A Peaceful Yet Radical Social Transformer: Mikhail Gorbachev Leaves a Glowing Legacy | Archie Brown
MIkhail Gorbachev was the world’s most important political leader of the second half of the 20th century and one of the greatest reformers in Russian history. By the time he resigned from the presidency of the USSR in his final throes, he had played the decisive role in making Russia a freer country than it had ever been. The new tolerance and domestic freedoms, along with the transformation of Soviet foreign policy, encouraged the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe to send their communist leaders to pack their bags and reject Moscow’s suzerainty. As Gorbachev was also the most peaceful of all Soviet leaders – perhaps of all Russians – not a shot was fired by a Soviet soldier as the Warsaw Pact countries gained independence. from 1989when the The Berlin Wall has fallen in November of the same year, or during the reunification of Germany in 1990.
There is a popular misconception in the West that the Soviet Union had reached a point of crisis in 1985, that the political bureau of the Communist Party had chosen Gorbachev as general secretary because he was a reformer, and that he did not I therefore had no choice but to undertake radical changes. An authoritarian regime is in crisis when its laws and commandments are broken, when there is persistent mass protest, and especially when such social unrest is accompanied by open splits within the political elite.
But none of this was present in 1985 – in fact, such unrest did not occur until a few years into the Gorbachev era. perestroika reforms. Far from the crisis leaving no choice but reform, it is radical reform that has caused the crisis. The new freedoms allowed the pent-up grievances of 70 years, including ethno-national grievances, to rise to the surface of political life.
The idea that poor economic performance in the mid-1980s had forced reform is belied not only by the peacefulness of the country under Gorbachev’s predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, but also by the fact that Gorbachev prioritized politics over economic reform. This did nothing to improve conditions in the command economy – for in the new political climate orders could be bypassed or ignored, and people became free not just to grumble in private but to complain in public about queues. waiting times and shortages.
It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev adopted a market economy in principle, emphasizing that it should be of the social democratic type. However, by then he had lost much of his previous political authority and had not taken the risk of switching to market – and higher – prices for basic foodstuffs and public services, to so that the Soviet economy ended in limbo, neither centrally controlled nor market-oriented.
Yet Gorbachev’s political reforms were extraordinarily bold. He had an unusually open mind for any political leader, let alone a General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The Glasnost (greater transparency) advocated by Gorbachev from the start of his leadership has evolved, with his blessing, into freedom of expression and, increasingly, of publication. In 1989, literary works, the possession of which even in underground or foreign editions constituted a criminal offense, were published in Moscow in huge print runs – among them Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and even The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Dissidents were released from prison and exile, and the rehabilitation of those who had been unjustly repressed in the past (begun under Nikita Khrushchev and abandoned by Leonid Brezhnev) resumed. Gorbachev encouraged a new freedom of communication across borders. This included ending the blocking of foreign broadcasts and expanding freedom of travel and emigration.
During less than seven years in the Kremlin, Gorbachev carried out the kind of reforms that no previous Soviet leader – or any other potential successor to Chernenko’s political office – would have considered. The changes were also beyond the wildest dreams of Western leaders in 1985 (as Margaret Thatcher acknowledged) and Soviet reformers at that time, as I know from my conversations with them.
That didn’t stop some of those same reformers from castigating Gorbachev in 1990 for his supposed “half measures” and shifting their allegiance to Boris Yeltsin.
He started in 1985 as a communist reformer. By 1988 he had become a systemic transformer. As he said in 1996: “Until 1988, I had the same illusions as the previous reformers. I believed the system could be improved. In 1988, I realized that we needed systemic reform. The system had to be replaced. It was not simply a retrospective judgment. Addressing a closed meeting of regional party secretaries in April 1988, Gorbachev asked, “On what basis do 20 million (party members) govern 200 million?” He answered his own question: “We have given ourselves the right to rule the people!”
Two months later, he surprised most of the delegates at the 19th party conference by announcing that contested elections for a new legislature with real powers would be held no later than the spring of the following year – and in March 1989 they were held. They marked the end of “democratic centralism”, as party members were allowed to compete on fundamentally different political platforms. It was only a first step in democratization by trial and error, but after that the Soviet Union could never be the same again.
That the Soviet communist system ceased to exist was not an unintended consequence of Gorbachev’s actions, as he and his closest associates consciously dismantled that system.
What Gorbachev did not foresee was the dissolution of the Soviet state. He strove to keep as many republics as possible within a “renewed union” through negotiation and voluntary agreement and to transform what had previously been a pseudo-federation into a true federal state. He failed in this endeavor, but resisted calls from party and state officials, including the KGB leadership, to use the ample coercive power at their disposal to hold the union together by force.
Gorbachev had been in poor health in recent years and saddened by how his greatest accomplishments – using the position of party leader to dismantle the very system that was the source of his power and play the most important role in ending the cold war – were destroyed. As a boy in a southern peasant house Russia, he had been particularly close to his Ukrainian maternal grandparents. The war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 was the final devastating blow for him. In one of his last interviews a few years ago, he was asked what he thought his epitaph should be. His answer was: “We tried”.
Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University. His latest book is The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War.
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