Kuba Wrzesniewski September 6, 2022
Mikhail Gorbachev, the once and final premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, died on August 30th at the age of 91. In keeping with the comparative assessment of his political legacy, Russians (and the internet leftists that love them) have treated his death with schadenfreude verging on glee, while the respectable media organs of the West have eulogized him as a great statesman and world-historical force for peace.
You have to be of a certain age to recall him in power and not as a neoliberal celebrity spokesperson for Louis Vuitton. I myself barely qualify, being four when he came to power and 11 when the USSR dissolved, but I do remember him. My family had just escaped the People’s Republic of Poland for a much happier life in Canada, so Eastern Bloc politics were a significant fixture in our family life. For anti-Communist Poles (which is to say for Poles), the USSR was the author of national misery and the tyrannical master of our future, but my parents were cautious in their evaluation of Gorbachev - he seemed different from previous Soviet leaders, more sincere and less brutal. He came to power in the traditional way - opaque Politburo negotiations - but represented a literally new breed, a post-WW2 generation raised outside the crucible of bloody, existential conflict. This was not uniformly seen as positive - older Soviet Communists marked by that struggle, as well as the security service brutes that maintained the Soviet system of coercion, worried that when the time came, he’d blanch at the violence necessary to maintain the Soviet system, including its crypto-colonial grip on Eastern Europe. Domestic-minded reformers backed him, seeing him as most likely to deliver the radical reforms necessary to shock the USSR out of its era of stagnation, marked by cultural decay, economic decline, and social deterioration.
They were both right.
Domestically, his reform agenda consisting of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform) represented a radical shift across all of Soviet society. Dissenting views - somehow ubiquitous despite being strictly prohibited - could be expressed in increasingly less guarded ways, to the point of rising to a chorus in the late 80s. Outside information trickled then flooded in, provoking an effervescence of youth culture and artistic experimentation. The gnawing fear that characterized mid-century Soviet life subsided as regular people breathed a whiff of freedom.
Economically, Gorbachev observed the diktat against private property but encouraged any enterprise that respected that limit, including worker-controlled cooperatives and family production. The goal was to end run the massive state bureaucracies managing Soviet production, which routinely sacrificed their substantive, welfarist duties in order to game the planning system, creating a national quasi-bourgeoisie - the nomenklatura - preoccupied with accumulating, consolidating, and passing on power and privilege. These economic managers also oversaw the Brezhnev-era entry of the USSR into the global capitalist economy, trading Soviet oil for hard currency in an exchange that fueled a short period of prosperity but made the country dependent on foreign capital and markets. Perestroika was to break these pathologies, put consumer goods back on long-empty shelves, and finally deliver the plenty that had always been a promise of the Worker’s Paradise.
Diplomatically, he sought to end Cold War sclerosis and establish new international relationships, not only with the West but also within the Communist world. Putting aside brinksmanship, Gorbachev sought nuclear disarmament and constructive coexistence with America - and achieved it, even with the arch hawk Ronald Reagan as his counterpart. Their Summit diplomacy produced real results - increased opportunities for person-to-person contact, the softening of ideological fear-mongering (Moscow students convinced Reagan to repudiate his “Evil Empire” slogan), and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which continued to limit the nuclear arms race until abrogated by Trump in 2019).