Mikhail Gorbachev’s Enduring Example | The New Yorker


When word came last week that Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last President of the Soviet Union, had died, it was front-page news in the West and a matter of studied indifference in official Moscow. After issuing a tepid acknowledgment of Gorbachev’s passing, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced that the Russian President’s “work schedule will not allow him” to attend the funeral. Instead, Putin paid his respects by dropping by the hospital where Gorbachev had died. He placed a bouquet of flowers near the casket, lingered for half a minute, and, his obligation fulfilled, headed for the exit. Gorbachev, in his time, not only attended a memorial for Andrei Sakharov, the country’s most prominent dissident, he stood in the rain at the foot of Sakharov’s coffin, in a prolonged gesture of humility.

Considering Putin’s contempt for Gorbachev, one should be grateful that he didn’t toss the bouquet through the window of his speeding limousine. In his eyes, Gorbachev was contemptibly weak, a heedless custodian of a great empire. He was naïve. He fetishized foreign democratic values. He failed to see the United States and Europe as bastions of hypocrisy and aggressive intent. In the course of a seven-year reign, Gorbachev, Putin clearly believes, granted the people freedoms they did not deserve and reduced a superpower to the level of a global supplicant.

Putin seems to view himself as the anti-Gorbachev, an imperial revivalist reasserting Kremlin authority over Russian institutions, Russian citizens, and former Soviet republics. He calls the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, and he doubtless blames the “necessity” of invading Ukraine on Gorbachev. The regression is profound. While Gorbachev initiated the end of the Cold War and greatly diminished the risk of nuclear conflagration, Putin now wages his proxy war with the West on Ukrainian territory and, in doing so, he has threatened the use of atomic weapons and destabilized control of the reactors at Zaporizhzhia.

By his own admission, Putin was, and remains, a product of the K.G.B. Gorbachev was a far more complex human being. He was, as he once put it, both a “product” and an “anti-product” of the Soviet system. In 2006, William Taubman, a scholar who had written an exceptional biography of Nikita Khrushchev, was researching a book on Gorbachev and had a conversation with him about it. Taubman admitted that he was struggling. Gorbachev was sympathetic: “Gorbachev is hard to understand,” he said, using the grandiose third person. What is truly hard to understand is how Gorbachev, the son of peasants, became himself—how a young Soviet politician promoted by Party bosses and K.G.B. chieftains set out to replace “reptilian values with human ones,” as the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin put it.

Gorbachev was born in 1931, in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia. While he was an infant, famine killed nearly half the inhabitants, including two of his uncles and an aunt. These were the Stalin years. Both of Gorbachev’s grandfathers were arrested on bogus charges and sent to prison: Andrei Gorbachev for failing to fulfill an agricultural quota, Pantelei Gopkalo for belonging to “a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite organization.” Both were released after relatively short terms, but they had ­suffered miserably. Gorbachev, in his memoirs, wrote of Gopkalo’s plight, “The interrogator blinded him with a bright lamp, broke his arms pressing him against the door, and beat him brutally. When these ‘standard’ tortures didn’t work, they thought up new ones: they wrapped grandfather tightly in a wet sheepskin coat and placed him on a hot stove.”

As a young man, Gorbachev went to Moscow to study law and to climb the ladder of the Party apparatus. By the late nineteen-fifties, the Party was filled with mediocrities who had eluded the worst predations of the Stalin era. Khrushchev tried to inch the Party and Soviet ­society beyond the Stalinist system, ­inspiring a network of shestidesyatniki, “people of the sixties,” relative liberals within the ­system, to begin—quietly, cautiously—to discuss the possibility of reform. This was Gorbachev’s world, an ambiguous realm that combined ambition, cynicism, compromise, and measured idealism. These were people who eventually concluded that all was ruin, that neither Communist ideology nor its foundation of coercion and violence promised any degree of prosperity or a sustainable future.

After a series of decrepit General Secretaries—Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko––died in rapid succession, Gorbachev came to office, in March, 1985. He was confident, lively, eager to project a sense of hope; his ability to stand upright and talk with people on the street was considered positively Kennedyesque. But it was not until thirteen months after his rise to power, when Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear facility exploded, that he came to understand fully the corruption of the Soviet system. The local authorities sought to cover up their negligence, and the Kremlin authorities, in turn, did not acknowledge the accident for two days. Gorbachev said nothing publicly for two weeks. Finally, that July, he went into a Politburo meeting and berated everyone concerned. “They all fucked up,” Gorbachev declared. “The day after the explosion, weddings were still being held nearby. Children were playing on the streets.”

“Chernobyl was not like the Communist system. They were one and the same,” Yuriy Shcherbak, a physician and a journalist who later became Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., said a couple of years afterward. “The system ate into our bones the same way radiation did.” Such metaphors and realities were not lost on Gorbachev. In the dramatic years that followed, his initiatives came in stunning succession: the release of dissidents from prison or exile; the policy of glasnost, which permitted unprecedented freedoms for the press, writers, artists, and scholars; summit meetings with Ronald Reagan and arms-control agreements with the West; a military withdrawal from Afghanistan; the liberation of Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet control; multi-party elections; a reassessment of Soviet history that included criticism of Lenin; increased independence for the Baltic states and other Soviet republics.

Gorbachev, of course, made mistakes, serious ones. He tried, for too long, to reconcile irreconcilable ideas and power bases. He failed to reform the K.G.B., which led a coup against him, in August, 1991. And so on. Yet he possessed both the idealism and the political skill to generate something in the world that is, at this dark historical moment of global illiberalism and malevolence, exceedingly rare: a sense of decency and promise. Here was someone raised in a totalitarian system who came to believe in democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Imagine. The hope is that, around the world, his example will prevail. ♦


Source link

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *