Professor Mark Galeotti reflects on Mikhail Gorbachev’s capacity to fail productively, following news of the death of the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union on 30 August 2022.
Mikhail Gorbachev is dead at the age of 91, and in a way I feel orphaned. I became fascinated by what was still then the Soviet Union in its late years of sclerosis, when one moribund geriatric at the top of the system succeeded another (the dark joke at the time went as follows: a KGB guard stopped someone at one of the state funerals and asked him if he had a pass – ‘oh,’ came the reply, ‘I’ve got a season ticket’). But my early years as a Russia-watcher were during his time as General Secretary, and if my seniors had become used to the idea that the USSR was a stagnant, unchanging police state, for us, the thought that there could be change, even change for the good, was baked into our assumptions.
My deeply unfashionable belief that Russia can change for the better, that it can someday find its way back into the European family of nations, is a by-product of this era. Not because Gorbachev was a saint or a prophet, but because the forces he liberated and which, ironically, eventually did for him, demonstrated the hunger for something different, above all for that sense of public participation.
His new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, was elected through a carefully-engineered system that ensured it was heavily packed with communists. Nonetheless, when it first sat in May 1989, there were still radicals, nationalists and conservatives, all willing to say their piece, and even communist parliamentarians, emboldened or seduced by the debate, began to break from the party line. The wider population was so enthralled by the sight of a legislature that was more than just a choreographed sham, so glued to their radios and TVs, that economic productivity dipped to the point that they discontinued live broadcasts. Gorbachev’s greatest virtue was his capacity to fail productively, to fail and yet to learn.
Of course, Gorbachev failed. Seemingly the last true believer in the communist party of the Soviet Union, he came to power hoping to revive it, and with it the ailing Soviet Union. Instead, he ended up destroying both, trying to reform institutions that couldn’t or wouldn’t let themselves be reformed.
He also failed to hold a consistent line, not least in the winter of 1990-91, when, despairing at the chaos into which his country was descending, he forged a temporary alliance of convenience with the hard-liners. They promised order, and pitched economic reform, Pinochet-style, while plotting crackdowns. Gorbachev, to his discredit, sent troops in to try and suppress the peaceful Baltic independence movements.
There was shooting, there were deaths – and the result was predictably counter-productive. At the risk of damning with faint praise, though, in the circumstances what was amazing was how little blood was spilt. He pulled his troops out of Afghanistan, waved goodbye to the Soviet’s central European empire, and ultimately signed the USSR out of existence. How many empires go so peaceably into oblivion?
So that was a failure, but a failure for all the right reasons. Gorbachev’s greatest virtue was his capacity to fail productively, to fail and yet to learn. Unlike so many leaders, he evolved. He came to power convinced all the system needed was a little modernisation and a light rebranding, that the party was his greatest ally and instrument and eventually came rightly to see it as the greatest obstacle to reform.
Of course, his refusal to use force to try and hold together the empire, whether the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union itself is also his greatest failure in the eyes of men such as Putin. A Homo Sovieticus through and through, Putin does not want to restore the USSR as such (or the tsarist empire, for that matter), but he is set on restoring that global status and regional hegemony that he feels Gorbachev surrendered because he was too weak to hold on to it.
This is, of course, a dangerous and foolish misreading of the past, a glib assumption that a Soviet leader with the same kind of ruthless will Putin feels he possesses, could have stood against the tides of history and economics. Yet it is arguably one of the key drivers behind Putin’s increasingly desperate imperialism, a need to demonstrate that he is the anti-Gorbachev.
Gorbachev was a complex figure. A reformist who had made his way up the corrupt, clientelistic structures of the party; a peace-maker who still had blood on his hands; a ruthless politician who was willing to bow to new realities and surrender power with good grace. He was a failure as a Soviet leader, but in ways that suggest he was that much better a human being for it.
After all, the last and best encomium to Gorbachev is perhaps precisely that Putin seems to have loathed him.
This article originally appeared in The Spectator on 30 August 2022, and is re-published with permission.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.
Mark Galeotti is Honorary Professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is the author of 24 books about Russia, most recently The Weaponisation of Everything (Yale University Press).