Despite what Americans want to believe about the man whom they credit with doing much to end the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev is probably best described as the greatest failure of a leader in Russian history. He is hardly being mourned by most Russians today.
When we evaluate his legacy, we need to do so outside an American context, even if we’re American and we’re glad the Cold War ended.
An apparatchik with ambition
Born in 1931, in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, near the border with Ukraine, Gorbachev grew up in a poor peasant family. In fact, as a young child, he was caught up in the Stalin-created famine of 1932 and 1933. He survived. Gorbachev’s family were major supporters of the collectivization effort, which his grandfather led in his locality.
Both grandfathers were caught up in the purges, as was anyone who had stuck their head up. Both were imprisoned and tortured, but not killed and eventually released. Gorbachev’s father fought in World War II, was pronounced dead, but was in fact only wounded and then showed up at home after his family thought he was gone.
Gorbachev was an excellent student as well as a Stakhanovite type laborer. His father and he harvested ridiculous amounts of grain and were given medals for the service to the state. His dad received the Order of Lenin for this, the highest civilian award the Soviets had.
Gorbachev went on to college at Moscow State University, where he studied from 1950 to 1955. There, he went into the law, which was an unusual choice for a rising apparatchik. The law was not a highly respected field in the Soviet Union at this time. I can think of darkly humorous reasons why, but don’t want to speculate here.
As an apparatchik with ambition, Gorbachev was closely associated with the Komsomol, the student movement of the Communist Party, the chapter for which he was a leader during his college years.
But he was not overly zealous in the snitching part of the job, which made his fellow students respect him. After he finished with his degree, he quickly moved to be involved with this organization on a professional level. He got himself appointed deputy director of Komsomol’s agitation and propaganda department in the Stavropol region, where he sought to improve the lives of villagers.
Gorbachev became a follower of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms and began to consider Stalin’s extremes a perversion of Leninism. More importantly, he was a master politician for a young guy known for cultivating relationships with older politicians in a way that reminds me of a young Lyndon Johnson, which could mean being a sycophant, yes, while alienating other ambitious young men who didn’t do that.
A leader under 80
Not being a supporter of Leonid Brezhnev and his return to the quasi-Stalinism of the late 1960s, Gorbachev became frustrated and considered leaving the political realm to work in academia.
Instead, he just kept rising in the party structure. By 1969, he was the second most powerful party figure in Stavrapol. This meant speaking out in favor of Soviet policy when he might not have supported it.
That included the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. He was friends with at least one of the movement’s leaders. But he could not speak against the violent suppression of a democratic movement in Czechoslovakia because that would have meant the end of his career.
Gorbachev was no profile in courage. He would absolutely sacrifice people’s lives to advance. In 1969, the party ordered him to lead the prosecution of an agricultural expert who criticized its agricultural policies. Gorbachev happened to agree with the guy. But he led that prosecution, anyway, even if he later said he felt bad about it.
The Soviet Union was in big trouble by the early 1980s. A half-century of Stalinist leadership had left it absolutely decrepit. Other than the brief Khrushchev thaw, when the premier decided to break from the worst parts of the Stalinism he had long supported, the USSR was dominated by old Stalinists who hated change.
Brezhnev was rigid enough. But when he died in 1982, the Politburo just kept naming more ancient dudes to replace him. Neither Yuri Andropov nor Constantin Chernenko had any ability or desire to do anything but keep the Soviet Union on the path it had been on.
They could not and would not see that the economy was a mess, corruption grew rampant and Afghanistan was a disaster. So when Chernenko died in 1985, the remaining Politburo realized someone under the age of 80 needed to lead. And thus, thanks to strong support from the powerful Andrei Gromyko, it went to Gorbachev.
A communist mess
Gorbachev was little known to the Soviet population. Those who did know him did not see him as much of a reformer. Had they, he never would have achieved this level of power. He was seen as a party man because he was a party man. He did, however, have a touch of populism to him that no one in the Soviet Union had seen before.
What Gorbachev remained was an epic infighter. His first moves were to reshape the Politburo, attempting to force the remaining ancient men into retirement and moving Gromyko into a more ceremonial role. He managed to succeed here and started placing his own men in power, particularly his friend Eduard Shevardnadze.
