Gorbachev at eighty: evaluating his achievements


Next week the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev celebrates his 80th birthday. Archie Brown salutes twelve radical achievements that have changed Russia and the world for the better.

Archie Brown
25 February 2011

In each successive year in the second half of the 1980s perestroika meant something more radical to Mikhail Gorbachev than it had in the previous year. He continued to voice support for ‘the socialist idea’ as well as for perestroika, but this element of linguistic continuity (accompanied also, however, by much conceptual innovation) misled only the most superficial of observers. In reality Gorbachev moved from being a Communist reformer to becoming a socialist of a social democratic type – a qualitative shift. It is a superficial and misplaced criticism of him to say that what transpired was not what he intended in 1985. It was, on the contrary, one of Gorbachev’s strengths that he had a sufficiently open mind to broaden his conception of what was politically desirable and, if pursued with sufficient finesse, possible in a country with a long tradition, both Tsarist and Soviet, of authoritarian rule. The radicalisation of Gorbachev’s outlook owed much to the political opposition and bureaucratic inertia which even moderate reform encountered. It was stimulated, too, by the flow of fresh ideas and arguments both within his own advisory circle and in the broader society, itself a response to the glasnost and greater frankness he had encouraged.

Gorbachev profile

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev: Soviet statesman, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985-91) and President of USSR (1990-91).

Liberalisation of the system, especially from 1986-87 and its partial democratisation, especially from 1988-89, brought every conceivable long suppressed problem and grievance to the surface of Soviet political life. Gorbachev’s political in-tray became monumentally overloaded. There were some failures. Most notable was economic reform. A start was made, but the economy in the later perestroika years was in limbo – no longer a command economy but not yet a functioning market economy. The length of time the Soviet Union had been under Communist rule made a transition to a market more difficult than in either the East European Communist states or in China. What is more, when marketisation did take place in the 1990s, it manifestly failed to meet elementary standards of social justice and helped to explain Gorbachev’s hesitation, even after he had embraced the idea of a market economy in principle (as he did in 1990-91), to take the plunge.

As Gorbachev reaches the age of eighty and reflects on his life in politics, he can take pride in the fact that he left Russia a freer country than it had ever been and that, by playing the most decisive part in ending the Cold War, he provided the chance for international relations to be conducted on a more peaceful and equitable basis.

Archie Brown

The other failure was the delay in attempting to move from a pseudo-federal system to a genuine and voluntary federation. Gorbachev’s highest priorities were liberalising and democratising political reform at home and the endeavour to put international relations on a new footing. Relations between the nationalities and republics in the Soviet Union were not at the top of his political agenda until they forced their way there. It was his political reform – allowing people to air their national grievances without fear of arrest and imprisonment, even to elect to a new legislature deputies intent on seeking national sovereignty for their republics – that made this issue such a salient one. Gorbachev’s foreign policy, and hostility to military intervention, which led to the peaceful acquisition of independence of the countries which had formed the Soviet bloc, also raised expectations within the most disaffected Soviet republics, especially in the Baltic states. People there began to believe that they, too, could become independent and non-Communist. 

Gorbachev Grandparents

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoe, near Stavropol, Soviet Union, on March 2, 1931. He appears on this photo together with his grandparents Pantelei and Vasilisa.

To blame Gorbachev for not resolving the nationalities problem and achieving a voluntary federation, with far greater powers devolved to the republics (as was the aim in successive variants of his proposed new Union Treaty), would be harsh. Within the party-state machine, and especially in the ranks of the siloviki – the army and the military-industrial complex, the KGB and the Ministry of Interior – there was fierce opposition to losing any part of the Soviet Union, following the ‘loss’ of Eastern Europe. The fact that the Vice-President, the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the KGB, the Minister of Defence, and the head of military industry were among the principal plotters who sought to overthrow Gorbachev in August 1991 was sufficient proof, if proof were needed, of the impossible task Gorbachev faced in trying to reconcile the aspirations for sovereignty of a number of nations within the multi-national USSR with the determination of the most powerful institutional interests within the country to maintain the integrity of the Soviet state. Gorbachev would, in all probability, have succeeded in partially squaring the circle by getting agreement from a majority of Soviet republics to join what he called a ‘renewed union’ had not Boris Yeltsin put a spanner in the works by demanding Russian ‘independence’ from the Union, even though Russia and Russians had been the dominant partners within that state.

