Reflections about Mikhail Gorbachev
by Richard Falk
September 24, 2022
by Richard Falk
September 24, 2022
It is safe to say that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest historical impact of any public figure since the end of World War II. But it is a bitterly polarized legacy, of unbounded admiration and historical achievement in the West, and of contempt and almost total disrepute by Russians, who held Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union as a great power and for the loss of political relevance beyond its borders.
It was not Gorbachev’s original intention to bring an end to the Cold War, but rather to reform the Soviet political and economic system, so that it could deliver a better life for the ordinary citizen. No doubt Gorbachev was deeply affected by his travels as a young Communist functionary in Europe, where he was deeply impressed by the vastly higher living standards enjoyed by the peoples of the more developed West, in contrast to the life of the average citizen in the Soviet Union of his day.
One of Gorbachev’s close associates told me that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed national leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what FDR had achieved for capitalism in the United States. His public tactics were to encourage glasnost (freedom of expression) and perestroika (structural reform). I remember a Soviet security specialist in Moscow in the late 1980s telling me, somewhat cynically, that “we have lots of glasnost, but no perestroika” reflecting the widespread sentiment, impatient with the slowness of Soviet reforms, that Gorbachev was all talk and no action. Gorbachev himself came to realize the depth of corruption and dysfunction throughout the Soviet bureaucracy, making the system virtually unreformable, verging on financial and political bankruptcy. Once challenged by a reformist leader, it began to unravel chaotically, rendering Gorbachev himself helpless to slow down the spiral which ended in the state’s collapse.
The arrest and gruesome prison abuse of both his grandfathers as political dissidents under Stalin deeply affected Gorbachev and undoubtedly attracted him to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. Moreover, Reagan’s so-called “Reykjavik Summit” in 1986 led to significant progress in reducing the stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons and gave public opinion the temporary illusion that nuclear disarmament might actually happen on Reagan’s watch. But Gorbachev was blocked at home, as he sought to wind down the tensions with the West and the horrific cost of the arms race.
As the Cold War was centered in Europe, it was there that Gorbachev’s innovative approach to international relations manifested itself most brilliantly. Perhaps, challenged by Reagan, who addressed a crowd of wildly cheering West Berliners in 1987 in front of the Brandenburg Gate, entreating Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!,” Gorbachev proceeded to loosen Moscow’s grip on the Warsaw Pact’s bloc of East European counties, respecting their sovereign right to claim political independence, and making clear that under his leadership there would be no Soviet interventions of the sort that had occurred in Hungary in 1956 and the Czech Republic in 1968. This process did indeed culminate with the dramatic breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the unexpectedly rapid reunification of Germany, which epitomized the emerging realities of a post-Cold War Europe.
Gorbachev not only pleaded for nuclear disarmament but insisted that it was essential to achieve conventional disarmament, correctly fearing that getting rid of the prospect of a nuclear “apocalypse” would have the unintended effect of making the world feel “safe” for conventional warfare.
Gorbachev advocated a hopeful end to the ordeal of a divided Europe, proposing security for “our common European home.” Had these ideas been acted upon by the West, it might have avoided the nightmarish aftermath of the Cold War now being visited upon Ukraine and threatened in relation to Taiwan. It may be that historians will someday come to acknowledge Gorbachev’s vision of future East-West engagement in Europe, characterized by a revitalized, more expansive and flexible mandate and free of the neo-conservative thirst for American geopolitical expansionism.
We must remember that NATO was brought into being in 1949 as a strictly defensive alliance, in response to the threat of Soviet military expansionism in Europe. Given the failure to heed Gorbachev on Europe over the decades, despite ending the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, his legacy is primarily being depicted as bringing the Cold War to an end in ways that allowed the West to pronounce itself the “winner,” not so unlike the spoiled aftermath of World War II. It is now obvious, after the three botched experiments in “peace diplomacy” over the past almost 100 years, that the liberal democracies of the capitalist West are better at waging war than making sustainable peace arrangements.
It should not be forgotten that unlike any leader of a great power of his time, Gorbachev, in addition to demilitarization, called for a more robust and responsible internationalism and a geopolitical approach rooted in the values of the UN Charter. While this endeared him to peace activists the world over, his approach was dismissed as nothing more than diplomatic fluff by Beltway and Pentagon gurus who did not take his global and reform agendas seriously enough even to bother refuting them. His life journey carried Gorbachev to the peak of power in the Kremlin, and then, following his seven years as head of the Soviet state, made him a world citizen in the best sense. His civilian life after the end of the Cold War was more in keeping with the spirit and substance of progressive civil society tendencies than with the continuing necrophilia of the Great Powers.
Gorbachev was misleadingly lauded in the West partly because he paved the way for unipolarity and triumphalism—possibly even Putin and Putinism—outcomes for which he was neither responsible, nor anxious to see happen. In an important sense, his international legacy of humane global governance is already all but forgotten by the mainstream. The West admired most his decisive role in loosening the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe and unwittingly accelerating the process by which the Soviet internal empire of “captive” nations was permanently shattered.
Gorbachev remained a strong advocate of total nuclear disarmament after 1991, when, after being removed as leader of what had now become the Russian Federation, he became a much-admired public intellectual of global stature, sought after and active in Western civil society debates. Although he continued to identify with the transnational ruling elites of Western countries, he was more interested in working as a private citizen with independent individuals in global civil society and was seen as a brave and sympathetic historic personage of great distinction.
My first encounter with him was a day-long meeting in New York City in the early 1990s for a foundation that was being contemplated—which he was to co-chair with James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s influential Secretary of State—to support work toward world peace. To my astonishment, I was invited to serve as a member of the initial Board of Directors. Baker was unable to attend the meeting, but Gorbachev participated throughout the long day, devoted to what the Foundation might most usefully do, how it would operate and be funded. He mainly listened, asked useful questions, as one among equals. The whole undertaking was discreetly abandoned, but it did give me a glimpse of this great man adjusting to his new role and status.
The second encounter took place later in Italy, at a meeting on the future of Europe, under the auspices of the foundation bearing Gorbachev’s own name. The twenty-five or so invited participants were mainly European intellectuals and government officials. It went on for two days, revisiting Gorbachev’s ideas of a common European home and collective security structure. The debate was lively and stimulating, although the pan-European consensus never got much further than the walls of the conference center. Clearly, Gorbachev now felt himself to be an independent voice of civil society, widely honored in the West, yet ignored in his own country. He had returned to living in Moscow, despite his continuing unpopularity in the country of his birth and later political prominence.
Gorbachev’s role as a transformative agent of change that made the impossible happen in the Soviet context, made him the initiator of what some might call “unintended consequences.” Given my interest in the “politics of impossibility,” I often mentioned Mandela in South Africa and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as having validated this counter-intuitive belief that seems the most realistic hinge of hope, given the present world situation, strange as that may sound. Although in Gorbachev I found none of the moral radiance and existential charisma that I associated with Nelson Mandela, I did find a sense of purpose, of decency, of intelligence, and a seriousness about doing what he could to make his country, region, and world better than they were at the time.
It may take several more internal political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War and in taking on the Communist Party bureaucratic elite, the nomenklatura, that had presided since the days of Lenin. The fact that this precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union was an outcome that almost no one in the West lamented.
Gorbachev’s memory will last and be most celebrated outside of Russia, especially with regard to world peace. I would feel more comfortable contemplating the future of humanity if Gorbachev were running the global show than any other political leader currently walking on planet Earth!
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