By the nature of the regime he dismantled and the sheer number of people and peoples whom he freed, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev — the reformist Soviet leader who died Tuesday at 91 — may have been the greatest liberator of all time.
A longstanding “theory” spread by his enemies and adopted by many in the West postulated that Gorbachev was a bumbler who did not know what he was doing, stumbled onto his reforms, sleepwalking, and woke up when the crisis was too far gone to redress.
Nonsense. His contemporaries — Cuba’s Fidel Castro, North Korea’s Kim family, and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev, hardly Mensa material they — knew exactly what to do when their power was threatened: show trials, executions, life sentences, starvations and tanks in Budapest and Prague, or the Quisling regime in Poland.
No, Gorbachev did not resort to repression, because he thought it was wrong to rule through terror and lies. Wrong — for the first time in 70 years, morality and moral accountability were brought to bear on Soviet politics and became operational terms.
This is how we know that Gorbachev’s was a truly great revolution: coup d’état and other intra-elite squabbles are about power; all great revolutions always start with human dignity and morality. “A new moral atmosphere is taking shape in the country,” Gorbachev told the Central Committee Plenum in January 1987 as he announced the turn of “glasnost” and “democratization.” “A reappraisal of values,” he called it. Later, recalling his feeling that “we couldn’t go on like that any longer, and we had to change life radically,” he called it his “moral position.”
Another “theory” holds that, mired as it was in economic problems, the Soviet Union was going to collapse anyway. That, too, is balderdash. Cuba lasts, North Korea lasts, Zimbabwe lasts, and of course the Soviet Union lasted from 1930 to the 1950s with horrific shortages and starvation of millions — and would have lasted, along with Soviet enslavement of east-central Europe, had it not been for Yuri Andropov’s kidney failure and Konstantin Chernenko’s dying senility.
When Gorbachev took over, the Soviet empire was frozen in terror and bleakness. All the prominent dissidents were either dead, silenced or in jail. The dominant prediction among Western experts was an indefinite, grim, open-ended slog. The Polish Solidarity had been crushed. West Germans were readying to “march through the institutions” for decades: bribing the German Democratic Republic’s Soviet handlers in the hope of inducing better relations and liberalization in the East, one tiny step at a time.
Yes, there was Ronald Reagan and the stark but still unrealized prospect of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Yet nothing threatened the Soviet domestic regime and its dominance of the empire in the short- or even mid-term. And which authoritarian thinks beyond that? Like his predecessor, Gorbachev, who came to power at 54, easily could have stayed in the Kremlin for at least 20 years.
It is true, of course, that Gorbachev started as an “authoritarian modernizer” — as did most tsars and general secretaries (and the Russian Federation’s current president, Vladimir Putin). But when the continuation of Andropov’s police renaissance — “Work honestly for the motherland!” “Stop drinking!” “Don’t steal, or else!” — with its executions of especially egregious bribe-takers, bans on vodka sales, and daytime raids of the bathhouses and beer hall in search of “shirkers,” produced only meager increases in the GDP, Gorbachev faced another familiar Russian dilemma: introduce institutional reforms or face stagnation.
Liberalizations bring uncertainty, likely turmoil and, most of all, a very real threat to personal power. The greatest Russian liberalizer, Alexander II, was assassinated. The de-Stalinizing Nikita Khrushchev was deposed in a coup. As for stagnation, there are always foreign and domestic enemies to blame for the belt-tightening and propaganda myths to distract and inspire. Breaking with the national tradition, Gorbachev chose liberalization.
As we later learned from his “Memoirs” and those of his top aide, the “godfather of glasnost” Alexander Yakovlev, economic considerations were secondary to Gorbachev’s decision. He had come to realize that the Soviet regime was incompatible with human dignity. And so, perestroika was launched: moral cleansing of a scale and intensity that had few, if any, precedents in the histories of major European states.
Very soon, Gorbachev faced another traditional Russian dilemma: empire vs. liberty at home. Unlike British or French colonial empires, Russia’s dominance of East-Central Europe was not compatible with democracy. In the end, every Russian ruler chose the empire over freedom. Alexander II’s liberalization was set back by the suppression of the Polish rebellion. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization was interrupted by the Hungarian revolution. And the crushing of the Prague Spring stopped the Alexei Kosygin economic reform. The first Russian ruler ever, Gorbachev broke with this national political tradition. The Berlin Wall fell.
Predictably, the liberalization-from-above could not be contained and became a revolution from below, led — as were all revolutions in modern history — by the urban middle class. Yet, to the end of his life, Gorbachev believed that what he had done was right. He remained an ardent proponent of what, following the short-lived Prague Spring, became known as “socialism with a human face.” In the 20th century political taxonomy, he aligned with George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist left: those often-heroic men and women who opposed the communists in the Spanish civil war and, after World War II, in the unions of Great Britain and in parliaments and street battles in France and Italy. They were the first to go to the wall in the communist takeovers in Eastern Europe, Cuba or Ethiopia, just like the anarchists and socialists hunted down by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) in Spain, or the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) after the Bolshevik takeover in Russia.
Gorbachev’s legacy is said to be “controversial,” to use another cliché that the impatient Western societies slap on any policy that does not produce unambiguously positive results within the first five minutes. Well, which great liberator’s heritage hasn’t been? Liberty takes away the narcotizing blind worship of the hero or the state, which will in the end sort everything out and take care of everything. It gives back only risks, terrifying choices, and insecurity of the grinding daily responsibility for one’s life.
As the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” tells Christ: You liberated them, but they don’t want to be liberated! “Nothing has ever been more unbearable for a man and a human society than freedom.” What people want, instead, is “mystery, miracle and authority” (chudo, tayna, avtoritet). Add a dollop of superpower nostalgia, militarized patriotism and now war — and you get the Putin restoration.
Yet, revolutions that are unfinished, that are interrupted, are still revolutions. And to the end of his days, Gorbachev was proud of his. “The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels; it was defeated on a cultural level,” he said. “Our society, our people … rejected that model because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically. … That is why what was most important for us was always connected to freedom.”
Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the author of “Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991” and other books. Follow him on Twitter @AronRTTT.