Home / Opinion / Views /  The liberal legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

The passing of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, marks the end of an impactful life with enormous significance for world history. Admired in the West and despised in Russia for drawing down the Iron Curtain, ending the Cold War and presiding over the disintegration of a super powerful state built by communist giants Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, Gorbachev leaves behind a complex legacy with implications for the future.

The vignette of Gorbachev that comes up most often is of a fresh-faced man who became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 and embarked on a vain struggle to reform the sclerotic and stagnant Soviet Union. His signature campaigns of ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) and ‘glasnost’ (openness) captivated the world because they promised to revitalize the ailing communist order and render it less totalitarian.

As a dyed-in-the-wool communist, Gorbachev never intended to trigger an implosion that would sweep away the very system that brought him to the pinnacle of power. But his processes of reform came too late to save Soviet communism, whose fundamentals were based on deception, fear and lack of incentives for individuals and corporations.

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Gorbachev’s methods of simultaneously liberalizing the Soviet economy and Soviet politics unleashed an uncontrollable wave that brought down the whole house in 1991.

The collapse of Soviet communism under Gorbachev’s indecisive leadership has been studied at great length by China’s communists, who train their cadres to learn from mistakes committed by him. Today, as China’s communists remain entrenched in power and President Xi Jinping has assumed extraordinary powers, the notion that “Western values played a leading role in the failure of Gorbachev’s reform effort" is widely promoted by propagandists in Beijing to justify Xi’s anti-Western policies.

In Russia itself, Gorbachev has been reviled for squandering his country’s superpower status and handing over the reins of the world to an expansionist West. President Vladimir Putin, who called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century", believes that Gorbachev fundamentally erred in opening up liberal possibilities in Russian society and allowing Western ideas of democracy and free expression to seep in like a cancer that took apart the whole edifice.

The fact that Gorbachev vacillated instead of using decisive military force to crush uprisings against Moscow by Soviet satellite countries and republics within the Soviet Union, and the close personal friendships he struck with his American and West European counterparts, have haunted ultra-nationalistic Russians as nothing short of treachery.

Avenging the humiliation caused by Gorbachev’s ‘Sinatra doctrine’—derived from Frank Sinatra’s hit number My Way and referring to Gorbachev’s willingness to allow eastern European countries to determine their own fates—and reimposing Moscow’s legitimate sphere of influence or empire in post-Soviet spaces have evidently remained core motivations for Putin.

The grand project of conciliation, compromise and accommodation with the West, which Gorbachev embarked upon so that Russia could pragmatically co-exist with its adversaries, lies in tatters in the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Finland and Sweden.

Also fuelling the current ‘Cold War II’ is the incompatibility between Putin’s hardline authoritarian state model and expectations in the US and Europe that Russia should become a ‘normal’ liberal Western country. The spark that Gorbachev lit (he conducted the first-ever partially free nationwide elections in 1989) has been defused ruthlessly by Moscow under Putin. So much so that Gorbachev himself was left ruing in his retirement years that his whole “life’s work has been undone" by Putin.

Was Gorbachev a misfit who gambled and lost everything, or a visionary who dared to imagine a Russia that could free itself from its absolutist past? The fact that he garnered less than 1% of votes when he contested the democratic Russian presidential election against his bête noire Boris Yeltsin in 1996, and the high popularity Putin has sustained, suggest that Gorbachev was not in sync with the Russian psyche, which appears to still tolerate some form of strongman rule and a dominant patronizing state.

Gorbachev’s claim as recently as in 2017 that “Russia is ready for political competition, a real multiparty system, fair elections and regular rotation of government" may be music to the ears of Western liberals. But the presently hapless condition of Russia’s domestic political opposition and the bleak prospects of Russia turning into a European country bound by constitutional and democratic checks indicate that Gorbachev was a very unusual and uncharacteristic Russian leader who sought to loosen up societal controls and lessen geopolitical conflicts.

Still, to the extent that there is a liberal segment among younger generations of urban Russians, as well as sizeable anti-war and anti-imperial sentiment within Russia, the Gorbachev gene is not absent altogether. Russian history boasts of a long record of upheavals and revolutions. Posthumously, and in due time, one cannot rule out Gorbachev’s legacy being revived and elevated to a higher pedestal. A day might come when Russia and the world could say that he had been far ahead of his time.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

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