Mikhail Gorbachev—the last leader of the Soviet Union, architect of perestroika and glasnost, and Nobel Peace Prize winner—passed away recently. At a time when Russia is backsliding into “neo-totalitarianism,” Gorbachev’s legacy seems to be fading into oblivion. As the man who “managed to change the world but not his country,” he cast a tragic figure—a visionary too idealistic and too human to reinforce a massive transformation in the country.
But is the Gorbachev era truly over?
Since he resigned as president of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev used to say that he may have lost as a politician, but perestroika had won. That is what he believed until the very end. In one of his last interviews, he added, with a chuckle: “Who said that the Gorbachev era has ended? It has only begun.” He had a point: as Russia is struggling to reckon with its difficult past, now is, perhaps, too early to draw conclusions about his role in history, too close to the date to appreciate the gigantic scale of what had managed to do for the country and the world.
As of now, judgments seem to vary to a great degree. Immediately after his death on August 30, 2022, an outpour of praise flooded the media in the West where the last Soviet leader is lionized and lauded for his peace-making efforts. But things are more complicated in Russia. The latest opinion poll by the state-funded WCIOM agency shows that 74 percent of Russians feel antipathy towards Gorbachev—mostly associating his reforms with economic problems that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and chaos of the 1990s; only 13 percent said they had positive feelings about him. An earlier survey by an independent pollster Levada Center offers a more nuanced picture: 15 percent have positive feelings, 46 percent feel negative, while 30 percent are indifferent. These numbers can only give an approximation of the public mood in Russia, as the actual attitudes are hard to measure under authoritarian conditions.
By his own admission, Gorbachev is difficult to understand. And today, he can be seen as Russia’s tragic hero, a “misunderstood prophet”—the man who stopped an inhumane totalitarian experiment, ended the Cold War, liberated millions of people, and tried to steer the country toward a democratic path, but whose political life was cut short, preventing him from bringing his vision to reality. Mistakes were made, conditions set up for democratization were not fully utilized, and the freedom he had given was used against him, as he was pushed out by more radical—and power-hungry—reformers. Despite all that, it is difficult to even imagine what today’s world would be like without Gorbachev’s reforms. And yet his remarkable achievements are barely remembered, so before any potential judgment of his legacy can be passed, a brief review of both his domestic and international efforts is in order.
Gorbachev’s legacy is defined by three signature policies—perestroika (“rebuilding”), glasnost (“open speech”), and new political thinking (a foreign policy doctrine that envisioned the end of the arms race and Cold War with the West). Gorbachev coined the word “perestroika” early in his tenure as General Secretary of the Communist Party, which began in March 1985. At first, he had a somewhat narrow view of the reforms focusing on economy and technological development, but, eventually, his “rebuilding” stretched far beyond and embraced politics, ideology, and culture.
Gorbachev inherited the country with a highly centralized political system, bloated military-industrial complex, totalitarian control over society, and planning economic model, which had largely exhausted itself resulting in stagnation, endemic corruption, and the growing technological gap with the West. He was often criticized for lacking a proper plan, but the scale of reforms turned out to be so massive, the complexity of the Soviet system’s problems so unprecedented, that, perhaps, he intuited that any plan he could have devised would inevitably falter.
Fairly quickly, Gorbachev realized that cosmetic reforms of economy could not save it, so he went to introduce private business activity through a series of legislation (i.e., on state enterprises and on cooperatives) and partial privatization of the state property. These steps were still insufficient. Even as some planning mechanisms were undermined, others, such as price regulation, were preserved, which hindered the emergence of a full-fledged market and, spurred by the 1986 oil prices collapse, eventually accelerated the system’s demise. In 1990, Soviet industrial production began to decline for the first time since the post-World War II period, the deficit in the consumer market became total, and the financial system went into virtual bankruptcy.
