He was always good at timing, Mikhail Gorbachev. His elevation to de facto Soviet leader in 1985 was good timing for a West wearying of four decades playing a chess-game with only one potential checkmate in sight; he offered a far more optimistic future than the diehard dodderers he succeeded and arrived in office right at the very moment when his opposite number in the White House was open to de-escalating the arms race. His death at the age of 91 has reminded the world there once was a time when Russia was led by a man who (to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher) the West ‘could do business with’ – as opposed to a warmongering megalomaniac turning back the clock that Gorbachev stopped. And his death comes at a point when his most despotic successor is doing his utmost to trash the progress made by one of the world’s last great statesmen; after all, if any single individual deserves credit for accelerating the end of what I guess we must now refer to as the First Cold War, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.
Ghosts have an inconvenient habit of haunting the headlines and giving those left behind an inconvenient reminder of how lowly they languish in the long shadows these apparitions cast. For the last Premier of the Soviet Union to shuffle off this mortal coil when one of the worst legacies of the Soviet era is currently waging an old-school imperial war in Ukraine, dismantling every achievement of his far more illustrious predecessor, is a sad irony. But for a moment, we pause and recall that it wasn’t always like this. Unlike Putin, who has an incurable appetite for starting conflict, Gorbachev actually brought a phenomenally futile military engagement to an end (Afghanistan) and also oversaw the death throes of another long-running farce with innumerable casualties, the USSR.
By the mid-80s, it was evident to anyone not spoon-fed Soviet propaganda that the Iron Curtain was so corroded by ideological rust that it could crumble away with little in the way of pressure; if it were to be removed as painlessly as possible, the task required a man whose vision was not clouded by misguided nostalgia for – and blind faith in – a system not fit for purpose. Both Gorbachev and Putin were schooled in this system, yet one realised its days were numbered and sought to reinvent it while the other is desperate to bring those ‘glory’ days back, regardless of the collateral damage along the way. Gorbachev was a consummate politician, whereas Putin is a military man with a one-track mind. How Russia went from one man to the other probably has something to do with the corrupt, pissed-up disaster wedged historically between them – Boris Yeltsin – as well as the fact the Russian people never forgave Gorbachev for waking them up from the comforting dream of the Soviet Empire.
Born in 1931 to peasant stock of Ukrainian descent, Mikhail Gorbachev was raised in a country suffering from the stranglehold of Stalin, yet by the time Gorbachev had graduated from Moscow State University with a Law degree, Stalin was dead and Nikita Khrushchev was attempting to reform the nation with a process of de-Stalinization that was to be echoed on a far wider scale 30 years later when Gorbachev himself instigated unheard-of freedoms of speech without fear of arrest and imprisonment known as glasnost. Although beginning his political career loyal to the principles of Communism, the deposing of Khrushchev in 1964 and his replacement with the less flexible and far more hardline Leonid Brezhnev perhaps indicated to the ambitious young politician it would take longer to wrestle the nation free from the grip of traditional totalitarian approaches to governance. This awareness was also expanded during Gorbachev’s visits to Western Europe as he climbed the greasy pole and was regarded as safe enough to venture beyond the Eastern Bloc. The shock of seeing how the other half lived in West Germany and, particularly, France – where he experienced open criticism of government that wouldn’t be tolerated in the USSR – caused him to make comparisons that his more isolated, not to say insulated, colleagues back home were denied.
Gorbachev’s rise up the ranks was aided by the death of Brezhnev in 1982 and by his replacement Yuri Andropov, who served as Gorbachev’s mentor and was clearly grooming his pupil to succeed him; it seemed the ultimate prize was within Gorbachev’s grasp. However, Andropov had barely a year as Soviet Premier before he too passed away, and the Central Committee demonstrated their timidity and lack of vision by opting for an ageing Brezhnev leftover called Konstantin Chernenko as Andropov’s successor rather than take a chance on the younger man; this move seems to have parallels with the election of Joe Biden as US President – an elderly, ailing and ineffective individual too old and bewildered to achieve anything in office other than having the correct credentials for a governing party incapable of looking to the future. As it turned out, Chernenko’s unremarkable rule lasted not much more than a paltry twelve months and Mikhail Gorbachev’s moment finally arrived, elected as de facto Soviet leader by the Politburo. Nobody, not even Gorbachev himself, had any idea at the time that the new man would be the last leader the country would ever have.
Realising that if the Soviet Union was to survive then it had to move away from the detached distance of the out-of-touch fossils in the Kremlin, Gorbachev certainly created a different impression than the men who came before him. The distinctive birthmark that baldness revealed made him immediately identifiable to a global public and he seemed possessed by a youthful dynamism that especially found the kind of favour in the West that no other previous Soviet leader had achieved. In order to bring in the reforms he knew the nation needed, Gorbachev filled the Politburo with allies and began relaxing some of the more severe curbs on personal freedoms, even releasing notable dissidents who would otherwise have seen out their days in Gulags. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 provided Gorbachev with a further opportunity to publicly air his views on decades of Soviet mismanagement and incompetence, confident the public would henceforth understand the urgent need for change.
Gorbachev was made for the world stage, charming America’s NATO allies en route to his first summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and enjoying tea and crumpets with Her Majesty; despite mistrust and suspicion on both sides from the aides and advisers surrounding Reagan and Gorbachev, several summits took place and though neither man entirely warmed to the other in the beginning, by the end of Regan’s term in the White House relations between the two Cold War superpowers were undoubtedly better than they had been in decades. At home, however, Gorbachev received it in the neck from both liberals (who thought his reforms not far-reaching enough) and hardline Communists (who thought his reforms were too close to capitalism for comfort); he was also criticised for standing back and allowing the old Soviet satellite states to rise up and reject the system that had kept them under Moscow’s thumb since the end of the Second World War.
Boris Yeltsin, a man Gorbachev had promoted, turned out to be a persistent thorn in his side during this period and the fact Yeltsin was credited with successfully extinguishing the attempted coup d’état by Communist hardliners in August 1991 further weakened Gorbachev’s position. The writing was on the wall for both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. He resigned as President on Christmas Day 1991 and the USSR itself ceased to exist on New Year’s Eve. What followed is another story for another day, but like any loss of a world leader whose era now seems a long way away, one can’t help but make comparisons – not just between Gorbachev and the psychopath who today wears his shoes, but with all the other excuses for world leaders we have in 2022. From Boris to Biden and from Macron to Trudeau, this is not an age of great men, and greatness can obscure a multitude of sins that utterly exposes those without it.
© The Editor