The Observer view on Mikhail Gorbachev: he drew a line under a wretched past but failed to usher in a brighter future | Observer editorial

Hailed a hero by the west for banishing Stalin’s legacy and ending the cold war, he was ultimately reviled at home

Instant history, like instant coffee, is rarely as good as the real thing. Yet the life and death of Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union and a figure of huge 20th-century historical significance, requires immediate appraisal. As is often the fate of leaders who break decisively with the established order, he was reviled by many in Russia. But for many in the democratic west, he was a hero.

Gorbachev’s achievement was stunning and vast in its ramifications. He fatally undermined the iron grip of the Communist party, banished the legacy of Stalin, ended the cold war, helped render Europe “whole and free” and unintentionally destroyed the Soviet Union in the process. What drove him?

To understand his motivation, one must consider the extraordinary circumstances of early-1980s Moscow. The Soviet Union was a nuclear-armed behemoth with global influence. Yet it was run by an ageing clique of apparatchiks who were as ill as they were incompetent. Yuri Andropov had terminal kidney disease, Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s predecessor, was rumoured to be comatose for much of his time in charge. Another elderly forerunner, Leonid Brezhnev, party general secretary until his death in office in 1982, became a figure of fun for Russians. In one well-known joke, Brezhnev is opening the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Reading from a script, he says: “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!” An aide leans over and whispers: “No, no, Leonid Ilyich, those are the Olympic logo rings. The text is below!”

This was the inheritance bequeathed to Gorbachev in 1985: a ridiculed, discredited leadership, an inefficient, corrupt, state-directed economy, a pointless war in Afghanistan, serious unrest in Poland and an American president – Ronald Reagan – who had labelled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and with his ally, Margaret Thatcher, appeared intent on dismantling it.

It was a daunting challenge. According to one biography, his wife, Raisa, asked Gorbachev the night before he took power: “Do you really need this?” He replied: “We just can’t go on living like this.” That phrase, smacking a little of desperation, proved an impromptu epitaph for the Soviet Union. It was a view informing everything that ensued.

Perestroika and glasnost, words that became famous around the world as Gorbachev pursued economic reforms and an open society, represented a revolution in Russian life – but one that spun out of control. He abolished one-party rule, yet lacked a plan for governance to replace it.

Beyond Soviet borders, Moscow’s loosening grip released irresistible energy suppressed for decades. In 1989, East Germany imploded and the Berlin Wall fell. Other satellites, and “lost” nations such as Ukraine and the Baltic republics, seized their chance. It wasn’t planned, but there was no stopping it.

Gorbachev admitted making mistakes and his humility set him apart. A warm, very human family man, he never served in the army, was never a drinker. He liked books and he candidly enjoyed the company of western leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher, more so perhaps than that of his politburo comrades.

It is sad and unfair that in the years after he was deposed in 1991 Gorbachev became a scapegoat for economic dislocation and Russia’s loss of empire. Sad, too, that western leaders did not support him better while they could. The subsequent collapse of the post-Soviet experiment in democracy under Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin stem from that short-sighted dereliction.

Whatever his failings, Gorbachev was a good and great man. Future scholars will surely conclude: he was on the right side of history.

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Observer editorial

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