Gorbachev: History Will Be a Fairer Judge

A Russian political analyst sees Gorbachev now in a different light

By Lilia Shevtsova

Mikhail Gorbachev has turned 80, an occasion for us to reflect, not only about his contribution, but also about what happened to us after he left the Kremlin.

The answers to both questions come from the Russian leaders who succeeded him. Not long ago another 80th anniversary—Yeltsin’s—was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, as a national event with the participation of the ruling tandem. The official celebrations were meant to demonstrate the continuity of the Putin-Medvedev regime with that of Yeltsin’s, and to present the latter as the leader who had liberated Russia. It was a brazen attempt to borrow democratic legitimacy from Russia’s first president. For a few hours, the narrative that Putin had saved Russia by rejecting Yeltsin’s “evil 1990s” was dropped; projecting a more civilized image was instead the order of the day. However, the fact that Yeltsin’s anniversary was turned into a Kremlin-choreographed ballet—with Putin in a solo role preaching on “the ideals of freedom and democracy”—only reinforces doubts one may have about the democratic legacy of Russia’s first president.

By transforming Yeltsin into the official, Kremlin-endorsed reformer, his antipode, Gorbachev, automatically gets kicked out of the system realm. But, though they do not know it, the powers-that-be are doing Gorbachev an invaluable service. It is in any case unlikely that Gorbachev would be interested in providing legitimacy to a regime with repressive tendencies. Having changed the course of world history, this man can watch the rat-race in Russia’s backyard without any neuroses. And the further away from the Kremlin he gets, the more significantly his figure looms in the space of history.

There are many celebrated leaders—Churchill, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Kohl, Reagan, Havel, and Walesa—who in decisive moments determined the course of their countries’ history. But only one leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, determined the long-term history of the global order. What did he actually do? He concluded that force is a dangerous means of doing politics, both domestic and international, particularly when nuclear weapons are at play. “What an idealist!” sceptics exclaim. And, indeed, if Gorbachev were to try today, he would probably fail, and fail badly. The political world has become utilitarian, pragmatic, fixated on the status quo and on traditional ways of thinking. But in the late 1980s, the world hoped for renewal and was ready to experience something incredible. Gorbachev came to embody the incredible.

He developed his own “triad” that not only contradicted Soviet principles but was also unusual in Western democracies. First, Gorbachev recognized that the arms race was doomed to fail and that nuclear war was pointless. It was he who came up with the idea of a “nuclear-free world” as early as 1986. His second major breakthrough was his conviction that every nation is entitled to freedom of choice. He arrived at this evident truth at a time when the Western community was happy to implement Kissinger’s realpolitik, which justified the division of the world into “spheres of influence.” Finally, by proclaiming glasnost, Gorbachev laid the foundations for the birth of civil society in Russia for the first time in its history.

The statesman who unleashed the avalanche

What happened was an unusual social breakthrough in which the endeavor of a single man launched an avalanche of events that changed the global trajectory. Gorbachev became the leader who dismantled a bellicose civilization—global communism. And he did it at a time when this civilization seemed likely to live on, fight or rot indefinitely, or end its life in mad convulsions. When Gorbachev turned the chessboard, not only the Russian elite was unready. The happily slumbering West, used to functioning in a bipolar world, was not ready either. Gorbachev’s actions caused consternation and even shock in the Western establishment, disrupting the customary rhythm of life and raising challenges the West was not ready for. No wonder Senator Fulbright said, “The USSR … provided us with excuses for our failures.”

What did Gorbachev accomplish from 1985 to 1990? Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” resulted in the Soviet-US dialogue on nuclear disarmament and the signing in 1987 of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Two opposing parties decided to destroy an entire range of nuclear arms capable of unleashing an apocalypse at any time. He proceeded to negotiate reductions of strategic offensive weapons and conventional arms and the banning of chemical, bacteriological, and biological weapons.

The Gorbachev-Reagan dialogue on security issues stemmed not only from Moscow’s recognition of its inability to compete with America in the arms race. A different Soviet leader in his place could have continued playing Russian roulette with the Americans for a long time. He could have blackmailed the West, as the North Korean leaders have done, quite successfully. But Gorbachev decided to voluntarily break with the Soviet paradigm of survival by nuclear threat. The present-day Moscow-Washington dialogue on strategic nuclear force is just a return to Gorbachev’s times, as well as an admission that neither party has been able to come up with anything new since then.

Gorbachev loosened the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. At the start of the velvet revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland some local Party leaders were hoping for the Kremlin’s “support.” Gorbachev responded with a firm “Nyet!” although Soviet troops were still stationed in these countries and all Moscow needed to do was to give the order. Gorbachev did not want to repeat the bloodshed of the Prague Spring. He gave the Germans a chance to reunite as one country (against fervent wishes from Paris and London) and the former USSR satellites a chance to return to Europe. Today, in response to accusations that he has “handed over” Eastern Europe he says: “But we gave Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia back to the Poles, Germans, and Czechs!”

