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Gorbachev’s tragedy – a flawed reformer on an impossible mission

file photo: former soviet president mikhail gorbachev addresses students as he visits the international university in moscow
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow February 9, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov/File Photo

Lauded in the West as the man who helped bring down the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War without bloodshed, Mikhail Gorbachev was widely despised at home as the gravedigger of the communist Soviet Union.

The former Soviet president, who died on Tuesday aged 91, set out to revitalise the sclerotic Communist system through democratic and economic reform; it was never his intention to abolish it.

But he unleashed forces beyond his control, and found himself occupying a shrinking middle ground between diehards intent on preserving centralised power and separatists set on dismantling it.

In August 1991 he survived a shambolic coup by hardliners that fell apart after three days – but his authority had been fatally undermined. Four months later his great rival, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, engineered the break-up of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev found himself out of a job.

“In this sense, I feel that Gorbachev is a tragic figure, similar in many ways to Shakespeare’s King Lear,” said Valery Solovei, close to Gorbachev’s inner circle in the 1980s and an ally after his fall. “This is a man who ruled a superpower – but by the end of his reign, the state had disappeared.”

After decades of Cold War tension and confrontation, Gorbachev struck nuclear arms deals with the United States and brought the Soviet Union closer to the West than at any point since World War Two.

But he saw that legacy destroyed in the final months of his long life, as President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought Western sanctions crashing down on Moscow, and politicians in both Russia and the West began to speak openly of a new Cold War – and the risk of a nuclear World War Three.

BREAK WITH THE PAST

The ex-farm worker with the rolling south Russian accent and distinctive port-wine birthmark on his head gave notice of his bold ambition soon after winning a Kremlin power struggle in 1985, at the age of 54.

Television broadcasts showed him besieged by workers in factories and farms, allowing them to vent their frustrations with Soviet life and making the case for radical change.

It marked a dramatic break with the cabal of old men he succeeded – remote, intolerant of dissent, their chests groaning with medals, dogmatic to the grave. Three ailing Soviet leaders had died in the previous 2-1/2 years.

Gorbachev inherited a land of inefficient farms and decaying factories, a state-run economy he believed could be saved only by the open, honest criticism that had led so often in the past to prison or labour camp. It was a gamble. Many wished him ill.

file photo: mikhail gorbachev and his wife raisa board ilyushing 62 at end of a summit in reykjavik
Mikhail Gorbachev with his his wife Raisa in Reykjavik October 13, 1986. REUTERS/Nick Didlick/File Photo

With his clever, elegant wife Raisa at his side, Gorbachev at first enjoyed massive popular support.

“My policy was open and sincere, a policy aimed at using democracy and not spilling blood,” he told Reuters in 2009. “But this cost me very dear, I can tell you that.”

His policies of “glasnost” (free speech) and “perestroika” (restructuring) unleashed a surge of public debate arguably unprecedented in Russian history.

Moscow squares seethed with impromptu discussions, censorship all but evaporated, and even the sacred Communist Party was forced to confront its Stalinist crimes.

CHORNOBYL DISASTER

Glasnost faced a dramatic test in April 1986, when a nuclear power station exploded in Chornobyl, Ukraine, and authorities tried at first to hush up the disaster. Gorbachev pressed on, describing the tragedy as a symptom of a rotten and secretive system.

In December of that year he ordered a telephone to be installed in the flat of dissident Andrei Sakharov, exiled in the city of Gorky, and the next day phoned him to personally invite him back to Moscow. The pace of change was, for many, dizzying.

The West quickly warmed to Gorbachev, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise through regional party ranks to the post of General Secretary. He was, in the words of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, “a man we can do business with”. The term “Gorbymania” entered the lexicon, a measure of the adulation he inspired on foreign trips.

file photo: former u.s. president ronald reagan takes former soviet president mikhail gorbachev for a drive in his jeep to tour the reagan ranch in the santa ynez mountains near santa barbara
Reagan and Gorbachev tour the Reagan ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains in 1992

Gorbachev struck up a warm personal rapport with Ronald Reagan, the hawkish U.S. president who had called the Soviet Union “the evil empire”, and with him negotiated a landmark deal in 1987 to scrap intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

In 1989, he pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, ending a war that had killed tens of thousands and soured relations with Washington.

Later that year, as pro-democracy protests swept across the Communist states of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the world held its breath.

With hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops stationed across Eastern Europe, would Moscow turn its tanks on the demonstrators, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Gorbachev was under pressure from many to err on the side of force. That he did not may have been his greatest historic contribution – one that was recognised in 1990 with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reflecting years later, Gorbachev said the cost of trying to prevent the fall of the Berlin Wall would have been too high.

“If the Soviet Union had wished, there would have been nothing of the sort and no German unification. But what would have happened? A catastrophe or World War Three.”

AUGUST COUP

At home, though, problems mounted.

The glasnost years saw the rise of regional tensions, often rooted in the repressions and ethnic deportations of the Stalin era. The Baltic states pushed for independence and there was trouble also in Georgia, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a leading reformist ally, resigned dramatically in December 1990, warning that hardliners were in the ascendant and “a dictatorship is approaching”.

