By Leonid Bershidsky
Mikhail Gorbachev failed at everything he tried as the last leader of the Soviet Union. The state he led could change the world for the better only by collapsing – and so it did. Unfortunately, though, not for long.
I will never forget the moment, in August 1991, when – aged 19, slightly “masturbated” and very much in love – I watched the statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky fall in Moscow. This was done on Gorbachev’s “shift”.
Many of my German neighbors remember exactly where they were when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 – also during the Gorbachev era. But I never felt any kind of obligation to the supposed charming last emperor of the doomed Soviet empire.
It was us – we, the Russians, the Germans, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Georgians and many others – who created these inspiring moments out of our utter misery. Our generation in much of Europe and Asia was lucky that Gorbachev did not possess the vicious efficiency of a Vladimir Putin. I still think we would have prevailed even if she had.
However, the fact that we could not keep what we won is also our responsibility. We have lost the legacy of Gorbachev’s beneficial failure.
So here we are dealing with a somewhat painful funeral.
Gorbachev’s entire record at the top of the Soviet hierarchy was that of a weak, unstable lover of defeat, always one step behind his time. He began as Communist Party leader in 1985 with a campaign to stamp out drunkenness, which created endless lines for vodka and destroyed winemaking in Moldova for decades to come as vines were uprooted. Russians drank more and more as the Soviet economy collapsed.
Gorbachev launched an economic “acceleration” drive that collapsed like a lead balloon because he fell far short of embracing capitalism. He thought he was bringing communism closer to the people instead of tearing them apart. In a text of his memoirs, Gorbachev quoted his own notes from 1985: “The current propaganda around Marxism is boring, young people are losing interest… If the new policies are to gain support, we must restore faith in socialist ideally”.
The shortages were horrendous. I remember a year without toilet paper in Moscow, the capital. While growing up in Siberia, my wife doesn’t remember using anything but crappy newsprint for hygiene purposes. Store shelves were empty of everything except three-liter jars of artificially sweetened birch sap.
Nothing was working. Amid economic mismanagement, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up in 1986 – and Gorbachev, the originator of “glasnost” – meaning “open and transparent politics” – waited 18 days to address the nation on the matter, leaving hundreds of thousands people immune to the effects.
Gorbachev allowed more freedom in the media. As a result, the entire country was soon reading and hearing on television about past crimes by a regime that refused to prosecute their perpetrators, many of whom were still living in dignified retirement.
When people in the former Soviet republics began to revolt and demand independence, he – to put it generously – did little to prevent bloody repression, even if there is no clear evidence that he ordered it himself. As early as 1986, nationalist demonstrations in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, had been suppressed with a massive show of force. Two of the protesters were sentenced to death.
In April 1991, the Soviet army killed 21 protesters and injured hundreds more in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Jumber Patiashvili, who was head of the Communist Party in Georgia at the time, would later accuse Gorbachev of being the one to send in troops.
People were killed while demonstrating in Dushanbe, Baku and Riga. In January 2022, relatives of four of the 14 people killed by Soviet paratroopers during the attack on the TV tower in Vilnius in January 1991 sued Gorbachev for damages in a Lithuanian court. Again, there is no hard evidence that he personally ordered the military intervention, which he himself denied.
There is, however, a record of his request to the Soviet-occupied Baltic nation to abandon its quest for independence. And he had ordered an economic blockade of Lithuania, which preceded military action.
In 1990, Gorbachev, apparently alarmed by the forces he had unleashed, began to undo the liberalization of the media. He appointed hard-liners to key positions, from head of television to interior minister. Many of them would temporarily depose him in the failed coup of August 1991. Even after being reinstated by his arch-rival Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev would fail to hold on to power. He eventually witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union.
He didn’t just fail as an authoritarian leader, squandering the almost unlimited power handed to him as party boss. He also failed as a politician, despite his penchant for spontaneous, unscripted speeches and mingling with people in public squares. When he tried to run for president of Russia in 1996 – in a presidential election that was free, if not exactly fair, and which sent Yeltsin to the Kremlin for a second term – he won just 0.51% of the vote.
Gorbachev won praise in the West as a particularly flexible negotiator on international affairs. He will forever be remembered as the man who played the greatest role in making German reunification possible. His saying – “dangers lurk for those who do not live up to what life itself demands” – adorns the subway station next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
However, he failed to secure anything for the Soviet Union other than insignificant financial aid. The dying Soviet giant burned through these funds in a matter of months. This contributed to the nationalist resentment that lies at the core of Russia’s current resurgence of imperialism.
Vladimir Putin has explicitly accused Gorbachev of not getting a written commitment from the US not to expand NATO. He has also blamed him, implicitly, for the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yet Gorbachev lamented the collapse of the USSR as much as Putin. Although he had his differences with Putin, whom he considered too anti-liberal, Gorbachev still stated in 2019 that he considered Putin “loyal to democracy”.
Gorbachev’s declining health has prevented him from speaking publicly in recent months: there are no statements from Gorbachev himself about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. A long-time friend of Gorbachev, Alexei Venediktov, has said the late Soviet leader was “disappointed”. However, in 2015, he defended the annexation of Crimea. He remained to the end confused about the meaning of his own heritage.
Gorbachev takes credit for not cracking down harder when he still had the chance – and for “ending the cold war”. These accolades, however, deny due credit to the people of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites—or, to use a modern context, of Russia and its colonies—who rebelled against a rotten system that oppressed them and turned into beggars.
On February 4, 1990, one million people took to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against the one-party system. No police force could disperse this crowd. I know, because I was a part of it. Even the harshest attempts at repression – the one in Tbilisi was merciless – could not stop the passion for independence. If Putin and not Gorbachev were the head of the state apparatus, it would probably be just as impossible for him to react.
Putin has of course learned from Gorbachev’s mistakes. The usurpation of freedoms in Russia and its return to imperialist ambitions has been gradual, almost covert and quietly consistent. He never let the ball drop, while Gorbachev tended to fumble constantly. Gorbachev used to argue that a new, freer generation has grown up since the end of the Soviet Union. But for all the hopes invested in it, this generation has been unable to project anything like the unyielding resistance of which I was a part during Gorbachev’s time.
There is one thing I will miss about Gorbachev. He was so bad at leading an “Evil Empire” because he was so obviously human. He was carelessly emotional, unable to keep his face expressionless, and—surprisingly for a career party official—utterly inept at intrigue.
Breaking with a long tradition, he made no secret of his love and admiration for his wife Raisa – and later his grief at her death. Darth Vader wore armor, Gorbachev didn’t. Most modern leaders lack this natural humanity—and that’s not just Putin. This is naturally an obstacle to political effectiveness. But perhaps it is also the reason why Gorbachev’s attempt to hold together a terrible organization failed.