Why Mikhail Gorbachev was admired in the West, but reviled at home

Gorbachev’s style of governing in the Soviet Union along with his Glasnost and Perestroika paid off in the western world, where hard-nosed anti-communist hawks appeared to be convinced that the Soviet leader was someone with whom business could be done

Gorbachev death
By 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had started and it was only a matter of time before it became formalised into several independent states, and Mikhail Gorbachev was eventually forced out of office. iStock image shows Russian House of Soviets, St Petersburg.

The passing away of Mikhail Gorbachev brings to the fore many things regarding international relations, not just the end of the Cold War but also painful lessons that leaders have to learn in trying to change difficult courses of history and reality.

Gorbachev came to power in 1985 after the then Soviet Union had gone through three leaders in less than three years — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andrapov and Constantin Chernenko. He stayed on for six years to see what some in his own country refer to as the demise of glory the country had seen for nearly five decades.

His coming to power in the Soviet Union and his stay at the helm of affairs also paralleled another facet of global politics — eight years of hard-core anti-communist rhetoric and policies of the Ronald Regan years in the United States between 1980 and 1988.

‘Evil Empire’

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Convinced that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire” that he so famously referred to in a speech in 1983, Reagan was determined to “match” Moscow not only in geo-political reach but also in massive arms spending with a deliberate aim of bankrupting the Soviet Union.

Reagan came to the White House at a time when there was this perception of the US getting knocked around in global affairs — the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the American hostages crisis that went on till the day of the Presidential Inauguration in 1981, and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in December 1979. The feeble response of the Carter administration only hardened the resolve of the Republicans in the realm of foreign policy.

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And the natural target was the Soviet Union that had to “pay” for its adventurism. And unleashing the Afghan Mujahideen through the Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan was one way. It was payback time in Washington.

The conservative mandate in Washington starting in 1981 saw the Reagan administration start a trillion-dollar arms spending programme that included the development of the stealth bomber, the neutron bomb, stationing of missiles in Europe and, above all, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), famously known as the ‘Star Wars’ programme intended to bring down intercontinental missiles from space.

Reagan, egged on by his hawkish civilian, military and intelligence advisors, knew for sure that the Soviet Union would come up with an empty coffer in trying to match the anti-missile shield programme.

“Reagan’s SDI was a very successful blackmail. The Soviet Union tried to keep up pace with the US military buildup, but the Soviet economy couldn’t endure such competition,” Gennady Gerasimov, spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry in the 1980s, is reported to have said later.

Glasnost and Perestroika

But others have argued that the Soviet economic structure was so inefficient that it would have fallen apart even without inputs from the American SDI. And with leaders like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the game was all set between the West and Gorbachev.

Also read: ‘Maverick’ Mikhail Gorbachev, who steered Soviet reforms, dead at 91

Some Sovietologists and observers of Kremlin politics have made the point that one of the biggest mistakes of Gorbachev was that he went along with Glasnost (openness)and Perestroika (economic restructuring) at the same time. The demands of the people could not be matched to what was available leading to a total collapse of the political system, as what political science professors will refer to as “system overload”.

What Gorbachev did not realise was that the openness he unleashed in the system was not matched on the economic front, which essentially was an inefficient state-run economy that could be put on track by only words of criticism. “My policy was open and sincere, a policy aimed at using democracy and not spilling blood. But this cost me very dear,” he told a western news agency in 2009.

Gorbachev’s style of governing in the Soviet Union along with his Glasnost and Perestroika paid off in the western world, where hard-nosed anti-communist hawks appeared to be convinced that the Soviet leader was someone with whom business could be done.

From the characterisation of an “Evil Empire”, Reagan soon settled down to trust, but verify. Soon, he went on to sign the Treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces. And, in a historic address at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, Reagan called on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. “… if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Two years after he inked a nuclear agreement with the US, Gorbachev pulled the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, a 10-year adventure that killed thousands of his troops and sent the relationship with the West into a tailspin. But even more momentous were the pro-democracy movements that made their way through Communist states of Eastern Europe with the West keeping its fingers crossed of the response from Moscow.

Also read: It’s clear now: Russia-Ukraine conflict heralds dawn of Cold War 2.0

Forced out of office

Gorbachev did not wilt under pressure from the hardliners in the Kremlin for a major crackdown and eventually the Berlin War as signified to the world was history. “If the Soviet Union had wished, there would have been nothing of the sort and no German unification. But what would have happened? A catastrophe or World War Three,” Gorbachev is said to have remarked later.

By 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had started and it was only a matter of time before it became formalised into several independent states; and Gorbachev was eventually forced out of office. He made a brief attempt at a comeback in 1996 but had to settle for a pathetic vote count of less than 1 per cent.

Gorbachev, who had a bright red birthmark on his head, was often seen in suits as opposed to the leader before him who donned complete military attire. However, he soon faded into oblivion with only occasional overseas visits to explain the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Liberals in the erstwhile Soviet Union would remember him for freedom; but conservatives and ultra nationalists will continue to see him as the man who squandered away all the pomp, splendour and grandeur of the past.

(Sridhar Krishnaswami is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations)

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