Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who changed the world

Boris Yurchenko/AP/File
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev waves from the Red Square tribune during a Revolution Day celebration, in Moscow, Soviet Union, Nov. 7, 1989.
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Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, was one of the most influential figures on the 20th-century international stage. Few leaders in history have ushered in such sweeping change as the last president of the Soviet Union, who fundamentally transformed his country and revolutionized global affairs.

Mr. Gorbachev broke the mold of Soviet leaders, championing “perestroika” – economic reform – and “glasnost” – opening up – in a bid to modernize a creaking system so as to ensure that it survived.

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Mikhail Gorbachev helped end the Cold War and oversaw the demise of the totalitarian Soviet Union, offering freedom and hope. But his dream of a “common European homeland” has died.

But that task proved beyond him; the system could not be saved, and as the Soviet Union collapsed the centrally planned economy followed suit, wreaking havoc on people’s lives for several years.

Feted in the West for his role in helping to end the Cold War and for laying the foundations of a democratic political system at home, Mr. Gorbachev enjoyed a much worse reputation in his native Russia after he stepped down because he was blamed for economic chaos and the precipitous fall in Moscow’s international status once the Soviet Union no longer existed.

But even if he had not intended to destroy the Soviet Union, he refused to use force to keep it alive. Steering the superpower to a peaceful end, he saved his people, and the wider world, a potentially bloody denouement.

Few statesmen in history have ushered in such sweeping change as Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader and a great visionary who sought to reshape his country and the world. 

Even fewer have brought about the fundamental transformation of their own country, and revolutionized global relations too, without war, social upheaval or, indeed, any major violence at all.

But Mr. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday, lived long enough to witness his greatest legacy, the peaceful unwinding of the USSR into 15 sovereign nation states, being destroyed. The current war in Ukraine is a violent effort by Mr. Gorbachev’s successors to overturn the post-Soviet settlement, redraw the region’s borders, and impose new rules upon the global order.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Mikhail Gorbachev helped end the Cold War and oversaw the demise of the totalitarian Soviet Union, offering freedom and hope. But his dream of a “common European homeland” has died.

Whatever world may eventually emerge from this turmoil, it is unlikely to resemble Mr. Gorbachev’s vision of a cooperative world order, mutual security, and a “common European homeland” united from Vladivostok to Lisbon.

After he left office on December 25, 1991, the giant, ramshackle superpower that had been the Soviet Union – and one pole of a bitter 40 year Cold War between East and West – ceased to exist. Thanks in large part to his efforts, as well as his impressive restraint as the USSR crumbled and its elites panicked, the world became a radically different and potentially much better place.

Fifteen independent states emerged from the ruins of the USSR, each with its own destiny. But the main Soviet successor state and Mr. Gorbachev’s homeland is Russia, which, despite everything, remains very much a work in progress.

Until recently, few in Russia would have imagined any return to the rigidly authoritarian, hyper-centralized, ideology-obsessed one-party state that Mr. Gorbachev inherited when he was handed the challenging post of Communist Party General Secretary – the Soviet Union’s top job – in March 1985.

A mold breaker

During the six tumultuous years that he led the former Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev laid the foundations of a democratic system by transferring the power held for 70 years by a Communist Party monopoly to real, functioning legislatures staffed by people's representatives chosen in genuinely competitive elections. He championed “glasnost,” or openness, which flung open the USSR’s long-sealed doors and windows, giving people freedom to speak their minds and access to an independent and critical media for the first time in their lives.

Bob Galbraith/AP/File
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, left, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev don cowboy hats while enjoying a moment at Reagan's Rancho del Cielo north of Santa Barbara, California, on May 2, 1992.

Less successfully, he promoted “perestroika,” or economic reform, which led to the short term breakdown of the centrally planned system, but which cleared the way for an eventual – and still incomplete – profound transformation of Russia on the principles of private property, market economics, and individual rights.

Mr. Gorbachev will be best remembered in the West as the Soviet leader who broke the Communist mold. His radical agenda of glasnost and perestroika upended long-held preconceptions about the Soviet Union and convinced even a hardened cold warrior such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan that the time had arrived to fashion a lasting peace with Moscow.

In a series of stunning diplomatic breakthroughs between 1986 and 1990, Mr. Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush engaged with Mr. Gorbachev to end the Cold War, slash the nuclear weapons arsenals of both sides, peacefully dismantle Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and negotiate the orderly reunification of long-divided Germany. Separately, Mr. Gorbachev ended the USSR’s decade-long war in Afghanistan, and brought the troops home.

His reputation in his native Russia has been more controversial. Public opinion polls were consistently unkind to him after he left office. Mr. Gorbachev had set out to reform the Soviet system, not to destroy it, and many of his compatriots will never forgive him for that huge miscalculation.

