Mikhail Gorbachev will turn eighty next week. His birthday is an occasion to look back and ask ourselves questions not only about his contribution to Russia, but also about what happened to us after he left the Kremlin.
The answers to both questions actually come from the Russian leaders who succeeded him. Not long ago, another eightieth birthday—the late Boris Yeltsin’s—was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance as a national event with the participation of the ruling tandem. The official celebrations were meant to demonstrate the continuity of the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev regime with that of Yeltsin’s, and to present the latter as the leader who had liberated Russia. It was a brazen attempt to borrow democratic legitimacy from Russia’s first president. For a few hours, the narrative that Putin had saved Russia by rejecting Yeltsin’s “evil 1990s” was dropped; projecting a more civilized image was instead the order of the day. However, the very fact that Yeltsin’s anniversary was turned into a Kremlin-choreographed ballet—with Putin in the solo role preaching on “the ideals of freedom and democracy”—only reinforces doubts about the democratic legacy of Russia’s first president.
By dint of transforming Yeltsin into the official, Kremlin-endorsed reformer, his polar opposite—Gorbachev—automatically gets kicked out of the system. And it’s just as well: though they do not know it, the powers-that-be are doing Gorbachev an invaluable service. It is unlikely that Gorbachev would be interested in providing legitimacy to a regime with repressive tendencies. Having changed the course of world history, this man can watch the rat-race in Russia’s backyard without any qualms. And the further away from Kremlin he gets, the more significantly his figure looms in the space of history.
There are many celebrated names who have shaped the course of recent history: Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan, Vaclav Havel, and Lech Wałęsa. All are leaders who in decisive moments determined the course of their countries’ history. But only one leader—Gorbachev—determined the long-term history of the global order. What did he actually do? He concluded that force is dangerous as a means of doing politics, both domestically and internationally, particularly when nuclear weapons are at play. “What an idealist!,” skeptics will exclaim. And, indeed, if Gorbachev were to try today, he would probably fail, and fail badly. The political world has become utilitarian, pragmatic, fixated on the status quo, and on traditional ways of thinking. Back then, in the late 1980s, the world was consumed by the hope of renewal and was ready to experience something incredible. Gorbachev came to embody the incredible.
He developed his own “triad” that not only contradicted Soviet principles but was also unusual in terms of Western democracies. First, Gorbachev recognized that the arms race was condemned to failure and that nuclear war was pointless. It was Gorbachev who came up with the idea of a “nuclear-free world” as early as 1986, well before President Obama. Gorbachev’s second major breakthrough was his conviction that every nation is entitled to the freedom of choice. He arrived at this evident truth at a time when the Western community was happy to implement Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, which justified the division of the world into “spheres of influence.” And last but not least, by proclaiming glasnost, Gorbachev laid the foundations for the birth of civil society in Russia, for the first time in Russian history.
The Statesman Who Unleashed the Avalanche
What happened was one of those unusual social breakthroughs when the endeavor of a single man launches an avalanche of events that changes the global trajectory (how many similar events in history can we recall?). Gorbachev was the man who launched the avalanche. He was destined to become the leader who dismantled a bellicose civilization—global communism. And it has to be noted that he did it at a time when this civilization seemed likely to live on, fight, or rot indefinitely. Or indeed, it was just as likely to end its life in mad convulsions.
When Gorbachev turned the chessboard, it was not just the Russian elite who were not ready. The happily slumbering West—used to functioning in a bipolar world—was not ready either. Gorbachev’s actions caused consternation and even shock in the Western establishment, disrupting the customary rhythm of life and raising challenges for which the West was not prepared. No wonder U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright once said, sarcastically: “The USSR ... provided us with excuses for our failures.”
Let us look at what Gorbachev accomplished from 1985 to 1990. His “New Thinking” resulted in the Soviet-U.S. dialogue on nuclear disarmament and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. Two opposing parties decided to destroy an entire range of nuclear arms capable of unleashing an apocalypse at any time. He then proceeded to negotiate the reductions of strategic offensive weapons and conventional arms, and the ban on chemical, bacteriological, and biological weapons.
The Gorbachev-Reagan dialogue on security issues stemmed not only from Moscow’s recognition of its inability to compete with America in the arms race. A different Soviet leader in his place could have continued playing Russian roulette with the Americans for a long time. He could have blackmailed the West, as North Korea’s leaders have done quite successfully. But Gorbachev decided to voluntarily break with the Soviet paradigm of survival at the expense of keeping up the nuclear threat. The present-day Moscow-Washington dialogue on strategic nuclear force is just a return to Gorbachev’s times, as well as an admission that neither party has been able to come up with anything new since then.
Gorbachev decided to loosen the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. At the start of the velvet revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, some local leaders were hoping for the Kremlin’s “sympathy.” Gorbachev responded with a firm “Nyet!,” although Soviet troops were still stationed in these countries and all Moscow needed to do was to give the order to attack. But Gorbachev did not want to repeat the bloodshed of the Prague Spring. He gave the Germans a chance to reunite as one country (against the fervent wishes of Paris and London) and the former USSR satellites a chance to return to Europe. Today, in response to accusations that he has “handed over” Eastern Europe, he says, with a touch of sarcasm: “But we gave Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia back to the Poles, Germans, and Czechs!”
Thanks to one individual, the communist system crumbled to dust. It was the end of the Cold War and of the confrontation between two hostile systems competing for global leadership. In terms of its impact, the peaceful disintegration of totalitarian communism was perhaps the most significant event of the twentieth century. Just think about it—all of this is owed to one man! The world has entered the post-Gorbachev era, which has not ended yet, perhaps because that generation of leaders is gone and their place has been taken by political pygmies.
His attempt to reform the basic tool of totalitarianism—the Communist Party—and to turn it into something more human was a logical extension of Gorbachev’s New Thinking. However, by loosening the iron hoop that had held the Soviet empire together, and by rejecting the “besieged fortress” ideology, he inevitably brought about a dismantling of the empire.
Gorbachev himself clearly was not expecting what he himself had unleashed. He desperately hoped to preserve the USSR under the umbrella of a Commonwealth of Allied States. But the process of national republics pulling away from the center was too powerful and the disintegration could no longer be halted. Who knows, perhaps he might have slowed down the process through a market economy. However, Gorbachev did not have the time to create a market economy.
The motives that had driven Gorbachev to launch his perestroika are a topic in their own right. Was he dreaming of a “socialism with a human face,” as many assume? When he claimed that “more democracy means more socialism,” he clearly meant it. At that point the historical experience proving this was impossible was not yet available. In any case, he knew (and had to know) that perestroika of the Soviet system would not cement his power. He understood the risk of his endeavor.
However, as has now become obvious, neither Gorbachev nor his comrades-in-arms foresaw that perestroika would cause a total collapse of the regime. The leader who started as a reformer ended up as a terminator. It was he who triggered the law of “unintended consequences”: any step, however cautious, toward making the Soviet space less hermetic would only speed up its collapse. Gorbachev created new institutions and enabled society to develop its own forms of activities. All of this contributed to the disintegration of the system that could exist only in a hermetically closed space.
When did Gorbachev realize he was heading toward the dismantling of the USSR? That is for him to say, should he ever feel the need to tell. I believe that at some point he must have realized everything, and must have understood the dilemma he was facing: the USSR could be preserved only at the expense of immense bloodshed. And he was not prepared to go there. Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet leader within himself well before the decline of the Soviet state.
Of course, he did risk an implosion. After all, he had intended to rebuild the system and ended up eliminating the state. What leader would consciously make a decision of this kind, even if he were aware of the state’s shortcomings?
But there is destruction and then there is destruction. Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction,” i.e., one that prepares the foundations for constructive development. This is precisely what Gorbachev did by becoming the great “creative destroyer.” Yes, he did not manage—and did not have the time—to free himself completely from Soviet institutions (some he even tried to preserve). But he created an anti-system realm within the old system. The new institutions helped to avoid the chaos that usually goes hand in hand with disintegration. Gorbachev has brought “the street” into the congress of national deputies and let passionate discourse in. It was Gorbachev and not Yeltsin—as many people claim today—who prevented the Yugoslav scenario as the Soviet Union was disappearing into oblivion.
At the same time, Gorbachev’s actions facilitated the emergence of new forces and a new political atmosphere. In particular, for the first time in Russian history, the head of the regime communicated directly with the nation, even though initially he was astonished and visibly irritated by the consequences of his own doing—the relentless criticism and attacks. But he was no longer able to slam shut the window he himself had thrust open. He set new standards for himself. He gave the country an opportunity to learn to speak out and to argue, and he had to learn this art himself, along with society. He has engendered in us a longing for freedom and gave us an opportunity to learn how to live with it. But he did not have enough time to safeguard the irreversibility of his own transformations. In fact, this is something he could not have done. He was destined to play a less rewarding role—that of clearing the field for new rules of the game.
Gorbachev has been criticized from all quarters. Some have condemned him for having destroyed the customary order of things. Too many people have not yet been able to adjust to a new life in a new country. Others, mainly the intelligentsia, have accused Gorbachev of having moved too slowly and not letting his foot off the brake (I was one of those voicing this objection). We did not understand that the logic of disintegration was at play here, hoping—as Gorbachev hoped—that we were involved in a reform process. That is why we thought it necessary to act more quickly, more boldly, and more forcefully! Only now has it become clear that, had he taken his foot off the brake, the country could have tumbled into an abyss.
Accusing Gorbachev of indecisiveness is, to a large extent, a way of justifying our own uselessness. After all, he gave society free rein and allowed it to come up with solutions and look for alternatives. When the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians found themselves in a similar situation, they started building a new system. In Russia, the politically active part of the population (which includes you and me) turned out not to be ready to devise or even to articulate its aspirations. We were expecting the leader to find the solution for us. After becoming disenchanted with Gorbachev, we pinned our hopes on Yeltsin, thus proving we were not capable of making use of the freedom that had suddenly fallen into our laps.
Another thing that has been held against Gorbachev is that he did not call a general election that would have bestowed on him the same legitimacy Yeltsin enjoyed. Only later did it become clear that it was pointless to demand such a thing from Gorbachev. It would also have been extremely dangerous. Seeking a democratic mandate for president of the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviet empire was beginning to crumble would only have made this process more painful and would have most likely resulted in bloodshed.
A Basic Test
By creating a space for glasnost, Gorbachev created an opportunity to take steps toward institutional political pluralism. But after some hesitation, Russia under Yeltsin started turning back. The shelling of the discontented parliament—Gorbachev also had his fair share of problems with the Russian parliament but somehow managed to get along with it!—the authoritarian constitution that put the leader ahead of society, the unfair privatization, the Chechen war, the manipulation of the 1996 election, and, last but not least, the handing of power to a successor—these were the landmarks in the formation of a system that can hardly be called democratic. “But we did have freedom of speech under Yeltsin! He did let his enemies out of prison! He did tolerate criticism!,” the Russian president’s liberal supporters will object. And I will say: “You’re right!” But how did it end?”
“You idealize Gorbachev!,” my opponents will no doubt exclaim. “What about Karabakh, Baku, Tbilisi, Vilnius? It all ended in bloodshed!” In trying to explain these tragedies, the human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov used to say that perestroika was by no means perfect, if only because its leaders functioned within a “totalitarian system that had not yet not completely collapsed.” I concede the point: Gorbachev did not manage to fully come to grips with the agony of the totalitarian system. But he passed the basic test—he refused to use force in Moscow. And that was a decisive blow to the totalitarian logic. But what could possibly justify the Chechen war waged by Yeltsin, the man who followed a democratic logic?
Gorbachev gave us a chance to create what we considered necessary. Some nations—the Baltics and Eastern Europe—made use of this chance. They are Gorbachev’s true legacy. For a very brief moment, in the autumn of 1991, Yeltsin also had the chance to make use of the Gorbachev impetus. At that point there was a national consensus in Russia for devising a new constitution and a new system. But Yeltsin—like most of us—did not even notice this moment.