Thanks to one individual, the Communist system crumbled to dust. It was the end of the Cold War and of the confrontation between two hostile systems competing for global leadership. The peaceful disintegration of totalitarian Communism was perhaps the most significant event of the 20th century. Just think about it—all of this we owe to this one man! The world has entered the post-Gorbachev era, which has not ended yet, perhaps because his generation of leaders is gone and their place has been taken by political pygmies.

Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the basic tool of totalitarianism—the Communist Party—and to turn it into something more human was a logical extension of his New Thinking. However, by loosening the iron hoop that had held the Soviet empire together, and by rejecting the “besieged fortress” ideology, he inevitably brought about a dismantling of the empire.

Gorbachev himself clearly was not expecting what he had unleashed. He desperately hoped to preserve the USSR under the umbrella of a commonwealth of allied states. But the process of national republics pulling away from the centre was too powerful and the disintegration could no longer be halted. Perhaps he might have slowed down the process by introducing a market economy. However, he did not have the time.

The motives that had driven Gorbachev to launch his perestroika is a topic in its own right. Was he dreaming of a “socialism with a human face,” as many assume? When he claimed that “more democracy means more socialism” he clearly meant it. At that point the historical proof that this was impossible was not yet available. In any case, he knew (and had to know) that perestroika of the Soviet system was no way of cementing his power. He understood the risk of his endeavor.

Creative destruction

However, as has now become obvious, neither Gorbachev nor his comrades-in-arms foresaw that perestroika would cause a total collapse of the regime. The leader who started as a reformer ended up as a terminator. It was he who triggered the law of “unintended consequences.” Any step, however cautious, toward making the Soviet space less hermetic would only speed up its collapse. Gorbachev created new institutions and enabled society to develop its own forms of activities. All this contributed to the disintegration of the system, which could exist only in a hermetically closed space. When did Gorbachev realize he was heading towards the dismantling of the USSR? At some point he must have understood the dilemma he was facing: The USSR could be preserved only at the expense of immense bloodshed. And he was not prepared to go there. Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet leader within himself well before the decline of the Soviet state.

Of course, he did risk an implosion. After all, he had intended to rebuild the system and ended up eliminating the state. What leader would consciously take a decision of this kind, even if he were aware of the state’s shortcomings?

But there is destruction and then there’s destruction. Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction,” i.e. one that prepares the foundations for constructive development. This is precisely what Gorbachev did by becoming the great “creative destroyer.” Yes, he did not manage—he did not have the time—to free himself completely from Soviet institutions (some he even tried to preserve). But he created an anti-system realm within the old system. The new institutions helped to avoid the chaos that usually goes with disintegration. Gorbachev brought “the street” into the Congress of national deputies and let passionate discourse in. It was Gorbachev and not Yeltsin (as many people claim today) who prevented a Yugoslav scenario as the Soviet Union was disappearing into oblivion.

At the same time Gorbachev’s actions facilitated the emergence of new forces and a new political atmosphere. In particular, for the first time in Russian history, the head of the regime communicated directly with the nation, though initially he was astonished and visibly irritated by the consequences of his own doing: relentless criticism and attacks. But he was no longer able to slam shut the window he himself had thrust open. He set new standards for himself. He gave the country a chance to learn to speak out and to argue, and he had to learn this art himself, along with society. He engendered in us a longing for freedom and gave us an opportunity to learn how to live with it. But he did not have enough time to make his own transformations irreversible. In fact, he could not have done so. He was destined to play a less rewarding role—clearing the field for new rules of the game.

Gorbachev has been criticized from all quarters. Some condemn him for having destroyed the customary order of things. Many people have not yet been able to adjust to a new life in a new country. Others, mainly the intelligentsia, have accused Gorbachev of having moved too slowly and not letting his foot off the brake (I was one of those voicing this objection). We did not understand that the logic of disintegration was at play here, hoping (as Gorbachev hoped) that we were involved in a reform process. Thus we thought it necessary to act faster, more boldly and more forcefully! Only now is it clear that, had he taken his foot off the brake, the country could have tumbled into an abyss.

Accusing Gorbachev of indecisiveness is largely a way of justifying our own uselessness. After all, he gave society free rein and allowed it to come up with solutions and look for alternatives. When the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians found themselves in a similar situation they started building a new system. In Russia the politically active part of the population (which includes me) turned out not to be ready to devise or even to articulate, its aspirations. We were expecting the leader to find the solution for us. After becoming disenchanted in Gorbachev we pinned our hopes on Yeltsin, thus proving we were not capable of making use of the freedom that we had suddenly acquired.

Another thing that has been held against Gorbachev is that he did not call a general election that would have bestowed on him the same legitimacy Yeltsin enjoyed. That would have been extremely dangerous. Seeking a democratic mandate for the president of the Union at a time when the Soviet empire was beginning to crumble would only have made this process more painful and probably would have led to bloodshed.

A basic test

By creating a space for glasnost Gorbachev created opportunities for institutional political pluralism. But after some hesitation, Russia under Yeltsin started turning back. The shelling of the discontented Duma (Gorbachev also had problems with the Russian parliament but somehow had managed to get along with it!); the authoritarian constitution that put the leader’s primacy ahead of society; the privatization robbery; the Chechen war; the manipulation of the 1996 election; and, last but not least, the handing of power to a successor—these were landmarks in the formation of a system that cannot be called democratic.

