Gorbachev’s Fatal Trap

He gambled on the resilience of both the Soviet system and socialism, and lost.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Wojtek Laski / Getty

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Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, has died. Many testimonials will focus on his humanity and his vision. But these qualities are not what made him great. Gorbachev attained greatness by failing.

This sounds odd in the West because Westerners have always loved Gorbachev more than his own people ever did, and the tendency outside Russia is to ascribe to him great achievements that were not his own. The night he died, for example, I watched a CNN reporter discuss how Gorbachev helped bring down the Berlin Wall. This is simply not true: Gorbachev made the decision not to deploy Soviet troops to prevent Germans from tearing the Wall apart, which is a very different thing.

As you listen to the tributes, remember always that Gorbachev was trying to rescue, rather than destroy, the U.S.S.R. and Soviet Communism. We should all be thankful that he did not succeed in his mission. He was too decent for a job that required a fundamental lack of decency. In the end, he showed the courage and humanity not to use force to try to turn back the clock—a lesson lost on his latest successor, Vladimir Putin.

The story of Gorbachev’s career is not a neat and unbroken narrative of reform. It is a very Soviet story of intrigue and gamesmanship, with a very Soviet ending of both disaster and dashed hopes.

Although Gorbachev is now known as a reformer, he was a Soviet reformer. He was brought to Moscow under the aegis of his patron, General Secretary Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB. Andropov, too, was a Soviet reformer, in that he wanted a leaner and meaner Soviet Union, a more efficient Soviet state, and a more diligent, and more sober, Soviet workforce. He tried to develop protégés, such as Gorbachev, who would further this mission and save the U.S.S.R. from what the Soviets would come to call the “era of stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev.

This is not to say that Gorbachev was just another heartless apparatchik. He was smart, and unlike many of his older colleagues, he had not deluded himself about the parlous condition of the Soviet economy and society. He had a vision for the U.S.S.R. that was ambitious enough to worry the old men around him in the Kremlin, so much so that when Andropov died, in 1984, they stiff-armed Gorbachev and made him cool his heels for another year while a terminally ill nobody named Konstantin Chernenko was allowed to preside over the party and the Soviet government. When Chernenko died, in 1985, Gorbachev defeated one more challenger—a genuinely dangerous man named Grigorii Romanov—and he became the top Soviet leader.

Westerners now laud Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, but again, these were not initially meant to be democratic reforms. Yes, glasnost allowed Soviet citizens to blow off steam, but the main goal was to foster better communication in the Soviet economy. Perestroika was aimed at ditching Brezhnev-era cronyism and shortcuts, and to kick-start glaciated Soviet institutions.

Gorbachev, however, did not understand what he had set in motion. He thought he could control reform in pieces, accelerating it here, slowing it there, and never allowing any of it to turn into a challenge to the power of the Communist Party. He and his colleagues did not grasp the basic contradiction built into their own plans—that freedom means more disorder rather than less. And Gorbachev wavered in the face of political movements over which the regime quickly lost even the semblance of control. He was so taken aback (and perhaps worse, so taken by surprise) by the chaos he’d unleashed that he soon turned away from some of his own policies.

So did others in the Soviet leadership. Perestroika, insofar as anyone even knew what it meant, was already in deep trouble by the time of a major party meeting in 1987, where it became evident that the hard-liners had effectively pushed back the reformers and their plans. These failures led to fights and shifting alliances within the Kremlin. Gorbachev then tried to encourage similar reforms in Eastern Europe as a way of seeking leverage against his opponents at home. Again, he unleashed forces, this time in the Soviet empire, that he did not understand and that he could not control.

Why did he take such risks? Where socialism was concerned, Mikhail Gorbachev was a believer in a world of cynics. He believed he was going to revitalize socialism, and by doing so he would relegitimize the entire Soviet system. He really believed this, and his faith in the Soviet system thus led him into a fatal trap: If socialism was to be saved, then it had to be a choice made by the peoples of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.

But if socialism was to be a legitimate choice by his own people, Gorbachev could not then backtrack and simply impose it on the points of Soviet bayonets if they rejected it. When everything began to fall apart in 1988, Gorbachev was in a box. He had gambled on the resilience of both the Soviet system and socialism and lost. To use force not only would mean acknowledging final failure, but would likely spark civil war in a nuclear-armed nation of nearly 290 million people from dozens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

By 1990, Gorbachev was either vacillating or paralyzed on matters of policy, not just because of his Hamlet-like personality, but because he could no longer control his most retrograde comrades in the leadership. He would try one more time to keep his job and keep the Soviet Union together by creating a new national legislature (thus bypassing moribund Soviet-era institutions) and winning election to a new national presidency. It was all pointless, but Gorbachev couldn’t give up; even after his own handpicked leadership tried to depose him in a coup, he tried to save the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, an effort that now seems almost pathetic in its naivete.

On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev declared the Soviet Union dissolved, handed the Soviet nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin, and left the Kremlin. In 1996, Gorbachev, ever the true believer, ran for the presidency of Russia. More than 74 million votes were cast. He got 386,000 of them.

Much of this tragic story is obscured in the West by Gorbachev’s undeniable successes in foreign policy. Americans remember Gorbachev as a man of peace, and well they should. As with his faith in socialism, his belief in peace was sincere. It didn’t hurt that people like President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, avowed enemies of the Soviet system, turned out to be easier to deal with than the phobic autocrats of the Kremlin. Gorbachev and Reagan were both absolutely serious about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a position no one in Washington or Moscow had regarded as anything but a talking point.

In fact, Thatcher, according to U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, was one of the people stunned that Reagan and Gorbachev had talked about the full elimination of nuclear arms. Shultz later said that Thatcher had “hand-bagged” him, hitting him with her purse for not stopping Reagan. “But Margaret,” Shultz protested, “I agree with him!” Shultz, like Gorbachev, would later become one of the most prominent advocates of a nuclear-free world, but Gorbachev said it first.

Gorbachev’s courage and decency were not in his attempts to save the Soviet Union, but in his decision to accept the inevitable rather than begin the last-ditch spree of repression demanded by the Soviet coup plotters. When all was lost, he accepted his fate, a decision for which he is still hated by millions of Russians. When he arrived in a courtroom for the 1994 trial of one of the conspirators against him (a Soviet general who demanded to be put on trial and who was acquitted), he was greeted by chants of “Judas! Judas!”

The protesters were, of course, oblivious to the irony: Without Gorbachev, they’d have lasted a matter of minutes on a Soviet street before beginning their journey to a Soviet prison.

Gorbachev helped usher in more freedom than Russians had ever known, while inadvertently unwinding the Soviet empire. His life ended as Putin tries to wind it back up again, including the use of repression at levels not seen in Russia in more than 30 years. Gorbachev thought there was a chance for a new Soviet future, and he took great risks to rescue his country and its ideology.

He failed. And for that, we should be grateful. RIP.