Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a Cold War hero or a failed idealist: the historians' verdict
Respected in the west but often condemned in his former homeland, Mikhail Gorbachev is a divisive figure. Following his death in August 2022, Matt Elton spoke to three experts – David Reynolds, Kristina Spohr and Evan Mawdsley – for their takes on the life and global legacy of the Soviet Union's final leader
David Reynolds: "Mikhail Gorbachev started an avalanche he could not control... how he will be remembered may well depend on whether Ukraine can hold on to its independence and territory"
Mikhail Gorbachev was a classic example of a reformer who unwittingly precipitated a revolution. When, aged 54, he took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, he seemed a breath of fresh air after the wheezing old leaders of the past. But rather like France’s Ancien Régime in the 1780s, his bid to modernise party and state brought down the whole house of cards and then spawned an imperialist dictator.
Initially, Gorbachev’s buzzword was uskoreniye, or acceleration – getting things moving but still within the framework of the government-run command economy. Yet lack of progress pushed him into a more radical restructuring of industry and the party (perestroika), which required greater openness and transparency (glasnost).
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A catalyst was the explosion in April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then one of the Soviet republics), which released more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The disaster transformed domestic and foreign policy. It started a protest movement against the USSR’s appalling environmental pollution, which powered wider political agitation.
It undermined Gorbachev’s push for nuclear power to offset the USSR’s reliance on oil and natural gas, eroding economic stability just as he began clumsy attempts to create a “regulated market economy”. And it reinforced his determination to reduce the arms burden on the economy through agreements with the United States, mostly achieved by significant Soviet concessions. Yet he had gained a new sense that “we live in a vulnerable” but “interconnected world”, and this never left him.
In 1988–89, Gorbachev embraced cautious democratisation. A special CPSU conference endorsed competitive elections and set limits on terms of office. This was intended to open up the ruling party and encourage new blood. Among those elected was Boris Yeltsin, a Gorbachev ally turned critic, who won the special citywide seat for Moscow. Then, in 1990, the “leading role” of the CPSU was removed from the constitution and a separate USSR presidency established.
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Gorbachev wanted to separate party from state to make the latter more efficient, but he continued to be leader of both. He did not open up the presidency to democratic election, nor try to break the conservatives within the CPSU, and his lack of democratic credentials and firm power base would eventually prove fatal. By the end of 1989, the Soviet satellites in eastern Europe turned Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” and his slogan of a “Common European Home” into a new post-communist era. Soviet republics also gained greater autonomy – especially in the Caucasus and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were freed from the tsarist empire after 1918 but annexed anew by Stalin in 1944.
Yet the real sleeping giant was Russia itself, almost 80 per cent of the land area of the USSR and its principal banker. Yeltsin was now its leader, winning a landslide election victory in June 1991. Although an old-style party boss playing populist politics, he had the strong political base and democratic credentials that Gorbachev conspicuously lacked. That August’s botched conservative coup only hastened the Union's now inevitable break-up. Its last rites in December 1991 included a referendum in which 92 per cent of Ukrainian voters opted for independence.
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Gorbachev started an avalanche that he could not control. But as reform turned to revolution in 1989-91, he did not use force – except briefly in the Baltic in January 1991. So he stands in direct contrast with China’s communist leaders in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and even more so with Vladimir Putin’s brutal bid in 2022 to reconquer Russia’s lost empire. How Gorbachev will be remembered may well depend on whether Ukraine can hold on to its independence and its territory.
David Reynolds is emeritus professor of international history at the University of Cambridge. His books include Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970–1990 (Oxford University Press, 2016)
Kristina Spohr: "Gorbachev's actions were particularly feted in Germany. He had been met by ordinary East and West Germans' total Gorbymania"
Gorbachev’s is a complex legacy, and how his achievements are judged depends on your vantage point. While he is slated by China for being an ideological sell-out and criticised by the Balts for blocking their efforts to restore their statehoods, in the west he has been revered for peacefully managing the end of the Cold War.
Through his actions, rooted in a mix of idealism and pragmatism, he was regarded as a peacemaker and peace-preserver at a time of revolutionary turmoil. He allowed new liberties at home, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, and ultimately even tolerated self-determination inside the USSR – albeit at the cost of his job. In all this, Gorbachev was the key agent of change. This is not to deny the significance of the global shifts that had been happening since the late 1970s – in military balance, the economy, technology, and the rising importance of people power – but it was Gorbachev who would bring about transformative change in European and global affairs.
To succeed at home, Gorbachev believed he needed to foster a stable international environment and address the USSR’s “imperial overstretch”. To this end, he negotiated nuclear and conventional arms reductions treaties with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. He granted autonomy to the governments of eastern and central Europe, helping lift the iron curtain that had divided the continent for more than 40 years.
One nation in which Gorbachev’s actions were particularly feted was Germany. After the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev – who since the summer of 1989 had been met by ordinary East and West Germans’ total Gorbymania – considered the issue of reunification as a natural course of history. Together with the leaders of both East and West Germany he had to confront several complex problems, including what would happen to the 380,000 Red Army soldiers stationed in East Germany and when and how the USSR would give up its Allied reserved rights over the nation.
