On Tuesday, August 30th, Mikhail Gorbachev quietly passed away at the august age of 91. His death marks the end of a curious and conflicted path for the last leader of the Soviet Union. Almost all of mainstream Western media spent the days immediately following his death in one of two ways: either commenting on his legendary heroic status in the West that remained unblemished right up until his very last breath or on the somewhat muted, if still respectful, offering of condolences (but with no official day of mourning or formal state funeral) by President Vladimir Putin. In a way, these two emphases by Western media illustrates just how much of a complicated figure Gorbachev was and why he was destined to never be as popular in his own land as in the land of his once vaunted “enemy.”
Most old-school Sovietologists in America claim to admire Gorbachev because it was his decision in the late 1980s that basically allowed “eastern Europe to escape Soviet communist control.” It is bitterly humorous that such accomplished American academics and diplomats do not seem to notice how the very structure of that last sentence is obviously degrading to Russian elites. It also did no domestic reputational favors for Gorbachev himself that he was able to subsequently live very comfortably off of earnings made in the West delivering speeches that would basically solidify and affirm that Western impression (at his death he had an estimated net worth of 5 million USD, an unattainable figure for 99% of the Russian population today). This is not so much a criticism of Gorbachev making money. It was rather quickly evident in the 1990s that Boris Yeltsin was never going to let him regain a relevant political foothold in Russia or return to political power in any proper and formal way. But it is a lament that Gorbachev was either oblivious to or indifferent about the fact that this profiting was based on his willingness to confirm that the best path for countries across Eastern Europe was to, ostensibly, get as far away as possible from the very country he was leading. In other words, the West was paying Gorbachev in order to praise him for making his own leadership a pariah. After all, “escaping Soviet communist control” quite literally meant in this time period that you were “escaping the Gorbachevian regime” pure and simple. This odd arrangement would ultimately doom Gorbachev at home and lead to one of the most misinterpreted statements made by Putin (misunderstood at least by Western experts).
Most scholars are quick to claim that Gorbachev began much-needed economic and political reforms when he began “Perestroika” and “Glasnost,” but that the overall state of the Soviet Union at the time was already too far degraded, thus resulting in Gorbachev losing control of his own reforms and leading directly to the calamitous events of 1991, culminating with the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev being a de facto Supreme Leader with no country to lead. But this analysis glosses over the important contributing factor of American foreign policy, which had by then spent at least two decades pushing very hard to force the Soviet Union to maintain détente and a military balance of strength with the United States. Most fans of Ronald Reagan today proudly crow about how it was their great leader that basically “outspent the Soviet Union into oblivion.” Thus, while it is true Gorbachev ultimately could not keep his hands tightly on the reins of his own reforms, one of the main reasons for that loss of control was the strategic military policy of the Soviet Union’s main rival. And it cannot be underestimated just how impactful this loss of control was for the USSR’s power successor, the Russian Federation.
While this was the grand time in the West where highly intelligent and respected thinkers talked about “the end of history” and led discussions about how America could best spend the “peace dividend,” both of these pithy phrases were, again, based on the demise of Russian power. The end of history was in reference to the formal end of the Cold War and the understanding that it was democracy that had triumphed definitively over communism. The peace dividend only existed because it was America basically admitting that it now would have billions of free dollars to utilize on other projects since it no longer had to worry about defeating Soviet Russia militarily (ie, because successor Russia was already defeated and therefore irrelevant). Indeed, when the ultimate consequences endured by the Russian Federation throughout the 1990s are viewed objectively (a nightmarish demographic health and standards of living crisis, rife political corruption, rampant economic inequality, and further political reforms that seemed to not only push regular Russians deeper into destitution but also tied Russia into a de facto vassal state to Western powers), it is no wonder why Gorbachev very quickly in this decade became a most unwelcome figure in his own country and spent the majority of his time living and speaking in the West.
It was these consequences that led to President Putin making the famous statement that is still highlighted in so many American intelligence analyses as “proof” that Russia and America can never be allies: in 2005, when asked about the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he called it the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Almost without exception, American experts on Russia have interpreted this as Putin’s secret desire to one day reinvent and reintegrate the Soviet Union (this should sound very familiar to anyone who has paid attention to Western analyses of the current Ukraine conflict). In fact, this is completely wrong-headed and a failure of Western minds to put themselves into the shoes of Russian political elites. Putin has by now spent over two decades, in his estimation, dealing with the consequences of what Gorbachev failed to keep under control and maintain. The loss of Soviet power was nothing for the Russian Federation compared to the political, economic, and humanitarian degradation that followed that loss. Therefore, that “geopolitical catastrophe” is not a wistful fantasy about one day re-creating the Soviet Union. Rather, it is an objective analysis of what the loss of that stability and power did in real terms to the Russian state and its people. And while experts in the West seem reluctant to consider that interpretation, one can be certain that elites in Russia are aware of who they consider to be the reckless architect of that catastrophe: Mikhail Gorbachev.
History can be a harsh judge. It is highly likely that the moment in time that represented the demise of the Soviet Union would have been too big for any Russian leader. But unfortunately for him, it was Gorbachev who stood in front of that crashing wave. It was clearly too big for him. However, unlike many failed and deposed leaders of former empires, he was allowed a second act that permitted him to live comfortably well beyond the average life expectancy of Russian males today. It was indeed a grand irony that that comfort was founded upon the appreciation of an enemy that was always determined to defeat him. Perhaps then it is not so ironic that Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing has to be considered not so much the death of a Russian statesman as the demise of an “American” hero.