MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

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MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

Gorbachev was a controversial figure; his legacy was complex. Hailed in the West as a democrat and liberator of his people – which he genuinely was – he increasingly became despised by many within Russia for destroying the Soviet Union and dismantling a great power. The invasion of Ukraine is, in part, an attempt to reverse the loss of status felt in post-Cold War Russia by the disintegration of the Soviet Union that occurred under Gorbachev – something Vladimir Putin views as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
In a sense, the unravelling of the Soviet Union that began 30 years ago is still going on, in the bloody war in Ukraine. In the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the USSR in the West was of a giant nuclear-armed Communist country, a revolutionary, expansionist state, seriously threatening the “free world”. But it was, in reality, economically stagnating, socially conservative and politically quite fragile. By the late 1980s, Gorbachev was caught between a conservative elite, which feared change, and self-styled democrats, led by his nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who clamoured for more radical change. Of course, that is not how he is perceived in the West. After enduring Western suspicions when he first came to power that he was simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an insincere reformer who was a hard-line communist, Gorbachev managed to convince the sceptics abroad of his sincerity. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found in Gorbachev someone she could ‘do business with’. Then, through her, US President Ronald Reagan came around to the view that Gorbachev was indeed an authentic dismantler of the Soviet command system.
Early fears in the West evolved into anxiety about Gorbachev’s survival as he embarked on his great project. He was a reformer aspiring to be a revolutionary from above, wanting to liberalize and democratize his country to save socialism. But, in the process, he ended up undermining socialism as the major alternative to Western neoliberal capitalism. His rushed reforms to modernize the Soviet Union were overtaken by developments on the ground that saw the socialist project fall, to be replaced by a new era in Russia marked by growing nationalism and renewed authoritarianism. Once he achieved the highest position in the party, i.e. of general secretary; in 1985, he embarked on a pell-mell program of reform. It was centered on two ideas, “perestroika,” the restructuring of the political and economic system, and “glasnost” the end of censorship, and the introduction of freedom of speech and the press. But from the start, the economic reforms proved to be flawed. Mammoth problems, including the fall in the world price of oil — the USSR’s greatest source of foreign exchange — a devastating earthquake in Armenia, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster impoverished the country and eroded Gorbachev’s popularity at home. His foreign policy achievements, the withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, liberating the Soviet satellite states in East Central Europe, and the reduction of nuclear arms won him friends abroad. But many of his closest comrades at home, particularly in the military and KGB, the state security service, were appalled by his surrender of what they considered the gains from the victory over fascism in World War II. On Gorbachev’s watch, the Soviet Union rapidly declined from a superpower into a pathetically weak state begging for financial help from the George H.W. Bush administration, which never came through. He allowed the two German states, separated during the Cold War by the Berlin Wall, into a Western and a Soviet-controlled sector, to reunite without gaining much from the deal.
His intention to turn an empire, in which one nationality dominated over subordinate peoples, into a genuinely democratic federation of equal nations was approved by more than three-quarters of those who voted in a referendum in March 1991. But a few months later, that plan floundered when some of his generals and secret police agents launched a coup against him. The plotters failed, but the winner of the three-day standoff was not Gorbachev, but Yeltsin. In early December, three inebriated leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in a forest setting in the absence of Gorbachev, where they came up with a hastily conceived plan to break up the USSR and abolish Gorbachev’s presidency. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the process of internal disintegration within the Soviet Union (USSR) which resulted at the end of the country’s and its federal government’s existence as a sovereign state, thereby resulting in its constituent republics gaining full sovereignty on 26 December 1991. It brought an end to Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to reform the Soviet political and economic system , with an aim to stop a period of political stalemate and economic backslide. The Soviet Union had experienced internal stagnation and ethnic separatism. The USSR, although a highly centralized state, was made up of 21 republics that served as homelands for different ethnicities. By late 1991, amidst a catastrophic political crisis, with several republics already departing the Union and the waning of centralized power, the leaders of three of its founding members declared that the Soviet Union no longer existed. Eight more republics joined their declaration shortly thereafter. Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and what was left of the Soviet parliament voted to end itself.
The Soviet world ended “not with a bang, but a whimper,” to borrow from the poet T.S. Eliot. A weak, ineffective Commonwealth of Independent States was established in which there would be no role for Gorbachev. Gorbachev tried to do too much, too fast without the resources to achieve his goals. By 1990, his weakness and indecision had derailed the revolution from above. A great emancipator, Gorbachev left a mixed legacy. He expanded freedom for millions but, at the same time, unleashed roiling waves of nationalism and left the upturned soil for renewed authoritarianism. Gorbachev died at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow on 30 August 2022, at the age of 91. He died after a severe and prolonged illness, according to the hospital, having been under the continuous supervision of doctors since the beginning of 2020. As requested in his will, Gorbachev was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, next to his wife Raisa, who died in 1999. Gorbachev was the longest-lived ruler of Russia in history.

The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at hbz77@yahoo.com

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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