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By Lord McColl of Dulwich
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Mikhail Gorbachev introduced freedoms his country had never seen before – or since

Mikhail Gorbachev: 2 March 1931 – 30 August 2022

4 min read

Feted in the West but widely reviled in Russia, Gorbachev's profound changes restored human values to a country previously held together by repression

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. There were 290 million people within the union in 1990. By the end of the following year, 1991, the Soviet Union was no more. All 15 of the USSR’s “republics” declared independence, often after tumultuous and violent power struggles. Russia itself was left as a rump, with its population exactly halved, at 145 million; the trauma of its humiliation by forces beyond its control continues to this day.

Gorbachev, the man who presided over this collapse, is feted in the West but reviled by a significant section of his home country. He had been chosen unanimously in spring 1985 as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (and therefore the country’s head of government) by the party’s Central Committee. He resigned in late December 1991.

Gorbachev’s elevation was under the system of “democratic centralism,” which avoided the mistakes which could occur if voting was left to what Marxist-Leninists saw as the false-consciousness of the masses. 

When Gorbachev contested the 1996 Russian presidential election, under the genuinely democratic system which he had established, the winner was Boris Yeltsin, who defeated the old-style communist Gennady Zyuganov. Gorbachev received less than one per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, as the thousands who turned up to file past Gorbachev’s coffin showed, he is held in great affection and respect by many, especially liberal-minded city dwellers who recall that Gorbachev’s constitutional reforms of glasnost (openness), and perestroika (restructuring) gave them freedoms never before enjoyed – or since.

The important question, however, about Gorbachev’s legacy is whether, if he had made economic reforms as effectively as he did democratic ones, he could have avoided the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. Vladimir Putin described this breakup in 2005 as "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century". For him, and his supporters, it most certainly has been as he battles, as he sees it, to restore the Russian Empire and his nation’s greatness. No wonder he found some flimsy excuse to avoid attending Gorbachev’s funeral.

No doubt there were decisions which Gorbachev took during his six momentous years in power that might, just, have avoided the extraordinary and rapid collapse, first of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, and then of the Soviet Union’s disparate republics.

The important question is.. could he have avoided the breakup of the Soviet Union itself?

But I doubt this. The fundamental weakness of the Soviet empire was that it was not based upon consent, or economic prosperity, but upon repression. That became less brutal once Joseph Stalin died in 1953, but the whole apparatus of a security state remained, with the KGB by far the most powerful of all the Soviet Union’s institutions. “In the name of Communism, we abandoned basic human values. So, when I came to power in Russia, I started to restore those,” commented Gorbachev. 

What Gorbachev did, knowingly or not, was however something even more profound. By removing the forces of repression he abandoned that which was holding the whole edifice together. 

There’s an old story about the French Revolution: a mob runs down a Paris street. One man seeking shelter from the mayhem in a doorway turns to another, doing likewise. “Who’s the leader?” asks the first man. “I am,” replies the second. Thus Gorbachev was reduced to a bystander of a revolution – for that is what it was – which he had unleashed. He created a revolution of rising expectations, which no one individual could possibly have controlled.

Like almost everyone in the West, across Eastern Europe and in the now independent republics across the old Soviet Union, I’m very pleased that Gorbachev did act to ‘restore human values”. (And so rickety was the old USSR its collapse would have happened sooner or later in the absence of a Gorbachev, but with greater violence). We are however living with the consequences today of those who lost most power when the USSR folded – those in the security apparatus, like Putin himself.

Jack Straw is former Labour MP for Blackburn and foreign secretary

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