Mikhail Gorbachev, who died August 30, was one of the great men of the twentieth century, in some ways perhaps the greatest. Winston Churchill might rank ahead of him, arguably having saved the world. But by ending the Cold War, Gorbachev, too, may have saved it, and he contributed mightily to the advance of freedom.
I venture this assessment in full awareness that many people, including some I revere for their personal confrontations with Soviet tyranny, have a mixed assessment of the last Soviet leader, or even a condemnatory one. They recall that his reforms unfolded gradually, even grudgingly, and sometimes he backtracked; that he brusquely jettisoned the more radical reformer, Boris Yeltsin; and, above all, that his regime used lethal force against demonstrators seeking national independence in Lithuania, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
To be sure, Gorbachev lacked the perspicacity and strength of character of Churchill. And he would not bear comparison in moral stature with the likes of Vaclav Hável, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Mahatma Gandhi. But the causes these four embodied and led would in all likelihood have triumphed without them, although perhaps more slowly and with greater pain. And the Allies might have defeated Hitler without Churchill. But it is far from clear that the end of the Cold War and of the Soviet empire would have come about without Gorbachev, or that democracy would have triumphed over totalitarianism only a decade after communism and Soviet influence had spread to their furthest extent.
To the Lithuanians, Georgians, Azeris, and others whose countrymen perished at the Kremlin’s hands during Gorbachev’s rule, it is not for me to counsel forgiveness, although I believe those countries would not enjoy their hard-won independence today had it not been for Gorbachev. But other assessments of Gorbachev’s role far less admiring than my own have come from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, and it is with these that I wish to argue.
On the left, for example, the journalist and diplomat Strobe Talbott wrote in TIME in 1990 that, “A new consensus is emerging, that the Soviet threat is not what is used to be. The real point, however, is that it never was. The doves in the Great Debate of the past 40 years were right all along.” In other words, Gorbachev had not changed much at all; rather, Washington had at long last recognized the non-threatening reality of Soviet goals and actions. As various other doves explained it, the essense of this recognition was found in Ronald Reagan’s expressed desire to do away with nuclear weapons.
But if the real change had occurred on the American and not the Soviet side, then it was beyond curious that this belated discovery of Soviet benignity should have occurred under Ronald Reagan, who called the USSR an “evil empire,” rather than under Jimmy Carter, who had proclaimed America “free of [the] inordinate fear of Communism.” And if Moscow had never posed much of a threat, how to account for Stalin’s greenlighting of North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950, the dispatch of Soviet tanks to Budapest in 1956 and to Prague in 1968, the Kremlin’s drive for nuclear superiority, its invasion of Afghanistan, its succor for terrorists like Carlos the Jackal, or its sponsorship of wars in the Middle East and Latin America? These, said Talbott, were merely signs of the “brittleness” of the communist system, mistaken by American hawks for “toughness.” Why this should make us more comfortable with Soviet belligerence was, however, not explained.
On the right, it was argued that credit for changes in the Soviet Union’s domestic and international posture belonged to the tough anti-Soviet policies of Ronald Reagan and his team. Reagan’s military build-up forced the Kremlin into an arms race that was bankrupting it, and his plan to develop a “Star Wars” system of missile defense would nullify the nuclear advantage in which it had invested so heavily. Reagan’s unprecedented anti-communist rhetoric and his “Reagan Doctrine” of aiding anti-communist insurgencies turned the screws further.
No doubt, much of this is accurate. But why would these actions have compelled Gorbachev to initiate internal reforms? He was the most powerful man in the world. He had removed rivals in the Communist Party hierarchy and promoted allies. Within a year of Gorbachev’s ascendancy, his “position was as firm as that of any of his predecessors, save only Stalin’s at the height of his power,” in the judgment of U.S. ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Except for Nikita Khrushchev, previous Soviet rulers had each held office until death. (And perhaps beyond: Yuri Andropov mysteriously disappeared with “a cold” that lasted month after month until it was announced he had expired.) There is no reason to suppose that Gorbachev could not have held onto his post until this past August 30, had that been his goal.
