Vilified at home, lionized abroad
Mikhail Gorbachev’s historical legacy is hard to sum up. He means different things to different people. Maybe it is also a hallmark of greatness.
Within Russia, what stood out was Gorbachev’s seminal contribution to laying the foundations of a civil society. Temperamentally and politically, he was averse to coercive methods of governance. Thereby he created a new political atmosphere in Russia. Russian people never before knew a ruler communicating directly with them. In the process, he narrowed the great divide between the ruler and the subject in Russia and encouraged the subject to behave as a citizen.
Gorbachev encouraged the people to talk loudly, to be argumentative and to learn to live with a sense of freedom. Presumably, he hoped the society would break stereotyped habits of looking up to the leader to provide all solutions.
However, what intrigued me incessantly as a foreigner living in Moscow in those exhilarating times was about his ultimate objective. As a first rate intellectual and gifted political thinker, what was his vision? If it was to reform the communist party and enhance its legitimacy, the obvious pre-requisite was to improve the living conditions of people and make them “stakeholders” in his reform program.
More a destroyer than creator
Which was how reform was handled in China. The Chinese political system delivered in the economic sphere and the communist party today draws legitimacy from it. But Gorbachev appears to me as a dramatic personality who reveled in his “new thinking” and notwithstanding the policy of “acceleration” he promised in 1985, he let economic reform run its course through traditional Soviet methods – discipline, order, management techniques – whereas he needed to go far deeper and a fundamental overhaul was desperately needed.
On the contrary, if Gorbachev’s objective was to take the country to political pluralism, he could have called a general election and secured a mandate to turn the country into a functioning democracy. He could have mobilized a national consensus to draft a new constitution and adopt a new political system.
But Gorbachev was indecisive. He would neither use state power to preserve the Soviet system nor decisively initiate institutional pluralism. True, he created new institutions within the system, threw opened the doors and windows of the Congress of People’s Deputies, and established an executive presidency to which he got himself elected. But then, he stalled. Whereas, the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians simply went ahead and created a new political order.
I don’t think Gorbachev can be given the latitude that he stalled because he feared for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. I see the dismantling of the Soviet Union as a willful act by Boris Yeltsin rather than as the natural outcome of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Indeed, there was always the danger of implosion inherent to any transition where the old began to die and the new was struggling to be born but when I left Moscow as late as the end of 1989 I didn’t get the sense of criticality although Gorbachev was losing the initiative.
Gorbachev finally got swept away by the very forces he unleashed. And despite his greatness, the final outcome is that his people see him as a destroyer and his legacy got mixed up – unfairly, though – with the immense suffering and humiliation the Russian people went through in later years.
Lionized with deliberateness
In the international sphere, it is easy to exaggerate Gorbachev’s legacy. His contribution to eliminating the arms race was substantial. But the United States’ dogged search for “nuclear superiority” continues, its nuclear doctrines haven’t changed and it is developing newer weapon systems, including in space, and Russia is compelled to respond.
Gorbachev let the Eastern European allies evolve their identity and we may say it signified the end of the Cold War. But the US’ triumphalism that followed the Soviet Union’s disintegration, its containment strategy and, of course, the relentless expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization testified that Gorbachev’s aspiration to situate Russia within a common European home was misplaced. I wouldn’t say Gorbachev erred but the West never really reciprocated his passion for “new thinking” and probably lionized him with great deliberateness.
The speed with which Bill Clinton Administration switched loyalties and began adoring Yeltsin and enthusiastically supporting his outrageous acts – armed dissolution of elected parliament, oligarchical privatization, rigged elections, etc – underscored bad faith. The biggest rebuff to Gorbachev’s historic legacy was in the US’ refusal to embrace post-Soviet Russia as an equal partner in ending the Cold War and arms race and its attempts to extract unilateral concessions. Hardly 20 years into the post-Gorbachev era, it has become necessary to reinvent or “reset” the historic opportunities he opened up for Russia and the world.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served in Moscow in the Gorbachev era.