Twenty years after the wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev is quietly celebrated in the west, but shunned in Moscow. Yet in both places his reputation rests on his failure to reform the dying system in which he truly believedby Victor Sebestyen / July 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
In an interview with a reporter not long ago, Mikhail Gorbachev reminisced about his years at the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union. Once in flow, it is normally hard to stop him talking. But on this occasion he hesitated, was silent for a long time and stared at his interviewer disconcertingly with those piercing eyes. “You know, I could still be there now, in the Kremlin,” he said. “If I was motivated solely by personal power I might still be possessing it… If I had simply done nothing, changed almost nothing in the Soviet Union as it then was, just sat there and carried on like those before, who knows…” Then he laughed. If he felt bitterness, he hid it well.
Part of this was the usual self-delusion of retired, defeated or ousted leaders. But Gorbachev has a more profound point, especially relevant this year—the 20th anniversary of 1989, the beginning of the end of his rule. Even with hindsight, it does not seem inevitable that the Soviet empire—that vast monolith that two generations in the west were brought up to fear—would disappear overnight. Analysts thought the USSR could limp on for decades trying and failing to reform communism: Upper Volta with nukes, but a serious power.
Gorbachev is still a fit-looking 78, an age when most of his predecessors were considered in their prime. In the 1980s a general secretary of the Soviet Communist party had virtually dictatorial powers if he chose to use them. Gorbachev could have harnessed them to tinker at the edges. He could have introduced minor reforms to a system that in fundamentals had not changed since Stalin and taken no chances with the place of the Warsaw pact states in central and eastern Europe. But he was too ambitious for that. His aim was to save and renew communism—the “real” communism of the founders of the faith that he believed in. With equal passion he believed in his country—not Russia, but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet it was Gorbachev who did more than anyon…