While McFaul’s specific praise begs questions (what about Mahatma Gandhi? Nelson Mandela? Martin Luther King?), the plaudits are deserved. Mikhail Gorbachev altered the course of history.
But he was also a complicated figure — and his legacy equally so.
The Cold War had ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Three decades before, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had marched to the precipice of nuclear confrontation over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Counterfactuals are hard, but a final chapter of the Cold War featuring someone other than Gorbachev (or, for that matter, leaders less capable than Bush and Secretary of State James Baker) might have ended in very different and nasty ways.
So — yes, for all these reasons, great credit and gratitude to Mikhail Gorbachev.
But those facts should not obscure others: namely, that Gorbachev was not a courageous champion for democracy and freedom. He was a leader who initiated landmark reforms that went far further than he had imagined. Later, he saw the way the winds were blowing and tacked accordingly, often brilliantly. But along the way, he took actions that were more in the vein of the dictator than the liberal reformer.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev’s failings — real and exaggerated by Russian nationalist propaganda — were central to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who served Gorbachev’s Kremlin as an officer in the KGB. And today, Putin makes abundant use of the uncertainty that accompanied Gorbachev’s peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union as a central inspiration for his campaign of violence and terror in Ukraine.
Evolution — not revolution
But in Gorbachev’s vision, these were starting points for an evolution, not a revolution. He didn’t want the Soviet Union to go away; his hopes were for a democratic socialism or a more humane form of communism. Unfortunately for him, such concepts would soon seem stale and not nearly sufficient for the moment.
By the summer of 1989, four years into his tenure, pro-democracy uprisings were in full bloom across the eastern European nations of the Soviet bloc. Gorbachev hadn’t wanted this, either — but he also didn’t want the calamity of a crackdown. In early October, one month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev went to Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Communist rule and embraced the East German autocrat Erich Honecker in Berlin (kissed him, actually, in an unfortunately iconic photo); at the same time, he urged Honecker to restrain his security forces and allow peaceful protests to continue.
Gorbachev was straddling the fence. Watching the winds.
When one considers the courageous trailblazers of the time — those who risked everything to bring freedom to the Soviet Union and its east bloc satellites, others rank far higher than Gorbachev: the Polish electrician and trade union leader Lech Walesa, the Czech playwright Václav Havel and the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, to name a few — all of whom were jailed on multiple occasions for their dissent. These men weren’t blowing with the wind; they were riding headlong into storms.
Global hero, local villain
Well before Putin came to power and decried the end of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” a great many Russian citizens had arrived at the same conclusion. Gorbachev may have navigated a peaceful end to the Cold War and saved the world from calamity, but for millions of Russians, he was responsible for the disorder and penury that followed, along with a rapid descent in Russia’s status on the global stage.
I was a journalist in Moscow in this early post-Soviet time, a period marked by a collapse in the value of the Russian ruble, rampant inflation and a spike in violent crime — in a nation that had succeeded in little else but always managed to keep the public order. Life in the Soviet era had been miserable in many ways, but you could count on your next meal, on your streets and homes being clean and safe, and you could take pride in where your country stood in the global order of things.
By the time Gorbachev left power, almost every quality-of-life metric in Russia was proof of misery, and the nation’s prestige had been badly frayed. As a journalist, I visited the storied naval academy at St. Petersburg in 1992 and found cadets worried about making ends meet; at the headquarters of the Russian navy’s vaunted northern fleet, on the Arctic, a commander spoke openly of fears that his vessels would not receive funds needed to maintain the fleet. In Gorbachev’s wake, such stories, great and small, were repeated at almost every corner of Russian life.
Gorbachev’s fall, Putin’s rise
Any examination of how Putin won his popularity begins with the fact that he was seen to be cleaning up the mess that Gorbachev had left. That may sound harsh. But for a Russian pensioner or soldier or local government official — or for one of those Russian navy cadets or officers — this was the reality.
The legacy — and Ukraine
Gorbachev’s legacy — with all its complexities — means that he will be remembered very differently among different communities.
Those Russians who craved the freedoms won because of Gorbachev’s reforms will mourn him most.
The Putinists in Russia — an uncountable number, given the Kremlin’s stranglehold on media and reliable assessments of public opinion — will remember him with derision, even hatred.
For many others — especially the Eastern Europeans and residents of the non-Russian former Soviet republics, the paradoxes linger.
The war in Ukraine is perhaps a fitting coda to the Gorbachev story — though Gorbachev himself never commented publicly on Putin’s invasion. He may have been too ill to do so. Two days after the war began, his foundation on Feb. 26 called for a “speedy cessation of hostilities.”
Gorbachev’s mother was Ukrainian, and his father Russian — a not uncommon mix. Gorbachev’s impact on Ukraine’s recent history is — like so much else about his legacy — complex.
On the one hand, there is an independent Ukraine because the Soviet Union collapsed — again, a consequence of Gorbachev’s reforms rather than an outcome he sought. On the other, Ukrainians remember Gorbachev’s early years in power, in particular that fateful period when Gorbachev kept their people in the dark about the truth at Chernobyl.
It’s one more less-than-easily parsed piece of Gorbachev’s legacy.
Did Gorbachev alter the course of history? Certainly. Was he a visionary? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Was he a crusader for freedom and democracy? No. Did many people thrive as a result of his rule? Yes. Did many people suffer? Yes.
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