Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the greatest politicians of all time. Without him, the world today would be less free, more than 500 million people would still live in fear of an evil system that enslaved and terrorized them all over the world. That does not mean, of course, that he succeeded with everything he intended, on the contrary. In part, it is his failure that has left the world indebted to him.
Gorbachev believed that Socialism could be better if it was reformed. To clarify, under Soviet doctrine, “Socialism” is the word for the implementation of ideas by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin (and, in China, Mao) in the real world, while Communism would be the utopian ideal achieved once the world revolution had succeeded. Socialism is the transition form towards Communism. What “Socialists” in the West are typically calling “Socialism” tends to be a variant of Social Democracy (whereas “Democratic Socialism” tends to move towards more radical Socialism).
The belief that such reform was possible led Gorbachev to conduct a great experiment: the promotion of перестройка (perestroika/restructuring) and гласность (glasnost, openness, transparency). These two steps were deeply necessary for reforming the Soviet system, and for a few years, the Soviet Union became a truly revolutionary entity whose ideas were seen as too radical and democratic for countries like East Germany in which I grew up. I remember that Soviet magazines like Sputnik (the Russian Reader’s Digest, basically) were banned as they challenged Socialist orthodoxy. Sadly, today Sputnik is a reactionary Putin propaganda outlet. Yet this restructuring revealed a core insight, which – unintentionally – Gorbachev allowed to be seen clearly: Socialism does not work without lies and dictatorship. As soon as perestroika and glasnost were introduced, the lies were exposed, the system’s evil nature became clear, and the push by truly revolutionary organizations like Poland’s Solidarność (Solidarity) union were allowed to succeed. All around Russia, democratic reform movements pushed Socialism out. The reign of terror ended. Soviet-supported dictatorships around the world lost their sponsor of terror, and the Cold War was won by proving the value of democracy and freedom over dictatorship and unfreedom. Gorbachev’s glorious mistake showed that Socialism cannot succeed.
When Gorbachev visited the East Germany in October 1989 for her 40th (and ultimately last) birthday, he landed at Berlin-Schoenefeld Airport. My classmates and I were sent there to greet them, standing on the street when the motorcade passed. No one waved when Honecker’s car passed – everyone just wanted to see “Gorbi” and cheer him on. “History punishes those who come too late,” he is reported to have said. Unlike his predecessors, he would not sent Soviet tanks when the people in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and all the other states in the prison house of nations rose up. The GDR system was punished and we were finally liberated.
Sadly, the one place this lesson failed to take root were Russia, Belarus, Central Asia and until more recently, Ukraine. Gorbachev was also less kind to Soviet republics within the USSR grasp. Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Federation, worked to dismantle the Soviet Union and thus ended the experiment prematurely. Yeltsin was an utter catastrophe. He failed to make democratic reforms sustainable, and under his chosen successor Putin, things deteriorated further. Gorbachev represented modernity and forward thinking, while Putin is pursuing tradition and backwardness.
Gorbachev has continually been demonized by Putin, but blame for the state of affairs in Russia and the post-Soviet world belongs to Yeltsin and Putin and the criminals represent by them, not Gorbachev. Where Putin thinks small – trying to rekindle old ideas and driving Russia back into the past – Gorbachev thought big and aimed for the future, rekindling hope and the quest for more humane government around the world.
He was not perfect – as nobody ever is –, and he certainly remained a believer in reformable Socialism, but without him, millions of people would never have known democracy and freedom. He and his wife Raisa will be sorely missed.