The goal of Gorbachev’s political reform was to transfer power from the monopoly of the Communist Party “into the hands of those to whom it should have belonged according to the Constitution—the Soviets [elected councils]—through free elections of people’s deputies.” To achieve this goal, Gorbachev launched the policy of “democratization” and pushed for constitutional changes to separate the Communist Party and the state, which were essentially one governing body under the Soviet system. In 1988, he introduced a new supreme legislative body called the Congress of People’s Deputies and oversaw the first partially free nationwide elections to the Congress the following year. To further separate party leadership from the country leadership, Gorbachev abolished Article VI of the Soviet Constitution on the leading role of the Communist Party, established a multi-party system, and introduced a new office of the Soviet Union president. He was elected the first—and, as it turned out, the last—president of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1990.
Glasnost was, perhaps, one of Gorbachev’s greatest and most appreciated achievements at home, resulting in the freer circulation of information and gradual opening-up of society. In 1986, Gorbachev began to release political prisoners and return political exiles back home, including a well-known dissident—academician Andrei Sakharov, the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner. A broad campaign was launched to rehabilitate the victims of political repression. The Soviet media, for the first time, were allowed to report on the country’s actual problems and criticize the authorities. Recognition of the existence of the Soviet subculture unleashed great creative forces in Soviet art, music, and cinematography. Informal youth movements—hippies, punks, metalheads—gained popularity and flourished in the late 1980s.
The goal of Gorbachev’s innovative foreign policy was to prevent a nuclear war with the West, which he sincerely believed was the greatest threat to the planet. His efforts, however, had an unintended side effect—the disintegration of the Eastern bloc and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1986, Gorbachev put forward his vision of the international situation, highlighting the modern world’s “interdependence,” the complexity and universality of global problems, and the need for “conscious interaction between states and peoples.” He advocated for “a world without war, without an arms race, a nuclear-free and non-violent world” for the sake of all mankind. Specifically, he emphasized the importance of cooperation between the Soviet Union and its main geopolitical adversary, the United States, “on the basis of equality and mutual understanding.” By that time he had already met with President Ronald Reagan in Geneva and started the conversation on arms limitation, which continued at the 1986 Reykjavik summit and culminated with the signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington, D.C. As the Soviet-American rapprochement gained momentum, Reagan claimed that he no longer considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire”—the term he had used only four years prior. In July 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) was signed by Gorbachev and George W. Bush in Moscow, providing for a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both countries by about 30 percent.
In addition to improving ties with the United States, in May 1988, Gorbachev also ended the disastrous war with Afghanistan by sanctioning the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. Driven by concerns of geopolitical competition in the region, the Soviet Union invaded this civil war-torn country in 1979 to establish a friendly regime. This interference resulted in a ten-years long quagmire, which was compared in the U.S. with the Vietnam War, and had caused the Soviet Union immense “material and moral damage.”
As Gorbachev’s reforms unraveled both at home and abroad, the Soviet Union’s iron grip on the Eastern Bloc began to soften. A revolutionary trend began in Poland, where, in June 1989, the first partially free elections were held that resulted in an overwhelming victory of the Solidarity trade union movement and the end of Communist rule. At the same time, Hungary began to raise the Iron Curtain, allowing the opening of a border gate with Austria. By August 1989, peaceful revolutions were sweeping across Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and East Germany, as the Eastern Bloc was disintegrating (the only country that didn’t escape violence was Romania). It was in the summer of 1989 that Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of Western ideas and liberal democracy—a statement he withdrew almost three decades later.
This revolutionary process in Europe culminated in November 1989 in the fall of the Berlin Wall—the symbol of the Cold War that since 1961 had epitomized the ideological split between East and West and the confrontation between two superpowers—the Soviet Union and the United States. In the following year, Gorbachev and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed the treaty on reunification of Germany in Moscow, and, a month later, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations.” In 1991, the Warsaw Pact Organization, a military alliance of Eastern European socialist states created in opposition to the U.S.-led North Atlantic Alliance, dissolved. All former Soviet Union’s partners in this organization later became NATO members.
