The end of Mikhail Gorbachev, an unheroic hero

Those spots became a central element of his world image. More importantly, his intervention rejoiced many Soviet people, who saw a sign that, perhaps, times were really changing. There were other symbolic moves, but it took Gorbachev almost a year to finally present his report and his ‘new thinking’ at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, 28 February-6 March 1986.  For months, “insiders” and “Kremlinologists” had spread the most extravagant rumours about its content. After so much expectation, Gorbachev could only have disappointed. He spoke during 4 hours, in front of a parterre of the usual Soviet representatives, plus a pack of correspondents and special envoys who had disembarked en masse in Moscow to follow this historic moment, seated in a huge balcony, inside the Congress Hall.


The General Secretary repeated his promises to launch radical reforms, and made public the two key words – transparency (glasnost) and transformation (perestroika) – which will stay attached to his policy. But, contrary to Western expectations, he suggested nothing about new disarmament’s steps and kept a good dose of the anti-western Soviet rhetoric. His promise to create a ‘socialist market’ puzzled the observers because the formulation was vague, and sounded as an oxymoron to many. Anyway, the report had paved the way for fiscal reforms and the law on cooperatives, which will shake the system beyond anything people had foreseen, even to himself. Part of the Central Committee had been replaced, offering Gorbachev a less conservative political environment.

In fact, the disappointment did not prevent the ‘Gorbymania’ to engulf the USSR and the West.  It even influenced demography as couples were soon confident enough in a new future that the decided to have another child. Many girls were even named Nadezhda as a sign of hope. But, with time, it will be clear that Gorbachev has been a Greek tragedy’s hero, doomed to fail because the Gods had been against him from the start. As history shows, real reformers in rigid societies are fatally squeezed between those who believe he goes too far too quicky, and those accusing him of being too soft, forfaiting his promises. In his case, he was confronted to an unholy coalition of liberal and conservative circles, while his national and international support was waning.

Crumbling USSR

Contrary to Gorbachev’s and his allies’ aspirations, it was impossible to reform the USSR by democratic means. The Soviet system was a unique, all-inclusive, structure, under a Communist party that was not a ‘party’, but a framework encompassing everything, politically, economically, socially and culturally. Moving a single brick should have been enough to risk collapse – and it did. But, externally, the action of Gorbachev reshaped the world map. Moscow left the leaders of the non-Soviet Communist bloc to manage their internal affairs, to ‘go their way’ (hence the nickname ‘Sinatra doctrine’)  without any Moscow’s intervention. Successive adjustments to the new situations have been done peacefully, through negotiations, in which Gorbachev found himself in lower and lower position, weakened at home for being unable to secure Western financial aid in return. After looking from a distance the fall of the Berlin’s wall and the German reunification, Gorbachev appeared on television screens, on 25 December 1991, to announce the death of the USSR. In the meantime, the West had switched its support to another ‘reformer’, Boris Yeltsin, and to the new forces emerging in the new, ex-Soviet, republics.

Today, when relations between Moscow and the West are at their lowest, the tributes to Mikhail Gorbachev offer an opportunity to contrast his actions with those of Vladimir Putin. Differences of personality are obvious. Gorbachev was a warm person, charismatic, very talkative even by Russian standards, open about his family. Later in his life, when he has been touring the world to present his growingly redundant books or to raise money for his Foundation, he often said that the drama of his life has been the death of his wife Raisa, not his political retreat.


But comparisons of their respective political actions are difficult to do because the two men came to power in different worlds. Gorbachev was the first, and last, executive president of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin has been elected, and reelected, president of the Russian Federation. Anyway, the Western obituaries celebrate a man who opened his society and country to the world, through negotiations, contrasting with another president who turned back his country to a fortress’s mentality and a brutal realist conception of international relations. Putin’s letter of condolences was commented as a further sign of distance between the two men, despite further less formal declarations by the Kremlin. 

Lessons from that period might be lost if one sees Gorbachev as a rational reformer. He was a romantic, believing that changes and reforms could come through peaceful means and persuasion. What was possible abroad, in Central Europe or to negotiate nuclear disarmament and control, was impossible inside the USSR because Gorbachev was a reformer, not a revolutionary – in a country still too well aware of post-revolution’s chaos. But Gorbachev did not forget, and even forgive, the way he has been dropped by the West as soon as it discovered a more promising successor in his opponent Boris Yeltsin. And Putin remembered how Yeltsin was in turn led down when his country faced a deep economic crisis.

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