The Leader Who Thought Another World Was Possible4 min read
Mikhail Gorbachev should be remembered more for what he tried to do than what his critics would like us to believe. Otherwise, it could have negative consequences for the process of building a democratically secure Russia.
The last Soviet leader set out to rescue a flawed political system from its long-running period of stagnation. Instead, a superpower that many thought could never crumble fell apart in less than a decade.
Quite a few attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union to Gorbachev himself. To this day, many Russians point the finger at their former leader for initiating a process that ushered in a period of economic and political instability in the form of the USSR’s demise.
But it is important to remember that it was never in Gorbachev’s intention to destroy the Soviet Union. Indeed, he was a committed socialist, who believed that the communist system remained viable.
When he succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary in 1985, Gorbachev set out to democratise the regime in an attempt to revitalise Soviet political and economic life.
It was Gorbachev’s misfortune that this process, known as perestroika, had the unintended consequence of opening up a power vacuum. It did not take long for political opponents to exploit this opportunity and undermine the reforming policies the Soviet leader sought to pursue.
Gorbachev believed he could reverse the political and economic decline of the Soviet Union through dismantling the instruments of communist rule. In practice, this decision weakened his authority as General Secretary of the Communist Party to carry the proposed changes. By 1990, it became clear that there was no political willingness to support Gorbachev’s effort to save what was an already faltering regime.
The introduction of a democratic process to the Soviet parliament, known as the Congress of People’s Deputies, replaced the Communist Party’s authority with a power base under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Critical of the pace of reform under Gorbachev. Yeltsin won nearly 90 percent of the vote in the first partially free nationwide elections to be held in the Soviet Union.
It was in fact Yeltsin who did more to undermine the cohesion of the Soviet Union than Gorbachev. He pushed for the breakup of the Soviet economy to intensify the privatisation process and advocated the cause of Russian nationalism. He played a visible role in denouncing the failed coup attempt to save the USSR from its impending demise.
Perhaps an accurate explanation for the Soviet Union’s collapse comes less from perestroika as such than the political environment hostile to democratisation it had created.
The last Soviet leader’s transformational project of perestroika was not only designed to breathe new life into the stagnating system he had inherited. It also encompassed an idea about what the post-Cold War world order could look like.
Gorbachev called for the ‘deideologization of interstate relations’ and the prioritisation of the values and interests of all mankind in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1988. Few other world leaders during the entirety of the Cold War period had argued for such a profound break from the ideological confrontation that had defined the global order since 1945.
A key part of this new approach to the USSR’s foreign policy was the abandonment of the use of military force. But, in doing so, Gorbachev removed the core pillar that had held the communist bloc together albeit without the intention.
The Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified military intervention on the basis that a threat to socialist rule in any country was considered a threat to all socialist states, was critical to putting an end to the process of liberalisation in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Gorbachev’s underestimation of the overwhelming desire for national sovereignty and independence across the Soviet and Eastern Bloc sealed the USSR’s fate in 1991. Today, Vladimir Putin uses the implosion of Russia’s great power status as a source of legitimacy for the authoritarian system he has built.
The Russian president has successfully created a false narrative that it was Gorbachev who surrendered the Soviet empire, instead of the Russian leader who tried to move the world on from the confrontational dynamic of the Cold War.
Putin’s position is dependent largely on maintaining this perception as the truth. He once famously said the collapse of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.’ The perceived existential threat facing the ethnic Russian minority in Donbas from the West is the foundation of Putin’s justification for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
If Gorbachev is remembered only for the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia may never escape from the clutches of autocracy. Forces against the democratic spirit of perestroika have been allowed to take advantage of it and we are all paying the price.