Mikhail Gorbachev's legacy

·Senior White House Correspondent
·7-min read

WASHINGTON — I would not be writing these words if it were not for Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91. By finally allowing Jews to emigrate en masse to Israel and the United States, he did as much as any leader of the Soviet Union to atone for the Kremlin’s long-standing antisemitism.

In many other ways, Gorbachev sought to break with his predecessors, all for the sake of the Soviet Union, which he thought could be saved only with what might be called a full-scale renovation. Among his first campaigns as Soviet leader was an anti-vodka effort, which struck deep at Russia’s identity — and pathology.

Flowers and a candle are placed on a plinth displaying a bust of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
A bust of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Axel Springer Publishing House in Berlin on Wednesday. (Markus Schreiber/AP Photo)

“He could hardly have taken on a tougher challenge,” the Chicago Tribune noted at the time. The same could be said of his entire project, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That he failed — against vodka, against corruption, against the generals and the apparatchiks — was evidence that the task was too vast for the depleted nation he came to lead.

It would have been far easier to play the Politburo hack, to spout bromides about the immortality of Marxism-Leninism while gulping down black caviar at a sumptuous Crimean resort. But although Gorbachev was thoroughly a party man — he rose steadily through its ranks throughout the 1960s and ’70s, deftly navigating the crosscurrents of revanchism and reform — he genuinely believed what he was doing.

“If we want new policies to gain support, we need to restore faith in Socialist ideals,” he wrote in 1985.

Most serious people understood what he was up to, even if they did not agree. He was not slavishly venerated, the way Joseph Stalin had been, nor secretly reviled, as Leonid Brezhnev was. He was respected and challenged, almost as Western leaders are.

Mikhail Gorbachev in a movie theater.
Mikhail Gorbachev at the Moscow premiere of a film made by Werner Herzog and British filmmaker Andre Singer, based on their conversations, in 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)

He was a man of decency and dignity in a political system where indecency and indignity had become unbearable realities of life. By the time he assumed power after the death of Konstantin Chernenko, even a child unaware of political realities could easily come to grasp that the Soviet Union was in shambles.

I was such a child. You could see the ruination everywhere in the endless expanse of apartment blocks of northern Leningrad, where we lived at the time. There were drunks and hooligans, there was poverty of the kind that the socialist paradise was supposed to have prevented. The utopian dreams of the early Soviet years had taken a crippling blow from Stalinism, only to be revived by the World War II victory over Nazism. Those dreams were dimmed even further with Nikita Khrushchev’s 1964 political demise and Brezhnev’s ascent, which inaugurated two decades of political and cultural twilight.

In that twilight, dark things festered. “Everything is rotten,” the reform-minded Georgian politician Eduard Shevardnadze complained to Gorbachev in 1984. “It has to be changed.”

Gorbachev agreed. He wanted to save the Marxist-Leninist project. Instead, he was forced to act as its undertaker. His policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) made Soviet citizens more aware of the West. For example, I remember learning that American students had multicolored erasers. If this seems like a trivial fact, then you have clearly never lived in a society without multicolored erasers.

From left: David Steel, leader of the Liberal Party, Mikhail Gorbachev and David Owen.
Britain's Liberal Party leader David Steel, Gorbachev and Britain's Social Democratic Party leader David Owen in London in 1984. (Bryn Colton/Getty Images)

Aware that the lure of the West was only deepening, Soviet propaganda sharpened its warnings about the supposed decadence we would find there. Sometime in the mid-1980s, I remember opening the popular magazine Ogonek (Spark) to find the harrowing photograph of a man covered in blue lesions. The lesions were from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer that often accompanied a serious case of AIDS. The point of the photograph was obvious: This is what America has in store for you.

Fine, but what did Russia have in store? Much like U.S. presidents decades later, Gorbachev was forced to preside over a brutal war in Afghanistan that he had not started. The brutality of the war was mostly apparent in the sight of badly maimed young men, the so-called Afgantsy, who returned to tell tales of unspeakable abuses, of which they were sometimes perpetrators and sometimes victims.

His greatest failure, though, took place on a spring morning in 1986, in the woods on the border between Belarus and Ukraine, with the explosion of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station. He had not overseen the power station’s shoddy construction, but the disaster was his to own. By hiding the catastrophe from Soviet citizens and the rest of the world, Gorbachev squandered what trust he had built up.

He waited nearly three weeks to publicly address the crisis. When he did, it was to denounce “barefaced, malicious lies” emanating from the West about the disaster, and then to praise the “ministerial leadership” that had reacted to the meltdown with incompetence and deception, in true Soviet fashion.

Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, their nation's flags behind them, side by side at a desk, each sign a page in a huge file of papers.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. (Dennis Paquin/Reuters)

Of course, Gorbachev did not want to be defined by Chernobyl. In 1987, he and Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major achievement that showed the two leaders’ genuine commitment to peace. (The treaty lasted until 2019, when President Donald Trump terminated the agreement.)

Kremlin reactionaries, who had never been happy with his regime, staged a coup in 1991. The effort failed, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia emerged to be led by the gregarious, democratically minded Boris Yeltsin, who had long been a political rival of Gorbachev.

Perhaps it is true, as the Russian-American intellectual Garry Kasparov has argued, that Gorbachev is seen too fondly by the West, while Yeltsin has never gotten his due. But aside from drunken displays, what was there to the Yeltsin years, other than a wholesale, Kremlin-sanctioned looting of the nation’s stores? Russians came to refer to Yeltsin and his democratic reformers as “dermocrats,” or shitheads.

Gorbachev watched with dismay, as did many of us from the United States. "Yeltsin's course is not the continuation of perestroika. It is the denial of perestroika," he told the New York Times in 1995.

It made no difference, for Russia had chosen its path, which led straight from Yeltsin’s loans-for-shares debacle to Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy. A decade into the Putin era, Gorbachev had seen enough, charging in 2011 that Putin was “dragging the country into the past, when it is on fire with modernization.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Gorbachev at a press conference in Schleswig, Germany, in 2004. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Gorbachev was no peacenik, it should be noted. When the Baltic nation of Lithuania launched a bid for independence in early 1991, he responded with military force. Yet as badly as he wanted to keep Ukraine under Soviet control, he understood the impossibility of that desire.

Putin has had no such qualms; the war he launched in Ukraine earlier this year is rightly seen by many as an expansionist project that seeks to build a new Slavic empire in Eastern Europe. It is a project of bellicose nationalism, a sign of how far the country has diverged from the aspirations of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Perhaps the most telling response to Gorbachev’s death came from Dmitry Peskov, the current Kremlin press chief. Gorbachev tried to inaugurate what Peskov derisively called an “eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the world” in an interview after the former Soviet leader’s death.

“That romanticism,” Peskov noted, “did not work out.”