As I said, the Soviet Union was a mess. Corruption had grown to rampant proportions. The economic model had stopped working. The nation’s pride was reeling from the Afghanistan disaster. Corruption had become as great a problem in Soviet society as it ever claimed existed in capitalism. The Soviets sure seemed a lot more secure from a US perspective than it did inside the country in 1985. Gorbachev at least brought new energy into the leadership.
Once Gorbachev consolidated power, he instituted his two-part program to revitalize the nation. The first was perestroika. This was to import an extremely limited set of quasi-free market principles to jolt the economy into working more properly. This was needed.
The five-year plans going back to Stalin had led to vastly lower productivity than western nations as well as low-quality consumer goods. It’s amazing that any nation could make worse cars than the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, but the Soviets managed to.
It was like this throughout the economy. This was most definitely not a transitional period to a market socialism, like western Europe. Gorbachev believed in the centrally planned economy. But he had to do something. To the extent this economic system could even be saved by the mid-1980s, between the indifference of important leaders, corruption and outright hostility, it wasn’t that effective.
Somewhat related to this was a full-scale attempt to get Russians to stop drinking so much vodka. In fact, this was moderately successful and was a holdover from the Andropov era. Not only were there massive public health issues developing (which would become apparent in the first post-Soviet decade) but all the drinking was undermining the productivity needed for perestroika. But due to the rise of black market moonshine, he ended the program in 1988.
The second part of Gorbachev’s program was glasnost. Always on the reform side of mainstream Soviet politics, he felt the need to create conversations inside the government on how to do things, undermining the yes-men mentality that had stagnated society.
He freed dissidents and opened the Soviet archives to some extent so the nation could get a more honest telling of its history. Something like freedom of speech and freedom of the press opened the door to a more flexible society. It also served to destabilize the country.
Some, especially Moscow mayor Boris Yeltsin, felt that Gorbachev moved too slow. The still very active Stalinist wing meanwhile began to see Gorbachev as a traitor to the cause of state socialism.
Negotiating with Reagan
All of this got framed by Chernobyl, the great symbol of late-Soviet corruption and collapse. The poorly designed, poorly maintained nuclear plant killed around 100 people right away, though who knows how many later, and over 300,000 were evacuated from the region.
It wasn’t just that there was a cover-up. It’s that local officials tried to cover up what had happened from Gorbachev. Once he did figure out what happened, he upped his critique of the nation, beginning to see that the corruption was even worse than he had anticipated.
To add to this, Gorbachev had to deal with Afghanistan. By the time he took power, the Soviets had been in the nation for five years and were in a quagmire with no end in sight. He wanted to slowly pull out Soviet troops. But was the Soviet Union too far gone to save?
The answer is probably yes, barring a return to using the military to wipe out any and all dissent. One thing Gorbachev did want to do was reduce the nuclear arms race so he could also cut the military spending that was now far too great a part of the Soviet economy.
Now, lots of westerners distrusted Gorbachev. Thinking that communism was still an evil plot directed out of Moscow, they saw Gorbachev as the latest trick to sucker western governments into thinking he was a newer kind of communist – then he would strike.
Many of these people were close to Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev’s advisors distrusted the United States just as much, especially Reagan given his extremist anticommunist rhetoric. But they started meeting anyway. The issues the two faced were intractable — Nicaragua, Afghanistan, America’s Strategic Defense Initiative and human rights.
But to their credit — and I hate giving credit to Reagan for anything — both eschewed the advice of the hardcore factions of their administrations and sought to bring the nations closer to peace.
I’ve read transcripts from the Geneva meetings. It’s easy to see Gorbachev’s tremendous frustration with Reagan and his advisors just not understanding his position or what he was trying to do.
But they met again in Iceland in 1986. Gorbachev was willing to make a legitimate offer to give up a lot of leverage to get rid of America’s Strategic Defense Initiative (often called the Star Wars program). Reagan really scared the Soviets! They thought he was a madman!
So Gorbachev was happy to talk to him. But Reagan and his advisors were so committed to their space games that they rejected any offer Gorbachev made. That frustration was at the Geneva meeting.
The entire communist world
In advance of the Iceland meeting, Gorbachev made a public announcement of a three-step program to reduce the nuclear arms race in hopes of pressuring Reagan on the international stage.
