He has a patchy reputation in his homeland, but Mikhail Gorbachev achieved more than any statesman since the end of the Second World War, argues PAUL KNOTT
The prominence of a malevolently destructive Russian President makes it hard to remember that the Kremlin was recently occupied by a decent man and force for progress in the world.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, went through a period of being despised in his Russian homeland, before being semi-forgotten. This is nothing to worry about in a country with a dire record of choosing which leaders to revere, from Stalin to Putin.
From the perspective of the rest of the planet, however, Gorbachev’s achievements were more significant than those of any other statesman since the Second World War.
Gorbachev’s poor reputation in Russia stems from a series of actions that were perceived as high-handed. Notable amongst these was a failed attempt to restrict alcohol sales to solve an alcoholism epidemic that is still causing immense human misery and socio-economic damage in the country.
Above all, Gorbachev is accused of being the man who brought about the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia dominated the USSR and its collapse dealt a grievous blow to Russia’s power and pride.
More importantly, it ushered in a decade of economic chaos and hardship for most of its citizens, under Gorbachev’s rival and successor, the erratic Boris Yeltsin.
That the USSR ceased to exist on Gorbachev’s watch is a statement of fact. But this was never his intention. Gorbachev was a lifelong believer in Soviet socialism and his actions as leader were a Stakhanovite effort to save the system, not dismantle it.
By the time Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the official title of the country’s premier – in 1985, the USSR was already in deep trouble.
The state-controlled economy was abjectly failing to produce enough of the basic goods its people required, let alone generate the resources the nation needed to sustain its superpower status. Even those items that did emerge were often of such shoddy quality as to be almost useless.
This failure was a result of the system being riddled with corruption, perverse incentives, incompetence and indolence. The Party and its leadership had sunk into cynicism and venality, having become hopelessly disconnected from the needs of the population.
The decay was exemplified by the farcical pre-Gorbachev parade of geriatric and ailing leaders. Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko all expired in quick succession in the early and mid-1980s.
The then US Vice-President George H.W. Bush was the administration’s go-to man for foreign funerals. After attending Chernenko’s interment, he allegedly told his Embassy’s staff on departure ‘see you same time, same place next year’.
That Bush was not back in black in Moscow a year later was because, by 1985, the Communist Party’s elders finally had the good sense to appoint a relatively young General Secretary, with the ideas and energy that might revitalise the system.
Gorbachev’s plans to save the Soviet Union revolved around the two words of Russian everybody ended up learning in the 1980s; glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’). Glasnost legitimised a degree of free speech unprecedented in Soviet history. The idea behind it was to increase official accountability and create improvements by generating debate and fresh ideas.
The initial impact was electrifying. New editions of newspapers, magazines and broadcast media shows became eagerly awaited events.
Public discussion proliferated and contested elections created huge enthusiasm.
The Supreme Soviet was transformed from being a forum for dull speeches and ritual applause to an arena of impassioned discussions and battles for the podium.
The problem for Gorbachev and his reformers was that the best ideas – or, at least, the most popular ones – that emerged were incompatible with maintaining a centrally directed, communist empire. Perestroika too, was ultimately doomed to failure.
Gorbachev was far from a blinkered Moscow elitist.
He grew up in a poor family and had long experience of working in government in his largely agricultural home region, Stavropol. But on first taking power, even Gorbachev had not fully realised what bad shape the Soviet economy was in.
His radical attempts to overhaul the system by giving people greater responsibility and potential rewards for their work were not enough.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the economic situation was little better. The overwhelming majority of people who lacked privileged political connections continued to suffer from shortages of essential items, steeply rising prices and massive queues for whatever was available.
Gorbachev had inadvertently discovered that Soviet communism was broken beyond repair.
The system was too corroded to cope with being democratised and his attempt to make it live up to its original ideals of giving the people power and equal prosperity.
But had no attempt been made to reform the totalitarian mess the USSR had become, it would have soon disintegrated anyway, in a much less orderly and more violent fashion.
Before his nation’s demise, though, Gorbachev made a far greater contribution to the world than anything that could be accomplished within a single country.
For 40 years the planet had lived under the shadow of the Cold War, with the knowledge that one false move or misunderstanding could trigger nuclear Armageddon.
Gorbachev did more than anyone else to alleviate this terrible situation.
The threat was drastically reduced by the conventional forces and nuclear weapons agreements he instigated during a series of dramatic summits with the initially sceptical US President Ronald Reagan.
The second part of Gorbachev’s immense contribution to ending the Cold War was his acceptance of the desire for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe.
The USSR and its Eastern European satellite states were the world’s last major empire. No such empire has ever been dismantled with so little bloodshed – think of the British in India and Kenya, or the French in Algeria.
That the brutal Soviet imperium would come to such a peaceful end was unimaginable for decades beforehand. It did so largely thanks to one man: Mikhail Gorbachev.
On every previous occasion when people behind the Iron Curtain had demonstrated for freedom, the Soviets violently crushed them with military interventions to prop up their puppet regimes.
This happened most notoriously in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
When massive popular protests in favour of freedom and democracy erupted again across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s,
Gorbachev refused to repeat the repression and let the satellite states go their own way.
He knew that this was not necessarily in the Soviet Union’s short-term interests. But much as he loved his country, he cared about humanity more and could not bring himself to kill peaceful protestors for the sake of his own political beliefs or prospects.
To some extent, Gorbachev was let down by the West, steeped as it was in Cold War competition and short-sightedly happy to see the USSR sink.
Gorbachev advocated a completely new pan-European security architecture that would ensure peace from the Atlantic to Siberia, but received little support in bringing his political vision to fruition.
Nor did he receive adequate economic assistance when he most needed it to give his reforms time to succeed. Instead, the West waited and then wasted millions on the kleptocratic and chaotic Yeltsin administration during the subsequent decade.
Gorbachev’s true greatness as a statesman and human being goes beyond his valiant attempts to reform the Soviet Union.
His fundamental decency led him to let the entire Soviet system go, sacrificing his own political future and lifelong beliefs in the process, rather than attempting to preserve them by harming other people. I can think of few other political leaders whom I would trust to have done the same in that situation.
Paul Knott is a writer on international politics. He spent 20 years as a British diplomat, with postings to Romania, Dubai, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia and the European Union in Brussels