Reformer, Criminal, Fool: Gorbachev’s complex legacy

(Photo: Yuryi Abramochkin)

By Aidan O’ Connor – Contributor

Mikhail Gorbachev changed the course of history – that at least is unquestionable. From 1985 to 1991, he led the USSR to its collapse, resulting in the biggest shift in the international order since the beginning of the Cold War. One of the most significant political figures of modern times, Gorbachev’s bold vision of a new USSR based on glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reconstruction) brought about major unintended consequences for the Soviet Union, Europe, and the world. The significance of his life has left a legacy that is arguably too complex to cast a definitive assessment of. 

Many in the West have been quick to praise Gorbachev as a hero of the 20th century by enabling the self-destruction of an evil empire that today is conspiring a return to its former glory. It comes as no surprise that feelings in Russia do not quite align with this Western judgement, many instead hold the same view as that of their president, Vladimir Putin, who once described Gorbachev’s failure to keep the Soviet Union intact as ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the century’. Many in the former-Soviet states hold a different view altogether, not of a great reformer nor a fool conned by Western leaders, but instead a criminal whose brutality has been washed away by both the Western and Russian analyses of Gorbachev’s legacy. The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between these three perspectives of one of history’s most remarkable world leaders.

Germany’s minister of foreign affairs, Annalena Baerbock, described Gorbachev as a leader ‘who chose the path of peace and understanding’ – a statement that rings true to many in the West. Gorbachev’s agreement with US president Ronald Reagan to bring an end to the unsustainable arms race resulted in the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which for the first time saw both the US and the USSR curb their respective nuclear arsenals. This led to the decommissioning of over 2,500 nuclear weapons. Actions taken to end the arms race by Gorbachev greatly reduced the threat of civilisation’s annihilation by a nuclear war between the West and East, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Gorbachev’s pursuit of peace and liberty was key to his politics, which resulted in the release of political prisoners and the organisation of a partially free and fair election in 1989 which helped; to an extent, empower the Soviet people. 

The Soviet Union’s satellite states also felt the impact of Gorbachev’s reforms. Gorbachev announced an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine – the Soviet foreign policy intended to shackle Eastern Europe to Moscow – telling Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union would no longer interfere in their domestic affairs. Gorbachev’s reforms put Germany on track towards reunification, something Gorbachev had come to realise was inevitable. He played a vital role in the process of reunifying the country after over 50 years of division at a time when Western leaders such as French President François Mitterrand and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were opposed to the idea of a Germany once again united.

Gorbachev’s monumental reforms of the Soviet Union paved the way for a more peaceful, free, and safer world – at least for a time. Yet this narrative of Gorbachev isn’t met with much understanding by many in former-Soviet countries. Gorbachev’s approach to the satellite states and their desire for change was starkly different to his handling of independence movements and protestors within the Soviet Union itself. Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis summed up Gorbachev’s legacy bluntly: ‘his soldiers fired on unarmed protestors and crushed them under his tanks. That is how we will remember him’. 

Gorbachev’s quashing of protests was not limited to Lithuania. Protestors in Latvia and Georgia were killed on Gorbachev’s orders to subdue them. In Georgia’s case, Gorbachev blamed the victims for the carnage. Azerbaijan’s Black January in 1990 saw over 130 people killed by the Soviet army called in by Gorbachev to thwart the nation’s independence movement while Kazakhstan’s December Uprising in 1986 resulted in the deaths of 150 civilians. The victims of Gorbachev’s atrocities never received an apology, remorse, nor any acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the former Soviet leader, whose commitment to freedom and openness in Warsaw Pact countries seemed to not apply to his own people. This experience of an oppressor responsible for hundreds of innocents deaths doesn’t quite fit the peace-loving liberal image of Gorbachev concocted by the West.

When it came to the current crisis in Ukraine, Gorbachev supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. His silence on the Russian invasion in February was deafening while his think-tank, the Gorbachev Foundation, only provided a statement with a couple of sentences calling for peace while not outright condemning Russia’s aggression.

His approach to current events in Ukraine, however, have not overly influenced Gorbachev’s perceived legacy in Russia. President Vladimir Putin refused to attend Gorbachev’s funeral, while Russian media haven’t given the ex-Soviet leader the same glorification as the West. Gorbachev always insisted that he ‘defended the Soviet Union to the last bullet’ but many in Russia feel that his naïve trust of the West cost them the potential of a prosperous future that can now never be brought to fruition. 

As the Iron Curtain lifted, Gorbachev trusted the West to help support an unstable Eastern Bloc. Yet in the years that followed, after Gorbachev resigned in December of 1991, the West consistently rejected the idea of supporting the new Russian state. Many in the West may be tempted to brush off this assessment as mere propaganda from a country desperate to label the West as an enemy. However, an objective look at this perspective would show some truth to the idea of a West too caught up its own triumphalism and arrogance, that it allowed the opportunity of a relationship with Russia based on co-operation to be lost and the establishment of the icy relationship we have today.

After integrating Russia into the G7, then becoming the G8, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada all opposed major economic support for Russia’s democratic transition. Promises made by NATO to share technology and integrate security systems were broken, while NATO’s expansion into the former Eastern Bloc was perceived by Russians to be unnecessary aggression. Time after time, Gorbachev’s successor’s in Russia followed his example of reaching out to the West: Boris Yeltsin called for a pan-European security system, Dmitry Medvedev supported a treaty on all-European peace and security at a Berlin summit while Vladimir Putin expressed his backing of an EU-Russia free trade zone ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’ – yet all were ignored by a West too concerned with subjugating Russia rather than forming a fresh relationship. When Gorbachev looked to an idealistic future of West-East relations, the West clung onto the past, self-righteously assuming that the ideas of economic freedom and individual liberty would come about naturally without encouragement or assistance. 

Although the actions of the West cannot be deemed Gorbachev’s mistakes, many Russian’s argue that by putting his faith in Western leaders, Gorbachev left the Soviet Union vulnerable and weak. Ultimately leaving the countries that emerged from the Union’s ashes worse off. No one disputes that Gorbachev changed the course of history, but for Russia, the country’s new course has left many feeling nostalgic for the past and longing for what might have been.

We live in an era where society is reassessing the past and the figures that made our world what it is. Those who were once deemed heroes like Winston Churchill have had the darker aspects of their legacy’s dredged up by a younger generation that has a perfectionist approach to history that arguably doesn’t reflect reality. However, defenders of these figures hold the same perfectionist approach, just the other way around – unwilling to admit that their definitive branding of historical figures may not tell the full story of their lives and the lives they impacted. Gorbachev’s legacy cannot be boxed into the title of ‘liberating reformer’, ‘tyrannical criminal’ or ‘naïve fool’ as these designations will never tell the full truth of the man Gorbachev was. His role in ending the Cold War was monumental, but that shouldn’t silence his victims, nor take away from grave errors in judgement. Gorbachev leaves behind a world that differs greatly from the one he envisioned when taking office 37 years ago, but nonetheless a world that has been shaped by his legacy. 

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