A giant has fallen. Nobel laureate Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, died yesterday after a long illness, at the age of 91.
Many people had a hand in the transformation of the world that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s that we neatly, if somewhat inadequately, describe as the “end of the Cold War.” But Gorbachev stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was the one indispensable ingredient; without him, our world would be a different and much more dangerous place.
For those who have grown up since, it must be hard to fully appreciate the change. But until Gorbachev’s time, no-one know how or if a totalitarian system could be dismantled, by anything short of catastrophic military defeat. And no-one wanted to pay the price of nuclear war to overthrow the Soviet empire: “peaceful co-existence”, with all the moral compromises it involved, seemed vastly preferable.
Occasionally western politicians expressed sympathy for the people of Russia or of the “captive nations” – the tens of millions in central and eastern Europe who were denied basic self-determination. But most of the time they were simply ignored. What else could we do?
Change in the Soviet Union had to come from within. Gorbachev was the one who grasped the nettle, and he was fortunate to find a partner in the American president, Ronald Reagan, who shared his belief in the importance of freedom and the power of ideas.
Not everyone saw things that way. Although the Cold War (like the current war in Ukraine) seemed to put them on the same side, western policy was divided between idealists and realists. For the realists, whether the people of the Soviet empire were free or not made no difference; what mattered was the geopolitical rivalry, which carried on regardless. As a realist article put it just last year, “democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests.”
And by the time the Soviet Union itself imploded in 1991, George Bush was president and the realists were back in the saddle in America. Under both him and his successor, Bill Clinton, who was preoccupied with domestic matters, opportunities to help Russia modernise and democratise were allowed to go begging. We are now paying the price for that failure, although the people of Russia and Ukraine are paying an immeasurably greater one.
It was Gorbachev’s misfortune that he lived to see the ruin of all that he had tried to achieve for Russia. Vladimir Putin, misunderstood and mishandled by the west, gradually turned the clock back to autocracy and imperialism. Gorbachev in old age became progressively more critical of the Putin regime, and his final months were darkened by the invasion of Ukraine.
But if he felt that his career had been a failure, he was wrong. Thanks to him, the people of two dozen nations enjoy a level of freedom that only forty years ago seemed like a wild, impossible fantasy. Ripples from that transformation spread across the globe (we noted one example of many in Angola just last week). Even Putin’s Russia, though now far from the “normal country” that Gorbachev wanted to make it, is a freer place than he found it.
And all of this was accomplished almost without bloodshed, despite the shadow of weapons that could have destroyed the planet. For that, Gorbachev deserves all of the tributes being heaped on him today – and the contrast between those from the west and the perfunctory statement from the Kremlin bears witness to the real nature of his legacy.
Rest in peace.