Already in 1988, Estonia declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, followed by all other 14 Soviet republics, including Russia, within the following two years. Lithuania became the first republic to officially secede from the Soviet Union in March 1991, but first it had to face withstanding Moscow’s crackdown that left fourteen people dead and over a hundred wounded. (In contrast to most leaders’ warm recollections of Gorbachev after his death, some Lithuanian politicians accused him of “criminal” behavior; Gorbachev, however, had always publicly denied giving orders to shoot at protesters, blaming it on the KGB). As other Baltic states, joined by Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova, were on the verge of declaring their independence as well (which Georgia did on April 9, 1991), Gorbachev began preparations for a treaty to transform the Soviet Union into a federal Union of Sovereign States. He was able to bring in the heads of the remaining nine Soviet republic—Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. These plans, however, were thwarted.
The many Communist Party hardliners, who might have initially supported Gorbachev’s reforms, were unhappy with the democratization and liberalization processes he facilitated. As the Soviet Union was facing dissolution while nationalist sentiment was growing stronger across the board, a group of eight hardliners, known as the State Emergency Committee attempted to depose Gorbachev through a coup d’état in August 1991. They failed due to various factors, including poor organization, popular resistance led by Yeltsin, and the lack of military support. Instead of getting power back, the coupists only spurred the Soviet collapse, triggering the so-called “parade of sovereignties”—declarations of independence by other republics. In the period of August 20 to 31, acts of independence were adopted by Estonia (20th), Latvia (21st), Ukraine (24th), Belarus (25th), Moldova (27th), Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan (both 31st); in September, they were joined by Tajikistan (21st), Armenia (23rd); and, in October, by Azerbaijan (18th) and Turkmenistan (27th). The only republics that didn’t follow suit at that point were Russia and Kazakhstan.
Despite the coup, Gorbachev tried to preserve the Soviet Union in some form until the very end of his rule. The idea was supported by the majority of the nine republics’ peoples who voiced their views in the March 1991 referendum results (76 percent supported the idea). He later wrote that “the path to the political sovereignty of the republics, to their economic independence, the preservation of their identity, the development of culture lay through the renewal of the Union, turning it into a democratic, real, effective federation, to which the republics delegate part of their powers.”
But most of the rulers of the Soviet republics believed that the Soviet Union was already dead. In December 1991, on the heels of Ukrainian referendum on independence, which was supported by the 92.3 percent of the vote, leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich, respectively—negotiated an alternative treaty. Despite Gorbachev objecting and even seeking military support, which he reportedly didn’t get, the treaty was signed on December 8, 1991. The Belavezha Accords declared the demise of the Soviet Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which consisted of 12 former Soviet republics, was established in its place. Gorbachev resigned and never held public office again. In his televised resignation speech he observed earnestly: “The process of renewing the country and fundamental changes in the world community turned out to be much more complicated than one might have imagined … The old system collapsed before the new one had time to work.”
In one of his later interviews, Gorbachev said that he still believed that “a democracy must come to Russia.” He dreamed of a socialist democratic model for the country and seemed to have understood democracy quite literally—“power of the people.” “People must dream,” he remarked, “because dreaming drives us to seek ideas, which is the most precious thing.”
The Man of Principle
A paradoxical question that comes into focus in many debates about Gorbachev’s legacy is this: how did this born-and-bred Soviet man come to realize the need for democratic reforms and dare to bring his vision to reality? What made Gorbachev, who grew up in a southern Russian village, who seemed like a poster kid for the new generation of the Communist Party elite, who could have ruled the declining Soviet Union for another twenty years, see beyond this easier path and embark on a completely different journey? What gave him the courage and strength to steer the Soviet ship into a completely uncharted territory? What made him restrict his power and refrain from arguably using naked force to push forward his agenda?