“Gorbachev proved incapable of reforming the Communist system effectively, as they did in China, and so his leadership turned out to be a wonderful gift to the West and a curse for the Russian people,” says Viktor Baranets, former spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, now a military columnist. “So I, and very many others, will always regard him as the undertaker who buried our great army and the Soviet state.”

But few will deny that, when faced with the choice of using brute force to hang onto power or allowing the USSR to collapse peacefully, he decisively chose the latter. The alternative might have been a bloody, Yugoslav-style civil war, but Mr. Gorbachev’s unyielding adherence to his principles prevented that.

A believer in the better side of human nature

In a Nobel lecture after winning the 1990 Peace Prize for his role in nuclear disarmament, Mr. Gorbachev spelled out his core personal beliefs. “Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences. And, ideally, peace means the absence of violence. It is an ethical value,” he said.

When Communist hardliners staged a coup in August 1991, their first step was to imprison Mr. Gorbachev. Popular pressure defeated the coup attempt, and also swung the mood of the country against any continuation of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev bowed to that historic reality, with considerable grace, in his resignation speech near the end of 1991. The red hammer-and-sickle flag was pulled down from the Kremlin for the last time.

Laurent Rebours/AP/File
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, wave to a crowd during their visit to Paris July 5, 1989.

“I believe it’s a good thing for a country to be headed by a romantic, at least from time to time,” says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Foundation, a media freedom watchdog, who knew Mr. Gorbachev for many years. “Gorbachev always believed in the better side of human nature, in kindness and compassion. Those are unusual traits in a national leader, they did not work to his advantage, and many people still cannot understand him. But he showed great courage at a critical moment, when he did not give certain orders to his military and security machines, and he put his trust in the people to do the right thing instead. Of course, that’s why many still say he was a failure as a leader.”

A lonely voice

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born to a peasant family in the southern Russian territory of Stavropol, near the Black Sea, in 1931. Like many in that region, the family was half-Ukrainian. His childhood was turbulent, marked by waves of extreme hardship, including famine, an often-violent struggle waged by the Communists to force the peasantry into collective farms, and the Stalinist purges that saw both his grandfathers hauled away to prison camps.

But those early traumas may have left Mr. Gorbachev with a deeper perspective and informed his future zeal to make the world a better place. “We are right to think of Gorbachev as a world-scale historical figure,” says Nikolai Svanidze, a historian. “He acquired great wisdom in his life and he used it as best he could; he did not try to oppose the winds of history.”

During the 1950’ he studied law at Moscow University, joined the Communist Party, and met and married the woman whom he would describe as the greatest influence on his life, Raisa Titarenko, a philosophy student who later acquired a degree in sociology. In his 1987 book, “Perestroika,” Mr. Gorbachev said that it was his wife’s studies of the gritty realities of Soviet life, as opposed to the high-flown precepts of Marxism-Leninism, that guided him as he sought to work out a reform program that, he hoped, would correct the dysfunctions of the Soviet system and help to realize the positive, humane potential he saw in socialism.

After graduating from university in 1955, Mr. Gorbachev returned to his native Stavropol, where he began a long climb through Communist Party ranks. By all accounts he was an energetic, capable young man, with fresh ideas that were always presented as achievable within the existing system. In 1970 he reached the pinnacle of local politics, being appointed as First Secretary, or party chief, of the Stavropol territory.

That job automatically accorded him a place on the Central Committee, the Soviet Communist Party’s top body, in Moscow. He rose quickly there too during the 1970s, increasingly regarded as the coming man at a time of gerontocratic leadership, typified by the aging and sometimes doddering Leonid Brezhnev, that Russians still recall as the “era of stagnation.”

In March 1985, Gorbachev finally got the top job. The brief, turbulent years that Mr. Gorbachev occupied the Kremlin changed Russia and the world forever. But Mr. Gorbachev outlasted by decades the country he had led to its bitter end.

Often a lonely voice urging Russians not to forget the achievements of glasnost and perestroika, he first embraced the rise of Vladimir Putin, then turned critical over the erosion of democratic rights and humane values that he perceived occurring in Putin-era Russia. He also soured on relations with the West, particularly the United States, which he blamed for expanding NATO into the former Soviet sphere and undermining the hard-won arms control treaties that had ended the Cold War and curbed the threat of nuclear war.

His premonitions about the danger that deteriorating East-West relations would lead to war and fresh divisions seem to have been borne out amid today’s mutual hostility and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Indeed, Mr. Gorbachev’s hopes for a peaceful new world order, eloquently expressed in his Nobel speech, will stand as a stark reminder of all that remains to be realized.

“All members of the world community should resolutely discard old stereotypes and motivations nurtured by the Cold War, and give up the habit of seeking each other’s weak spots and exploiting them in their own interests,” he said.

“We have to respect the peculiarities and differences which will always exist,” he went on. “This is an incentive to study each other, to engage in exchanges, a prerequisite for the growth of mutual trust. For knowledge and trust are the foundations of a new world order.”

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