Mikhail Gorbachev died on Tuesday 30th of August, 2022 at the age of 91. Born to a nondescript farming family he rose, by dint of grit, an extraordinary intellect and a devotion to human freedoms within a communist system, to become a great Russian leader. He was moulded in a cast quite different from the tradition of hardline modern day Russian leaders like Kruschchev, Kosygin, Brezhnev, et.al. Being an idealist and reformer, he leaves behind a mixed legacy. While he will be remembered as one who brought the world a step forward towards world peace and amity, he continues to be looked upon in his own country by most as one who led to the painful collapse of the Soviet Union.
While Gorbachev’s role in ending the Cold War promoted the cause of world peace, he also helped in avoiding a nuclear war during periods of intense East-West tensions. With the world at that time possessing upwards of nearly 40,000 nuclear warheads and perched on the precipice of possible annihilation of mankind, he played a prominent role in negotiations for reduction of nuclear arsenals on both sides resulting in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and induction of verifiable mutual safety mechanisms to reduce the chances of conflagrations caused due to mistakes or lack of communications.
His glasnost (opening up) and perestroika (restructuring) of Soviet communism, justified by him as reviving the early humanist spirit of Leninism, led to forces that could not be contained and which ultimately led to the breakup of Soviet Union.
It was due mainly to his belief that communism could only have a future in an atmosphere of economic and political freedom that led to historic developments in world affairs. While he was fired by an ambition to reform communism to revivify it in the context of modern day requirements, he never wanted the Soviet Union to disintegrate. That the momentum unleashed by his opening up of the country to change and freedoms could not be stopped from leading to the collapse of Russia, always left him a bit dissatisfied and embittered. But did he repent his seminal decisions? Replying to this question he once replied: “If I were to do it all over again, I would perhaps not be able to better myself.”
His policies led to epical changes in world affairs. It was because of him that the Berlin Wall that divided the people of one city into two since the end of the WW II was torn down, paving the way for the reunification of East and West Germany. Eastern European countries that were part of Warsaw Pact living under the Brezhnev doctrine moved towards becoming free democracies. He never wanted to create the tensions and disquiet that arose in the Soviet Union but his hand was forced by serious economic difficulties and the inability of the faltering economy to bear the crushing burden of a weapons race with America and Europe.
Gorbachev came into power in 1987, and by 1989 he had realised that Russia was fighting a losing war in Afghanistan. During his tenure Russian forces, after failing to hold on in Afghanistan and being bled in what came to be described as ‘the bear trap’ by a US-assisted jihadi war fought by the ‘mujajideen’, withdrew from Afghanistan. Russia and the US left behind an Afghanistan torn by war that gave rise to factional militancy and Talibanisation, becoming a hotbed for Islamic terrorism. While Afghanistan and to some extent Pakistan continue to pay heavy costs from the aftershocks, to some analysts the Afghan debacle contributed to accelerating the Russian collapse.
Gorbachev’s policies also led to a backlash among a large number of Russians creating a great sense of loss of national pride at falling of Russia from a prominent place in the world as a great power. The grave economic crises that ensued, partly caused by sharp decline in oil prices, and evidenced by shortages of food and other items of daily use, large scale civil strife and a bitter war in Chechnya provided a rich breeding ground for emergence of strong nationalist leadership like Putin dedicated to restore lost glory.
In the Ukraine war and the attempt to regain influence over territory deemed necessary for protection of the heartland of the great Russian nation, one can witness attempts to push back the legacy of remnants of Gorbachev’s policies. Putin embodies the Russian urge to restore a part of the glory and greatness that was given away by a man who led to the demise of USSR.
Will Gorbachev be remembered in history as one of the great men of peace and human freedoms or will he be viewed from the perspective of a person who dismembered a great power. In the last analysis one must make a fundamental choice between essential norms: is peace and human freedom weightier than national power and greatness more significant in the scale of human values? The one desire remains in the realm of ideals that men like Socrates and Plato aspired for. The other pertains to the domain of practical politics. The cosmic battle between these two aspirations will last and contest with each other perhaps forever. While hope for improvement in the human condition springs eternally in man’s breast, considerations of national power and aggandisement are things that man is always beset with as real life challenges. While Gorbachev lived a life of a pariah in his latter years, he retained in his old age the unrelenting courage of his convictions to criticise and berate the Russian adventure in Ukraine.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2022.
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