Mikhail Gorbachev survived his legacy

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Quick take from Ian Bremmer:

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has died aged 91. He is an extraordinary leader who is truly changing the world, ultimately, and tragically a failure as well. Arguably, Gorbachev was the leader who had the most impact on my professional life. My first trip outside the United States was to the former Soviet Union in 1986. Gorbachev had just come to power the year before, and in fact when I went there he was not from all clear that he was going to be this great reformer. In his early days, he was focusing on the anti-alcohol campaign, the anti-corruption campaign, trying to somehow improve the Soviet society, but also working to focus, more power in the hands of the political bureau, where he there was a serious power struggle going on. on. In fact, at first you could tell that Gorbachev and Xi Jinping actually had a lot in common, but that’s really where the comparisons end.


The Chernobyl disaster struck just months before I arrived in the Soviet Union. And so at the beginning of Gorbachev’s reign. I remember meeting a group of Cuban students who were traveling to Leningrad, had just been in Ukraine and literally had no idea what had happened until they entered the Republic Russian. And they were pretty scared of the exposure that they might have, might not have had. But of course it was a huge tragedy inside the former Soviet Union, and also a tragedy about which the rulers got the wrong information, and which somehow proved to Gorbachev that the political system was increasingly ossified and bankrupt, and that the country’s economic trajectory was failing, and he really wanted to change that. And he attempted to do so through three unprecedented structural reforms in what had been an authoritarian, capitalist society.

First glasnost, political opening. In other words, freedom of expression. Second, perestroika, economic openness. Capitalism and third khozraschyot, self-accounting, federalism. In other words, let people say what they want about the government. Let them make money however they can. And let local leaders have more responsibility for the decision-making processes below them.

So opposite to what we see in Russia today, and under Putin today in pretty much every way. And Gorbachev also very anti-imperialist, recognized that the Soviets were spending massively on the army, and wanted to stop that too. And so he ended the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Americans obviously did not learn any great lessons from it. But in a short time, the internal response of the Soviet Empire to all this reform was a large number of rested populations who wanted to get out, because the Soviet Empire was of course massively repressive. And when the tools of repression were no longer there, the attraction of the freedoms, the economic freedoms, the human freedoms that existed in the West, suddenly appealed to those who were behind the iron curtain. And so in a short time, with these reforms, you saw a massive political uprising to end Soviet power, first in the Eastern Bloc countries and Gorbachev chose not to intervene militarily to try to prevent from leaving. And that of course led to the fall of the wall and the independence of all these Eastern European countries which are now, of course, in NATO, which are now in the European Union.

And then when 15 Soviet republics themselves began to claim independence, first in the Baltic States, in Ukraine, then eventually in Central Asia, and again in all the former Soviet republics, which eventually led to a failed military coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev peacefully accepts the end of the Soviet empire on Christmas Day, four months later.

Perhaps the truest tragedy of a statesman is when you outlive your legacy, and perhaps nothing could be truer of Gorbachev. President, and now effectively dictator, of Russia Vladimir Putin has said he views the Soviet collapse as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. And he devoted his time in power, above all, to reviving a Russian empire. And today’s Russia in 2022 is precisely the opposite of everything Gorbachev had hoped for. We’re all the worst for it. And above all, the Russians themselves.

Mikhail Gorbachev, rest in peace.

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