It is hard to overstate the irony of timing. Six months and a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine — on the same day that Ukraine announced the start of its long-forecast offensive to reclaim the southern district of Kherson from Russian occupation — the death was announced in Moscow of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union and the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
The counterpoint with today and between Gorbachev and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, appears instructive, and it will be widely hailed as such. The liberator will be contrasted with the enforcer: the first — Gorbachev, a deep-down liberal, in tune with the forces of history; the second — Putin, rigid and repressive by nature, doing his utmost, with cruel and outdated means, to turn back the clock. There is some justification for this; but in many respects that counterpoint will be wrong.
Mikhail Gorbachev will go down in history, as he deserves to, as the man who loosened the shackles of the Soviet Union and in so doing precipitated the collapse of communism in Europe. As such, he appears the polar opposite of Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who declined to follow his predecessors in using force to keep the Soviet bloc in line, is clearly a very different man to Putin, who, 30 years on, unleashed a war intended to — depending how you read it — either keep Ukraine allied to Russia, or to resurrect the Soviet Union or something akin to the Russian Empire by force.
But there are two serious questions to be asked here. For 20 of his years in power, Putin presided over a country that was freer and hugely more prosperous than the country led by Gorbachev between 1985 and 1991. Putin’s presidency will inevitably be seen through the prism of the Ukraine war, which has propelled the country back in many — but by no means all — respects to the closed society that was the USSR. But in the end, how successful will Putin be in turning back the clock?
The other question to be asked is how far Gorbachev was ever the master of events, and how far he was swept along by a mighty tide of political challenge and liberation that swept not just Europe, but many other parts of the world at the time, including China. His legacy — rightly — will be that he helped change both Europe and the world for the better. Millions of people across Central and Eastern Europe, and some in Russia, credit Gorbachev for transforming their countries and their personal lives dramatically.
And they are right. It is hard to exaggerate the contrast between the Soviet Union in 1985, when Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Russia in 1995. Within a decade, the reality of those grey and repressive times had been erased by the colour and cacophony that rushed in. The most dramatic and hopeful change, though, was the flight of fear.
By the time he resigned as Soviet president and signed the USSR out of existence, the fear that had held Russians in thrall and kept half of Europe behind a wall was gone. Whether out of weakness or wisdom, Gorbachev had eschewed force as a means to preserve his power. Thus the bloodshed that had stained the Soviet empire at each stage in its evolution was largely absent from its collapse, and this is to his eternal credit.
Taking office in his mid-50s, after three elderly and ill leaders had died in office within 30 months, Gorbachev looked different and sounded different. Often accompanied on official engagements by his beloved wife, Raisa, he gave Soviet communism a “human face”. With “glasnost” and “perestroika”, the concepts that became his trademark, he presided over many a shattered Soviet taboo.
How far he was a master of this process, however, is another matter. By the summer of 1991, his efforts to convert a rigid unitary system into a consensual federation were failing. He was toppled briefly by a coup; power shifted irrevocably to Russia’s elected president, Boris Yeltsin, and the centre could no longer hold. On 8 December, heads of the three republics that had created the Soviet Union in 1924 renounced that treaty. On 25 December, Gorbachev resigned.
Gorbachev remained a player — albeit a fading player — through the Yeltsin decade, but started to speak out a little more, through his charitable foundation, during the Putin years. That, like Yeltsin, he was able to enjoy a reasonable retirement in his homeland (so far as his health allowed) was a plus in the context of Soviet and Russian history, where past leaders died in office or became non-persons. Much of his status was underpinned, however, by the adulation he enjoyed abroad, as the leader whose actions — or inaction — had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of an ideology that had imprisoned half of Europe since the end of the Second World War.
The international approval Gorbachev basked in, however, was not shared by most of his fellow-countrymen. Many Russians blamed him until his dying day for what they saw as the humiliation of their country, the loss of its great power status and, for many, the decline of a multi-ethnic ideal. This was largely why Gorbachev’s fitful attempts to play a post-Soviet political role failed dismally. He seemed not truly to grasp the contempt in which he was held by many Russians, who blamed him for their country’s loss of its status as a great power.
It has to be hoped that a new generation of Russians will come to understand what they owed to the last Soviet leader in terms of political and personal freedom and give him his proper due. At the time of his death, however, that day seems even further away than it has done at any time since he resigned.
Russia’s war on Ukraine can be seen in many ways as a conflict that was mercifully avoided when the Soviet Union broke up, but was always lurking in the wings as a possibility, in the event that the two most powerful and populous post-Soviet nations could not work out a new relationship as two sovereign states. Mikhail Gorbachev deserves all the immense credit he has been accorded as a leader who accepted the break-up of his country with dignity, rather than trying to keep it together by force.
In the end, though, the Soviet Union’s power was by then so diminished that he probably had little choice. Was he, in the end, a mover or a victim of history? The Soviet break-up itself, and the collapse of communism across Central and Eastern Europe that preceded it, may have been remarkably peaceful, as many observed at the time. Gorbachev’s refusal to use force outside Soviet borders earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. But did the precipitate and de facto nature of the Soviet collapse in fact store up trouble for the future — reflected, for instance, in the status of Crimea and Ukraine’s suspension between east and west — helping to trigger the all-out war that Russia is now waging against Ukraine?