Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, died last week. The world noted his passing less than it should have, and in his homeland and among communists around the world he is reviled as a failure at best and a traitor by all too many. At one point in his life Gorbachev was the most oft-mentioned political leader across the world. But he died a man — perhaps something of a broken man, for all we know — whose every political project had collapsed into utter failure — or so it might seem.
In reality, he was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest political figure. Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms introduced liberty into and against the will of the most totalitarian domestic regime ever established on earth to date. What is more the Soviet regime had shaped the entire 20th century and contributed to the subjection of a quarter of the world’s population to communist dictatorship. Gorbachev played the leading role in putting an end to what communist expansion engendered: the greatest global military-political confrontation in world history. And in doing so he markedly reduced the threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over humankind when he rose to power in March 1985.
A titanic historical figure and, what is more remarkable, a decent human being, Gorbachev was Russia’s greatest Great Liberator. His Perestroika reforms outstripped Tsar Alexander II’s Great Reforms, releasing the USSR’s political prisoners, granting freedom of speech and information, opening up a totalitarian system to semi-free, then free popular elections, and beginning the decentralization of the USSR’s hyper-centralized command economy. To be sure, some of his reforms’ gains were the result of other players moving beyond Gorbachev’s original intent. But Gorbachev refused under immense pressure and at some risk to his own welfare, if not life, to turn back — with the possible exception of the January 1991 Baltic crackdowns — and courageously withstood the temptation to bend to the Soviet hardliners’ inertial weakness and preference for Party-state arbitrary rule. This forced them to overthrow him in the failed August 1991 coup that put an end to the Soviet Party-state’s crumbling hold on power and consequently the Soviet state itself. Indeed, on the eve of the coup, Gorbachev had moved toward the radical reformers’ position of establishing a new republican and federative Soviet Union that would have eschewed the remnants of the mono-organizational Party-state monolith.
In foreign affairs, Gorbachev’s achievements were even more monumental and breath-taking. He initiated and drove the termination of the East-West Cold War together in partnership with US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. His ‘new political thinking for the USSR and the world’ included monumental arms control agreements, the liberation of Eastern Europe’s peoples from communist tyranny, and the reunification of Germany and ultimately all Europe in a ‘common home’ which aspired more broadly to a united northern hemisphere extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok. As in the domestic arena, some of this progress was a result of events moving faster than leadership could contain, but this was a consequence of the unnatural, alien, and perverse nature of the Soviet order and the inability of any human being to contain the forces that freedom inevitably unleashed. The explosive power of those forces of nationalism and revenge were hyper-charged by the Soviet legacy of totalitarian terror and stultifying social conformity and informational deprivation. They were not the result of Gorbachev’s Perestroika per se. His successors — Russian and Western — have proven little better and perhaps even far worse for the most part at containing the human condition of lust for power, wealth, and notoriety.
In sum, Gorbachev’s accomplishments are monumental and cannot be overstated. Among the other most important historical figures of 20th century — Lenin, Stalin, and Mao — Gorbachev stands out for a greatness of the good, rather than of evil.
As much as Gorbachev triumphed in domestic and particularly in foreign policy, he also fell to tragedy. Collapse of Soviet empire’s external holdings in Eastern Europe, then its internal holdings in the form of the union republics’ secession and full state independence left Russia with a small portion of the Russian Empire’s non-Russian colonial lands. Domestically, his great reforms divided the country, as liberalization brought forth a host of revived or new nationalist, political, ideological, and economic forces. Nationalism drove the collapse of the Union state, despite Gorbachev’s enormous efforts to contain nationalism and fashion a new more decentralized, actual federative system to be encoded in a new Union Treaty, the sighing of which was scuttled by the hardliners’ August coup attempt and coup not be revived in the autumn of the Soviet collapse. Independent movements and parties (fascist, nationalist, monarchist, democratic socialist, Christian, and democratic) emerged and were legalized by Gorbachev’s February 1991 repeal of Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, which stipulated one-party rule under the ‘vanguard role’ of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.
Most importantly, the Communist Party and its apparatus began to split into a myriad of factions and (Democratic, Marxist) platforms. Gorbachev, his reformist allies, and indeed the country as a whole became caught between two flames. On the ‘right’ the core institutions of the now embattled Party-state — the Party apparatus, KGB, military, and MVD, and government apparatus — emerged as a reactionary force opposing and often blocking the implementation of Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) policy, de-Stalinization, economic reforms, political Perestroika (delimitation of Party centralized power, transfer of powers and semi-free elections to the representative soviets, ‘multi-partyness’, and rapprochement with the capitalist West). On the ‘left’, groups of radical reformers and nationalists in the republics demanded faster change than Gorbachev could realistically deliver without risking a hardline coup, of which there were at least three attempts. These factions eventually coalesced around the Party’s new Democratic Platform and then ‘Democratic Russia’ movement and Russia’s perestroika-elected president Boris Yeltsin. Upon being elected to head the reformed and semi-democratized Russian Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin began to separate Russia from the jurisdiction of the CPSU and the Soviet state apparatus, escalating Gorbachev’s delimitation to full separation of Russia from Party rule and even Union government. Only in the Baltic republics did this process go so far. Yeltsin’s revolution from above — the use of state organs rather than societal opposition movements to achieve a regime transformation (from democratic republican to authoritarian/totalitarian rule or visa versa) — was given free reign after the failure of the August coup, which fully discredited the hardliners, removed the coup threat, and forced a partially weakened Gorbachev to acquiesce in Yeltsin’s completion of the revolution from above. The failed coup, the resulting dismantling of the CPSU and its apparat, and Russia’s incorporation of Soviet institutions extended the fall of the Soviet Party-state regime to the Union state, as the Union Treaty was scuttled and the union republics ran for the exits. Gorbachev’s reforms had seemingly destroyed not only the Party but the country, and most of the Russian people and many other Soviet citizens would never forgive him.
Whereas Gorbachev’s name became dirt on Russian soil, it rang the tone of a heroic liberator for most in Eastern Europe and even across the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR’s communist regimes across Eastern Europe, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe, and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact were humiliating for much of the Soviet elite and populace, especially among Party and state apparatchiks and military, KGB, and MVD officers and servicemen. This insult became humiliation in the post-Soviet era when the West broke its clear promise not to expand NATO beyond the borders of reunified Germany. Gorbachev is uniformly castigated in Russia for not getting this agreement codified in a treaty or some formal agreement as a result. NATO’s broken promise, NATO expansion to Russia’s borders, and Western democracy-promotion machinations combined to created Vladimir Putin. No Russian leader would be subjected to such policies, without retaliating against the West and cracking down at home in order to protect Russia’s historically valued state sovereignty, security vigilance, and national political solidarity.
For Gorbachev, the West’s betrayal of the Vancouver to Vladivostok vision was a harsh blow personally and politically. But the blows kept coming, with each round of NATO expansion, Serbia, Georgia, and so on. The burden must have become nearly unbearable as Western interference in Ukraine and efforts to bring it into NATO emerged. Born in southern Russia in a region with traits similar to many in eastern Ukraine, he was dismayed as the deterioration of Russo-Ukrainian relations and then the Russo-Ukrainian war unfolded (https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/gorbachev-died-shocked-bewildered-by-ukraine-conflict-interpreter-2022-09-01/?fbclid=IwAR2Rfn2Wml6sA0us1pDJ1itf6sB047leGgY0l7ikljrYzFrQa8XJfyCsNrQ).
The Russo-Ukrainian war is a bleeding wound inflicted by the two fundamental failures attributed to Gorbachev: (1) the USSR’s dissolution as a state rather than its transformation of regime type and its failure to yield some new federation that might have included both Russia and Ukraine, as Gorbachev’s Union Treaty held out hope for until autumn of 1991 and (2) the failure to prevent NATO expansion eastward. But whose were these failures, these tragedies? In the case of collapse at home, Soviet hardliners’s persistent resistance to reforms, culminating in their failed August coup, are as much to blame as Gorbachev, since the Union Treaty was set for signing the day after the coup began, and the wave of secessions by the union republics occurred as a result of the coup. In this way, it was the inflexibility of the Party-state system and the overwhelming majority of the apparat elite that ran it that se the state up for failure when confronted with reforms. At the same time, Yeltsin’s personal ambitions and desire to defeat the Party-state and seemingly Gorbachev as well at all costs led him to scuttle what hope remained to salvage a rump of the USSR (that might have even included Ukraine) in November 1991. The failure of Yeltsin’s presidency in post-Soviet Russia, and the revanche of the apparat symbolized by Putin’s return to Russia’s traditional authoritarian inclination further evidences the Soviet legacy’s contribution to the Union’s demise by way of its resistance to and deformation of reforms. In sum, the bulk of the blame for the Soviet collapse lies beyond Gorbachev.
