Mikhail Gorbachev: A Noble Failure
It is difficult to describe Mikhail Gorbachev’s death at 91 this week as a tragedy. There are all the usual words, but ninety-one is a long life. He outlived virtually all of his contemporaries: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Deng Xiaoping, and Helmut Kohl all predeceased him. Unlike those leaders, however, Gorbachev’s legacy is inevitably felt in the vacuum he left, not the institutions he built.
Many will say, with solid justification, that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. His firm line and arms build-up cut short what had been a decade of Soviet advances in the 1980s and made it obvious, most importantly to the Soviet leadership, that America was not going to lose. But that this realization led to the end of the Soviet Union – an end that came about peacefully unlike in Yugoslavia, or without efforts to rejuvenate within the authoritarian system like in China – is a result of Mikhail Gorbachev and his idealism.
The irony of Gorbachev and the reason for his failure to save the Soviet Union ultimately comes down to the truth that he believed in it. A more cynical Soviet politician, a Beria perhaps, would have realized that the problem was not the way Communism was being implemented but Communism itself and abandoned it for capitalist economic methods as Deng did in China. Alternatively, understanding that the Soviet Union could not catch up to the West technically and economically, they might have resorted to using the Soviet Union’s military power to blackmail the West as Putin is doing today, demanding to be paid off to “preserve” peace.
Gorbachev never contemplated those measures because he genuinely believed Communism could work. In this view, the Soviet Union was failing not because the system was flawed, but because the people were. Eastern Europe was governed by thugs and criminals. If he allowed the removal of Eastern Europe’s local Communist strongmen, then the people could elect true socialists who would bring about prosperous democratic allies of the Soviet Union. Was this naïve? With hindsight, certainly. But it was because Gorbachev believed in the people of Eastern Europe “choosing the right way” that he was willing to risk giving them the chance.
The same was true of the Soviet Union. By allowing for the publication of the crimes of the Soviet State through glasnost, Gorbachev destroyed its legitimacy internationally, discrediting its apologists beyond hope of recovery. A cynic who saw the Soviet Union as their personal property would never have risked devaluing its brand. But Gorbachev, because he believed in its mission, felt its betrayals should be aired out.
It is a tragedy of history that while the world, along with the people of Eastern Europe, the Baltic, and arguably many Russians benefited from these “mistakes,” Gorbachev himself was condemned as a traitor. There is fairness in this. As a General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and President of the Soviet Union, he failed in his stewardship of both. In fact, as neither survived his leadership, it is hard to point to greater failures of management in history, especially as Gorbachev himself never intended to see either vanish.
That is the view adopted by Russian nationalists who saw the Soviet Union not as a multi-national state or a socialist federation as Gorbachev did, but as a Russian Empire. He is the man who gave up their status as a superpower, and even gave Crimea to Ukraine, and received nothing in return from the West but contempt. For them, nothing characterized the 1990s more perfectly than Gorbachev’s appearance in an infamous ad for Pizza Hut.
Yet it is easy to pass judgement in hindsight. Before Gorbachev, it was impossible to find milk or fresh meat in Moscow supermarkets. Even in the depths of the 1990s there were goods in every store, even if some struggled to afford them consistently. Until recently, Russians could travel, which millions, especially Jews, used to move to the United States and Israel. Russians who are so eager to say they would trade the unstable freedom of the post-1991 era for the Soviet regime may come to rue that conclusion in the years ahead as a new Iron Curtain falls, cutting them off from Western goods, Western travel, and the wider Internet.
At the same time, the barbarity and brutality of the current conflict in the Ukraine, which has already produced nearly 5 million refugees, is a hint at what could have happened had Gorbachev “failed” more violently as Slobodan Milosevic did in Yugoslavia. The nature of Gorbachev’s failure and refusal to use overwhelming force meant that if there was economic uncertainty and political humiliation, there was no war and destruction for thirty years.
That goes to the heart of the recognition Gorbachev deserves. Leaders have failed for many reasons throughout history: greed, prejudice, vindictiveness, sadism, and fanaticism. The traits that contributed to Gorbachev’s failure to preserve the Soviet Union or Communist Party are entirely positive traits. Idealism, a reluctance to use violence, a lack of malice toward others even when they undermined or betrayed him, and ultimately too much, rather than too little, faith in humanity. Gorbachev may not have been too good for this world, but he was ultimately a man too good for Soviet or Russian politics. That fact says as much about the Soviet Union and Communism as it does about Gorbachev. If Communism could only be preserved by a monster, and the Soviet Union was doomed the first time a decent human being took the helm, then what further confirmation is needed that those systems did not deserve to survive?
There are many successful leaders who left the world a worse place. There are many failed leaders who left disaster in their wake. Gorbachev is the rare political failure who may well have helped as many if not more people than if he had “succeeded” in preserving Communist rule for another decade through more cynical means. The millions who benefited can wholeheartedly wish that he will finally be able to rest in peace, reunited with Raisa at last.