On 30 August 2022, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR died at age 91 after a prolonged illness. Much has been said about Gorbachev’s role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Sometimes he is shown as the last leader of a failing empire, though this seems inaccurate. While the Soviet block had had periods of economic stagnation in the 1970s, they were nowhere near the point of collapse when Gorbachev came to power. The Soviet Union still was the second largest economy in the world. Many factors of the collapse occurred as a direct result of Gorbachev’s reforms and concessions.
The Legacy of Gorbachev
Sometimes Gorbachev has been portrayed as a traitor to the Soviet cause, or, by critics of the Soviet Union, he is portrayed as a visionary who saw the faults of the Soviet Union and pushed the country to a transition to democracy. This also seems inaccurate. As the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, he gained nothing from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He maintained opposition to the major leaders of Russia afterwards. While his political positions were less committed to Marxist-Leninism than his predecessors, he was not substantially right of his contemporaries in the Polit Bureau. His positions did reflect a shift in the Soviet leadership at the time, which was much larger than Gorbachev.
The crisis that Gorbachev was wrestling with was a crisis of leadership. By his time, the Soviet Union was no longer the face of revolution and was facing discontent within the country. There was frustration with the elite members of the Soviet Union, who had lost touch with the people. Within this crisis, a new political elite worked with the developing economic elite to overthrow the Soviet Union and create the situation we see today.
What propped up a man like Gorbachev?
While the Russian Revolution was able to overthrow the Tsar and the rich elite of Russia, the country was still run by an administrative structure left behind by the Tsar. The Communist Party ran the country through the same basic bureaucracy of the previous regime. Many measures were taken by Lenin and then Stalin to prevent counter-revolutionary elements in the bureaucracy from taking over. This included centralization of authority, close scrutiny and surveillance and indoctrination. Over time, they replaced the old bureaucrats with their own people and implemented reforms to allow for better local accountability, but government positions were still highly sought after, and the basic structure of the bureaucracy still remained intact.
With the death of Stalin, there was competition for the top spot of leadership. This propped Nikita Kruschev up as the next major leader of the Soviet Union. Kruschev was high ranking member of the Polit Bureau and had the support of many high-ranking leaders and officials in the government. His rise marked a shift in the system of leadership in the Soviet Union coming from the bureaucracy. While all of the leaders of the Soviet Union were firm believers in Marxist-Leninism, their interpretations varied, and from Kruschev onward, the Soviet Union developed a culture of bureaucracy that stood further and further apart from the working people. Leaders would start taking power at older ages, and after establishing themselves within the apparatus of the state. Leadership also became more Russian and lacked representation of non-Russians from the other Soviet Republics.
Ideologically, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis. Kruschev’s so-called de-Stalinization measures put the Soviet Union at odds with Maoist China. Mao had become a new icon for radical left movements across the world following the takeover of China. As a result, the international support base of the Soviet Union became split. While some supporters of the Soviet Union insisted that the USSR represented what real or developed socialism would look like, dismissing supporters of Mao as immature, this split created a crack in the image of the Soviet Union as being the face of Communism.
By Gorbachev’s time, the Soviet administrative apparatus was completely run by bureaucrats, and ripe for the so-called revolution from above. Leaders could now implement sweeping changes with little feedback from the people. They would be motivated more by the administration.
Sinking the ship
Gorbachev became the leader of the new Soviet Union after two of his predecessors died in quick succession. Concerned about the next leader dying of old age, Gorbachev was the only leader to have been born after the Russian revolution. He was charismatic and implemented his policies of perestroika and glasnost (reform and openness). While he believed in the communist cause, his position drifted to a more liberal stance. He believed in deregulating markets and keeping the state more as a provider of public welfare.
Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ceded a lot of its international influence. Outside of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev withdrew its military presence, leading to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev made it easier for non-communists to run for office and for dissent against the USSR. The Soviet Union did not show any support for countries that tried to implement Soviet-like governments, like Libya or Syria during Gorbachev’s term. Rather, the USSR tried to work with former enemies, like the USA and the UK. Both American President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found Gorbachev very easy to work with. Gorbachev may have been hoping for peace, as he consistently tried to mend fences with rivals of the Soviet Union, particularly China. However, his concession allowed for the unfettered growth of NATO and the unchallenged hegemony of the USA for decades.
At this time, an alliance between disaffected bureaucrats and the capitalist class from the USSR came together to take advantage of the situation. All reforms made by Gorbachev worked against him and the USSR, eventually leading to an attempted coup against Gorbachev. In the chaos, the various republics of the USSR began leaving, eventually leading to the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Gorbachev from power. The Russian Federation was declared a new state and would elect Boris Yelstin, a former Soviet bureaucrat who was a major voice campaigning against Gorbachev and demanding that Gorbachev’s reforms were too slow and too little.
To learn from Gorbachev’s legacy, we should learn about the circumstances that threw up a man like him and vested in him the power to decide the fates of millions, as well as the mistakes he made while in power. The enemies of the Soviet Union almost lionize Gorbachev, giving him a Nobel Peace Prize and accolades as the one who ended the Cold War. Those nostalgic of the Soviet Unions fault him on many grounds, but these are not the real lessons of history. Gorbachev will forever be remembered as the one who heralded the end of the largest socialist experiment in history and the real lesson is the one that teaches us how it ended.