The Soviet economy may have been a shambles, but so what? It had long been so while Soviet power continued to grow. The elite did not share the privations endured by average citizens. Gorbachev and those he favored could have continued to enjoy a world of perks and luxuries. There were no signs of rebellion until Gorbachev opened the door to protest.
And what if Reagan’s arms build-up had put the Kremlin at a disadvantage? Washington would not use its might to threaten the USSR. America had enjoyed a nuclear monopoly and other advantages at the very moment that Moscow initiated the Cold War. The goal of spreading communism and Soviet influence could still be pursued from a position of overall military inferiority.
This is not to deny all credit to the Reagan Administration. By restoring America’s strength and self-confidence, it no doubt heightened Gorbachev’s unease with his own country’s performance. But still, Gorbachev was not compelled to do any of the epochal things he did.
Gorbachev helped topple the communist regimes that Stalin had imposed on Eastern and Central Europe, warning that Soviet troops would not defend them and that they should board the bandwagon of reform. When the East German rulers resisted, Gorbachev confronted them in person, and soon the Berlin Wall came down.
By thus liquidating the Soviet empire, he all but formally ended the Cold War. That struggle, of course, had two sides, but it had been initiated, and was driven, only by one. Moscow hoped to spread communism, while Washington sought only “containment.” The moment Gorbachev called it off, it was over. Its end brought the resolution of suppurating conflicts in Central America and southern Africa and vastly reduced the threat to Israel’s existence. Above all, it lifted the specter of nuclear Armageddon that haunted my generation, which routinely practiced air raid drills in our schools.
The transition of the former Soviet “satellites” from communism to democracy gave a strong fillip to the global tide of democracy during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The tide has ebbed in the twenty-first century, but the number of democracies in the world remains almost twice as large as it was when Gorbachev took office. The élan of totalitarianism, the sense of its inevitability that had been dreaded by some, celebrated by others, is a thing of the past.
Gorbachev’s six years of rule culminated in stewardship of his country’s dissolution, in which he acquiesced as few rulers in history have done. The USSR devolved into its fifteen constituent republics. Each proclaimed democracy; five or six have been able to maintain it. The Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev might have been speaking for the Soviet peoples when he said of Gorbachev: “He did not free us, but he gave us a chance to taste freedom.” Whether that taste will linger in the mouths of Russians and others whose regimes have reverted to dictatorship we cannot now know.
Why did Gorbachev do what he did? He was not one of those souls, like Andrei Sakharov or Natan Sharansky, who from early on saw communism for the monstrosity it was and determined to oppose it at all costs. Quite the contrary. He was a true believer who called himself a “convinced Communist.” Ironically, this naiveté was the root of his accomplishments. Communism was built on cynicism, starting with Lenin’s preposterous claims that a small party of middle-class professional revolutionaries could somehow personify the “proletariat” and that his own admitted dictatorship constituted a form of “democracy.” All but a scant few who rose within this system were cynics. But Gorbachev reached its very pinnacle only to find himself deeply troubled that the system was not achieving the goals it proclaimed.
He instituted reforms but confessed at the end that “renovating this country and bringing about drastic change in the international community has proven to be much more complicated than anyone could imagine.” When a reform measure produced disappointing results or unleashed forces demanding more, he most times opted, at risk to his own position, for farther-reaching measures imposed over the resistance of conservatives.
Toward the end Gorbachev tried to placate conservatives, but they attempted a failed coup that nonetheless left him politically neutered. In a rueful but dignified farewell speech, Gorbachev said, “This society . . . has been freed politically and spiritually, and this is the most important achievement . . . A breakthrough has been effected on the road of democratic change.”
Today, Putin’s reversal of much that Gorbachev achieved—restoring dictatorship and inaugurating a new Cold War by invading Ukraine and threatening the West with nuclear weapons—drives home how momentous Gorbachev’s impact was and how precious his legacy remains.
The meaning of that legacy was captured in a comment to an American reporter by a seventy-five-year old woman among the many thousands of Russians who flocked to Gorbachev’s funeral: “He gave us freedom and peace and music—everything that is most dear to us. Condolences to us all because this also concerns you.”
Joshua Muravchik writes about politics and international affairs. His most recent book is Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism.
Image: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at Rancho del Cielo, 1992. (U.S. Government)
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