It’s a deeply unfashionable idea. The “great man theory” of history seems terminally passé, the intellectual equivalent of a statue of a forgotten general on horseback. These days, we like to think our world is shaped not by individuals, heroic or otherwise, but by deep, underlying forces – that there is a tide of history that this man or that woman might ride for a while, but which is bound to surge ahead, regardless.
Still, this week brought two sharply opposite reminders of how much individuals count, especially those at the top. That notion matters for how we view our past, of course. But it matters even more for how we approach the present – and future.
The first reminder came with the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. In his home country, he had become a figure either disdained or despised. Vladimir Putin gave him a cursory send-off: he announced that he would not attend his predecessor’s funeral, merely laying a wreath by Gorbachev’s coffin at the hospital where he had breathed his last.
But that disrespect cannot conceal the truth, which was that Gorbachev was one of the most significant figures of the 20th century, his impact colossal not only in Russia but across the globe. He ended the cold war that had seen east and west square up to each other, nuclear daggers drawn, for four decades; a confrontation that demanded two generations live under the permanent fear of atomic Armageddon. That Putin now revives that terror, threatening to unleash Moscow’s nuclear arsenal if Nato impedes his destruction of Ukraine, only underlines how blessed it has been to spend the past 30 years free of it.
Gorbachev set in train the breakup of a sprawling empire that had denied the nations of eastern and central Europe freedom of thought, speech, conscience and movement. Today’s European Union, with its 27 member states, would be smaller and an entirely different shape had Gorbachev not made that move. German reunification, the liberation of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Vilnius, Tallinn – all of it happened at warp speed and, crucially, in most places, without a shot being fired.
Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, while at home he freed imprisoned or exiled dissidents, gradually freed the press, opened up the archives, organised open, multiparty elections and set about dismantling a totalitarian system that had tyrannised Russia for more than 70 years. He gave Russians a taste of liberty.
It’s tempting now to say all that was inevitable, that the Soviet Union was so rotten, corrupt and sclerotic that its collapse was unavoidable, whether it had been Gorbachev in the Kremlin or someone else. But, as the scholar Archie Brown wrote on these pages this week, that’s a “fallacy”, even if it is a popular one in the west. The politburo that appointed Gorbachev had not lost its grip, and it had certainly not decided: “We cannot live this way any longer.” It was Gorbachev who realised that, using those very words.
Put simply, there was no law of physics, no ineluctable tide, that drove these events. There were the decisions of one man, a man unusually willing to change his mind. The Chornobyl nuclear disaster was one such turning point: the Kremlin instinct for secrecy proved calamitous, giving way to glasnost – openness or transparency – thereafter.
There was nothing inevitable about any of it, just as it was not foretold that the end of Soviet totalitarianism would result in the chaos and impoverishment with which the Gorbachev name is associated in today’s Russia, and for which he remains unforgiven. Just as it was not inevitable that in February Russia would launch a murderous invasion of its Ukrainian neighbour. Those acts were the product of decisions by leaders, individual and human.
As I came of age in the 1980s, certain things were taken as read. One was that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture, its contours marked indelibly in the atlas, to be altered only by epic and bloody war. Another was that while apartheid in South Africa might one day end, such a transformation would similarly entail appalling carnage – a bloodbath of recrimination between the black majority and the white minority. Both of those assumptions failed to account for the character of the men at the top. Nelson Mandela, like Gorbachev, was not interested in following the pre-written script. He opted for an approach no one had predicted, one that was ready to sacrifice much for the sake of peaceful transition, reconciliation and healing.
The result of the toppling of those two reviled systems, apartheid and the Soviet Union, was a kind of optimism multiplier effect. In the early 1990s, there seemed to be no political or geopolitical barrier that could not be removed: there was a ceasefire in Northern Ireland and peace accords between Israelis and Palestinians. Truly, another world seemed possible.
Today that phrase is a slogan, one that rings less like a statement of fact than a prayer. We look around and see such grave problems confronting us, from energy bills so high we don’t know if the poorest will stay alive, to a (related) cost of living crisis that could drive millions more into penury, from a threat of incipient fascism in the US, rightly highlighted by Joe Biden on Thursday, to a climate emergency that is already here, demonstrated by floods in Pakistan that have left as much as a third of the country underwater.
The challenges are so great, yet the quality of political leadership so poor. Few seem fit to grasp, let alone match, the scale of the task that confronts us. Which brings us to the second of this week’s reminders. The contest for the Tory crown closed at 5pm today , with Liz Truss widely expected to be announced as Britain’s new prime minister on Monday. That fact, coupled with the bleakness of the global outlook and the lingering presence of Donald Trump in the US, is enough to induce the opposite of the 1990s mood: a pessimism multiplier effect.
Because that’s the downside of recognising the significance of a figure such as Gorbachev, of accepting that the nature of the individual at the top can make the difference between peace and war, prosperity and poverty: it works both ways. Britons don’t need to be told that having a dishonest, delusional leader at the helm can prove disastrous: we’ve lived with that reality for three years. Now we’re about to have the same lesson taught all over again.
And yet, the same theory of history and politics offers a small consolation. None of our current, mortal problems is inevitable: even the climate crisis, or at least its scale, is amenable to human agency. It depends on who we choose to do the work, and how they do it. This week I spoke to the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, who was a correspondent in Moscow during the Gorbachev era. “Sometimes the imagination and humanity of a leader can be in sync with history to such a degree that good things happen,” he said. “And that’s important to cling to.” Put another way, and as Al Gore liked to quip, the good news about political leadership is: it’s a renewable resource.
• This article was amended on 3 September 2022. An earlier version said that “the liberation of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Vilnius, Tallinn …happened at warp speed and … without a shot being fired”. The text has been amended to clarify that not all these cities were violence-free.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his podcast Politics Weekly America, search “Politics Weekly America” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts