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Mikhail Gorbachev’s misunderstood legacy

Gorbachev unleashed hidden forces that destroyed the system he hoped to revive. We are still living with the consequences today


A cartoon showing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev looking in dismay at a massive stone hammer and sickle, now shattered into many parts. Illustration by Edmund S. Valtman/Library of Congress.

There can be few leaders whose reputation at home differs so widely from his reputation abroad as the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, who died on Monday aged 91. Hailed as a hero in the West for ending the Cold War, liberating the people of Eastern Europe, and bringing democracy and freedom to the nations of the former Soviet Union, he is reviled in Russia as a man who inherited a superpower and then destroyed it, leaving it dismembered and impoverished.

Of peasant stock, Gorbachev grew up in the Stavropol region of Southern Russia and aged only 17 won the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for his success in harvesting grain with his father. A clever and hard working student, he won a place at Moscow State University where he studied law before taking up a career in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He then rose rapidly up the party’s ranks until in 1985 he assumed the position of General Secretary and as such become the Soviet Union’s de facto leader.

In all these ways, he was a typical party functionary. He differed, though, from the generation of leaders who had gone before him, all of whom had had direct experience of the revolutions of 1917 and of the Second World War. Gorbachev was one of those who were called “Children of the Twentieth Party Congress”—that is to say, communists whose view of the world was shaped by the party congress of 1956 at which Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing Stalin.

The Children of the Twentieth Party Congress believed in communism—in state control of the means of production, in central economic planning, in the social guarantees granted by the Soviet constitution, in the Soviet Union as a genuine ‘brotherhood of nations,’ and so on. But at the same time, they felt that the system was not living up to its promise. They believed that Stalinism had over-centralized and over-bureaucratized Soviet society, stifling initiative, breeding corruption, and creating a severe disconnect between the claims of Soviet propaganda and the realities on the ground. The solution, they felt, was to return to “Leninist norms,” whatever those might be, and thereby put the USSR back on track to a bright communist future.

On reaching the pinnacle of Soviet power, Gorbachev thus sought not to dismantle the system but to make it function more efficiently. As he told the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, “Our goal is to realize the full potential of socialism. Those in the West who expect us to renounce socialism will be disappointed. We’re not going to give up on socialism. On the contrary, we need more socialism.”

Gorbachev’s problem was that he had very little idea how to do this as well as a faulty understanding of the underlying causes of the USSR’s social and economic difficulties.

In particular, Gorbachev’s grasp of economics was sketchy. He firmly believed in the communist economic model, writing in his 1987 book Perestroika that “Socialism and public ownership, on which it is based, hold out virtually unlimited possibilities for progressive economic processes.” He was therefore unwilling to touch the fundamentals of the Soviet system – state ownership and central planning. Instead, he tinkered with the economy by attempting to meld state planning with certain attributes of free markets in accordance with the ideas of what was called “market socialism.” In this, state ownership and the plan were retained, but enterprises gained more autonomy to determine production and were allowed to keep and reinvest some of their profits.

Market socialism proved a disaster. Instead of making enterprises more efficient, the introduction of market elements simply undermined the few advantages that planning provided. Given the failure of this policy, there were two options left: give up and go back, or press on and move towards a free market economy, or at least some sort of mixed market system. Gorbachev did neither. Going backwards would have been an admission of failure. Moving forward was ideologically beyond him. Instead, he dithered while the economy gradually collapsed around him.

As this happened, Gorbachev looked for someone to blame and his gaze fell upon conservative members of the CPSU, who he believed were deliberately sabotaging his reforms. In typical Russian fashion, his solution to this was to centralize authority in his own hands. This he did by stripping the CPSU of its power and concentrating it in a newly created executive position, that of President of the USSR, a position that Gorbachev then occupied.

Arguably, Gorbachev’s attacks on the party made things worse rather than better, for the party was the primary mechanism that kept the Soviet system functioning more or less smoothly. The more Gorbachev bypassed and undermined the party, the more authority it lost, the less people did as the plan demanded, and the more the system unraveled into anarchy.

In all this, Gorbachev revealed a considerable naivety. To accompany political and economic reform, which went by the name perestroika, he declared a need for more openness (glasnost). Censorship was relaxed and eventually abolished. It would appear that Gorbachev sincerely believed that if given their freedom, the Soviet people would use it in a constructive way, helpfully pointing out problems so that they could be addressed, but not challenging the authorities in the process. This is not what happened. Instead of constructive suggestions, the Soviet people used their new found freedom to publish revelations of the past crimes of the communist state, to attack the country’s leaders, and to demand ever more radical change. The more people learnt about their country’s past and about enormous social problems it was experiencing in the present, the more the system lost its legitimacy. Rather than strengthening the state, glasnost fatally weakened it.

Another failing was that Gorbachev totally misread the mood of many of the minority nationalities within the Soviet Union. In a 1987 speech marking the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, he declared the nationalities problem “solved.” Nothing was further from the truth. Soviet peoples used the freedom Gorbachev gave them to demand more national autonomy and in the case of the three Baltic states to demand independence. In other cases, minority nationalities sought to increase their own power and territory at the expense of other minorities. Visiting Armenia following a devastating earthquake in December 1988, Gorbachev was shocked to find that locals wanted to speak not about the earthquake but about the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (under Azeri control, but claimed by the Armenians). By the time Gorbachev woke up to the seriousness of the Soviet Union’s ethno-national problems it was too late. As central authority collapsed, local elites decided that the best way of preserving their authority was to leap on the nationalist bandwagon. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the eyes of Westerners, Gorbachev’s greatest achievement was to bring an end to the Cold War. The Soviet leader believed that successful reform at home was impossible as long as the USSR was locked in an existential geopolitical struggle with the West. It was therefore necessary to make peace. To this end, he made it clear that the Soviet army would not intervene to prop up the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, each of which fell in turn in rapid succession in 1989. Beyond that, Gorbachev agreed to accept German reunification and to withdraw the Soviet army from Eastern Europe. With this, Soviet-Western relations quickly changed from mutual hostility to something akin to friendship.

More than anything else, this explains the adulation Gorbachev received in the West. Many Russians, though, view the matter very differently, asking themselves what Gorbachev got in exchange for surrendering the Soviet’s empire in Eastern Europe. Most importantly, they note that he failed to get a written guarantee that NATO would not expand eastwards. Historians disagree as to whether NATO leaders gave verbal promises in this regard, but it is certain that nothing was ever put on paper. Rarely has somebody given up so much and got so little in return. The sense of bitterness that resulted has soured Russian-Western relations ever since.

Here again, Gorbachev’s naivety reveals itself. Gorbachev spoke of “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” and commented that “Europe is our common home.” But his vision was never that the Soviet Union, or later Russia, should be reduced to a subordinate status within a Europe dominated by NATO. Rather, he envisioned NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact disappearing and being replaced by a new security architecture in which the Soviet Union and Western states would be equal partners. Gorbachev seems to have imagined that if the Soviets dismantled their Cold War infrastructure, the West would do the same. But the West never had any intention of doing such a thing. In the eyes of Gorbachev’s Russian critics, he was, simply put, a dupe.

Mikhail Gorbachev meant well. An idealist, he believed in communism’s humanist potential. Realizing that communism’s practice fell short of its promise, he sought to do something about it. In the process, he unleashed hidden forces that destroyed the system he hoped to revive. For better or for worse, we are still living with the consequences today.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.


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