The Mystery of Mikhail Gorbachev's Ambiguous Legacy

Was Mikhail Gorbachev the greatest reformer of the 20th century? Or did he rise to the position of Communist Party leader more or less by accident, only to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union through indecision and fear? Twenty years after perestroika, the politician's legacy is still disputed.


By and in Moscow

This is the second part of a SPIEGEL series looking at the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Read part one here and SPIEGEL's exclusive interview with Gorbachev here.

Let's assume Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika policy had succeeded and the USSR hadn't disintegrated. The Soviet Union would still be the Soviet Union. It might now be a country with a number of vibrant political parties, where different coalitions shared power in Moscow.

Its booming economy might have outstripped China's. German tourists wouldn't just go skiing in the Alps; they'd go to the Caucasus too and they wouldn't need a visa. And Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko would still be working on a collective farm somewhere near Minsk.

But you can forget all that because the huge country of 15 republics and 290 million people imploded 20 years ago. And Gorbachev remains today the person he was, in the eyes of his closest confidant Anatoly Chernyaev, on the day of his resignation on December 25, 1991, when he addressed his people from the Kremlin for the very last time to bemoan their country's demise.

Chernyaev wrote in his diary that Gorbachev spoke fluently, without notes, "with calm, dignity and grandeur. But of course he is a tragic figure, even if I find it hard to apply that word to him as someone who saw him every day."

How could someone whom many consider the greatest reformer of the 20th century be a tragic figure? Someone whom Germans to this day turn out to cheer whenever he visits their country? A man who could bring together 4800 guests at the Royal Albert Hall in London for his 80th birthday this March and who shared a stage with Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger?

There are two photographs of Gorbachev which capture the full sweep of his political career. In the first, dating from 1985, we can see the newly elected general secretary of the Communist Party giving one of his first speeches at the Kremlin, the CPSU insignia visible on the lapel of his plain blue suit. In the other, dating from 2007, he is an advertising icon, being chauffeur-driven past the remains of the Berlin Wall in a black trench coat and pinstripe suit, with a Louis Vuitton luxury travel bag by his side.

What has happened to Gorbachev in the more than 20 intervening years? Why was there such acclaim at the Royal Albert Hall yet not a single representative from the Kremlin at his birthday celebrations in Moscow? Is it fitting that the West fawns over the former Soviet leader? And are Russians, Ukrainians and Uzbeks wrong to see Gorbachev as supremely corrupt because he gambled away their great empire?

The Russian market is currently awash in a wave of new books. They bear titles such as "The End of the Soviet Empire" and "The Contract Killing of the USSR. The True Story of a Catastrophe."

Some books claim that Gorbachev was an American agent tasked with bringing about the collapse of the communist world, a mission he successfully accomplished.

Other pro-Gorbachev titles cultivate legends about the reforming politician, depicting him as a messiah. They are equally guilty in misrepresenting the man with the famous birthmark on his forehead.

At first glance, it seems easy to outline Gorbachev's achievements: He gave his countrymen the right, at long last, to express their opinions openly. He released Andrei Sakharov from internal exile and opened the borders. He calmed fears of a nuclear holocaust. He gave the 100 million inhabitants of the Eastern bloc their independence back. He improved his country's relations with China and Israel.

None of that is controversial, at least not in the West. The only question is which of those things came about as a result of his political will. Who was and is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev really?

The Legend of the Early Communist Reformer

Was it Zdenk Mlyná who set the story of Gorbachev the dissident in motion? Mlyná was a student friend of Gorbachev's from Prague who worked as central committee secretary under Czechoslovakia's leader Alexander Dubek at the time of his ill-fated Prague Spring reforms in 1968. Mlyná later fled to the West. He had studied law with Gorbachev in Moscow in the early 1950s and said later that his Russian friend had displayed bravery and considerable rebelliousness very early on, had expressed doubts about the Soviet command economy from the outset and had revolutionized agriculture in his home region of Stavropol.

To date, there is an assumption that the arrest of Gorbachev's grandfather Andrei in 1934 on suspicion of being a kulak turned Mikhail Gorbachev, the son of a peasant, into an enemy of the regime; he is also said to have harbored reformist ideas from an early age. It is a myth.

Gorbachev was born in the southern Russian village of Privolnoye near Stavropol in 1931. He experienced the German invasion first hand, and his father served as a soldier in the war. The young Gorbachev drove combine-harvesters after the war was won. He studied, moved back to Stavropol, and became an official in the Communist Party's youth division, Komsomol. He was local party leader by 1970, having been a Communist Party member since his school days.

And thus continued Gorbachev's progress, mired neither in conflict nor scandal. In the words of Russian historian Roy Medvedev, Gorbachev's political biography was "markedly uneventful" until 1985. As a loyal party member, he fought against suspected opponents of communism, as one incident described by György Dalos in his biography "Gorbachev. Man and Power" demonstrates. Social scientist Fagim Sadykov, head of the Agricultural Institute in Stavropol, wrote a doctoral thesis advocating autonomy for kolkhoz farmers. The thesis was officially banned, and Gorbachev himself also savaged it. The dissertation defense was canceled. Sadykov lost his post and disappeared from Stavropol.

Gorbachev later said he felt "pangs of remorse" that he had acted this way against someone with a dissenting view. "I was a product of the system," Gorbachev himself said. In the majority of his speeches prior to 1985, Medvedev says there is "not a single original idea that you could quote."

It was more or less chance that led to Gorbachev coming to the attention of Moscow party headquarters and being made the Central Committee's agricultural secretary: Stavropol was close to the Caucasus resorts where the Moscow party elite liked to recharge their batteries and it was, of course, part of the regional party secretary's job to look after important guests. Gorbachev was pleasant to deal with and "had a way with words", according to one assessment -- all of which pleased his future patron, the head of the KGB.

Even when in Moscow, Gorbachev continued to be fairly insipid politically. The agriculture position was regarded as a kind of political hot seat whose occupant could easily lose his job. And so the newcomer proceeded with caution and loyalty. But the fact that he would be considered for the post of general secretary just a few years later came down to his age and eloquence, which was completely exceptional in party circles. He was just 54, and the youngest Politburo member, when Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko died at the age of 73, the third death of a party leader to befall the country in 28 months.

His greatest deficiency was that he wouldn't bring much experience to the top job. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, even his close colleagues knew neither his political views nor his political goals. At the time, he probably didn't even know them himself.

"We can't go on like this." That was his only slogan. Yet even that sounded like a revelation to his people, who began to expect great things of him. It was Gorbachev's job to modernize a sclerotic regime whose recent leaders had ended up ruling from their sick-beds.


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johnwerneken 08/22/2013
1. The Mystery of Mikhail
More like Moses than Christ, he led to the spot where a future might be glimpsed on the horizon, and no further. Good article!
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