The last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the first and last president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, died in Moscow on Aug. 30 at the age of 91. He will be remembered as the man who tried to reform Soviet society and unintentionally destroyed the Soviet state in the process.
It is ironic that President Joseph Biden, among others, paid tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man of remarkable vision.” As I told Serbia’s Happy TV in an interview via Skype on Aug. 31, his “vision” in March 1985 was a reformed, more “democratic” Soviet Union, a modernized polity with an efficient mixed economy, providing improved standards of living and ensuring harmonious cohabitation among all 15 republics within one decentralized but common state structure. That “vision” most certainly did not entail the disintegration of the Soviet state.
Judging by the gap between his stated intentions and the results of his endeavors, Gorbachev was a failed politician. In fact, he is arguably the greatest abject failure among leaders of major countries in the late 20th century. If we take second-tier countries into account, his failure may be compared to that of Yugoslavia’s dictator-for-life Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980, leaving behind a dysfunctional political system seemingly calculated to create discord and bloodshed.
It is true that Gorbachev had his work cut out for him when he took office. But, compared with another leader faced with an even more daunting task of reforming his—that of China’s Deng Xiaoping—Gorbachev botched the job.— Deng managed with skill and an intricate sense of timing. He understood that it was essential to maintain political stability and continuity while resetting China’s backward Maoist economy and turning it into the mighty global colossus it is today. A comparable feat—albeit from a different set of ideological assumptions—was performed on a smaller scale by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The old strongman’s rule was stern, but he left behind the most successful country in Latin America.
When Gorbachev came to the helm of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, it had been for many years a sclerotic machine devoid of any ideological ardor, stifled by 17 years of Leonid Brezhnev’s age of stagnation. Its massive apparat was staffed by cynics and opportunists; its ruling politburo was composed of decrepit old men. Three of its leaders—Brezhnev himself, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—died within three years, 1982-1985.
At 54, Gorbachev was a veritable youngster, but his age—coupled with some degree of social astuteness—was just about the only natural advantage he enjoyed. He lacked a sharp mind, quick wit, diplomatic agility, and good instinct. He also lacked a nose for selecting the right people for his inner team, as evidenced by his careless promotion of Boris Yeltsin—a crook who stabbed him in the back in 1991 and proceeded to preside over the most catastrophic decade in modern Russian history.
Gorbachev let a destructive genie out of the bottle not because he was a visionary but because he was a bungler. Many books and Ph.D. theses have been written on his brief era, and others are now likely to follow. Most authors of repute agree that his greatest strategic mistake was to simultaneously attempt—or (more likely) stumble into—political liberalization (glasnost) and thorough economic reform (perestroika).
The mix of those two powerful medicines proved fatal for the feeble patient. The Chinese experience—which Deng initiated in 1978, and with which Gorbachev should have been well acquainted by the time he came to power seven years later—indicates that a successful economic transition requires a stable and predictable domestic political environment—even authoritarian, if need be, especially in time of acute stress. South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore were all more or less “authoritarian” when they rose to the status of “Asian tigers” in the 1970s and 1980s.
The instructive models went unheeded. Gorbachev’s political opening resulted almost immediately in the rise of separatist tendencies, first in the three Baltic republics and soon thereafter in the Caucasus (notably Georgia). Far from being carefully planned and managed, economic reforms soon became uncontrollably chaotic. As early as 1988-1989, the reforms resulted in the rise of bandit-oligarchs, who continued their thorough robbery of national assets in the 1990s, under Yeltsin. In the final two years of Gorbachev’s increasingly tenuous hold on power, inflation wiped out the savings of the budding middle class and reduced pensioners to penury.
An assessment of Gorbachev’s years in power (1985-1991) brings to mind Goethe’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”). Gorbachev, too, imagined that he could wave a magic wand, and thus resolve the massive economic, social, and political problems of the Soviet Union. Both fantasies ended in grief (“The spirits that I summoned, I now cannot rid myself of again”), for Gorbachev not because the task was a priori impossible but because he was a mediocre man.
One of Gorbachev’s few distinctions is that he outlived all his key contemporaries and interlocutors, remarkable individuals who had turned the 1980s into a dynamic decade in world affairs. They include the trio of implacable Cold War warriors—Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher—as well as François Mitterand, Helmut Kohl, and George H. W. Bush. In that narrow sense, and since he was the last of them, Gorbachev’s death may be described as the end of an era (just as Dr. Henry Kissinger’s passing—if and when it happens—will deserve the same designation).
Gorbachev’s obituaries in the Western media are full of praise for his ending the Cold War. This is unsurprising because, effectively, he ended it on the West’s terms, including, for example, his blithe acceptance of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s categorical verbal assurances in February 1990 that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO—“not one inch eastward”—if Moscow would approve German reunification (and thus the withdrawal of its troops from East Germany).
This was only part of a cascade of similar assurances—none of them given in a legally binding form!—coming from President George H. W. Bush, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, CIA Director Robert Gates, French President François Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, British foreign minister Douglas Hurd, British Prime Minister John Major, and NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner. Gorbachev’s willingness to take their assurances at face value is the greatest single mistake of his career. Given NATO’s subsequent eastward expansion, the war in Ukraine is arguably a direct consequence of Gorbachev’s blunder.
Gorbachev’s reputation in his native land has been abysmal ever since, and rightly so. When he ran for Russia’s presidency in 1996, he got less than 1 percent of the vote, which is a record, of sorts, for a former leader. Until the end of his life, he was lionized in the West and enjoyed the limelight while he was still fit to travel, but he had nothing interesting or useful to say.
image: Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev (from Вени Марковски, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)