Gorbachev at 80

Gorbachev at 80

Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday is an opportunity to reconsider a complicated legacy of reform.


Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read all of Katrina’s column here.

The end of the 20th century witnessed an apparently irreversible wave of democratization in several parts of the world. But until the recent dramatic events in Egypt, democratization seemed to have waned—even given way to a new wave of authoritarianism around the world. Except in the promotional plans of professional democratizers, the "romance" disappeared from the news and commentary pages of most American newspapers. Now it has returned, along with a good deal of historical amnesia.

Usually forgotten is that the "wave of democratization" in the late 20th century began in a place, and in a way, that few had expected—Soviet Russia, under the leadership of the head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, the extent to which Gorbachev’s democratic achievements during his nearly seven years in power (1985 to 1991) have been forgotten or obscured is truly remarkable.

The amnesia began almost immediately after the Soviet Union ended, in December 1991, when the US political and media establishment began attributing Russia’s democratization primarily, even solely, to its first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin. According to the quickly prevailing Washington narrative, Yeltsin was the "father of Russian democracy," "the leader who began Russia’s "transition from totalitarianism" and under whom its "first flickerings of democratic nationhood" occurred.

Lost in this historical misrepresentation are Gorbachev’s two greatest achievements.

Editor’s Note: Read all of Katrina’s column here.

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