Veronika Susova-Salminen looks back at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022).
On 30 August 2022, Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and sole President of the USSR, died. He died at a time that heralds the end of the interregnum that began with the end of the Cold War in 1989 and ends with the beginning of the new (and possibly not so cold) war between the world powers, including the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s political legacy is now viewed very differently. Some blame him for the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Soviet system, for appeasement of the West and loss of great power prestige, and for poorly implemented reforms at home. Others praise his achievements in the process of nuclear disarmament, ending the Cold War and opening up space for freedom and democracy throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.
The ambivalence of Gorbachev’s political legacy only confirms that historical figures and historical processes are never black and white.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 in southern Russia in the Stavropol region (North Caucasus) in the midst of collectivisation and famine. His parents, too, were collectivised farmers. He studied law at Moscow State University (MGU) in the 1950s, joined the CPSU in 1952, and just three years later was elected secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee.
While the young Gorbachev’s studies were shaped by the onset of the Khrushchev thaw after Stalin’s death, Gorbachev’s career in the Moscow centre was shaped by the Brezhnev “zastoy” (stagnation).
He was called to Moscow in 1978 as Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Two years later he became a member of the Politburo, the central organ of government in the Soviet Union. In other words, Gorbachev’s career was a model nomenklatura career.
Gorbachev’s rapid rise to party positions was also due to the fact that he had powerful sponsors behind him (most notably Fyodor Kulakov, former secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee, head of the agricultural department of the CPSU Central Committee, and a member of the Politburo).
In addition, the special position of the Stavropol region as a spa area allowed Gorbachev to maintain personal relations with most of the Moscow leadership. Alexei Kosygin, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Suslov all came here for medical treatment.
Gorbachev came to the head of the CPSU in 1985, at a time when stagnation was already turning into a serious internal crisis of the whole system.
Gorbachev later admitted that he and his associate Eduard Shevardnadze had concluded in a personal conversation in 1984 that “everything is rotten” and “it is no longer possible to live like this”.
Gorbachev was aware that the Soviet economy was in serious trouble, threatening the USSR’s status as a superpower. The reforms that Gorbachev began to push for after 1985 were focused on the economy. Some of the elements he proposed (for example, worker participation in the management of factories) were inspired by ideas from the Czechoslovak reforms of the 1960s, which is one of the ironies of history.
Perestroika, after all, was consistent with many of the reformist themes from the Eastern European bloc that the Soviet centre had previously bloodily suppressed.
Perestroika was intended to restructure the Soviet economy and management style. Glasnost (openness) was supposed to allow Soviet society, which was constrained by a high degree of centralization and bureaucracy, to flourish innovatively.
The problem with Gorbachev’s programme was its lack of thought, with reforms often carried out in an ad hoc rather than systematic and systemic manner.
Their principle followed Russian political traditions – reform or modernisation from above (and it is a fact that the Soviet system did not even allow for any other form of reform).
Quite possibly, Gorbachev’s reforms came too late and could no longer cope with the accumulation of problems that the USSR faced in the second half of the 1980s. The list was overwhelming: economic stagnation, growing deficits of goods that were exacerbated by Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, the Chernobyl disaster, the growth of ethnic conflicts on the peripheries of the USSR, the earthquake in Armenia, etc.
In international politics, Gorbachev focused on policies to enable internal reforms. He sought to reduce international pressure, the pressure (also economic) of the arms race (triggered by Reagan’s “Star Wars” programme) and great power competition. Gorbachev thought in terms of creating space for reform, the so-called “peredyshka” (передышка).
To suspect him of aiming for the loss of superpower status or even the collapse of the USSR is a mistake. Gorbachev was always convinced that the USSR deserved superpower status and post-Soviet Russia deserved respect.
In 1986, he announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Then, he initiated the beginning of the process of nuclear disarmament in cooperation with the Ronald Reagan administration.
Later, he announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops, open the way for the withdrawal of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. It was also him who contributed to, if not made possible, the reunification of Germany.
At this time, the main pillars for a new security situation in Europe were taking shape through the limitation of nuclear armaments, which is unfortunately now largely a thing of the past. Similarly, the promises of the Paris Charter and Gorbachev’s idea of a common European home are in the past.
In the crisis year of 1991, he advocated the preservation of the common Soviet state. Ironically, it got the final blow by the August coup of the conservative wing (the coup took place the day before the newly negotiated union treaty was signed and it was never signed). The Soviet Union became history shortly afterwards, as did the CPSU, which Gorbachev led.
After 1992, Gorbachev was active in Russian politics both through his foundation and through several social democratic projects. His relations with Zyuganov and the current Communist Party of Russia were lukewarm. He saw Zyuganov as the man who, according to Gorbachev, had supported the end of the USSR in 1991.
Gorbachev’s relationship with the current Russian leadership was ambivalent.
On the one hand, he criticised the regime’s de-democratisation moves; on the other, he supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and criticised the Western policy of NATO expansion near Russia’s borders. In recent years, he has spoken out in favour of nuclear disarmament and warned against military conflict. Then in 2017, he warned against further militarization of politics and arms. At this occasion, he said that nuclear war was becoming real again.
In 2020, he repeated his warning, asking world leaders to reduce spending on arms and tensions. “War is a sign of defeat, a failure of politics,” he wrote.
He repeatedly regretted the collapse of the USSR. In 2020, he said he believed the world would be a fairer, safer and more stable place with the USSR.
Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the USSR’s collapse last year, Gorbachev said, “I believe that the democratic path of Russia’s development is the only correct path, that only on this path can the country develop and solve any problems.”
Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered as a man who tried to reform internally the system he believed. Yet, the system crumbled under his hands. The speed with which the Soviet system and the Soviet state fell apart surprised many. Not only at home, but also abroad. This collapse had complex (but mainly internal) causes that went beyond Gorbachev as a figure.
But it, arguably, contributed to the failure of Gorbachev and his successors, already at the head of a weakened and, in the view of many, defeated post-Soviet Russia, to push for a new concept of security in Europe with the new Russia as its solid part and guarantor.
Today, we will be forced to revise historians’ previous assessments of the peaceful collapse of the USSR.
The current war in Ukraine is not only a manifestation of a systemic crisis of the security architecture in Europe but also an apparently postponed post-imperial conflict.
Despite all the mistakes and errors, no one can deny that Mikhail Gorbachev was committed to peace, nuclear disarmament and humanism until the end of his life. As the contemporary Russian commentator Konstantin Remchukov has written, in the choice between ideology, state and man, Gorbachev uncompromisingly chose man.
Honour to his memory!