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Mikhail Gorbachev: the last Soviet leader

To the West, Gorbachev was a man one could do business with. To Russians he was the one who destroyed the USSR.

September 9, 2022 - Agnieszka Bryc - Articles and Commentary

Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington D.C. June 1990. Photo: Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock

Mikhail Gorbachev was the first and last president of the Soviet Union. He was the mind behind perestroika and the reason for the end of a world divided into two hostile blocs. He passed away on August 30th, 2022, in Moscow at the age of 91. He had been suffering from kidney disease for a long time, receiving haemodialysis in his last few years. He will be buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow next to the love of his life, his wife Raisa, who died in 1999.

The last leader of the Soviet Union remains respected and appreciated in the West, but not so much by his countrymen. To them, he was not only a great reformer, the initiator of perestroika and glasnost (reconstruction and openness), but the one who deconstructed the Soviet superpower. He is the embodiment of a process Vladimir Putin described as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.

He aimed to fix the system without changing it. He did not attempt to dismantle, but to repair the state. However, he eventually initiated changes that no one was able to control. Up until today Russians refuse to admit that their Soviet homeland was a giant on feet of clay, economically inefficient and destined to fail from the very start. They choose to believe Putin, who has been claiming for years that “if Russia’s enemies could not defeat it in history, they decided to destroy it from within.”

According to popular opinion in Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not caused by the dysfunctional state itself, but rather by the Belovezh Accords, a plot by foreign powers and the helpless leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. These are the three most cited reasons given in a cyclical poll that was started in 2006 by the independent Levada Centre. Only 12 to 15 per cent of Russians are ready to admit that the real reason was “a defective economy tied down by militarisation and accompanied by stagnation and poverty”.

The attitude towards the last Soviet leader remains unfavourable to put it mildly. The Levada Centre has asked Russians to evaluate politicians in power for two decades now. Positive responses regarding Gorbachev are close to zero, around one to two per cent. A third of those questioned state that they are ambiguous towards him and some 30 per cent are unhappy. Meanwhile, 13 per cent are hostile to the last Soviet leader. A similar animosity can only be found when looking at the evaluation of Boris Yeltsin, which does not come as a surprise seeing that he stayed with Gorbachev’s general course.

He looked and thought “differently”

While he was not appreciated at home, Gorbachev was highly regarded in the West. In recognition of the role he played in the pursuit of peace, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. This would never have come to pass if not for the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who developed a close relationship with him as early as December 1984. During a BBC interview following their first meeting in London, she uttered the now famous phrase: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”

There was chemistry between the Iron Lady and the young and dynamic Gorbachev, who did not seem like the regular geriatric members of the Politburo. The Soviet leader was unique in most dimensions. The young general secretary came to power in 1985 at the age of only 54. He did not appear like an apparatchik. He was elegant and well dressed. Shockingly, he had a happy demeanour.

He would fly to London with his wife Raisa, which surprised not only British journalists and politicians, but the Russians themselves. It was not a custom for dignitaries to appear with their wives in public. If it occurred, the spouses would remain silent and inconspicuous. This is why Russians only came to adore Raisa after her death.

Not only did Gorbachev look different, but his thinking was too. He openly proposed “new thinking”. He believed in socialism with a human face. He was convinced that the West and East could both strive for the same goal, but from different directions. He thought that freedom was better than “unfreedom” and that people need not be broken by the state. It is enough to speak to them. He shortened the distance and entered the crowd. He was not afraid of people. This was illustrated by the memorable photo of his visit to Leningrad in March 1985. Gorbachev almost seemed to drown in the crowd.

He did have a different approach to governing the country. His predecessors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, attempted to improve the situation by tightening the noose. Gorbachev did the opposite. Instead of repressing, he liberated the system. His attitude to Stalinist methods, as he would reminisce, was encouraged by the experiences of his grandfather – a peasant from Stavropol Krai arrested during the Great Terror. Later on he would befriend Zdeněk Mlynář from Czechoslovakia at Lomonosov University in Moscow. Mlynář would go on to become one of the architects behind the Prague Spring strangled by Soviet tanks in 1968.

Together with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev formed the new great troika, which would lead to a drop in political pressure, a decrease in active nuclear warheads and finally the end of the Cold War. In terms of security, Gorbachev spoke of a “shared home”, building trust and leaving behind the Brezhnev Doctrine. This meant that the new regime in the Kremlin would not halt the mostly bloodless transformation taking place in the Eastern Bloc. The only exception to this peaceful change was Romania. His averse attitude to bloodshed allowed for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Soviet units still stationed in East Germany received an order not to intervene, something Gorbachev stressed he never regretted in a number of interviews later on. He was fully focused on the internal transformation and reducing foreign activities, among which the ten-year-long intervention in Afghanistan.

From reforms to collapse

An attempt to stop this avalanche of change was undertaken through a coup led by Gennady Yanayev, Gorbachev’s vice president and associate. It was led by eight people, of which six were from Gorbachev’s inner circle. They declared martial law and sent the military to Moscow. Gorbachev was isolated in his summer estate in Crimea. The coup was unsuccessful and in effect served to accelerate the deconstruction of a state where nationalist questions had been simmering for some time. This was most clear in the Caucasus and in the Baltic republics. Lithuanians will not forget how Gorbachev sent tanks to Vilnius in January 1991. He also refused to appear as a witness in their investigation of “Bloody Sunday”.

Power was eventually seized by his greatest rival, Boris Yeltsin. The formal resignation was made by himself however, in December 1991, following the signing of the dissolution of the USSR and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle was lowered, while the Russian tricolour was hoisted in its stead. Gorbachev’s most unappreciated contribution to these events is undoubtedly the fact that he peacefully surrendered the country’s nuclear codes to its new leader.

After leaving politics, he established the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (The Gorbachev Foundation), Green Cross International and the New Policy Forum. He was also among the founders of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Forum. Gorbachev appeared in a few advertisements, among them ones for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton. However, unlike Putin, he did not become rich through politics. He aspired to return as early as the presidential elections in 1996, but by then he was already an outsider supported by only half a per cent of voters.

He stayed out of politics, but did not refrain from criticising Putin. He did so in a nuanced manner typical of him. The current president was accused above all of leading Russia away from the West, ruining painstakingly built trust, security and ties with Europe and the US. On the other hand, he did not officially condemn the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and refused to comment on the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

His death means that the last world leader who participated in the dismantling of the old bipolar world order is gone. Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004, followed by Margaret Thatcher nine years later. Gorbachev is also the fourth and most crucial “undoer” of the Soviet empire to die this year. The first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, and the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, both passed away in May. A month later Gennady Burbulis, a close associate of Yeltsin and a participant at Belovezh, also died.

Andrei Grachev, a former advisor to Gorbachev, wrote in his biography of the leader that “People will remember him – some will praise, others curse. The 20th century was Gorbachev’s epoch, because he was the one to end the main conflict of that century. Turning the page of history he allowed for it to continue on a blank page.”

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Agnieszka Bryc is an assistant professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. She is a former member of the board of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian foreign policy and Israeli security. 

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