Squandered Visions, All Will Pay.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1931-2022), leader of the former Soviet Union (USSR), and, likely, the most important world public figure during the last half of the twentieth century, died during the closing days of August 2022. He was denied a state funeral, by Russia, but considerable praise was heaped on him by many in the West and the Global South.
That praise, although accurately pointing to some of the many things he tried to and did, in fact, achieve, largely constructed a narrative to explain his political rise and demise in terms of personal weakness, history, ideology, the structure and nature of the former USSR, and his being an a-typical fruit of the Bolshevik-led 1917 revolution in Russia, especially as that revolution expressed itself after World War II, namely the Cold War. Always with an eye directed at contrasting authoritarian regimes and democracies (the West), references were made concerning what today’s “strongmen” in countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea have learned from Gorbachev’s legacy.
The purpose of this short essay is to say that the significance of Gorbachev’s six-year presence on the global political stage, as leader of the former USSR, is not to be found primarily in the specific achievements chosen and emphasized by the media, Kremlin specialists, and claimed supporters and sympathizers, in the West. That importance and its meaning are to be found in what has been deliberately avoided, de-emphasized, implied in ways that would never awaken any consciousness on the part of readers prepared to make deductions from assumptions contained in statements made. It is also the case that, were the meaning of what he sought to do brought to the surface, especially at this time, it would entail considerable embarrassment for a number countries, including my own, and their respective leaders.
By any measure I can think of, Gorbachev’s actions as leader of the former USSR are most worthy of praise, and likely, will always be, if given a fair appraisal. His two-pronged platform to change in fundamental ways the socio-economic system that gave birth to and nurtured him, was virtually all encompassing and the call for openness (Glasnost), in a society that was largely secret, and for political and socio-economic restructuring (Perestroika), of a social system that—very much like liberalism—was presented to the world as representing historical truth, took immense moral courage. Specific examples of the forms in which the changes sponsored by the platform are many.
The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, admitting thereby the mistake of having gone in; the reestablishment of relations with the Vatican (despite Marxism’s contention that religion is the “opiate of the people”); his exposure, to the world, of the nuclear-plant disastrous accident at Chernobyl; his support for the principle of national self-determination for the peoples of the Baltic states, eastern Europe, and those within the Soviet Union; his support for German reunification (a course of action which foreshadowed the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s counterpart); his assault on corruption within the Communist Party, as well as effecting its dismantling, including his own position as Secretary General, and substituting in its stead a multi-party system; his lifting of restrictions on the media, and other areas of civil society, such as the churches and universities; and his willingness to introduce some free-market initiatives that would, in his view, release certain pent-up creative possibilities (from his personal experiences years earlier in dealing with agricultural incentives), are well known.
The portrait of him as a leader who reformed the former USSR, but could not save it implies, in the use of the disjunction “but,” a personal weakness or failing. That he was unable to save a reforming USSR should not be joined to his actions or inactions, only. The West—led by the U.S. to which all major western governments at the time looked for clues—must accept its role in this failure. As Gorbachev pushed for the introduction of some free market operations, the resulting price increases required some public support to citizens to offset those increases, during the transition from state-support to the free market. The USSR had limited amount of dollars (as in the case of pounds and francs when US fought its revolution and had to depend on monies from France and Holland), and Gorbachev was repeatedly asking for a “partner” or for “partners” to help him. That partnership was not forthcoming, in this case or in any other.
Gorbachev, although deeply troubled and frustrated by the performance of the Soviet Union’s economy, was not without faith that, with reforms of the socialist system, it could survive, likely in the form of a refined system of social democracy that partly replicated what he had seen or studied in western and northern Europe. This unwillingness to “go all the way” to a market system and do so quickly was, in part, what the U.S. found unacceptable.
There is also an implied failing, on the part of Gorbachev (as photographs of him were paired in newspapers with Putin, as well as former East German leader, Eric Honecker), in suggesting that his inability to have saved the former USSR now lingers as a negative example which “strongmen” should seek to avoid. As such, leaders in China, Iran, and North Korea have no incentive to attempt reform; they, if that make any such attempt, are likely to fail and be consumed by it.
The reasoning of the preceding paragraph is distracting and diversionary, as it is intended to be. It says nothing about why Gorbachev failed to preserve the former USSR—opposition from those dissatisfied party members who were losing their status and power in society; those workers who saw the cost of living rise beyond their income; members of the military who, since 1986, knew there would be less budgetary support for the military, as well as those who, after 1989, were returning from eastern Europe, without a sense of what their future would be; and, included, also, those, were the free-market advocates who thought Gorbachev was not moving fast enough. Where were the U.S. and the UK? Did we not pour monies into western Europe, by way of the Marshall Plan, to save democracy from the threat of communism? Why not help Gorbachev save this emerging democracy? (It is instructive here to see how we supported Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, not because he was committed to democracy, but was prepared to allow more radical moves toward the free market; and we now know the disastrous result of that development.)
