Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (1931-2022) inherited a country that was well on its way to ruin. He was not unique in seeing the Soviet predicament. For the better part of two decades — from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Soviet economic experts drew attention to deep flaws in the planning and distribution system, of the stagnation in the countryside, of the danger of underinvestment in new technologies and the growing dependence on the export of oil and gas. In short, the Soviet system was not delivering. Something had to be done. But the ageing party bosses were unwilling to pursue reforms. Often, they were simply at a loss about the enormity of problems that they, and their country, faced.
The war in Afghanistan and the imposition of martial law on Poland deepened Moscow’s international isolation, while President Ronald Reagan’s militant statements about the need to push back against the ‘evil empire’ intensified Soviet fears of an impending nuclear war. Isolated and stagnating, the Soviet Union barely managed to maintain the external facade of a mighty power. But things were beginning to fall apart internally. A change was badly needed.
Gorbachev — who worked his way up through the party ranks — had a close-up view of the deepening Soviet paralysis. Upon coming to power in March 1985, he immediately embarked upon extensive economic and eventually radical political reforms. This restructuring — perestroika in Russian — met with incomprehension and outright hostility among many of the party faithful. Defying resistance, Gorbachev pressed on. He also sought to transform the Soviet Union’s global standing, elevating it from the lamentable state of a tired, crumbling superpower, casting aside its unattractive revolutionary ideology, reshaping the Soviet mission, and changing the world. Here, the bureaucratic resistance to change was less significant, at least in the early stages of the process. Foreign policy was always the preserve of the very few in Moscow; here, Gorbachev had considerable latitude and very little determined resistance.
These two facets — internal and external reform — were closely interrelated. An economically successful Soviet Union, a less repressive and more open Soviet Union would offer an attractive model to the world, and so win the struggle for hearts and minds, assuring that history would flow in the Soviet direction. Meanwhile, curbing overseas commitments and lowering tensions through dialogue with the West and China, helped free up resources for the struggling domestic reform effort.
But there was also an essential difference between these two facets: retrenchment abroad — withdrawal from the Afghan quagmire, pursuit of disarmament, even giving up on the external Soviet empire in Eastern Europe — did not threaten the Soviet regime itself. Gorbachev could afford to allow the Cold War to end, and present Moscow’s defeat — as well he tried — as a great victory for world peace. What he could ill afford to do was to dismantle the domestic institutions upon which his power rested.
And yet, after his economic reforms began to skid, Gorbachev pushed for greater openness — glasnost — and more democratisation, in the hope that somehow his moral authority and his charismatic appeal would carry him through, helping transform a deeply authoritarian country into a renewed Soviet Union, over which he would still somehow preside.
The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in his time spoke of ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones,’ emphasising a gradualist approach to reform. Gorbachev, by contrast, jumped right into the river, learning to swim even as the raging currents carried him thence. This was a brave, admirable, dramatic, even a foolhardy attempt. He drowned.
In retrospect, some might say that the Soviet system was inherently unreformable. Recent historical research — including the recent book the prominent historian Vladislav Zubok, which I have reviewed here – shows that this was most certainly not the case. But reforms require more than resolve (of this Gorbachev had plenty), more than political tact (Gorbachev was a masterful tactician) but also patience, stubborn patience, an ability to listen to well-informed advice, and a willingness to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term outcomes. Gorbachev, though, succumbed to hubris. Who are we to blame him? He was changing History.
As the economic situation went from bad to worse, queues lengthened, and poverty deepened. But there was also a new, exhilarating sense of freedom. In March 1989 Soviet citizens took to the first reasonably democratic polls in the country’s history, electing the Congress of People’s Deputies. The often unruly sessions of this experimental assembly were subsequently televised to stunned audiences around the country, completely upending Soviet politics. The shelves were empty, but the minds were alive to remarkable changes. Fewer potatoes, true — but more freedom!
Yet when all was said and done, freedom alone was not enough. Impoverished, embittered populace looked away from Gorbachev: towards the fire-breathing demagogues, the would-be authoritarians, the prophets of nationalist causes. In short — to those who promised to deliver order — and potatoes. Are we to blame them? They were just trying to survive.
The fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the long summer and autumn of 1989 were a footnote to the Soviet drama. The average Soviet citizen scarcely paid attention to the unfolding transformation of the Soviet bloc. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 — an earth-shattering event from the Western perspective — did not go unnoticed by the Soviet public but it did not matter all that much amid all the domestic upheaval. Still, the charge of surrendering an empire stuck. A politically weakened Gorbachev was soon besieged by adversaries who exploited his ‘treason’ for self-serving political ends: why didn’t he do something — anything — they charged, to prevent the loss of that, which was paid for with the lives of so many?