In terms of Gorbachev’s legacy in foreign policy, the picture is much the same. Gorbachev’s acquiescence in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and his participation with the West in the Soviet withdrawal from eastern Europe might have proven a positive for Russians if they were parlayed into Russia’s integration with Europe and the construction of a new European security architecture. Given the West’s post-Soviet policies towards Russia and the former Soviet republics, it seems unlikely that Washington and Brussels would have agreed to codified restrictions on NATO expansion further east. In lieu of a treaty obligation and/or a more powerful Moscow, the responsibility for creating a post-Cold War order that satisfied Russian perceptions of its national security interests depended almost entirely on magnanimity in Washington. None was forthcoming. It is part of the Western legacy, not that of Gorbachev’s, that taints through their aftermaths the collapse of communism and the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe. The West’s hubris and arrogance in expanding NATO to Russia’s borders with the Baltic states and pledging to expand to Georgia and Ukraine has sparked three wars–the current Russo-Ukrainian War, really a war of NATO expansion — is the clearest evidence of the folly of repeatedly breaking the promise made to Gorbachev thirty-two years ago.
GORBACHEV’S LAST TRIUMPHS
If I am right that the final Soviet tragedies are not attributable mostly or even at all to Gorbachev, then his ultimate legacy is even more triumphant than most would grant and therefore perhaps more durable than it might appear today. Russian history after all moves like a pendulum between liberalization and authoritarianization. Typically, when Russia gets too caught up in European geopolitics by dint of choice or more typically out of necessity, the domestic regime -whether tsars, commissars, or statists – tightens the screws too far. Resulting failures at home and abroad produce a new impetus for change, liberalization of the domestic regime.
Moreover, Gorbachev’s legacy of freedom survives in ways that are not immediately apparent or particularly robust, but it persists nevertheless. Russians overwhelmingly favor the institution of elections and freedom of speech and information. If they are not presently highly motivated to protect them, this is in part a consequence of Putin’s relatively soft form of authoritarianism as compared with previous Russian iterations. Russians know their history pretty well. It is also a consequence of Russians’s response to NATO encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and the decay of the West’s own republican and Christian legacies. Once there is a breathing spell abroad, Russians will turn inward and once again will initiate a new perestroika–reforms hopefully based on compatible Russian traditions and without Western machinations and pressures surrounding their implementation. Whether the new perestroika will hold and whether Russia and Europe will finally be able to find common ground and found a new common Western home is anyone’s guess.
Even in death Gorbachev seemed to signal to the Russian people a suggestion that it reconsider a more republican liberal order.* Standing to the left of Gorbachev’s body as it laid in ‘semi-state’ during his semi-state funeral and leading the procession into the Novodevichi Cemetery where he was buried while holding Gorbachev’s portrait was Dmitrii Muratov, the editor of the now exiled liberal opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta. Muratov has been a champion of those harmed by the arbitrariness that still plagues Russian state, law, and society. He has sought state funding for badly needed care for children suffering from cancer, shed light on official corruption, and has received occasional support in this from President Putin. For his work, Muratov was recently awarded a Nobel Prize. As his days wound down, Gorbachev, who for decades has helped finance Novaya gazeta, was most surely the one who chose Muratov for this special role at his funeral. In doing this, Gorbachev put before the Russian people a model upon which to found a new Russian liberal movement, despite the great disdain with which Russians currently regard both liberals and Gorbachev. To the end, the former Party apparatchik and General Secretary, President Mikhail Gorbachev, affirmed his belief that freedom is an essential ingredient for any nation, particularly for a great one such as Russia. This affirmation was Gorbachev’s most recent but perhaps not final triumph.
*By ‘liberal order’ I do not mean the present state of affairs in the West, which is now marked by cultural decay and an illiberal politics approaching that which is extant in Putin’s Russia. I mean a democratic republic based on the rule of law, political pluralism, political freedoms, and civil and human rights.
MOST RECENT BOOK
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.