Remembering Gorbachev

When I received a call this morning from Turkish public television TRT asking that I comment on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev in a live broadcast, the first thought which came to mind was the ironic remark of Soviet intellectuals on the place of leading personalities in history:  “there is nothing as changeable and unpredictable as the past.”

Of course, this notion is applicable everywhere, not just to Soviet history and personalities. Indeed, history is always being reinterpreted in light of current developments. As I commented in my interview, the achievements and failures of Gorbachev in power must now be reevaluated in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which is the largest and most dangerous military conflict on the European continent since 1945.

This war follows directly from the break-up of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev failed to prevent, though he did his best. Indeed, in the spring of 1991 he oversaw a referendum on the issue and won support from the population for continuation of the USSR. However, his playing off the right and left forces within the Politburo and within the Party at large over a number of years, the deceptions he practiced to get his way, finally caught up with him and laid the way in the summer of 1991 for the Putsch by rightists intent on restoring Soviet orthodoxy, which in turn so weakened Gorbachev that he was easily pushed aside by Boris Yeltsin. Destruction of the Union was Yeltsin’s instrument for achieving the complete removal of Gorbachev from power and setting out on a course of economic reform and de-Communization that was anathema to the leaders of the more conservative Soviet republics.

As we now know, the break-up of the USSR released pent-up animosities within and between the successor states, which had in each substantial ethnic minorities, in particular Russian-speakers, who numbered more than 25 million outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation in 1991. This was the largest such dispossessed ethnic community from the disintegration of empire in history, and its existence did not augur well for tranquility in Eurasia, from the Baltics, to the Caucasus, to Central Asia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also touched off a very unhealthy wave of national excitement in the United States. It was now the sole surviving superpower, unchecked by any rivals. Fueled by hubris, Washington elites set course on remaking the world through a succession of military interventions and full-fledged wars abroad that has gone on for close to 30 years.  Failures in these military missions led to ever greater concern to “contain” any and all possible competitors on the world stage.  In practice, this meant containment first and foremost of Russia as it recovered economically and politically in the first decade of the new millennium. And this, expressed in terms of NATO expansion, is what brought us to the present conflict over Ukraine.

In that regard, I direct attention to Gorbachev’s greatest failure which resulted not from the conspiracies of his compatriots but from his own peculiar naivete in his dealings with the United States, meaning with Reagan, with Bush and their minions. The man who had shown such cunning in outfoxing his Politburo colleagues was completely outfoxed by his American and European interlocutors.  Had he been more cautious to protect Soviet-Russian interests, he would have demanded and likely received much better terms of compensation for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from all of Eastern Europe and disbanding the Warsaw Pact. Had he been less gullible and more realistic, he would have demanded  written treaties setting in concrete the prohibition of NATO expansion to the East and, or, he would have left Soviet garrisons in each of these states to ensure compliance. As it was, the Americans who gave him verbal assurances knew full well that they were meaningless and were perplexed at the Kremlin’s failure to defend strategic national interests.

These are the sins which patriotic Russians hold against Gorbachev today, even as they acknowledge his astonishing feats in freeing Soviet citizens from the totalitarian yoke of the past through glasnost and perestroika.

Of course, it is an open question whether a democratic Soviet Union could have long survived. The economy was hopelessly mismanaged and the entire legacy of Soviet legislation rendered it virtually impossible to escape from violence or the threat of violence to make things work.  This is a point over which historical debate will continue for many decades to come.

For today’s interview, see

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

17 thoughts on “Remembering Gorbachev

  1. Your point about economic mismanagement is well taken. But I wonder if the adoption of a consociational democratic model might have saved the Soviet Union. Gorbachev could see the writing on the wall in 1986, when he angered the Kazakh people by replacing the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party (Kunaev) with Gennady Kolbin — an ethnic Russian. I originally thought that Kunaev left the post to retire; but according to Wikipedia, Gorbachev thought he was too corrupt to remain in office. Archie Brown talks about this in ‘The Gorbachev Factor’, but I don’t recall the details. It’s been many years since I read the book.

    Thank you again, Dr. Doctorow, for your insight and analysis.

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  2. Yes, thanks very much. Opinion polls within Russia seem to still indicate a surprising(?) nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Would you care to comment on this please?

