Nobel Prize Winner and Reluctant Hero
Nobel Prize Winner and Reluctant Hero
Nobel Prize Winner and Reluctant Hero
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (1931–2022) was the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a post he held for only a few short years, from 1985 to 1991.
A few years earlier, the Soviet Union had been one of history’s most frightening dictatorships, sending its troops far and wide, ruling over roughly a third of the globe, and holding virtual total control of hundreds of millions of its own citizens. And while many told the world that the regime was internally weak, predictions of its downfall were dismissed as wishful thinking by Western experts mesmerized by the U.S.S.R.’s seemingly invincible power.
The massive economic, social, and political changes which Gorbachev ushered in, with his policies of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) helped bring an end to both the Soviet Union and the Cold War. For the regime did fall —without the firing of a single shot. And for this, he earned the abiding censure and deep resentment of his communist colleagues and many citizens of Russia, who held Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet empire as a great power and for the loss of its political relevance beyond its borders. But he has remained a figure of high praise, credited outside his homeland for precipitating the end of the Cold War.
Gorbachev may rightly be called a “reluctant” hero, for it was not his stated aim to end the Soviet regime, but to reform it. One of his close associates stated that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed national leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what Roosevelt had achieved with his “New Deal” in the United States. Born in 1931, Gorbachev grew up in the conservative Stavropol agricultural region of south-west European Russia, and at age 14 had already become an active member of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps—he was a combine operator—the young Gorbachev decided to study law and was accepted at the prestigious Moscow State University in 1950. While at college, Gorbachev became a full member of the Communist Party in 1952 and an excellent orator. His rise through the ranks of the party was swift and uninterrupted, earning him the position of First Secretary in 1970. He became the youngest member of the Politburo (Executive Committee) in 1980 and after the deaths of both Andropov and Chernenko, became General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1982 at only 54 years of age.
However, the arrest and gruesome prison abuse of both his grandfathers as political dissidents under Stalin deeply affected Gorbachev and cannot help but make him acutely aware of the horrific cruelty and violence which was part and parcel of Soviet authoritarianism, and attracted him to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. He himself made public his strong conviction that the Soviet Union needed massive liberalization in order to revitalize its economy, which, aside from its inefficient centralism, was being drained by vast expenditures for nuclear arms and other weapons. Many of his authoritarian colleagues and even many fellow Soviet citizens expressed shock when he announced the right of citizens to openly voice their opinions (glasnost) and the need to entirely restructure the Soviet Union’s economy (perestroika). He also opened the door to allow Soviet citizens to travel, cracked down on alcohol abuse, pushed for the use of computers and the latest technology and released not only many political prisoners, but also the “refuseniks,” Jewish dissidents, whose fates had been much decried in the liberal West and many of whom were now finally free not only to express their views, but to emigrate to Israel and the West.
The focus of Gorbachev’s political career on the international stage was disarmament, not only nuclear disarmament, but also the dismantling of conventional weaponry. He greatly feared that the preoccupation with the nuclear “Apocalypse” would make leaders and their peoples feel that conventional weapons would be a “safer” alternative and be less concerned about the continuing expenditures for increasingly sophisticated weapons of destruction.
Gorbachev’s keen awareness of the strain being placed on the liberal international system of his era convinced him that great power rivalry was not the answer to the world’s problems. Instead of embracing the logic of the constant striving for influence, Gorbachev worked to establish the common ground necessary for peace and economic prosperity without seeking primacy. He was outspoken in his rejection of forcible intervention abroad, especially of those former Soviet satellites which were then seeking independence from the Soviet Union throughout Eastern Europe. He was unique among world leaders of his time in arguing that even superpowers lived in an interdependent world, that no country was an island or should act unilaterally.
With the fall of the Soviet empire, Gorbachev helped establish a new system of government, including the establishment of a president and the end of the Communist Party’s monopoly as a political party. But for many of his fellow communists, Gorbachev had gone too far. From August 19–21, 1991, a group of hard-liners of the Communist Party attempted a coup and put Gorbachev under house arrest. They were unsuccessful, and the coup proved the end of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Facing pressures from other groups who wanted more democratization, Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991, a day before the Soviet Union officially dissolved.
In the decades after his resignation, Gorbachev not only remained active, but became a much sought-after public intellectual, keen to share his ideas humbly with other like-minded thinkers. In January 1992, he established and became president of the Gorbachev Foundation, which analyzes the changing social, economic, and political changes happening in Russia and works to promote humanistic ideals. In 1993, Gorbachev founded and became president of the environmental organization called Green Cross International. His efforts to democratize his country’s political system and decentralize its economy had led to the downfall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In part because he ended the Soviet Union’s post war domination of eastern Europe, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990.
Unlike many of his Russian colleagues, many world leaders and thinkers were positive in their posthumous reflections about Gorbachev’s legacy. Former United States Secretary of State James Baker III described Gorbachev as “a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy.” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, described Gorbachev as “a one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history.” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called Gorbachev a “trusted and respected leader.” Former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was born in East Germany, referenced the fall of the Berlin Wall in her statement regarding Gorbachev’s death, saying “the world has lost a one-of-a-kind world leader” who “wrote history.” Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese called Gorbachev a “man of warmth, hope, resolve and enormous courage.” Israeli president Isaac Herzog described Gorbachev as a “brave and visionary leader.” Natan Sharansky, one of those outspoken figures who was freed by Gorbachev, wrote upon his passing: “If we look at the 20th century not through the lens of political struggles, but rather from the bird’s-eye perspective of history, we see how utterly unique Gorbachev was. In nearly every dictatorship there are dissidents, and from time to time there are also Western leaders willing to risk their political fates to promote human rights abroad. But Gorbachev was a product of the Soviet regime, a member of its ruling elite who believed its ideology and enjoyed its privileges — yet decided to destroy it nevertheless. For that, the world can be grateful.”