For a long time we continued to perceive the remaining freedoms (freedom of the media, freedom to criticize powers-that-be, and freedom to fight for the monopoly of power) as evidence of a path to democracy. In fact, these freedoms went hand in hand with a turn in the opposite direction. What Yeltsin did was not only create a new autocracy; he has discredited liberal democracy (and he did it with our participation). Under its banner, he proceeded to take Russia—maybe unconsciously at first—back to the past. Putin did not appear out of the blue; he has not distorted Yeltsin’s legacy. Putin became the stabilizer and the first manager of the system Yeltsin created. So the officially proclaimed continuity between Yeltsin and the current tandem is actually fully justified.
Life After the Kremlin
Today Russia has returned to the pre-Gorbachev era, complete with vertical power, a decorative constitution, and a superpower imperial identity, striving for technological modernization and even political prisoners. Again, we face the necessity of starting from scratch. And we have to ask ourselves again: can autocracy be reformed or do we have to follow Gorbachev and start by dismantling it? Gorbachev and his fate provide an unambiguous answer to this question.
Gorbachev emerges as a dramatic personality: he has transformed the world order, yet his own country sees him as a destroyer. Yet the world has never known and will never know a leader capable of playing a dual role—that of dismantling the old system and of starting to build a new one. Leaders hurt their popularity as soon as they begin to destroy ordinary life. This is true particularly as these two roles call for different methods and different forms of legitimacy. Moreover, no society in the world has ever perceived the leaders who dared to break the norms—no matter how horrific they were—as heroes in their own lifetime. Recognition comes to great leaders who have threatened the status quo only once they have passed away.
What makes Gorbachev’s leadership so dramatic is that he was swept off the Russian scene by the wave he himself had unleashed. He was destined to suffer loneliness, hostility, and a lack of understanding. Those who rose under Gorbachev’s perestroika could not forgive his greatness and his daring. Those who came to power thanks to him would exact petty and foul revenge.
Gorbachev experienced profound personal grief when he lost the person dearest to him—his wife and companion Raisa. And at some point, it was this human grief that brought Gorbachev closer to Russia: by understanding the suffering of Gorbachev the man, people started to realize the significance of Gorbachev the politician.
Gorbachev’s legacy is not only a new world and a new country, to which we have not yet grown accustomed. He has created precedents that might form the basis of a new life, if we turned them into a tradition. Gorbachev was the first leader in Russia’s history who left the Kremlin without clinging to power and without trying to appoint a successor. So far there has been no demand for instituting the tradition of leaders’ voluntary exits from the Kremlin.
Gorbachev has made one other important thing evident for Russia—he demonstrated that it is possible to live a normal and full life after laying down power, and in one’s home country at that. He has not left Russia even though any Western country would be honored to make Gorbachev its honorary citizen, offering him a far more comfortable life than the one he leads in Russia. Gorbachev has nothing to fear and nothing to be ashamed of. He has no need to hide or to hide anything.
Gorbachev’s “post-Kremlin” life provides further proof of his incredibly democratic character. One can tell by his circle of friends—journalists, writers, and musicians. One can tell by the fact that he has created his own social environment and managed to remove the distance dictated by his former office. Not even Western leaders can afford the degree of openness and human interaction that this Citizen of the World has created around him. To experience this, one only need attend any meeting at the Gorbachev Foundation in which he participates.
Gorbachev is the first Russian leader to have desacralized power, becoming a symbol of a new era. And it is not his fault that in Russia, this era has yet to dawn.
In Russia's political life, which is currently undermining moral authority and standards, Gorbachev remains the only person whose words the world listens to. The fact that we are trying to ignore him says more about us than about him. Of course, more time will pass before history can fully appreciate the impact this man has had on the world scene.
Right now Gorbachev has to cope with another ordeal. This vivacious and fascinating man has become a monument in his own lifetime. Gorbachev has become History. Thomas Carlyle was right in saying that history was the biography of great men. Having booked his place in eternity, Gorbachev remains an incredible man. To be a human being and history at the same time, while remaining down to earth and not losing one’s sense of self-irony—Gorbachev can be incredibly funny!—requires one to be an outstanding individual. Gorbachev has not been lucky with us. But we have been lucky with him—even though we have yet to realize it.
This translation originally appeared on openDemocracy. The original article was published in Russian in Novaya Gazeta.