For Americans of my generation, haunted from earliest childhood by the specter of nuclear Armageddon, Mikhail Gorbachev represented for the first time in our lives, a respite from fear. He was the first leader of our Cold War adversary who projected humanity rather than menace, the first who allowed us to think perhaps the catastrophe of a Third World War might not be inevitable.
Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday in Moscow at the age of 91, is remembered by the world as the last leader of the Soviet Union, the man who sought its reform but who, in the end, was supplanted when the changes he unleashed outpaced his government’s ability to adapt to them. In Russia, some, including President Vladimir Putin, have characterized the collapse of empire over which Gorbachev presided as a “genuine tragedy,” “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Such views represent the fundamental difference between Gorbachev, a flawed leader who nonetheless aspired to higher ideals and a better life for his people, and a successor like Putin, who is widely acknowledged to be a menace, one of the great villains of his era. That difference is not just that Gorbachev seemed in many key ways well-intentioned and visionary enough to think outside the iron constraints of the dogma with which he had been indoctrinated and lived his entire life and that Putin is at his core, evil and a danger both to the world and to the well-being of Russia.
Gorbachev rode the tide of history while Putin has spent his life futilely trying to swim against it, to reverse progress. As we heard when Putin unleashed his demented rant justifying his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, he has fabricated in his mind delusions about a past that never existed and made it his goal to recreate it. Gorbachev had the clarity to see that the Soviet Union over which he became leader in March 1985 was on an unsustainable path. Trained as a lawyer, he rose up through a Communist Party bureaucracy that again and again failed to live up to the ideals it espoused or even the minimum progress necessary to sustain an empire that stretched from Europe to the Pacific.
He embraced change because he saw it as the only chance to preserve the Soviet Union, not because he wanted to transform it into a capitalist or truly democratic state. But he had the courage to end a costly war in Afghanistan, to take on ruinous corruption, to promote a new openness called “glasnost’” that restored a certain degree of freedom of expression and to seek economic and political restructuring even average Westerners came to know as “perestroika.”
It was remarkable. But it was too little reform too late. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe that had been part of the Warsaw Pact saw the changes in Moscow as an opening to break away and, in stunning fashion, they did. In 1989, seven countries that once had been Soviet satellites reclaimed control over their own destiny. Remarkably, albeit inconsistently, Gorbachev also accepted those changes. It produced celebrations across Europe but condemnation in Russia. The economy dragged, the country’s influence seemed to be cratering, and hard-liners blamed Gorbachev. A coup attempt in August 1991 almost brought him down, but thanks to the intervention of his eventual successor, Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev was freed, only to begin the process of finally dismantling the superstructure of the Soviet Union and ultimately stepping down as president of the USSR on Christmas day 1991.
Again, Gorbachev showed the wisdom to go along with history and he was rewarded by being given something few Soviet leaders had ever enjoyed, a life after leading the country. He was accepted worldwide as a symbol of hope and change and spent the remainder of his life, three decades, writing, speaking, and seeking to share the lessons of his experience.
Gorbachev was rightly seen as one of those rare leaders who had irrevocably and profoundly changed the world. If he failed in many of his key aims, he nonetheless had left the world, at least for the moment, a safer place and he had left the people of the former Soviet Union at least somewhat freer. For those who were not alive at the time, it is important to try to understand the enormity of the sense of joy and relief that came with a peaceful end to the Cold War. For those of us who once lined up in school hallways as my generation did, draping coats over our heads and huddling in drills to prepare for nuclear war, there has been no event to compare with it in our lifetimes.
In the ensuing years, fearful of carrying the reforms Gorbachev started to their logical conclusion, unable to adapt to democracy or shake the lure of corruption, hungry for the kind of glory only nostalgia and short memories can conjure, Russia has drifted backwards. Putin has been the architect of that recidivism hoping to undo the changes Gorbachev enabled or at least did not resist too strongly with all the tools favored by autocrat-thugs.
While Gorbachev sought to usher in the 21st century, Putin has brutalized his nation and his neighbors in an effort to reclaim the 18th. Putin and Russians who yearn for empire may view Gorbachev as author of their misfortune and the challenges they face to reclaim global stature today. But in fact, he saw as they have not, do not and cannot the only way forward.
Gorbachev, for all his many flaws and failings (and he had many as Russia’s neighbors and people will certainly remind us), ultimately made a great contribution by doing what few leaders ever dare to do. He risked and ultimately gave up the sources of the power he wielded—whether it was that of a dictatorial state giving way to one in which citizens could express themselves and even begin to participate in rudimentary democracy or those of dominion over vassal states or the powers of the kind of high office he relinquished—because he thought that it was in the interests of the people and country he served.
No doubt some of what he gave up, he did so reluctantly, some even under duress. But some came at a time when he, as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was one of the two most powerful people on Earth. And others came as a result of having the clarity to recognize that history, like quicksand, only consumes more quickly those who struggle against it.
That is a rare gift in someone granted great power. It is, for example, one that the current Russian leader does not have and that will lead, assuredly, to the end that vile, backward-facing despot so richly deserves.