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Opinion | A Tale of Good Intentions and Unexpected Results

One of the most significant statesmen of the final quarter of the 20th century was Mikhail Gorbachev. He buried the hatchet and put an end to the Cold War—as well as the Soviet empire—working with President Ronald Reagan.

History did not end, despite Francis Fukuyama’s infamous assertion. Gorbachev’s desire to modernize socialism and preserve the USSR had an unintended consequence in the form of the imperial collapse. He was completely unsuccessful in both endeavors, but the world enjoyed 30 years of relative peace during which time Russia and other Soviet republics were freed from the Communist nightmare.

Gorbachev, who started out operating combine harvesters, was not required to start the historic reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) that resulted in the fall of the USSR. If he had continued doing things the same way, he might have prolonged the existence of the weak and impoverished Soviet Union and allowed it to maintain its sphere of influence, which extended from Nicaragua to Cuba to Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, and his cohorts from the KGB never forgave him for this failure.

Gorbachev, who was born in 1931 in a village in the Stavropol region of Russia—the country’s breadbasket—benefited from his peasant upbringing as he rose through the ranks of power in the USSR. However, he would never truly succeed Joseph Stalin. Gorbachev was raised under Stalin’s brutal agricultural collectivization, which resulted in the starvation deaths of uncles and an aunt, sent both of his grandfathers to the gulag, and tortured one of them. Throughout his professional life, he kept in mind the suffering endured by his family.

Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was tearing down Stalin’s cult of personality as Gorbachev rose through the ranks of the Communist party. For himself, Gorbachev looked for “socialism with a human face.”

He became the youngest Soviet Central Committee secretary and served as the Politburo’s “next generation” successor after the sudden deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko between 1982 and 1985.

The Soviet Communist Party chief of ideology Alexander Yakovlev, who was also of peasant stock, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the leader of the Georgian Communist Party, all came to the realization that things couldn’t continue as they were. They realized that violence and ideology—the two things that held the empire together—had to go.

Yakovlev oversaw the declassification of documents from the Stalin era, the restoration of the good names of many “enemies of the people,” and the disclosure of the extent of communist crimes. However, despite being open, the path to democracy and free markets was not made easier. The joke went that converting to socialism was like turning an aquarium into fish soup, but converting from socialism to capitalism was like turning fish soup into an aquarium.

For his own sake as well as the sake of his nation, Gorbachev was unable to make that transition. Even though he was somewhat open to democratic politics, he continued to be a socialist and was torn between reformers and hardline forces, including his vice president, defense minister, and the KGB boss, who attempted to overthrow him in a botched putsch in August 1991 while he was on vacation. Gorbachev and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics quickly ran out of time after failing to establish a political or military support base.

And some significant changes to the Communist Party and the government followed. The fathers of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Gorbachev, Yakovlev, and Shevardnadze, never expressed regret in our conversations.

Boris Yeltsin, whose family had also suffered under Stalin, failed to reform the military and the secret police after driving the Communists from power. These institutions evolved into the center of the country’s vain attempt to resurrect imperialism, which led to Russia’s nuclear rearmament, anti-American sentiment, and the aggression wars against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014–?).

Although it was never Gorbachev’s intention to “dismantle” the USSR—he had wanted to humanize, improve, and save the Red Empire, which had always been a “mission impossible”—the Putin propaganda machine has demonized him for doing so.

Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a constituent state of the Soviet Union and the birthplace of his maternal grandparents, as he lay dying in a hospital in Moscow.

Gorbachev was horrified by how his vision of a united humanity was being trampled by Russia’s irredentist rulers, according to his close friends. The burial of the Soviet monster, Putin’s greatest—if unintended—achievement, attracted thousands of people to his funeral, and no amount of propaganda could keep them away.

The book Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis was written by Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. He is the director of the International Tax and Investment Center’s Energy, Growth, and Security Program and a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the Atlantic Council.

The author’s own opinions are presented in this piece.

Micheal Kurt

I earned a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport science from Oregon State University. He is an avid sports lover who enjoys tennis, football, and a variety of other activities. He is from Tucson, Arizona, and is a huge Cardinals supporter.

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