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Mikhail Gorbachev: A Visionary Statesman Who Failed As Reformer

As Soviet Union's last leader, Gorbachev still attracts the maximum praise -- and blame -- for his actions. Read More

Wednesday August 31, 2022 8:40 PM, Vikas Datta, IANS

Mikhail Gorbachev: A Visionary Statesman Who Failed As Reformer

The last top surviving figure of the Cold War, he was heralded as a statesman who had the vision and courage to help end the undeclared global conflict that raged from the stark terrain of Afghanistan to the steamy jungles of Latin America to the dusty confines of sub-Saharan Africa.

On the other hand, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is castigated as the leader whose attempts to reform the Soviet Union caused its collapse.

There is no disputing the fact that Gorbachev, who passed away in Moscow on Tuesday -- over three decades after the Soviet Union passed away -- changed the world, and his country, though much more, and irreversibly, than he wished.

But, as far as the Soviet Union is concerned - is he the only one responsible? Could it be Lenin, for laying faulty foundations? Stalin, for his excesses while making it an unquestioned superpower? Khrushchev, for his impetuous, and usually rash decisions? Brezhnev, for presiding over an era of stagnation? Or only Gorbachev with his unsuccessful reforms?

As Soviet Union's last leader, after the brief stints of Yuri Andropov (who sought to start addressing the problems) and Konstantin Chernenko (who barely lasted a year), Gorbachev still attracts the maximum praise -- and blame -- for his actions - chiefly, "uskoreniye" (acceleration), "glasnost" (openness), "perestroika" (restructuring) and "new thinking", and "demokratizatsiya" (democratisation) and their results. Is this justified?


Probably, but in hindsight only. It is easy to blame leaders, like Gorbachev, for the consequences of their decisions - but, while we can criticise then or later, we cannot fully put ourselves in their place at that time to understand what they thought or believed, gauge the choices before them, the compulsions they faced, and so on.

What could Gorbachev have done, done differently, or not done? Should he acted more firmly against the hardliners, backed the liberals more strongly, including not having that famous falling-out with Boris Yeltsin that made the latter an implacable enemy - with disastrous consequences for the Soviet Union?

It is indeed hard to figure out the possibilities - and the man in question himself.

"Gorbachev is hard to understand," the veteran leader, who referred to himself in the third person (like Julius Caesar and Charles De Gaulle, among others), told William Taubman, a Slavic studies and Cold War history expert, and author of "Gorbachev: His Life and Times" (2017), possibly the last biography of the Soviet statesman.


However, Gorbachev himself defended his record. In his "Memoirs" (1995), he says, after demitting office on Christmas Day of 1991 as the Soviet Union came to an end, his "conscience was clear".

"The promise I had made to the people when I started the process of perestroika was kept: I gave them freedom. This was reflected in many specific things: glasnost, freedom of speech, the ending of ideological persecution, the right to live anywhere one wanted, the removal of monopoly on property and power, the creation of the foundation of a genuine parliamentary system, the end of the nightmare threat of nuclear war, and openness to the world..."

On the other hand, Gorbachev admitted that perestroika "did not give the people prosperity, something they expected of me, as head of state, based on a ingrained, traditional feeling of dependence".

"But I did not promise that. I urged people to use this new-found freedom to create prosperity, personal and social prosperity, with their own hands and minds, according to the abilities of each."

On the other hand, Gorbachev's tenure also raises questions about his personal, political and ideological development, and why he thought and acted the way he did.

Also Read | When Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi slammed US arms control policies in one voice

As Taubman says in his magisterial biography:

"How did a peasant boy, whose high-flown tribute to Stalin won a high school prize, turn into the Soviet system's gravedigger?... How did he become a communist despite the most rigorous imaginable arrangement of checks and guarantees designed to guard against someone like him?"

It is obvious that Gorbachev's meteoric rise - induction as a full member of the Politburo in 1980 - before he was 50, as compared to the average age of 70 that characterised members of the august body under Leonid Brezhnev - and just after a decade after becoming a regional secretary - was due to his seeming to be a proper Soviet leader product.

While powerful figures like Andropov, the longtime KGB boss-turned-No. 2 and Gorbachev's mentor, the unquestioned ideologue Mikhail Suslov, the capable Alexei Kosygin supported him as an energetic and idealistic leader and sincere believer in Communism, they had no idea of his zeal for reform.

Also Read | Mikhail Gorbachev, last man to rule now disintegrated Soviet Union, dies at 91

Unfortunately, he was more of a sincere believer in Communism and felt that it could be reformed - in the version it existed in the then Soviet Union.

And that was the flaw - Gorbachev in his reform efforts achieved the opposite - because he could not let go of his solid belief that he could transform the Soviet system to what he saw as its "original ideals".

He eschewed detailed blueprints, but the Communist theory instilled in him made him believe that society could be drastically changed in no time (he was not alone - Andropov also thought that more discipline and oversight could achieve this goal).

Gorbachev was also a master political tactician - his "slowness" and openness to trying to strike some arrangement with hardliners was a bid to try to avoid the missteps of Khrushchev that ended his leadership in the mid-1960s. However, this did not succeed fully as the August 1991 "coup" showed and it cost him the support of many liberals.

However, in the end, what he failed to realise that jettisoning the huge apparatus that dominated the polity, society, and the economy for decades, was always going to be dicey unless there was a robust substitute to take its place. And in its absence of this, other primal identity forces - such as nationalism - would rise, and did.

The ethnic strife that broke out in peripheries of the Soviet Union - in the Baltic republics, in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Georgia, in Tajikistan and elsewhere was proof enough. This, and the failure to repress it iron-handed - like previous rulers - is what doomed the Soviet Union, allied to the ambitions of Yeltsin, and his counterparts of the two other core Slavic republics - Belarus and Ukraine.

But, at the end, the career of Gorbachev showed how even a system of conformity, bolstered by repression, can still throw up leaders with creativity, common sense, and morals.

This will remain Gorbachev's real and abiding legacy.


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