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    1. Under the Soviets everyone had work, no one lived under a bridge, crime was almost non-existent, education was universal and free, the elderly were not left to starve. Was it Nirvana? Frack no, but it was better than what followed.

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  3. Old Soviet saying to Americans “The difference between our propaganda and your propaganda is that you believe your propaganda” but Gorbachev’s downfall was that he believed American propaganda.

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    1. I believe the original quote was from a Soviet general to Canadian writer Farley Mowat in the 1970s. “The difference between American propaganda and Soviet propaganda is that no one believes ours.”

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    1. I agree that is impossibile to reinterpretate the history in an objective manner: the conclusions will always depend on the point of view from which one judges. On the other hand, in the case of a historical figure, evaluating his work on the basis of the objectives he himself had declared he wanted to pursue, leads to conclusions that are difficult to question.
      In the case of mr Gorbatchev, his political activity had been aimed at the achievement of two main objectives:
      1. The reform of the USSR
      2. The disarmament process.
      In both cases a total failure: in fact there is undeniably a direct correlation between the reform process initiated by Mr. Gorbatchev, the sudden collapse of the USSR and the current instability that characterizes its former territories. It is certainly surprising how a communist leader could have totally ignored the basic principles of historical materialism, abandoning himself to moralistic evaluations and completely forgetting the reality of the economic relations that condition the development of international relations: it was so difficult to understand that the historical enemies of the USSR (and before the tsarist empire) would immediately take advantage of the weakening of its military system (which was conceived with an evidently defensive logic) to propitiate its collapse and appropriate its enormous resources ?
      It’s impossible ti say what would have happened to the USSR without Mr. Gorbatchev, for sure the end of the communism (at least in its Marxist-Leninist form: China is a communist state) remains inextricably linked to his figure.
      I’m not a communist, so observing the facts without ideological conditioning, I can only conclude that Mr. Gorbatchev, beyond his laudable intentions, was a totally incapable politician

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  4. The Soviets couldn’t afford to keep garrisons in Eastern Europe. Germany literally paid to send the last Soviet forces home. Frankly, Gorby wasn’t in much of a position to make demands.

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  5. Rest in Peace Mikhail Gorbachev, for blessed are the peace makers.

    Every mortal borne will sin, that is the lot of all humans, all will fail, all will make mistakes, in this Mikhail Gorbachev is like any other leader past or present but…

    The sins of Mikhail Gorbachev are vastly over-amplified by many Russians, all the while ignoring the situation presented to the Soviet leaders of Mikhail Gorbachev era. Somehow, the Soviet-Empire’s downfall is to blamed on one man, if true, this is unprecedented in human history and as such, this outrageous claim requires extraordinary proof and…I see little of that.

    While Soviet leadership was short lived just prior to Gorbachev’s rise, there was a character who was a politically was a long-lived fellow, particularly for somebody under Stalin’s rule. Leonid Brezhnev served as leader of the Communist Party from 1964-1982 and as Premier, only Stalin ruled longer and his rule was by any concurrent western standard*, corrupt, inefficient, economically inept which led to a technological gap with the West*. And yet, the dude is hardly ever mentioned in the USSR’s downfall…pour-quoi? The aspersions cast at Mikhail Gorbachev are artifacts of fantastical thinking, hardly worth consideration and yet, they survive because they exculpate so many sins and sinners.

    No, Mikhail Gorbachev tried mightily to save the bloated beast through genuine reform combined with an effort to rule justly. In many ways, Gorbachev was Putin direct predecessor. As for naivety, surely Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, to name a few, far exceeded anything demonstrated by Gorbachev. Putin would have failed had he been handed the reigns of power during Gorbachev’s epoch, Russia needed to be reconstituted into a more cohesive nation. And through DC’s brutal reign of neocolonialism…it has been, not purposely to be sure but ironically. And we are all watching DC reap it’s bitter fruit sown in Ukraine….yeah, I really do think.

    Good people, let Mikhail Gorbachev rest in peace, he did more than 99.999% of the human race to advance the cause of a just world, his heart was in the right place. Had US leadership not abandoned FDRism in the years preceding Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise we would live in a time of peace & prosperity.

    Rest in peace Mikhail Gorbachev, you were a good man and time will judge more kindly than today’s Monday morning quarterbacks, I mourn your passing.

    *[FDRism-circa 1932-1978]

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