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Mikhail Gorbachev: The Leader Who Lost an Empire

The last head of state of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and was more than just a transitional leader. He was known for two vital reforms—perestroika and glasnost—and was a humane leader

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By Col R Hariharan

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the Soviet Union, passed away on August 30, at the ripe old age of 91. His chequered life is strewn with service in the cause of Communism as a party functionary and leader till 1985. Beyond that, his achievements as the harbinger of peace and the end of the Cold War during his six-year tenure as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), are unmatched. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saw him as “a one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history” who “did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War”.

But many Russians see Gorbachev as the man who triggered the break up of the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin called it 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”. No wonder, Putin showed his disdain for Gorbachev by denying him a formal state funeral. In any case, he was “too busy” to attend the funeral. However, he is reported to have laid a single rose on Gorbachev’s coffin in the Moscow hospital, perhaps because his place in history cannot be wished away. Brookings foreign policy expert Strobe Talbott also saw Gorbachev as “the man who lost an empire” in a December 1997 article of the same title.  

However, it is not wholly fair to blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet empire. When he came to power in 1985, the country was already in deep economic trouble. By then, Brezhnev Doctrine—all socialist countries had a duty to support and defend socialist gains—which was applied for nearly three decades to protect Soviet interests the world over had drained the economy. As Leonid Brezhnev aged, his effectiveness as a ruler plummeted. Bureaucracy was stifling the system and corruption was rampant. Brezhnev’s successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who led the country from 1982 to 1985, missed the wood for the trees. They could not understand that the decay in the system required more than cosmetic repairs like tightening party discipline and fighting corruption.

There are many ways of looking at Gorbachev’s life. Let us look at his evolution from a devoted Communist functionary to a leader, statesman and dreamer. The political journey of Gorbachev started as a 19-year-old applicant to the CPSU, promising to be “faithful to the great cause of Lenin and Stalin, to devote his life to the party’s struggle for Communism”. How he went on to start the process of loosening the Party’s stranglehold on power in 1991 presents a fascinating story. It represents the three stages of Gorbachev’s life: as a faithful functionary coming to terms with the application of Stalinism and Leninism as the party doctrine in the early years; as a ruler trying to make the CPSU more democratic and humane; and lastly, failing to see the rise of Russian nationalist idiom which was used by Boris Yeltsin to dethrone him after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Of course, the events thereafter marginalised Gorbachev’s role from the centrestage of Russian politics. It was brought to a close after his defeat in the presidential election in June 1996. Pitted against Yeltsin, Gorbachev could secure only 0.5% votes. It was a demonstration of Russian nationalists’ disillusionment with Gorbachev.

Gorbachev at the age of 54 was perhaps the youngest leader to be elected for the post of General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985. After graduating in law from Moscow University in 1955, Gorbachev preferred to become deputy director of the agitation and propaganda department of the Komsomol Youth League in Stavropol region rather than taking up a legal career. Despite his strong commitment to the party, the young Gorbachev saw some truth in Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of the cult of personality and Stalinism in his secret speech at the 20th Party Cong­ress of the CPSU in February 1956.

Khrushchev, known as the crude, bumptious henchman of Stalin, was the antithesis of the suave, loquacious, charming and sociable 25-year-old Gorbachev. But Khrushchev’s actions—freeing of prisoners from the Gulag and relaxation of censorship and repression—probably made a strong impression on Gorbachev. In 1970, he became the first secretary of the Stavropol region, which automatically made him a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1971. As a regional leader, he developed close relations with Brezhnev and enjoyed the party’s trust. This enabled him to visit western Europe five times between 1970 and 1977 as a member of Soviet delegations. The open and free society he saw in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Italy impressed him. Wikipedia quotes biographer Taubman: “He later related that for him and his wife, these visits ‘shook our a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy’.”

The party downgraded Khrushchev and sent him on “special pension”, a euphemism for prison. The Brezhnev Era that followed was also a period of dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov coming into prominence. The state stripped Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and sent him into exile in 1974 when the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union to be published as a bestseller worldwide. Solzhenitsyn became an intense critic of Gorbachev’s reforms, particularly after he rejected the author’s proposal for replacing the Soviet Union with an all-Slavic state as unacceptable and impractical. However, Gorbachev was the one who disbanded the last of the Gulags. He allowed the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s works in keeping with perestroika and restored the author’s Soviet citizenship that enabled him to return home to a hero’s welcome in 1994. These actions depict the humane side of Gorbachev’s personality.

Soon after coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev like his predecessors tinkered with the economic policy to increase growth with capital investment. He launched perestroika (restructuring) to make it easier to do business in the Soviet Union. Despite adopting gradual measures to create a semi-market economy, he could not turn the command economy into a truly market one. However, it made the job of his successors easier to attract foreign investment and integrate Russia in the global marketplace.

The Chernobyl disaster, barely a year after he came to power, was probably a moment of truth for Gorbachev’s disillusionment with the Soviet system. It renewed his faith in Glasnost (openness), his second vital reform. The spirit of openness spread widely, particularly among journalists. He used his knowledge of the Soviet political system to manoeuvre his way to democratise the constitution and introduce a multi-party system. 

In 1989, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan after a decade of bloodletting in the war with Islamic insurgents. He agreed to the unification of East and West Germany. His biggest contribution was in triggering nuclear disarmament in his three summit talks with US President Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev’s speech at the UN General Assembly in 1987 will be remembered for his announcement of a unilateral reduction of Soviet armed forces by half a million. He also announced the withdrawal of 50,000 troops from central and eastern Europe, before meeting Reagan. 

However, Gorbachev’s relentless efforts yielded results only when POTUS George W Bush visited Moscow in July 1991. They signed the START I treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a bilateral agreement for the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms. Gorbachev met Deng Xiaoping in 1989 even as crowds were gathering at Tiananmen Square to mend the fractured relations with China.

Gorbachev dreamed of a world without war. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on December 10, 1990, he quoted Immanuel Kant’s prophesy that mankind would “one day be faced with the dilemma: either to be joined in a true union of nations or to perish in a war of annihilation ending in the extinction of the human race”. He said that “as we move from the second to the third millennium, the clock has struck the moment of truth”. He added that the year 1990 marked the end of the unnatural division of Europe. “Germany has been reunited. We have begun to tear down the material foundation of a military, political and ideological confrontation,” he said.

However, he warned that “there are some very grave threats that have not been eliminated: the potential for conflict and the primitive instincts which allow it, aggressive intentions and totalitarian traditions”.

Gorbachev’s ominous warning seems to have come true with the war in Ukraine. No wonder he died with a broken heart at the war.   

—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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