These failures, such as they were, are dwarfed, in my view, by twelve monumental achievements of Gorbachev. Other people contributed to these outcomes, of course, but in the strictly hierarchical Soviet system they would not have happened had anyone other than Gorbachev been chosen as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when Konstantin Chernenko died in March 1985. We know from their memoirs and interviews that the other members of Chernenko’s Politburo were shocked by the subsequent radicalism of the change of direction in domestic and foreign policy which Gorbachev initiated and developed. The new General Secretary had to employ the full authority of that office and all of his personal powers of persuasion to carry the Politburo and other veteran apparatchiki along with him for as long as he did.

Funny Gorbi

Mikhail Gorbachev's most notable failure as Soviet leader was economic reform

The list is not exhaustive (there were other changes for the better), but the following are twelve fundamental breaks with the Soviet past which Russia and the world owes primarily to Gorbachev:

  1. The introduction of glasnost and its development into freedom of speech and publication.
  2. The release of dissidents from prison and exile and the resumption of rehabilitations of those unjustly repressed in the past.
  3. The establishment of freedom of religious observation and the ending of the persecution of the churches.
  4. Freedom of communication across frontiers, including an end to the jamming of foreign broadcasts, more exchange of information, and a growing liberty to travel abroad.
  5. The introduction of genuinely competitive elections for a legislature with real power (a decision, taken in 1988 and implemented in 1989, marking the point at which liberalisation turned into democratisation).
  6. The development of civil society, with all sorts of independent organisations and pressure groups emerging – a result of perestroika and not, as some observers imagine, a precursor of it.
  7. Progress towards a rule of law which included subjecting the Communist Party to the law and moving supreme power from party to state institutions (with the Politburo in the last two years of the Soviet Union no longer the de facto highest organ of state power, but more of a talking-shop in which members increasingly raised their voices against Gorbachev).
  8. Replacing Leninism and dogma with a commitment to pluralism and free intellectual inquiry (for even while Gorbachev continued to speak respectfully of Lenin, he abandoned the fundamental tenets of Leninism).
  9. The ending of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, with the last Soviet soldier leaving that country in early 1989.
  10. Allowing the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe to become independent and non-Communist without a shot being fired (except in Romania, where Gorbachev had least influence, and Romanians fired on Romanians).
  11. Consenting to, and negotiating with Helmut Kohl, the peaceful reunification of Germany.
  12. Underpinning these last three momentous foreign policy shifts was a fundamental change of outlook – what was called the ‘New Thinking’ – which Gorbachev embraced and promoted. He rejected the notion of East-West relations as a zero-sum game and endorsed the idea that there were universal values and universal interests. By so doing, he had already by 1988 demolished the ideological foundation of the Cold War. In 1989, when Gorbachev’s actions and non-actions reflected this New Thinking, the Cold War ended on the ground.
Gorbachev foundation

Mikhail Gorbachev in the office of his foundation, the Gorbachev Foundation, which was one of the first independent think tanks to emerge in modern Russia. The Foundation conducts research into social, economic and political issues

As Gorbachev reaches the age of eighty and reflects on his life in politics, he can take pride in the fact that he left Russia a freer country than it had ever been and that, by playing the most decisive part in ending the Cold War, he provided the chance for international relations to be conducted on a more peaceful and equitable basis. It is quite another matter what use has been made of those possibilities within his own country and by those in other countries who mistakenly believe that it was their military power, rather than Gorbachev’s vision and higher realism, that ended the division of Europe and removed the threat of catastrophic nuclear war. 


Archie Brown's latest book, The Rise and Fall of Communism, received the 2010 Mackenzie Prize and is available in paperback from Vintage

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