Gorbachev: A lesson for reformers

Today he is seen neither as a hero nor a villain, but a man who could have changed the world only if he had the determination to go by his instincts rather than by his sense of the burden to shape the world

By T.P. Sreenivasan

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Published: Mon 12 Sep 2022, 10:43 PM

Any reform of a system through which a leader has attained stardom should be short of altering its fundamental moorings. The moment the foundations are touched, the new edifice, even if it is built with precision, is likely to collapse even when it is being seen as an advance of the system. The inevitable consequence is the collapse of the system together with the reformers and the emergence of a new set of leaders to build a system altogether new.

Mikhail Gorbachev sincerely tried to liberalise socialism and to give Communism “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restucturing), but Communism itself collapsed in the process. His Nobel Prize for Peace became empty and the new Russia under Vladimir Putin is hankering to go back beyond the Bolshevik revolution. At 91, Gorbachev, a son of a Russian father and an Ukrainian mother, was unceremoniously interned among a number of others, who served the Soviet Communist Party with loyalty. His role in shaping the post-Cold War world was critical, but he was unable to guide the energy he unleashed. The Soviet society was not yet ready for a revolution and Gorbachev became a tragic figure, loved neither in his own country nor abroad.

Gorbachev, who unwittingly handed over Communism on a platter to the west is seen as a blundering reformer today. The West encouraged him to dismantle Communism, but abandoned him when he lost control. Gorbachev accomplished the job that billions of US dollars failed to achieve, but it was celebrated as the victory of capitalism over Communism.

The Berlin Wall would not have fallen, the Warsaw Pact would not have been dismantled and Nato expansion and the collapse of the Soviet Union would not have taken place so swiftly without Gorbachev’s vision of a liberal Eastern Europe. As the empire collapsed around him, Gorbachev did nothing to stop it. He became a catalyst of the defeat of Communism, without intending to do so.

Having seen Brezhnev during Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s visit In 1979, it occurred to me that the time had come for a younger leadership to take over in the Soviet Union. One dreaded to think of the nuclear buttons being in the hands of men who had passed their prime. But Gorbachev and others were considered too young to take over the leadership and older people were tried out while Gorbachev climbed the party ladders till 1985 when he became the General Secretary of the Communist Party and then President in 1991.

He tried to democratise the political system and to decentralise its economy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace as his policies had diluted Soviet Power. He warmed up to the West to reach an agreement to destroy all existing intermediate range nuclear tipped missiles and even withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan. What he started off as a spring breeze turned into a storm which blew him off in a military coup and led to his resignation as President on December 25, 1991. No other reformer in the world had been so easily removed as he was. The experiment of converting totalitarianism into representative democracy became a disaster. He probably had not thought through the change to make it practical and acceptable

Gorbachev worked on several peace initiatives after leaving office, but the world had changed and the Russian Federation as a successor state played second fiddle to the US till the emergence of Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev supported Putin in some of his initiatives like annexation of Crimea and lived to see Putin invading Ukraine to undo the Russian revolution.

The powers unleashed by Gorbachev are still at play in different parts of the world. No one mourned his death even though he was a man of peace and had a revolutionary vision. They fought over his legacy and failed to have a new vision based on liberalisation of the politics and the economy of the Soviet Union.

Today he is seen neither as a hero nor a villain, but a man who could have changed the world only if he had the determination to go by his instincts rather than by his sense of the burden to shape the world. If only he had realized that the perfect is the enemy of the good, he would have shaped a new world order based on the best of democracy and socialism.

-The writer is a former Indian ambassador.

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