But no dice.
Gorbachev went back and told the Politburo that Reagan was “extraordinarily primitive, troglodyte, and intellectually feeble.”
No argument from me!
Yet Reagan and Gorbachev did build a relationship.
In 1988, they met in Beijing. Reagan went so far as to say he no longer considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” From someone as hawkish as Reagan, this was a remarkable step, even if it wasn’t accompanied by any action from the US on reducing the arms race.
The US was hardly the only foreign policy issue that Gorbachev faced. In addition to Afghanistan, Gorbachev personally found eastern Europe deeply difficult to deal with, a bunch of kleptocratic leaders who did nothing but suck resources out of the USSR.
It was the same with North Korea, not to mention the corrupt autocrats with long ties to the Soviets such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Not surprisingly, he saw China as a potential ally and sought to repair the broken relationship between them. He also wanted to reduce support of Cuba, as it got his nation nothing.
In short, the entire communist world by this time was a combination of inept economics and/or corrupt and entrenched leadership. I think it’s necessary to state this — one can be a socialist and also admit that the system of planned state socialism did not work.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the pressure Gorbachev was under as the Soviet Union moved toward collapse. The Stalinist state was still alive. A whole lot of people had a lot invested in nothing changing. That was certainly true of Communist Party leadership and the military, but also reverberated through Soviet society. What would Gorbachev do when the walls start crumbling?
Reviled in Russia
When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, Gorbachev decided not to send in the military, a stark difference from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the pressure on Poland during the Solidarity movement. From the perspective of human rights, this was the right thing to do. Arguably, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for this in 1990.
But this was also the start of the decline of a global power. It’s not hard to see why, after 1991, many Russians reviled Gorbachev.
It’s also questionable whether the Soviets could have put down social democracy in a way that would establish stability. This was an era of rising nationalism in the Soviet Union and in the eastern bloc.
In 1986, Kazakhs rioted after a Russian was placed in charge of the region, something unthinkable in the Stalinist era and its aftermath. This was just the first of many such incidents throughout the Gorbachev era. Azerbaijanis began killing Armenians in 1998, previewing a brutal war shortly after they became independent.
Then in 1989, people in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia demanded economic autonomy and the ability to deal with Europe on their own, with a Lithuanian court actually ruling that the Soviet annexation of it in 1940 was illegal. So Gorbachev was plenty busy dealing with his own nation falling apart due to nationalist movements to do much about East Germany and Poland.
Still a communist
Gorbachev was also pretty naïve.
He was still a committed communist at heart.
He believed that if he allowed democratic elections in eastern Europe that voters would choose to continue with communism. He was very wrong about that and there was a widespread rejection of socialism immediately after 1989, one that has morphed into an increasing embrace of hard-right fascism in much of the region 30 years later.
He was taken unawares over rapid German reunification. So were England and France. If one thing united Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand, it was fear of Germany reunified.
But there wasn’t anything any of them could do about it.
Gorbachev then sided with the US in condemning Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which infuriated the Soviet old guard, for whom Saddam was a key ally and who found the idea of supporting anything the Americans did as impossible to accept.
By 1990, the Soviet Union was on the ropes.
Gorbachev found himself increasingly without a political home. The hardliners who wanted to kill all of these people claiming any autonomy from Moscow despised Gorbachev as a traitor. (Incidentally, The Americans, that wonderful show about the late Cold War, gets into this in a useful way for American audiences).
The reformers, led by Yeltsin, who loathed Gorbachev in a mutually held feeling of hatred, felt that he needed to go. Gorbachev was reelected party leader in 1990 and then made a deal with Yeltsin to privatize parts of the economy in order to save socialism but then abandoned it when the hardliners criticized it.
Yeltsin started threatening Gorbachev publicly. There were increasing calls across the USSR for Gorbachev to resign. Then the Baltic nations decided to secede. Gorbachev struck back and the military killed 15 protestors in Lithuania. Gorbachev banned demonstrations. But things were falling apart fast.
The economy was now in a free fall, forcing Gorbachev to ask for loans from western nations. This was just too much for the old guard to handle. Plus the west mostly rejected the Soviet entreaties.