With respect to particular lessons to be learned by “strongmen,” if they were to be persons like the leader of China, for instance, is nothing more than finding a way to use Gorbachev’s death to criticize enemies. One should notice that none of US’ “strongmen” allies, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia is included. It is also the case that it says Gorbachev’s record must be examined in terms of its influence on “strongmen,” inducing them to refrain from introducing desirable reforms and, thus, remaining threats to democracy. Taking China, as an example, the reader should bear in mind that Beijing has never opposed reforms in the former USSR. After all, at the time of Gorbachev’s attempted reforms, China was already well on its way in shaping its own market economy. What Beijing rejected was the sequence and speed of reforms. It felt Gorbachev should have moved in the area of economic reforms first, and then, after consolidating some success in this area, move to political reforms.
Could there be additional agenda in the selective focus on “strongmen”? A fear perhaps of changes that may in fact be initiated? After all, Gorbachev was one of these strongmen from whom proposed changes had major altering effects, as we will further show. What of the strongman Ashoka the Great (265--238 BCE) of India? William of Orange (1689-1692), who ensured the success of the Glorious Revolution in Britain—a revolution whose principles and values so deeply shaped those of U.S.’?
And what of the strongman Mustafa Kemal (1923-1934) and his transformation of Turkey, staving off attempts of the West control post-Ottoman Turkey?
This brings us to the broader significance of Gorbachev’s reforms. Unsaid to readers of the praises lavished on Gorbachev are that his proposed restructuring (Perestroika) was not confined to the former USSR and Eastern Europe; that he envisioned a new Europe; that he was against the nuclear weapons and the militarization of social life; that he sought drastic action to protect the environment; and that his commitment to human dignity drew him to a different type of world than the one now dominated by nation-state system. Perhaps, as important, he was prepared to make sacrifices for his vision.
Gorbachev sought a radical restructuring, in international life, that would be tied to what he initiated in the former USSR. Obviously, he needed “partners,” since he would be unable to do much outside the borders of the Socialist Commonwealth (the former USSR, eastern Europe, and the Baltic states). In 1989, in his address to the Council of Europe, he proposed a partnership in creating a “Common European Home” that would encompass all of Europe and the former USSR, a proposal which, if implemented, would end the division of Europe that had been the product of the Cold War he was in the process of ending, and bring into being the long-sought (since the time of Peter the Great, 16891725) cultural integration of Russia (the heart of the former USSR) into Europe.
This integration would, of course, mean the dismantling of the then two military alliances—NATO and the Warsaw Pact—and their replacement by an entity with a more peaceful mission. It would also mean the broad and deep cuts in military spending, which Gorbachev saw as wasteful and a hindrance to a balanced economic development and to richer social support for people’s needs. As important, he saw this proposal as likely enabling his return to a 1986 proposal to the U.S., in Reykjavik, Iceland, to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 1995. His thinking here was that contrary to what many believe, humankind had been spared a nuclear holocaust, not because of human ingenuity but luck, and that sooner or later, if these weapons were not eliminated, that holocaust would arrive. He also felt that preparing to fight a nuclear war was immoral and contrary to the idea of human dignity, as well as to the integrity of the environment.
Gorbachev also sought a “common home,” for human beings, everywhere, and felt that a common European home would be a stepping-stone to that single home, our common country, the Earth. Thus his focus on the degradation of the environment, therefore, was part of his commitment to the earthly home. His reaction to the Russian-Ukraine war, earlier this year, was “an early cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations,” because consistent with his position, since he became leader of the former USSR, life is most precious things humans have. This stance he took, despite his knowing that NATO, contrary to its leaders’ assurance to him, had moved east of agreed-on borders and had, by so doing, increased Russian’s security concerns and nervousness about Ukraine’s possibly joining NATO. Taking this position did not endear him to his own government, of course, and the Russian society at large, which largely saw his restructuring efforts as yielding concessions to the West, with little returns to the USSR and now Russia.
A major issue that should have been addressed as part of the praise of Gorbachev should have been: “what if.” What if he had a partner? What if the U.S. had supported him in his economic restructuring plans, instead of helping to forge a blueprint for his successor, Yeltsin, one that created such social shocks in the rapidity of market reforms (that Putin was later seen as a savior) and organized a post-Soviet Union economy that became increasingly reliant on minerals and agricultural products? What if Washington had accepted the proposed elimination of nuclear weapons and the creation of a common European home?
As important, why was the West so unwilling to sacrifice anything (token expressions of “aid” that Gorbachev understood were tokens) to “risk” the success of Gorbachev? Our military and the industrial sector associated with it would have rebelled, and the Republican Party would, perhaps, not have had a chance to have had George H. W. Bush become president, if the beginning of the dismantling of nuclear weapons and NATO were taking place. But such a course of action would exhibit a type of moral courage that would redound to the benefit of country and the world. Is this type of courage not what Gorbachev was displaying, making him the hero of young people in Washington, D.C., and in Minnesota, where he visited? There would never have been an angry Putin, leading Russia, had it become part of a common European home. Issues with Ukraine, Crimea, and Georgia would be unlikely to have arisen.
And what lessons did we take from Gorbachev’s policies in ending the Cold War? To continue the militarization of international life? To pivot to Asia-Pacific, in another Cold War with China, and nurture more military alliances such as the QUAD Four?
The matter of his not having been accorded a state burial should be saluted; he merited a solemn global recognition, by his most important country, the Earth.