The paradox of Mikhail Gorbachev’s major accomplishments is that none was intentional—not the destruction of the Soviet Union, not the demise of socialist ideology, not the independence of formerly enslaved peoples. No other statesman in contemporary history can match this quixotic fate. He accomplished much, but it was based entirely on misunderstanding. He was an Oedipus who blinded himself.

It all began with his appointment to power by the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s supreme entity, in 1985. The three previous Soviet leaders had died over a three-year period, all aged veterans. Gorbachev, in the eyes of his colleagues, had the advantage of being young and insignificant; the old guard believed that he could be manipulated. He said little, and his only recognized expertise was in agriculture. (He regarded Soviet agriculture as somewhat archaic.) Better still, he was a faithful servant of the regime, whose changes over the years he had embraced without difficulty. The truth is that Gorbachev was a sincere Soviet and a sincere socialist—a true believer, while his colleagues were cynics who clung to power at any price. When they named Gorbachev, the Politburo leaders were ignorant of this sincerity. Moreover—and this was a most unusual quality in the Soviet regime—Gorbachev detested violence and was appalled by bloodshed. He would prove to be just as sincere a pacifist as he was a socialist.

What Gorbachev failed to understand, what he would never understand, was that violence had been the foundation of Soviet socialism since 1917. This blindness explains his life’s work. If he had seen clearly, perhaps the USSR would still exist.

Once in power, Gorbachev discovered just how far gone the Soviet system was. He knew that agriculture was 50 years behind the West, but he had no idea that the whole structure was in ruins. This would be demonstrated in spectacular fashion by the explosion of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl in 1986. Gorbachev was devastated to find that the technology was dysfunctional, security was neglectful, and that there was no operational chain of command. He drew the conclusion, as unexpected in the USSR as it was in the West, that to save socialism it was necessary to reform it—to move from bureaucratic socialism to socialism with a human face. Socialism with a human face was Gorbachev’s true religion. He preferred not to see that no such thing exists, and so he alienated both the antisocialist liberals and the anti-reformist socialists.

Gorbachev was thus left with no base, either popular, national, or international, in pursuit of his utopia. Yet he thought that he could succeed anyway, by giving the people their voice. In 1986, he abolished censorship and established free speech. In Pushkin Square in Moscow, during an unforgettable celebration that reminded me of May 1968 in Paris, one speaker after another held forth, often incoherently, in speeches later rebroadcast on all the radio channels of the USSR. The press and independent radio stations continued to spread the word, and this joyful cacophony, glasnost (transparency), constitutes a unique moment in a suddenly liberated USSR. At least in words.

Glasnost, Gorbachev’s hazy theory, led inevitably to perestroika, or restructuring: democracy and economic modernization. But be careful, he often reminded his detractors, such as the dissident Andrei Sakharov, the so-called father of the Soviet nuclear bomb, who was by then a deputy: there is no question of transitioning to capitalism or of dismantling the USSR or the Warsaw Pact, the NATO of the East. Gorbachev never understood that the failure of the Soviet economy was a direct consequence of the public ownership of property and the prohibition of private initiative. It was only later, under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, that privatization became a reality.

Another thing that Gorbachev failed to grasp was that no Soviet citizen was Soviet of his own free will: all were physically and psychically colonized, under the control of the army and the KGB. The Russian people themselves were among the most anti-Soviet: the USSR was a heavy burden for Russia, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote. In 1991, Yeltsin would displace Gorbachev by playing the Russian card against the USSR, because, besides Gorbachev’s analytical error, there was the Ronald Reagan factor. The Americans, who understood better than the Russians the real condition of the Soviet economy, renewed the arms race—whether as a bluff or as a real strategic plan—since Reagan knew that the Russians could not keep up.

Gorbachev had no card left to play on the international stage; he would concede everything, in particular the reunification of Germany. This became inevitable as early as 1989, from the moment Gorbachev refused all assistance to the Communist government of East Germany in preserving the Berlin Wall. The wall was attacked, and then destroyed; the Red Army made no move. The Baltic States and Poland understood the situation and rose up in turn, peacefully. Once again, because Gorbachev believed in glasnost and because he abhorred the use of force, he forbade a military response. He thus demonstrated, again unwittingly, that the USSR was based upon nothing but force : no more repression, no more USSR. It was left to the Russians themselves to claim their freedom, which they would do by confiding the presidency of a new independent Russia to Yeltsin, who, for his part, saw clearly what was happening.

It is said that Gorbachev saw in his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 an anti-Soviet gesture. He was right, but the Soviet Union was already a thing of the past, and he was the last to know. He would never grasp this fact, since, in 1996, he would run for the presidency of the new Russia and gain 0.5 percent of the votes. Perestroika was doomed from the outset, and Gorbachev was a kind of calamitous visionary, at least from the perspective of what he wanted to protect. And yet, as we might almost regret now, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were both liberators, in their way, who have since been replaced by a new Stalin.

Photo by Micheline Pelletier/Sygma via Getty Images


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