If Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, had died in 1991, people then might have busied themselves assessing his place in history.
‘We all need to have perestroika,’ Mikhail Gorbachev would often say. The Soviet Union’s last leader lived by that credo. After becoming the general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and implementing his programme of restructuring and glasnost (openness), he even changed his job title, preferring to be called president.
The first and last Soviet president was the most democratic leader that Russia (the USSR’s de facto centre) had over the last century, if not ever. And in the 31 years since the Soviet collapse, his belief in peace, mutual understanding, dialogue and democracy remained unwavering.
It was these values which led Gorbachev to withdraw the Soviet Union from a decade-long, disastrous war in Afghanistan and in 1993 to use the money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to help fund Novaya Gazeta, the flagship media outlet of Russia’s democrats whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, received his own Nobel Peace Prize last year. Along with dozens of other independent media outlets, Novaya Gazeta was forced to suspend operations soon after the president, Vladimir Putin, launched his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in February.
Gorbachev, too, suffered for his beliefs. Perhaps if he had died in 1991, people back then would have busied themselves assessing his place in history. Faced with the living, breathing Gorbachev, however, there was animosity and awkward silence. For years, when he was spoken about at all, it was usually to deny his achievements.
By starting perestroika, which many in Russia today, including Putin, consider a disaster, Gorbachev exposed himself to criticism from every direction—for being too radical, too conservative or too feeble. But he did not flee from public scrutiny. Even weakened by age and illness, he continued to embrace it as director of the Gorbachev Foundation, whose work embodied his values.
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Like Putin, Gorbachev thought that it would have been better if the USSR had continued. But, unlike Putin, he envisaged a reformed, democratised federation, rather than a union of nations unwillingly submitting to Kremlin rule.
In the 2000s, Gorbachev told me why he didn’t send tanks to Germany in 1989 to prevent the destruction of the Berlin wall (built in 1961 on the order of my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev). ‘We shouldn’t dictate to sovereign countries their way of life,’ he said.
Gorbachev himself was partly to blame for the antipathy he faced after the Soviet collapse. Reformers often lack patience and his plan for sweeping economic changes in just 500 days was as utopian as Khrushchev’s 1961 promise of ‘developed communism’ in 20 years.
What made Gorbachev different from other Russian leaders was that he accepted responsibility for the consequences of his rule. While Khrushchev and Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin (incidentally the only other leaders in Russia who were forced from power or left voluntarily before their death), also did, they left public life altogether, privately berating themselves for all they failed to accomplish. Gorbachev, by contrast, joined historians, politicians, his own comrades and the public in reviewing his rule. Ironically, he helped bury himself as a historical figure while still alive.
While the consensus in Russia is that Gorbachev’s reforms all went astray or failed because of his bad choices, his legacy is perceived very differently internationally—and justifiably so. The last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of this one were the heyday of globalisation in large part because of Gorbachev’s efforts to embrace the world, establish ‘new political thinking’ and mitigate Russia’s usual suspicion and animosity toward the outside world.
As a man of conscience who reflected on his leadership from outside the Kremlin, Gorbachev was eager to address the problems for which he felt responsible, including economic hardship and political instability. Although his position was weak, his quixotic candidacy in the 1996 presidential election made casting a ballot worthwhile for at least some Russians (like me). Yeltsin’s candidacy that year, during a period of even greater chaos than the Soviet Union ever experienced, inspired very few.
It would have been a shame had such an exciting event (Russia was new to electing presidents and the novelty imparted a festive air) become just another occasion to register dissatisfaction. I never believed that Gorbachev had a serious chance of winning or that he would be a good president. But he was the first president in Russian history to succeed in re-emerging as a candidate after years of efforts to bury him, able to speak as both a leader from the past and a voice for the future.
The retired Khrushchev could only dream of that after being ousted from the Kremlin in 1964. Before his death, with ample time to contemplate the past, my great-grandfather concluded that his greatest achievement was not the policy of the ‘thaw’—denunciation of Josef Stalin’s crimes, along with some political and cultural liberalisation—but, in fact, his own dismissal by means of a simple vote. He was neither declared an ‘enemy of the people’ nor banished to the gulag; he was simply forced into ‘a retirement of merit’ at his dacha. He was not physically liquidated following his political demise, as he certainly would have been in the 1930s. Nevertheless, Khrushchev regretted his lack of courage and wished he had used his time to push his thaw further, so that even political death would be optional.
Twenty-five years later, Russian history made that liberal turn. Death and disappearance were no longer the only options. Political death had become a matter of choice. If Gorbachev did not have a chance to win in 1996, he at least had the chance to run. Perestroika and glasnost, so derided nowadays, prepared the ground for that under Yeltsin, who, while no fan of his Soviet predecessor, was democratic enough to keep the spirit of change.
With the Ukraine invasion and the destruction of media outlets that became possible because of glasnost, Gorbachev’s legacy today seems to be dead. But Gorbachev himself was more optimistic. He often noted that he was a product of Khrushchev’s thaw and he would no doubt encourage us to believe that a new leader will emerge in Russia one day, start a new perestroika and resurrect the values to which he devoted his life.
Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2022, ‘The greatest democrat Russia ever had‘
Nina L Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St Martin's Press).