay Shulgin, asked, “Who is he? An elegant leader according to the European model? A fighter for progress in a country of conservatives?” He concluded, “Gorbachev is a perfect centrist. If a conservative tendency dominates, he looks like a radical democrat. If a radical democratic wave comes, he looks conservative.” The conclusion, in 1990 obvious to almost everyone, was that five years of perestroika had resulted in the failure of economic reforms and the worsening of the economic crisis; the increase of nation-wide conflicts and the emergence of separatist tendencies; the growth of social dissatisfaction, and so on. Gorbachev’s domestic policy had failed. All his successes were in the field of foreign policy. In the history of the USSR, this constituted a unique fact: the supreme leader was more popular abroad than at home.
It is interesting to consider how Gorbachev’s foreign policy and the reasons for his popularity were viewed in the West. The book The Seventh and Last Secretary, published in 1991 by Mikhail Heller, stated that Gorbachev fitted the image that the West expected of him. He was their ideal communist leader: pacifist, liberal and democratic, while remaining true to socialism. The uncertainty that Gorbachev was reproached with at home was praised in the West as wisdom and willingness to compromise, following the model of Western politics.
It is also interesting to note what was said about Gorbachev, almost 30 years after his retirement, while he was still alive. According to a poll conducted in 2019, 37 percent of those over the age of 60 considered themselves victims of perestroika. Among young people – aged 18 to 24 – 8 percent held this view. Moreover, 61 percent of those interviewed believed that perestroika had done more harm than good to the country. It is generally thought that perestroika failed because society was not ready, but also because Gorbachev did not have the qualities required of a supreme leader, especially in times of crisis. He was a visionary, but not a true politician. A politician must at the very least think about the consequences of his actions. And this not only with regard to attempts at reform in the country itself, but also with regard to foreign policy, to which Gorbachev naively sacrificed Russia’s geopolitical interests, hoping for a new fraternal world order. The West, on the other hand, after proclaiming its victory over the USSR, took advantage of this to strengthen its own geopolitical position. This is also one of the reasons why there is a strong revanchist tendency in Russia today.
The consequences of Gorbachev’s policy
Gorbachev’s mistake was that he destroyed the prison which characterized the communist system but failed to build anything permanent. On the one hand, those who were freed from that prison had the opportunity to build something new, and that was a formidable challenge. On the other hand, something else obviously had to be done, and dictatorship should not have given way to chaos.
Of all the figures of previous Russian history, Gorbachev resembles Tsar Alexander II, who, after his defeat in the Crimean War, was forced to emancipate the Russian peasantry from serfdom and to introduce many liberal reforms. Many of these, however, were later reversed, and the development initiated by Alexander II later led, by a roundabout route, to the October Revolution and the renewed subjugation of the peasantry under Stalin. Both politicians – Tsar Alexander and Gorbachev – are similar in that their reforms were inevitable: the country could no longer continue as before. Yet these reforms did not bring the desired result.
In other ways, Gorbachev can be compared to Tsar Nicholas II: a good man, polite, but a weak politician, whose political ineptitude led to the country’s collapse. Before Gorbachev the country was at a dead end; but after him it was faced with a pile of rubble. What was made of it – for better or for worse – is another story.
My personal opinion is that something had to be done for the country that Gorbachev had taken over. I am old enough to remember the conditions in which the USSR found itself in the early 1980s. I did not realize then that I was living in a dictatorship, without freedom of the press, as well as without other freedoms. I was too young to be interested. But I remember well what I could observe in person: the piles of rubbish in the streets, the problem of alcoholism, the general cynicism and the petty crime that flourished everywhere. It was a life in which everyone felt they had the right to steal something from others, and in particular from the State.
The war in Afghanistan was a constant reality throughout my childhood.
Of course I also remember the results of so-called reforms: the poverty and hopelessness, the crime waves of the 1990s.
What happened in Russia is probably the tragedy and the responsibility of an entire country more than of a single man. Gorbachev’s achievement was that of having set the process in motion. But I consider puerile the attempt that many make to shrug off all responsibility for the fact that the changes did not go as they should have gone. At the end of the day, we must also admit that we did not live up to our expectations.
It is also significant that Gorbachev died at the time of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It seemed that the USSR had simply ceased to exist, and in the 1990s many were surprised that this had happened so peacefully. In reality, this is still an ongoing process, and it too is part of Gorbachev’s legacy, although he is not responsible for what has happened.
To conclude, I can also say that there are – and probably will remain – irreconcilable differences of opinion about Gorbachev: on the one hand, he is lauded as a “liberator,” a “democrat,” the man who freed the world – even if only temporarily – from the nightmare of nuclear war; on the other hand, he is dismissed as a “traitor” and “spineless.” All this not only testifies to how complex Gorbachev’s personality was, but also to how polarized society is in Russia and, ultimately, how polarized is our world.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.11 art. 6, 1122: 10.32009/22072446.1122.6
. H. Beech, “For Chinese leaders, Gorbachev provided a ‘textbook’ of what not to do”, in The New York Times (www.nytimes.com/live/2022/08/30/world/gorbachev-dead#for-chinese-leaders-gorbachev-provided-a-textbook-of-what-not-to-do), August 31, 2022.
. See https://newprospect.ru/news/opinions/ne-sadist-ne-vor-ne-idiot-ne-vlastolyubets-kakim-mikhaila-gorbacheva-zapomnit-mir
. Cf. P. Krugman, Working Out: The Nightmare After Gorbachev, in https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/02/opinion/russia-economy-mikhail-gorbachev.html
. See Русская мысль. October 8, 1989.
. Cf. M. Heller, The Seventh Secretary, London, 1991.
. А. Солженицин, На возврате дыхания и сознания, in Из под глыб, in http://www.vehi.net/samizdat/izpodglyb/01.html.
. Н. Шульгин, Кто он? (“Who is it?”), in XX век и мир, 6, 1989.
. Cf. M. Heller, The Seventh Secretary, op. cit.
. Cf. Личность Горбачева и его роль в истории. Оценки экспертов, in actualcomment.ru/lichnost-gorbacheva-i-ego-rol-v-istorii-otsenki-ekspertov-2208311036.html