When I received a call this morning from Turkish public television TRT asking that I comment on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev in a live broadcast, the first thought which came to mind was the ironic remark of Soviet intellectuals on the place of leading personalities in history: “there is nothing as changeable and unpredictable as the past.”
Of course, this notion is applicable everywhere, not just to Soviet history and personalities. Indeed, history is always being reinterpreted in light of current developments. As I commented in my interview, the achievements and failures of Gorbachev in power must now be reevaluated in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which is the largest and most dangerous military conflict on the European continent since 1945.
This war follows directly from the break-up of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev failed to prevent, though he did his best. Indeed, in the spring of 1991 he oversaw a referendum on the issue and won support from the population for continuation of the USSR. However, his playing off the right and left forces within the Politburo and within the Party at large over a number of years, the deceptions he practiced to get his way, finally caught up with him and laid the way in the summer of 1991 for the Putsch by rightists intent on restoring Soviet orthodoxy, which in turn so weakened Gorbachev that he was easily pushed aside by Boris Yeltsin. Destruction of the Union was Yeltsin’s instrument for achieving the complete removal of Gorbachev from power and setting out on a course of economic reform and de-Communization that was anathema to the leaders of the more conservative Soviet republics.
As we now know, the break-up of the USSR released pent-up animosities within and between the successor states, which had in each substantial ethnic minorities, in particular Russian-speakers, who numbered more than 25 million outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation in 1991. This was the largest such dispossessed ethnic community from the disintegration of empire in history, and its existence did not augur well for tranquility in Eurasia, from the Baltics, to the Caucasus, to Central Asia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also touched off a very unhealthy wave of national excitement in the United States. It was now the sole surviving superpower, unchecked by any rivals. Fueled by hubris, Washington elites set course on remaking the world through a succession of military interventions and full-fledged wars abroad that has gone on for close to 30 years. Failures in these military missions led to ever greater concern to “contain” any and all possible competitors on the world stage. In practice, this meant containment first and foremost of Russia as it recovered economically and politically in the first decade of the new millennium. And this, expressed in terms of NATO expansion, is what brought us to the present conflict over Ukraine.
In that regard, I direct attention to Gorbachev’s greatest failure which resulted not from the conspiracies of his compatriots but from his own peculiar naivete in his dealings with the United States, meaning with Reagan, with Bush and their minions. The man who had shown such cunning in outfoxing his Politburo colleagues was completely outfoxed by his American and European interlocutors. Had he been more cautious to protect Soviet-Russian interests, he would have demanded and likely received much better terms of compensation for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from all of Eastern Europe and disbanding the Warsaw Pact. Had he been less gullible and more realistic, he would have demanded written treaties setting in concrete the prohibition of NATO expansion to the East and, or, he would have left Soviet garrisons in each of these states to ensure compliance. As it was, the Americans who gave him verbal assurances knew full well that they were meaningless and were perplexed at the Kremlin’s failure to defend strategic national interests.
These are the sins which patriotic Russians hold against Gorbachev today, even as they acknowledge his astonishing feats in freeing Soviet citizens from the totalitarian yoke of the past through glasnost and perestroika.
Of course, it is an open question whether a democratic Soviet Union could have long survived. The economy was hopelessly mismanaged and the entire legacy of Soviet legislation rendered it virtually impossible to escape from violence or the threat of violence to make things work. This is a point over which historical debate will continue for many decades to come.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022