Gorbachev’s Lost Legacy

Gorbachev’s Lost Legacy

The most important event of the late twentieth century began twenty years ago this month.


The most important event of the late twentieth century began twenty years ago this month. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and within a few weeks the full-scale reformation he attempted to carry out both inside his country and in its cold war relations with the West, particularly the United States, began to unfold. Perestroika, as Gorbachev called his reforms, officially ended with the Soviet Union and his leadership in December 1991. The historic opportunities for a better future it offered Russia and the world have been steadily undermined ever since.

The essential meaning of perestroika for Gorbachev and his supporters was creating and acting on alternatives to failed and dangerous policies at home and abroad. Inside the Soviet Union, it meant replacing the Communist Party’s repressive political monopoly with multiparty politics based on democratic elections and an end of censorship (glasnost) and replacing the state’s crushing economic monopoly with market relations based on different forms of ownership, including private property. Both of those liberating reforms, which were directed at czarist and Soviet authoritarian traditions, were well under way by the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union had already ceased to be a Communist or, as it was often characterized, “totalitarian” system.

In Soviet-American relations, Gorbachev’s reforms meant ending the forty-year cold war and its attendant arms race, which had imperiled both countries and the world with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Here, too, having found willing partners first in President Ronald Reagan and then President George H.W. Bush, Gorbachev’s initiatives were remarkably successful well before he left the historical stage. By mid-1988, standing on Red Square no less, Reagan had declared that the Soviet Union was no longer an “evil empire,” and in December 1989, at a summit meeting in Malta, Bush and Gorbachev announced that the cold war was over. Treaties providing for major arms reductions were signed, and even more far-reaching ones were being negotiated. Both at home and abroad, therefore, Gorbachev’s policies bore historic fruit while the Soviet Union still existed, so there was no reason for them to end with that state. But they did. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, abruptly jettisoned his predecessor’s evolutionary approach for the old Russian tradition of imposing unpopular changes on the nation from above–first the abolition of the Soviet Union itself, then the economic measures known as “shock therapy.” Not surprisingly, those acts led to more undemocratic ones in the 1990s, enthusiastically supported, it should be recalled, by the Clinton Administration and most US media and academic Russia-watchers–Yeltsin’s armed dissolution of an elected parliament, oligarchical privatization, the Chechen war, increasingly corrupted mass media and rigged elections. Today’s Russian president, Vladimir Putin, may be further undoing Gorbachev’s democratization achievements, but the process began when Yeltsin abandoned perestroika.

The opportunities that Gorbachev created for international relations have also been missed, perhaps even lost–here, however, primarily because of the United States. Instead of embracing post-Soviet Russia as an equal partner in ending the cold war and the arms race, both the Clinton and the George W. Bush administrations undertook a triumphalist winner-take-all policy of extracting unilateral concessions first from Yeltsin and then from Putin. They have included the eastward expansion of NATO (thereby breaking a promise the first President Bush made to Gorbachev); the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had discouraged a new nuclear arms race; the bogus nuclear weapons reduction treaty of 2002; and the ongoing military encirclement of Russia with US and NATO bases in former Soviet territories.

Those exceedingly unwise US policies, which in Moscow are understandably viewed as another attempt to isolate and “contain” Russia, are leading to a new cold war. They have already badly eroded the political basis for any pro-American orientation in Moscow and persuaded most Russian officials that their country’s salvation lies in reverting to pre-perestroika governing traditions and finding strategic allies again in the East. Weak militarily and unstable financially, the Kremlin has also reacted by clinging to its uncertainly secure nuclear arsenal, even expanding instead of reducing it. The current Bush Administration has apparently decided, for other reasons, to do the same. A new nuclear arms race, that is, already looms.

Twenty years later, then, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Their loss may be the worst, and most unnecessary, political tragedy of our time. (Those of us who know Gorbachev have heard him speak of this with great sadness.) There remains, however, the hope, at least in Russia, that, as sometimes happens in history, the memory of lost alternatives will one day inspire efforts to regain them. But that would require new perestroika-like leadership in both countries.

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