oDR: Analysis

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev: A very Russian contradiction

Missing from most Western accounts is how Gorbachev’s thinking was both socialist and liberal

Jeremy Morris
1 September 2022, 12.35pm
Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, D.C. in December 1987

Jim Colburn / Pool via CNP / MediaPunch / Alamy

Poor Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev. Condemned to a thousand obituaries, some bleating about freedom and celebrating his part in the end of the Soviet Union and as a towering figure in international affairs, others condemning him for repression of secessionists at home.

Imagine how he feels now, wherever he is – lauded by non-Russians for his greatest mistake: destroying a mighty state. Hated by his countrymen despite precipitating the emergence of the Russian nation itself after many centuries of Empire!

Many ordinary Russians will be indifferent towards Gorbachev’s passing, grumbling that he screwed it all up and indirectly caused the war in Ukraine.

It is tempting to see a gulf between him and Vladimir Putin. But the same ‘bad habits’ are inherited by Russia’s rulers. Gorbachev, like many Russian reformers before him, believed the country’s future was in a “common European home” (minus the self-determination of those inconvenient ‘small’ nations).

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Unfortunately, another trait Gorbachev shared with many other great Russian statesmen was a view that reform could be enacted from above, technocratically, with only the veneer of popular support, even if Gorbachev’s intentions were more genuinely democratizing. Gorbachev did not have the security service-focused ‘Chekist’ mindset of Putin, who doesn’t hesitate to physically eliminate anyone who opposes him. Nonetheless, he too relied on ‘telephone law’, or what today is called ‘manual control’: telling people what to do. In other words, he unreflexively operated within an unhealthy hierarchical milieu of governing by diktat. And of course, like many leaders, he was prey to dangerous forms of magical thinking typical of the Russian intellectual tradition, not least in the economic sphere. ‘Glasnost’, Gorbachev’s famous 1980s policy of press freedom, may mean ‘voice’ – but it does not imply democratic choice.

Many Russians who have revanchist and chauvinist politics despise Gorbachev – ‘He let Poland go!’ is a popular refrain. Just as many others think of him as a well-meaning but unworldly fool, who precipitated a demographic, economic and social disaster that was unprecedented in history for an industrially advanced country. Ukrainians and other former Soviet peoples justifiably think that Gorbachev was intentionally deaf to the centrifugal desires of non-Russians.

The silent majority in Russia, meanwhile, condemn him for undoing the achievements of the modernised Soviet welfare state. They don’t have to be imperialists to believe Gorbachev was stupendously reckless in jettisoning eastern Europe from the Soviet embrace – he should have known it would lead to the collapse of the USSR itself.

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Gorbachev was heralded by the West but his political legacy feels largely irrelevant today

Missing from most Western accounts is how Gorbachev’s thinking was both socialist and liberal at the same time, and was aimed at preserving the USSR above all. For better and worse, he was a product of the Soviet system: a figure who tried to save it while transcending it. But transformation was a contradiction in terms for a party-state whose rule was based on coercion and whose main source of legitimacy depended on rising living standards – which Gorbachev was neither willing nor able to provide.

Gorbachev was far from genuinely radical on the domestic front, instead picking up on various reformist ideas that had been knocking around for decades without really understanding their implications. He pursued limited and piecemeal economic liberalisation, elections without politics, press freedom without public accountability, historical revisionism without a national idea, human rights without dismantling the powerful security organs. As the Soviet political system became genuinely competitive, he wavered at the last moment – not understanding that when you give people a voice and a choice, they won’t necessarily support you out of gratitude.

Once more, the danger is to view Gorbachev through our Western lenses of individual freedom and choice (it is puzzling that so much attention is given to the supposed symbolism of his Pizza Hut commercial). Born to a peasant family, Gorbachev is an example of the remarkable mass phenomenon of upward social mobility in the USSR that more than one generation benefitted from. A genuinely talented, sincere individual promoted to a position where his limitations became fatal to the Soviet project.

The structural and personal elements of Gorbachev are impossible to separate: a ‘reformer’ like him would have emerged regardless because Soviet economic decline and superpower overhang was discussed openly within the elite. But the individual component was produced in a particular liberal milieu of 1960s neo-Leninist enthusiasm fused with intellectual dreams of reintegration with ‘the common stream of world civilization’ – understood as a fuzzy ideal of Europe.


Moscow, USSR - 22 August 1991: People near the White House during the coup d'état


Photopotam / Alamy

With such a volatile brew of ideological ingredients, the pathway taken by the USSR might have changed at any point between 1986 and 1991. Nothing was inevitable, economically, militarily, and politically. The monumentality of changes such as demilitarising foreign policy, along with their insufficiency (failures to make Soviet enterprises properly ‘market-based’ or to introduce genuine workplace democracy, to give two examples), depended on the ‘Gorbachev factor’. But Gorbachev was hardly radical in (wrongly) seeing the answer to domestic problems in ending the Cold War; he was also not the only person to think confrontation would give way to economic integration and cooperation with the West – a point that his domestic detractors now make more use of than ever before.

Leaders bring their intellectual contradictions with them to power: Gorbachev believed Thatcher and Reagan were valid political partners who understood the universal imperative of de-nuclearisation of Europe, while also thinking they were inveterate imperialists bent on subjugating the world. He believed that truth-telling at home would provide some kind of Leninist impetus for Soviet citizens to work with greater enthusiasm and prove the moral and economic superiority of the Soviet project while simultaneously agreeing with market liberals that only material carrots and sticks (differential wages and unemployment) would save the economy.

Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ (meaning ‘reconstruction’) was never a coherent economic policy. It was a series of tactical manoeuvres that showed his distaste for an irrevocable position, along with proving the inability of anyone who had lived only in the USSR to fully comprehend the real meaning of a transition to a market economy (many people would end up losing than gaining) – an irony given the impeccable Marxist education of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The same is true of Gorbachev’s delaying tactics in the face of the implications of political pluralism, whether concerning the Soviet republics and secessionism or at ‘home’ (as seen in his reluctance to gain a popular mandate as the USSR president despite instituting genuinely contested elections). As historian Robert English has perceptively argued: Gorbachev overestimated Russians’ concern for the ‘empire’ and underestimated the enlightening impact of his own policies.

Gorbachev is thus a study in the weakness of a talented leader who resists the push of the wave his own actions have created in the political water. Essentially Gorbachev’s reluctance to truly ‘own’ his creation led not only to the demise of the USSR, but to a incoherent transition, and indirectly led to the belated conflicts on its former territory we witness today.

So in saying farewell to Gorbachev, let’s raise a glass to his human and optimistic Sovietness, to his liberal Leninism, to his uniquely Russian thirst for self-betterment, knowledge of the world and social justice. But let’s also acknowledge the responsibility of that most naively European of Russians for what the end of the USSR has bequeathed to Russians, Ukrainians and many others.

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