Gorbachev had an answer to this question. His answer could be summed up simply as: Use force? Okay. And then what? As he privately argued, the Soviet Union simply could not underwrite Eastern Europe, which was already teetering on the brink of insolvency. There was a deeper issue, too. His credibility as a world leader depended on Gorbachev not using force, for if he did, how could he have ever claimed that he stood for different values than his interventionist predecessors? Gorbachev knew that he was losing clients, but he hoped that he was gaining the world. ‘There are fundamental changes happening here,’ he concluded in the final days of November 1989. ‘They are happening so fast that if one does not look at them from a certain political, philosophical perspective, but reacts immediately, one could even succumb to panic.’ And then: ‘I’ve already been accused of all sins: that everything is falling apart inside and out. Yes, it’s falling apart. That, which had to be destroyed, and that, which outlived itself. And it’s good that we’ve begun this process ourselves, and have a plan of action…’
Only, Gorbachev did not have a plan of action — not much, anyway, beyond pleading hard, pleading with the West, and of course especially the United States, to help keep the Soviet honour intact by refraining from pocketing Soviet concessions. President George H.W. Bush looked on with fatherly concern, but he was no fool. He refused Gorbachev’s pleas for leaving reunified Germany out of NATO or, indeed, for letting the Soviet Union itself join NATO (which Gorbachev proposed out of sheer desperation in May 1990). ‘We prevailed and they didn’t,’ Bush famously said. ‘We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.’
Gorbachev had planned for a very different future for the Soviet Union. He aimed to construct a framework for European security, where the USSR would continue to play a leading role. Was he naïve? Perhaps. But he believed that he could deliver on this ambitious vision by fostering a closer working relationship with the Western leaders. He had dreamed of a Common European Home, where the Soviet Union would have a glorified perch. He simply could not accept the idea that the USSR had little that it could give to Europe, that it had to earn its place at the dinner party, not assume that it would be seated at the head-table as a matter of God-given rights. In this sense, at least, Gorbachev inherited something of the vision of his predecessors-in-office. He believed in Moscow’s special mission, in Soviet exceptionalism. The more bitter the disappointment then.
Gorbachev sought to maximise Soviet leverage by repairing relations with China. In May 1989 he travelled to Beijing to mend fences with the Chinese after a thirty-year-split. Here, he clearly departed from his Soviet predecessors, for none of them were remotely willing to recognise China for the rising superpower that it was, or to deal with it on equal terms. Gorbachev fared better.
Perhaps out of concern for the future of Sino-Soviet relations, Gorbachev failed to condemn the shocking massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Indeed, when presented with the evidence that the Chinese army massacred up to 3,000 students in Beijing, Gorbachev privately remarked: ‘We must be realists. They, like us, have to hold on. Three thousand… So what?’
Indeed, not long after the Tiananmen massacre — taking advantage of China’s isolation — he reached out to India’s Premier Rajiv Gandhi with a proposal to strengthen the strategic triangle involving the USSR, China, and India: ‘They [the Chinese] were grateful for our measured response, and, perhaps, now they will value more their relations with us and with you… Do you remember how we talked about a “triangle”?… We made a good forecast. Perhaps now is that exact moment.’ These were hardly the musings of a starry-eyed idealist.
He had to hold on. Like the Chinese, he just had to hold on. But could he unleash brutal force against protesters like Deng Xiaoping had done? He had a deep aversion to this scenario, but he never completely ruled it out. That lingering uncertainty about the increasingly attractive option of cracking the whip haunted Gorbachev even as the Soviet Union itself began to fall apart. It was this uncertainty that underpinned his complicity in the use of force in Lithuania in January 1991, a development that well near horrified his most liberal advisers.
But Gorbachev backed off. He was not a Stalinist. He put his faith in the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and often cited his well-known adage: ‘Everything flows, everything changes.’ Gorbachev wanted to flow with, but also to direct change, to be recognised not just as the leader of a superpower but as the world’s strategist-in-chief for change: it was his mission, his historical role, and his claim to legitimacy.
It was a vision that he had a hard time selling to the party elites, especially that their world was coming apart at the seams. In August 1991, Gorbachev’s detractors moved against him in an attempted coup, so incompetently organised that it left no doubt: the Soviet Union was a spent force. There was nothing left. No power. No potatoes. No ideas.
The coup failed. Gorbachev survived. But he was dead politically. He, too, was a spent force.
Gorbachev has long been credited with the USSR’s peaceful death. The Soviet Union — a tinderbox of contradictions — could have turned into another Yugoslavia, only one armed with nuclear weapons. This mantra about the miracle of peaceful Soviet collapse has not survived Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Blood-and-soil nationalism, which filled the gaping hole left by the implosion of the Communist idea, reshaped the former Soviet space and prepared the ground for the resurgence of Russian imperialism.
Gorbachev never quite embraced this new definition of the Russian idea. Despite his hesitant endorsement of Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, he remained, at heart, a reluctant nationalist. Little wonder! Would he have jumped into that raging river had he known that it would carry him — and his country — towards war and tyranny? Would he not have taken greater care in feeling for the stones?
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had the singular misfortune of living long enough to watch some of his most important achievements reversed by his myopic successors. But he did accomplish something great. He gave Russia a chance, a chance since stupidly squandered.