The winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize leaves behind a controversial legacy – seen as a miracle by the West and a nightmare in Russia. Let us render unto Gorbachev the things that are Gorbachev’s.
The death of Mikhail Gorbachev at the age of 91 on 30th August marks the disappearance of one of the last remaining players of the Cold War period. The seventh and last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since 1917 was in power for less than seven years, from 1985 to 1991, and yet he changed the world, even though he did not manage to modernize his country.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev and not Ronald Reagan with his Star Wars, who ended the Cold War and the arms race. He agreed tp retire in favor of Boris Yeltsin and authorized the federated republics – with Russia at the head – to gain independence and move on calmly from the Soviet Union, on 25th December 1991. He transformed the lives of millions of people and gave them access to freedom. Rarely has any Nobel Peace Prize been awarded to a more deserving person than the one awarded in 1990.
And yet, Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy is disputed by two diametrically opposed points of view with very different memories of him. For the West, he was a miracle and one remembers the peaceful nature of the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet empire. For Russia, he was a nightmare. What dominates is resentment for the economic debacle, the loss of superpower status, and humiliation inflicted by the West.
But Moscow’s case against Mikhail Gorbachev is missing its target. For the Cold War was not won by the West because of his weakness but because it fell apart when the USSR imploded – which he was powerless to counter. Gorbachev was not responsible for this collapse, he was simply the trustee. His only mistake was to believe that the Soviet Union could be saved by perestroïka and glasnost, even though it could no longer keep itself together or reform itself. His only avowed weakness – which was actually a mark of his good sense and humanity – was in refusing to have recourse to military force in order to prevent the unavoidable disintegration of the Soviet Empire.
As it happened, the collapse of the USSR did not result in the construction of a democratic Russia, but in a decade of chaos marked by a 30% increase in the death rate, a fall of 50% in GDP, and the fact that half the population found themselves living below the poverty level. Shock therapy, carried out aside from political reform and without involving the population, has led to disaster, destroying the State and giving free reign to violence, plunging society into anomy. But the blame for the chaos of the 1990s must be laid at the feet of Boris Yeltsin. Russia was not made to feel humiliated by Gorbachev or by the West:; it brought it upon itself.
The after-effects of the collapse of the USSR and the failure of transition in collective Russian memory constitute the main explanation for the return to dictatorship and the popularity of Vladimir Putin. At the outset, he positioned himself as the anti-Gorbachev, stating in 2004,“The disappearance of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Anyone who feels no regret for the passing of the USSR is heartless; anyone who wants to recreate it in the same form is mindless.” Vladimir Putin’s plan is to rebuild the USSR in another form, based not on Communism but on hyper-nationalism and religious fanaticism: autocracy and absolute power until 2036, since the revision of the Constitution in 2020; the restoration of domestic terror; mass propaganda by means of control of the media and social media; the dividing up of the economy among the oligarchs; imperial conquests and institutionalization of war, which has become the essence of the regime, from Chechnya to Ukraine and including Georgia, Crimea, Syria, Libya and Africa; an obsessive hatred for democracy and the West.
The tragic destiny of Mikhail Gorbachev follows the line of Russian reformers such as Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in 1861 and modernized the administration, and Pyotr Stolypin, who was behind agrarian reform and the economic boom of the early 20th century. Both of them were assassinated. Hence the fascination for autocrats, from Peter the Great to Stalin, with whom Putin claims some affiliation. And hence Russia’s inability to settle down to freedom and to reconcile civil peace, economic development, the full exercise of its sovereignty without excessive imperialism, and cooperation with Europe.
(Article published in Le Point, 8th September 2022)