The following month, Soviet troops killed 14 people at Lithuania’s main TV tower in an attack that Gorbachev denied ordering. In Latvia, five demonstrators were killed by Soviet special forces.

In March 1991, a referendum produced an overwhelming majority for preserving the Soviet Union as “a renewed “federation of equal sovereign republics”, but six of the 15 republics boycotted the vote.

In the summer, the hardliners struck, scenting weakness in a man now abandoned by many liberal allies. Six years after entering the Kremlin, Gorbachev and Raisa sat imprisoned at their Crimean holiday home on the Black Sea, their telephone lines cut, a warship anchored offshore.

The “August coup” was mounted by a so-called Emergency Committee including the KGB chief, prime minister, defence minister and vice president. They feared a complete collapse of the Communist system and sought to prevent power from draining away from the centre to the republics, of which the biggest and most powerful was Yeltsin’s Russia.

The putschists ultimately failed, assuming wrongly that they could rely on the party, army and bureaucracy to obey orders as in the past. But it was no outright victory for Gorbachev.

YELTSIN’S MOMENT

Instead it was the burly white-haired Yeltsin who seized the moment, standing atop a tank in central Moscow to rally thousands against the coup. When Gorbachev returned from Crimea, Yeltsin humiliated him in the Russian parliament, signing a decree banning the Russian Communist Party despite Gorbachev’s protestations.

file photo: russian president putin listens to former president of the soviet union gorbachev during news conference in schleswig

In later years, Gorbachev dwelt on whether he could have averted the events that ultimately triggered the Soviet Union’s collapse, described by Putin as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Had he been reckless in leaving Moscow that hot August, as coup rumours swirled?

“I thought they would be idiots to take such a risk precisely at that moment, because it would sweep them away too,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel on the 20th anniversary of the coup. “I’d become exhausted after all those years … But I shouldn’t have gone away. It was a mistake.”

Personal revenge may have mingled with politics when in late 1991, at a secluded country house, Yeltsin and the leaders of the republics of Ukraine and Belarus signed accords that abolished the Soviet Union and replaced it with a Commonwealth of Independent States.

On Dec. 25, 1991, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and Gorbachev appeared on national television to announce his resignation.

Free elections, a free press, representative legislatures and a multi-party system had all become a reality under his watch, he said.

“We opened up to the world, renounced interference in other countries’ affairs and the use of troops beyond our borders, and were met with trust, solidarity and respect.”

But the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first Communist state and a nuclear superpower that had sent the first man into space and cast its influence across the globe, was no more.

CHILD OF STALINISM

Born into famine on March 2, 1931, in a hut in the village of Privolnoye in the southern region of Stavropol, Gorbachev was, like millions of Russians, baptised into the Russian Orthodox faith despite the official atheism of the Soviet era.

The arrests of family members in Josef Stalin’s 1930s purges gave Gorbachev a lifelong wariness of the abuse of power. But he embraced the party, working hard to secure a coveted place at Moscow State University.

He became a Central Committee member at 40 and a full Politburo member in 1979, thanks to the patronage of ideological puritan Yuri Andropov, the KGB secret police chief.

Andropov took power in 1982 on the death of Leonid Brezhnev, who had for 18 years led Moscow through a gentle decline that reformers branded the “era of stagnation”.

On his death 15 months later, Gorbachev was passed over for aged Brezhnev ally Konstantin Chernenko. Only when Chernenko died after barely a year in office did the younger man’s reforming ambitions win out.

That Gorbachev’s achievements were not appreciated at home should perhaps have been no surprise. Russia can deal harshly with reformers.

Hardliners accused him of destroying the planned economy and throwing aside seven decades of Communist achievements. To liberal critics, he talked too much, compromised too much, and balked at decisive reforms.

As Moscow’s control ebbed, ethnic tensions broke out that were to erupt into full-scale wars in places such as Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Three decades later, some of those conflicts remain unresolved. Thousands were killed in late 2020 when war broke out again between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

AFTER THE FALL

With his Nobel prize in hand and his stellar reputation abroad, Gorbachev gradually settled into a second career. He made several attempts to found a social democratic party, opened a think-tank, the Gorbachev Foundation, and co-founded the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, critical of the Kremlin to this day.

In 1996, he put his popularity to the test by running for president. But Yeltsin won decisively, and Gorbachev secured a dismal 0.5% of the vote.

Increasingly frail in later years, Gorbachev spoke out to voice his concern at rising tensions between Russia and the United States, and warned against a return to the Cold War he had helped to end.

“We have to continue the course we mapped. We have to ban war once and for all. Most important is to get rid of nuclear weapons,” he said in 2018.

His tragedy was that in trying to redesign an ossified, monolithic structure, to preserve the Soviet Union and save the Communist system, he ended up presiding over the demise of both.

Last Soviet leader Gorbachev, who ended Cold War and won Nobel prize, dies aged 91

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