Home / Opinion / Columns /  The accidental greatness of Mikhail Gorbachev

Western media has been fulsome in its praise of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, who passed away last week. He is being referred to as a great reformer, liberator, hero. Most Russians, though, may have a somewhat different opinion about a leader whose policies led to the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the largest empire built in the 20th century.

I have never been an admirer of either Communism or the USSR, but any dispassionate analysis of Gorbachev’s years at the helm, from 1985 to 1991, would conclude that he was a complete failure at his job. He was outsmarted by US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, totally misjudged the outcomes of his decisions, condemned his people to years of anarchy, and enabled the US to run a global hegemony for two decades—till the rise of Xi Jinping’s aggressive China.

Yes, he did liberate millions of people in more than 20 East European and Balkan countries from Soviet colonization, direct or indirect, but this was an absolutely unintended consequence of his actions—he never had that in mind. On Christmas Day, 1991, when he left the Kremlin, he was a defeated man. In 1996, he ran for the Russian presidency against Boris Yeltsin and ended up in a humiliating seventh place with 0.5% of the vote. The next year, he appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial, in which a few of his fellow citizens, after some argument, agree that he was a great guy because it was due to him that Russia now had Pizza Huts. What a fall.

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When Reagan entered the White House in 1981, the USSR was already in dire economic straits. All the Communist theories on labour, capital and means of production had failed. Reagan escalated the Cold War, with a publicly-stated aim to dismember the “evil empire", as he called the Soviet Union.

The US’s most effective strategy was to hike its own defence budget, forcing the USSR, which was already spending an unsustainable 25% of its gross national product on its military, to follow suit. By the time Gorbachev took over, the arms race provoked by Reagan had almost ruined the Soviet economy. Gorbachev knew that the USSR needed economic reforms. Soon, he also realized that economic liberalization was impossible in an ossified system without political liberalization. He launched two catchphrase policies, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). But he had no idea what forces he would unleash.

As American journalist David Remnick put it, the reforms opened “a Pandora’s box of freedom". Granted some freedom of expression and press freedom, prohibited since the October revolution of 1917, the people wanted more. Gorbachev had only unlocked the door, but citizens, having got a breath of fresh air, strived to kick it wide open. A full-scale honest examination of the Soviet past began—a past replete with civil wars, famines, purges and vast prison camps. Gorbachev had set off a chain of events that he now had no control over. He relaxed the rules even more, allowing the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and exiled Russian author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The USSR stopped jamming foreign radio stations, letting citizens have unrestricted access to news sources beyond Communist Party control. But nothing could quench the people’s thirst.

When George Bush Sr. became US president in January 1989, he continued Reagan’s policies, leveraging the newfound access to the minds of the Soviet empire’s people and funding dissident movements. The spirit of freedom spread to the USSR’s vassal countries in eastern Europe, many of them ruled by brutal dictators who relied on Moscow to stay in power. A series of revolutions began deposing regimes, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the game was all but up.

By 1990, the Baltic states, which had been Russian colonies for seven decades, were declaring independence. Gorbachev had never wanted the collapse of the USSR, but he could only watch helplessly. On 25 December 1991, he resigned and handed over his powers to Boris Yeltsin. The next day, the USSR was dissolved.

Yeltsin, a clueless demagogue with a serious drinking problem, pauperized Russia and its people within a few years, more or less gifting the country to organized crime syndicates and rapacious oligarchs. He retired in disgrace in 1999 to make way for the ruthless Vladimir Putin, who quelled criminals and oligarchs—they had to either work for him or go to prison; many fled Russia or died mysterious deaths. The new czar also reversed many of Gorbachev’s glasnost policies. Gorbachev disapproved, but no one outside the posh Western lecture circuit, where Gorbachev was a highly-paid speaker, cared about what he thought.

Beijing’s official reaction to Gorbachev’s passing has been a bland “our condolences" statement. But China’s leaders treat his fall as a useful lesson. In 2013, Xi Jinping called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a cautionary tale". “All it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone," he said.

Thus, Gorbachev, who inadvertently ended a foul regime, has also helped the 21st century’s most powerful autocracy decide what not to do in order to stay in power. Mikhail Gorbachev was a very important figure of the last century, but a hero? His claim to greatness is entirely due to the law of unintended consequences.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines .

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