The Great Gorby: How a country received freedom and didn’t use it
September 1, 2022
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mikhail Gorbachev delivered the world from the fear of a nuclear catastrophe and returned to humanity the human – the ability to think and feel free. At the same time, he believed to the last in the possibility of preserving the USSR and socialism, the destruction of which he is usually accused of, recalls political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov.
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and republished here with their permission.
Our era is surprisingly superficial. It simplifies everything. What’s the big monster called The Majority thinking now? It says: we didn’t need to start perestroika, it brought more bad than good, Gorbachev destroyed the USSR.

The leaders who tried to liberalize the country and de-Stalinize it – Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin – are unpopular. Those who tightened the screws, froze or sedated the state and society, on the contrary, are considered effective managers. Probably, with Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, as with the Great French Revolution, it’s too early to draw conclusions. That era is too close to appreciate the cyclopean scale of what the former secretary of the Central Committee, nicknamed the Combine Driver, did. Yet too far for society to remember the details of what it cost Gorbachev to remake the country and himself.
Gorbachev addressing the United Nations General Assembly in December 1988. Source: Wiki Commons
The idea as a material force

“He managed the flow of ideas and only thus the country,” Pasternak wrote about Lenin. That it would be more than fair to say about Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, and Yeltsin as well. Contrary to the Marxist formula, consciousness, or rather the idea of freedom, determined the life of the nation in the era of these leaders, and not vice versa. In full agreement with another Marxist formula, the idea, having seized the masses, became a material force. The idea of freedom gave rise to romantic Leninism and the thaw of the Khrushchev era. The idea of democracy and glasnost drove Gorbachev's perestroika and liberated millions of people. The idea of transforming the economy and society in the Yeltsin period returned Russia, after a thick stratum of decades, to a market economy, private property, universal values and human rights. That is, Russia was pushed toward Europe.

It seemed like it was forever. The Moors – Gorbachev and Yeltsin, antagonists in politics, leaders of freedom in the philosophy of history – have done their work, the Moors can go.
But it turned out that there would be no more leaders of this type in Russia. It turned out that after them the idea of freedom began to slowly go too, and the country began to turn away from Europe. Meanwhile, they left the way truly democratic politicians leave – and these are men who cut their teeth in regional party committees! They left voluntarily. They stepped aside. They didn’t cling to power until their fingers turned white and their lips blue. As they bid farewell, they gave their best speeches in decades. Yeltsin had the courage to apologize for possible mistakes, Gorbachev warned not to squander democratic gains.

These leaders, who, I emphasize, were enemies politically, have been put on a par by history as reformers and, in the terms of the 19th century, liberators.
Unarmed civilians defend the Lithuanian Press House from Soviet Army paratroopers, January 1991. Source: Wiki Commins
Pride and prejudice

Gorbachev made mistakes. Gorbachev had prejudices.The black-and-white monument to Khrushchev at the Novodevichy Cemetery reflects the mixed nature of Nikita Sergeevich, whose reign included the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, the Novocherkassk massacre and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he provoked. Yet he gave freedom to and rehabilitated many innocent people tortured by a terrible dictatorship. He changed, albeit temporarily, the atmosphere in the country.

Gorbachev had, especially at the end of his reign, difficult episodes. For example, the January events in Vilnius in 1991 (Forbes: the clashes between supporters of Lithuanian independence on the one side and soldiers of the Soviet army and members of the National Salvation Committee on the other that took place less than a year after Lithuania declared it was seceding from the USSR). For the former regional secretary who had ascended to the Central Committee, many moves did not come easy. In particular, for a long time Mikhail Sergeevich wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of the secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He delayed acknowledging Katyn. Still, in the end he acknowledged both.
Mikhail Sergeevich clung to Lenin. This may seem ridiculous now. But he contrasted Lenin with Stalin, and that was no laughing matter and very serious. Gorby began a second de-Stalinization, which even Yeltsin couldn’t see to the end later.

While insisting on glasnost, Gorbachev long covered up details of the Chernobyl accident. Launching economic reforms, he got off on the wrong foot – he started pumping state funds into machine building. Despite uskoreniye, real reforms were delayed by a couple years. But starting from the June 1987 Plenum, they began. And then they slowed down. It was Gorbachev and his ministers who wouldn’t go through with liberalizing the economy. The consequences were dealt with by Yeltsin and Gaidar.

Gorby allowed elections, but with the so-called “Red Hundred” locked in. He unleashed democratic energy, freed Andrei Sakharov, but didn’t shield Sakharov from being smeared. He bathed in popularity, canceled Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution – guaranteeing the omnipotence of the party-state – but then didn’t dare to hold popular elections for the president of the USSR.
“Gorbachev's Dilemma:” he gave freedom to the media and more broadly to opinions while himself becoming a victim of this freedom. Yet he didn’t suppress it!

The republics left the Soviet Union, many cursing the empire and de facto occupation. But they were able to throw off the yoke of the empire only after Gorbachev actually allowed it. Rather, he allowed them to speak freely and assemble peacefully, without weapons, as part of the empire and the socialist choice. Without understanding the avalanche he had triggered.

He didn’t want to abandon socialism. He believed that the Union could be saved. It has become a commonplace that he destroyed it, and yet the empire, the last after the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and British, was falling apart in accordance with the inexorable logic of history. Gorby wanted to strengthen it by giving it freedom, but it immediately began to crumble like a badly baked pie.
Gorbachev was late. He withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan when the Afghan war itself was already morally corroding the USSR from the inside.

Mikhail Gorbachev ran ahead of the avalanche, pretending or even thinking that he was guiding it. However, it was already uncontrollable. In the end, he ran away from it, from this avalanche. The society was liberated faster than the state.
Gorbachev visiting Reagan, both in western wear, at Rancho del Cielo in 1992. Source: Wiki Commons
Delivery from fear

The world is grateful to Gorbachev for the Fukuyaman “end of history” – a state that has been a reality for some time – and Francis Fukuyama, who is still completely undeservedly beat up for this conclusion, has said as much. Communism has fallen. For some time, Western democracy with its liberal values and free market has been the role model. Respected are not sultanates or dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, but political systems that involve normal development without wars, repression, excessive state interference in the economy and secret police intrusion into the private life and private thoughts of the private person.

The world adored Gorbachev. It called him Gorby. Before he became an idol abroad, however, Mikhail Sergeevich first saw his popularity skyrocket in the Soviet Union. Now people don't remember or don't want to remember.

He didn’t destroy anything – everything was “broken when we got here.” Sure, he was misguided. He believed in empire and in socialism, which is exactly what he is accused of destroying. He delivered the world from the fear of a nuclear catastrophe, returned to humanity the human – the ability to think and feel free.

Stepping down as USSR president, he humanly explained himself to people: “The country had lost its vision. It was impossible to live like that. We needed to radically change everything.” He added: “That's why I’ve never regretted that I take advantage of the position of general secretary just to ‘rule’ for several years." However, he himself launched the process that would deprive him of the opportunity to sit nicely in the general secretary’s chair on the fifth floor of the building on Staraya Square.

And at the same time, he knew his own worth: “Society received freedom, became liberated politically and spiritually. And this is the most important achievement, which we haven’t fully realized because we haven’t yet learned how to use freedom.”

More than three decades have passed since then, and we haven’t yet learned how to use freedom. Although Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev allowed it. In fact, we abandoned it. Although Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev gave it to us.
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