Gorbachev’s tragedy — a flawed reformer on an impossible mission

Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev speaks at a meeting with former U.S. President George Bush (not pictured) in Moscow State Institute of International Relations, in Moscow Russia May 23, 2005. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

LONDON — For all the adulation he inspired in the West, Mikhail Gorbachev was a tragic figure who failed in the historic mission he had defined for his own country.

The award of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize marked the pinnacle of world acclaim for the role that Gorbachev, then Soviet president, had played in ending the Cold War without bloodshed.

But at home he was a drained and defeated man when forced to step down the following year, reduced to leader of a non-existent country as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed into 15 separate states.

Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, had set out to revitalize the moribund Communist system and shape a new union based on a more equal partnership between the 15 republics, of which the two most powerful were Russia and Ukraine. Yet in the space of six years, both Communism and the Union came crashing down.

With hindsight, some of his mistakes are clear to see.

He attempted political and economic reforms simultaneously and on too ambitious a scale, unleashing forces he could not control. It was a lesson not lost on China’s leaders, who embraced the market economy but served notice with the 1989 killings of protesters on Tiananmen Square that they would act ruthlessly to defend the Communist Party’s grip on power.

Gorbachev never stood for election to earn himself a popular mandate — unlike his great rival Boris Yeltsin, who was voted into power as president of Russia and was instrumental in the dissolution of the USSR and the ousting of Gorbachev.

And he failed to anticipate the strength of nationalist feeling — initially in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and spreading to others like Georgia and Ukraine – that would create unstoppable momentum to escape Moscow’s grip.

“He didn’t believe that the Soviet Union was actually an empire in itself of nations that did not want to be shackled,” said Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank based in London.

“Like all Soviet leaders, and dare I say like Russian leaders today, he saw the Soviet Union as synonymous with Russia and he simply could not understand why nations wanted to be independent.”


Some historians believe Gorbachev was right to conclude from the start that the system he inherited was falling further and further behind the West and nothing short of bold reform could save it.

Others take a more critical view.

“I think the seed of his downfall was that essentially he didn’t really understand the Soviet Union, Soviet society and how it worked,” said Alexander Titov, lecturer in history at Queen’s University Belfast.

“He thought it could be reformed, he thought removing some of the essential elements of the Soviet system such as the fear, the repression, the command economy and so forth would still preserve the system. But they turned out to be the actual essential elements of the Soviet system — having removed them, the system unraveled as well.”

In the three decades since his fall from power, Russia has judged Gorbachev harshly. When he ran for Russian president against Yeltsin in 1996, he trailed home in a humiliating seventh place with 0.5% of the vote.

Russians have long been accustomed to viewing him as a weak leader who was duped by the West.

Many still blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union — which President Vladimir Putin famously called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century — and the years of economic upheaval and political turmoil that followed, including wars from the Caucasus to Chechnya and Central Asia.

Putin’s lurch into confrontation with the West and his invasion of Ukraine have destroyed the Gorbachev legacy of detente with the West and nuclear arms agreements with the United States. With Putin pointedly boasting of the size and destructive power of Russia’s arsenal, politicians in both Moscow and Washington have evoked the risk of World War Three.

The man now in power in the Kremlin has also smashed the idea embodied by Gorbachev that Russia could retreat from empire and still remain a major power, said Mr. Eyal.

“The imperial aspiration is now reasserted as the official policy in Moscow and the general approach — that what you need to do if you face a crisis is to crush it with tanks — is now back in fashion,” he said.

“It’s one of the ultimate tragedies of (Gorbachev) that none of the points that he ultimately came to accept and espouse have been preserved by the leaders of Russia today.” — Reuters

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