“But we did have freedom of speech under Yeltsin! He did let his enemies out of prison! He did tolerate criticism!” the Russian president’s liberal supporters will object. And I will say: “You’re right! But how did it end?”

“You idealize Gorbachev!” my opponents exclaim. “What about repression in Karabakh, Baku, Tbilisi, Vilnius? It all ended in bloodshed!” In trying to explain these tragedies, the human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov used to say that perestroika was by no means perfect, if only because its leaders functioned within a “totalitarian system that had not yet not completely collapsed.” I concede the point: Gorbachev did not manage fully to come to grips with the agony of the totalitarian system. But he passed the basic test—he refused to use force in Moscow. And that was a decisive blow to the totalitarian logic. But what could possibly justify the Chechen War waged by Yeltsin, the man who followed a “democratic” logic?

Gorbachev gave us a chance to create what we considered necessary. Some nations—the Baltics and Eastern Europe—made use of this chance. They are Gorbachev’s true legacy. For a brief moment in the autumn of 1991 Yeltsin also had the chance to make use of the Gorbachev impetus. At that point there was a national consensus in Russia for devising a new constitution and a new system. But Yeltsin, like most of us, did not notice or want to accept this moment. For a long time we perceived the remaining freedoms (freedom of the media, the freedom to criticize powers-that-be and to fight for the monopoly of power) as a path to democracy. In fact these freedoms went with a turn in the opposite direction. Yeltsin was creating a new autocracy. He discredited liberal democracy (with our participation) and led Russia—maybe unconsciously at first—back to the past. Putin did not appear out of the blue. He has not distorted Yeltsin’s legacy, but became the stabilizer and first manager of the system Yeltsin created. So the officially proclaimed continuity between Yeltsin and the current tandem is fully justified.

Life after the Kremlin

Today Russia has returned to the pre-Gorbachev era, complete with vertical power, a decorative constitution, a superpower imperial identity, a striving for technological modernization, and even political prisoners. Again, we face the necessity of starting from scratch. Again we have to ask ourselves: Can autocracy be reformed or do we have to follow Gorbachev and start by dismantling it? Gorbachev’s fate provides an unambiguous answer to this question.

Gorbachev emerges as a dramatic personality: He has transformed the world order, yet his own country sees him as a destroyer. No leader can play a dual role—both dismantling the old system and starting to build a new one. These two roles call for different methods and different forms of legitimacy. Leaders lose their popularity as soon as they begin to destroy ordinary life. Moreover, no society has ever perceived a leader who dared to break the norms (however horrific they were) as a hero in his own lifetime. Recognition comes to great leaders who have threatened the status quo only after they have died.

What makes Gorbachev’s leadership so dramatic is that he was swept off the Russian scene by the wave he himself had started. Those who rose under his perestroika could not forgive him for his greatness and daring. Those who came to power because of him exacted petty revenge.

Gorbachev experienced profound personal grief in 1999 when he lost the person dearest to him, his wife and companion Raisa. But this human grief brought Gorbachev closer to Russia; by understanding the suffering of Gorbachev, the man, people started to realize the significance of Gorbachev, the politician.

Being History

Gorbachev’s legacy is a new world and a new country, to which we have not yet grown accustomed. The precedents that he set might form the basis of a new life, if we turned them into a tradition. Gorbachev was the first leader in Russia’s history who left the Kremlin without clinging to power and without trying to appoint a successor. So far there has been no demand for instituting a tradition of leaders voluntarily exiting from the Kremlin.

Gorbachev also demonstrated the possibility of living a normal, full life after laying down power—even in one’s home country. He has not left Russia, though any Western country would gladly make him its honorary citizen, offering him a more comfortable life than the one he leads in Russia. Gorbachev has nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide.

Gorbachev’s “post-Kremlin” life shows his democratic character. One can tell by his circle of friends—journalists, writers and musicians. One can tell by the fact that he has created his own social environment. Not even Western leaders can afford the degree of openness and human interaction this citizen of the world has created around himself. Anyone who attends a meeting at the Gorbachev Foundation in which he participates will see this.

Gorbachev is the first Russian leader to have desacralised power, becoming a symbol of a new era. It is not his fault that in Russia this era has not yet dawned.

In Russia’s political life, which is currently undermining moral authority, Gorbachev remains the only person to whom the world listens. The fact that we are trying to ignore him says more about us than about him. Elsewhere this vivacious and fascinating man has become a monument in his own lifetime. Thomas Carlyle was right in saying that history was the biography of great men. Having booked his place in eternity, Gorbachev remains an incredible living man. To be a human being and history at the same time, without losing one’s sense of self-irony—Gorbachev can be incredibly funny!—one must be an outstanding person.

Gorbachev has not been lucky with us. But we have been lucky with him—though we have yet to realize it.

Lilia Shevtsova is a former director of the Centre of Political Studies in Moscow, and currently senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Russian Program. She has authored six books, including Yeltsin’s Russia. The article appeared first in Russian in Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper of which Gorbachev is a part owner.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2011

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2011, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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