Heraclitus said that a man’s fate is always his character, and that’s one of the main conclusions about Gorbachev’s fate drawn by historian William Taubman in his 2017 book Gorbachev: His life and times. Taubman argues that in his work and governance of the country, Gorbachev often relied on moral principles, for which he was often dismissed as an idealist and utopianist. And yet, despite criticisms coming from the realists, Gorbachev, undoubtedly, managed to make the world a better place. Even after his exit from power, Taubman notes, Gorbachev continued to work to pursue his ideas: he ran in the 1996 presidential elections, tried to create a Socialist Democratic Party in 2008 (he believed in socialism until the end), and advocated for the full destruction of nuclear weapons. He failed on these accounts, but not for the lack of trying.
Gorbachev’s relentless idealism can be traced back to his family, who loved him very much and always supported him, and to his humble provincial upbringing, which allowed him to preserve “naivety and innocence” and set him apart from the cynical and jaded Moscow’s apparatchiks. According to political scientist Dmitry Furman, due to his naivety, Gorbachev “systematically overestimated the common sense of everyone, including the people as a whole,” trusting that people would come to grasp the self-evident truths and act in their best interest. But his truly tragic trait was his moral courage—the “courage of a person who goes to the end, accepts defeat, loss of power and humiliation, and fundamentally seeks to avoid violence.” Appreciated by his close friends and supporters, “such courage [did] not reach … people, [to them] it seems to be weakness and indecision.”
In his op-ed on the Soviet president’s death, recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, a Russian journalist and former editor-in-chief of the independent Novaya Gazeta (of which Gorbachev was one of the founders and stakeholders and which continues to operate despite the Russian government’s recent revoking of its printing license), spoke passionately about Gorbachev’s values and his humanity. “He loved a woman [his wife, Raisa] more than his work, put human rights above the state, and valued a peaceful sky more than personal power,” he said. Addressing Gorbachev’s legacy, Muratov added: “I heard that he managed to change the world but failed to change his country. Maybe so. But he gave both the country and the world an incredible gift—he gave us thirty years of peace. Without the threat of global and nuclear war. Who else is capable of this?”
Following Gorbachev’s death, Der Spiegelput his photograph on the cover under the header “Anti-Putin.” Indeed, Putin’s policy is directly opposite to Gorbachev’s. The latter pursued closer relations with the West and demilitarization, while the former has been increasingly focused on confrontation and militarization. Gorbachev ended wars and let go of Moscow’s overbearing geopolitical ambitions; Putin started wars to restore Russia’s zones of influence. In domestic policy, Gorbachev sought the democratization and creation of political institutions, he encouraged political competition, and introduced actual freedoms and liberties as opposed to simple declarations that only exist on paper. Putin is doing the opposite. In fact, in his twenty-two years in power, he has effectively destroyed most of Gorbachev’s achievements and seemingly buried his legacy for good.
But history might have a different judgment. Putin’s propaganda may try to present him as a “strongman,” who managed to restore Russia’s greatness and lift the country from its knees following the bankruptcy and humiliation of the 1990s. But this carefully constructed image will fade away as soon as his regime falls—for the lack of substance and authenticity. Gorbachev has already gone down in history as one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century, a visionary who changed the course of history, and whom, one wants to hope, Russian people will eventually come to recognize and appreciate as well.
The Russian poet Sergei Yesenin once wrote, “You can’t see faces face to face. Big things are seen in the distance.” Perhaps, Gorbachev understood it better than anyone. If he is the man who started a Russian democratic revolution; if, as he believed, democracy must come to Russia; if perestroika is only the beginning of its lengthy, thorny, difficult path towards the inevitable, then indeed the conclusions about his own efforts can only be drawn when this process is over. And not in the middle of what looks like a brutal revanche—the “last belch of the Soviet Union.” If—or when—it happens, Gorbachev might take his due place in the pantheon of new democratic Russia’s founding fathers, not as its tragic, but as its true hero.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Correction: The article was updated to reflect that, in a 1991 referendum, 76 percent supported maintaining the Soviet Union, not 93 percent.