In August 1991, Gorbachev and his family took a vacation at their dacha on the Crimean Sea. This was the time for the hardliners to throw Gorbachev out of power and try to save their nation. The so-called “Gang of Eight,” actually called the State Committee on the State of Emergency, overthrew Gorbachev in a coup.
But the coup was a disaster.
The people no longer feared the government. Tens of thousands of protestors came out in Moscow to protect Boris Yeltsin. Within a few days, the coup was over. But so was Gorbachev. He resigned as Communist Party General Secretary two days later.
Yeltsin was now the most powerful figure in the Soviet Union and he effectively banned the Communist Party in November. Gorbachev tried to keep the nation together, but few of the potential republics went along with his plan. Yeltsin and the heads of Ukraine and Belarus ended the nation on December 8 and created a loose Commonwealth of Independent States. He didn’t bother to tell Gorbachev. Gorbachev resigned on TV and left by the end of 1991.
Afterward, Gorbachev became something of an embarrassment in Russia, especially after the rapacious capitalism that marked the initial post-Soviet years and that humiliated many Russians.
But he was an international celebrity.
He embraced the capitalist world of high speaking fees like any good American. He traveled, being the voice of democracy for the victorious west. He wanted respect in Russia, but as the experience of American triumphalism over the end of the Cold War grated on a Russian public that didn’t see their material conditions improve much, he became a deeply unpopular figure at home.
In 1996, Gorbachev decided to run for president. I don’t know why. No one liked him. Sure he was a global superstar. That was one reason no one liked him in Russia. He had failed the Soviet Union. Russia was open for the taking by foreign capitalists, a shell of what it was. People were angry and bitter. Gorbachev was not the answer.
Though his advisors urged him not to run, he hated Yeltsin and he hated Gennady Zyuganov, who was just an old Stalinist of the type that Gorbachev had long rejected. Gorbachev was so out of touch in Russia by this time that he received all of 0.5 percent of the vote.
This is actually kind of incredible.
A mere five years earlier, he had been the all-powerful figure of the Soviet Union and now only 1 out of every 200 Russians wanted him back. That’s one of the great political rejections of modern history.
The all-time low point in Americans just shoving the Russians’ face in the dirt was Gorbachev appearing in a Pizza Hut commercial.
This was just sad, but he needed the money.
It was 1998. Russian capitalism was in full swing but if you weren’t a winner, you were definitely a loser. This was the moment when the lifespan for Russians was plummeting rapidly. Gorbachev was persona non grata on the Russian scene. By 1998, he needed cash.
Pizza Hut was happy to provide that to the tune of about $1 million. He refused to eat the horrible pizza on screen (good for him!). If the worst of American capitalism was going to rub it in the face of the Russians, this was the way to do it. He then lost most of his money that he made on the ads in the Russian financial crisis later that year.
Gorbachev tried to regain relevance in Russia, but he failed. Putin’s rejuvenation of the Brezhnev years but under nominal capitalism was not what Gorbachev had in mind. He attempted to form a new party that went nowhere. He praised anti-Putin protestors. No one cared.
The world is probably better
Gorbachev released an album of him singing old Russian standards and dedicated it to his late wife. Kind of sweet. He often criticized the U.S. for militarizing eastern Europe and then praised it for trying to deal with Russia. When Donald Trump attempted his coup on January 6, 2021, Gorbachev spoke out against it, saying that, “The storming of the Capitol was clearly planned in advance, and it’s obvious by whom.” Ah, if only the US media would just come out and say this.
In any case, Gorbachev became a sort of hero in the west. But he became that hero precisely because he was a massive failure.
We have to see his legacy in the light of how he is perceived in Russia, not just that he helped the US win the Cold War. The bitterness toward him in Russia is very real and I’m not sure the world is better off for his failures. It’s not that the American evaluation of Gorbachev has no value. But we have to remember that the world is not made up of Americans and the contempt for him at home probably should mean more than what we Americans think.
Of course, the world probably is a better place for Gorbachev’s life. His actions in 1989-1991 could have been so much worse and resulted in the killing of many people. But again, we can’t just look at him as a hero because his life also ended up serving American interests.
He’s not an American after all. He’s a Russian. If we don’t consider how people see him in his beloved home, we are myopically seeing the world through American lenses. Let’s try not to do that today.