Eventually, Gorbachev agreed to relinquish the USSR’s rights as a Second World War victor and to grant the Germans their right to self-determination. It was agreed that a unified Germany should gain full sovereignty and would therefore be free to choose its alliance affiliation, which resulted in the new, larger Federal Republic remaining a Nato member. Special provisions and obligations for the former GDR territory were included in the text of the 1990 treaty that formally re-established German unity.
In return for his willingness to compromise on these points, German chancellor Helmut Kohl had granted Gorbachev, as part of their bilateral talks in the Caucasus that July, a financial package of around 80bn German marks in loans and economic aid, which would also finance the withdrawal of the Red Army, scheduled to be completed by 1994. Through mutual trust and a genuine desire to find compromise and jointly acceptable solutions, peace was finally made in the former cockpit of the Cold War. After the east European revolutions of 1989 and reaching a final settlement with Germany, by the autumn of 1990 Gorbachev was praised for ending the “empire by imposition”.
Gorbachev never got to the stage of truly reinventing the Soviet Union because, in the end, its people turned against its leader and the old communist suprastructure and simply walked out on what had been the USSR
Gorbachev believed in a gradual east-west rapprochement but, in reality, his reforms increasingly seemed more like Soviet catch up with the west. The ultimate shift in 1990-91 from one-party state to political pluralism never worked, and the more the country descended into chaos, the more that Soviet international clout waned. Increasingly challenged by communist hardliners and more extreme liberalisers, the man who embraced radical change and refused to impose his will by authoritarian or coercive means wound up presiding over the destruction of his state.
Gorbachev never got to the stage of truly reinventing the Soviet Union because, in the end, its people turned against its leader and the old communist suprastructure and simply walked out on what had been the USSR. That was his tragedy. Gorbachev was, above all, no normal Russian leader. He opened the USSR to Europe and the world and made Russians freer than they had ever been.
He failed to hold the Union together, but through his pacifist, values-based policies, he transcended old antagonisms and was able to foster real postwar reconciliation. Thanks to him, Russia’s people could let their dreams of previously unimagined opportunities blossom in what was hoped would become a new, more peaceful post-Wall era.
Kristina Spohr is professor of international history at the London School of Economics. Along with David Reynolds, she is the editor of Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970–1990 (Oxford University Press, 2016)
Evan Mawdsley: "Putin and other nationalists are correct that the Gorbachev era fatally weakened Russia as a great power, demographically, militarily and economically"
Comments made in the west following Gorbachev’s death have been highly favourable, if not altogether accurate. The former Soviet president has been credited with having brought down the communist regime, but that was not his actual intention, nor did he want the breakup of the multinational USSR. He can with greater accuracy be credited with helping to bring about an end to the Cold War and an arms race that Russia could not win. As a realist, he also accepted that the influence of the USSR in neighbouring states, notably in Germany, could not be sustained. With that he brought about a profound change in European history.
Perceptions of Gorbachev in Russia are more critical. Current president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly condemned the actions of his predecessor and did not grant him a state funeral. It is more difficult to assess the perceptions of ordinary people in the former Soviet Union. Opinion polls there are unreliable, but it would be fair to say that Gorbachev nostalgia is not a mass phenomenon.
His half-decade of reform was 30 to 35 years ago, meaning that even Russians in their fifties have little real memory of what was attempted then, let alone what the “old” USSR of communist leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko was like. Many inhabitants of the Russian Federation take a nationalist viewpoint, encouraged by a state-controlled news media which emphasises dangers from the US and its European allies. Many blame Gorbachev for the economic hardships of the 1990s, although these had less to do with him than with the inherent problems of the Soviet command economy created more than 55 years earlier.
Inhabitants of the former Soviet “republics”, especially in the Baltic States, Transcaucasia, and Ukraine, might be grateful for the preconditions which led to their becoming sovereign states, but there is a general realisation that this independence was not part of Gorbachev’s agenda.
A second key aspect is the legacy for Russia of Gorbachev and his political approach. His actions, intentionally or otherwise, brought a fundamental break in its history. The failure of Gorbachev’s perestroika demonstrated the difficulties of achieving a transition to what he and other Soviet reformers of the late 1980s thought of as a “normal, modern country”. And Putin and other nationalists are correct that the Gorbachev era fatally weakened Russia as a great power, demographically, militarily and economically – something which is evident today on the battlefields of Ukraine.
On the other hand, it may well be that, given the disastrous failure of Putin’s current military adventure in Ukraine – coinciding as it does with Gorbachev’s death – the era of the later 1980s may still give some sense that a better alternative exists.
Evan Mawdsley is a professorial research fellow at the University of Glasgow. His books include The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev: The Central Committee and Its Members, 1917-1991 (Oxford University Press, 2000)
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.