To survey western-Russian relations and the internal condition of Russia today is to appreciate the immensity of Mikhail Gorbachev’s achievements. The last leader of the Soviet Union, who died on Tuesday, made a decisive contribution to ending the cold war, which divided Europe for four decades and kept tensions high in the age of nuclear weapons. He also relaxed domestic political repression and presided over a degree of individual liberty not seen in Russia since the 1920s, if not earlier still.
Now, under Vladimir Putin, Russia is waging a war of conquest in Ukraine that has raised tensions with western countries to a level that recalls the cold war’s most dangerous moments. Putin’s ruthless clampdown on internal dissent and branding of critics as traitors evoke dark chapters of the Soviet past. Official manipulation of history is a shameful betrayal of Gorbachev’s glasnost, which broke decades of silence about the crimes of Stalinism.
As long as Putin remains in power, it seems implausible either that political pluralism will regain a footing in Russia or that trust will return to the Kremlin’s relationship with the west. Improvements might be delayed even longer, for there are no guarantees that the next leader in Moscow will embrace reform. The hopes for a freer Russia and a safer world that Gorbachev embodied seem to lie in ruins.
However, it is too bleak an assessment to suggest that Gorbachev’s 1985-91 rule left no positive legacy at all. Without his determination to not use violence to hold on to the Soviet empire in eastern Europe, it is impossible to imagine the region’s one-party dictatorships falling almost entirely without bloodshed in 1989 and Germany’s unification in 1990. True, the Kremlin applied force at times in the Baltic states and Georgia as they struggled to break free from Soviet rule, but the blame rests more with communist hardliners in Moscow than with Gorbachev.
His aversion to violence made Gorbachev truly different, both as a communist — a label that became increasingly irrelevant as his reforms proceeded — and as a Russian leader. No better illustration occurred than in 1989, when the Chinese communist authorities massacred pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square barely a month after Gorbachev visited Beijing. His Kremlin predecessors had similarly used force in East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968.
In stark contrast to Gorbachev, who pulled Soviet forces out of Afghanistan as well as countenancing the self-liberation of eastern Europe, Putin believes force and the establishment of spheres of influence, indeed outright annexations of territory, are the measure of Russia’s greatness. In Russia’s age-old debate about the balance between order and liberty at home, Putin comes down unequivocally on the side of reaction.
Yet Gorbachev’s domestic policies left a legacy, too. If he failed as an economic reformer, that was to a great extent because the over-centralised Soviet system was simply unreformable. His political reforms are a different matter. Just as his generation was inspired by the partial liberalisation of Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin rule, so one day — even if not soon — a new generation of Russians will surely strive to restore the freedoms of the eras of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
A more democratic Russia would in turn offer hope for an improved relationship with Moscow’s European neighbours and the US. Western countries must firmly resist Putin’s aggressions. But they should also remember that it once seemed unthinkable that a humane, far-sighted leader like Gorbachev would come to power in Moscow. He did, to the benefit of the world.