Yet again, and most certainly not for the last time, the demise of Mikhail Gorbachev has drawn our attention to the great man's role in history, the fate of his political legacy, and the trajectory of the country that never understood how blessed it was to have him for president.
Indeed, the process that Gorbachev started eventually gained strength. One of the most influential in the world some half a century ago, the Communist ideology now appeals only to outcasts and poses no threat at all to global development. The empire whose troops were deployed in the center of Europe when Gorbachev came to power has been destroyed; dozens of peoples have gained their freedom, and the civilized world has advanced its borders eastward further than ever before. As the current war in Ukraine shows, there can be no return to the past: at least, not in ideology, politics, or warfare.
As the current war in Ukraine shows, there can be no return to the past: at least, not in ideology, politics, or warfare
Nevertheless, the process is evidently far from completion. By virtue of its nature and historical features, Russia perceived a leader who had deep regard for the value of human life and the principles of freedom as utterly alien and therefore quickly revised Gorbachev's legacy. I’ve said it more than once, and I will say it again: it was not Vladimir Putin who started this revision in the 2000s; it was Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. As a result, Russia's only free elections over the last century that resulted in the replacement of the political elite took place from 1989 to 1991, in Gorbachev's Soviet Union. By contrast, all the “electoral events” from 1993 to 2022 were nothing but make-believe that had no real impact on power.
Similarly, the freedoms of constituents and republics of the bygone empire only expanded during Gorbachev's presidency, whereas almost all of the new Kremlin’s policies have been focused on their re-enslavement. Despite being often criticized for destroying every bit of Mikhail Gorbachev's legacy, Putin is only finishing what the first master of the new Russia began; this completion, however, harbors immense risks both for his nation and the world at large.
Russia's only free election over the last century that resulted in the replacement of the political elite took place from 1989 to 1991, in Gorbachev's Soviet Union
Over eighty years ago, the great sociologist Peter Drucker made a prophetic statement: “Fascism is the stage reached after Communism has proven an illusion.” (Drucker, Peter. The End of Economic Man, New York: John Day, 1939, pp. 230-231). Gorbachev did all he humanly could to demonstrate the illusory nature of Communist ideals – and in full compliance with Drucker's words, called a fascist monster into existence in a country that once was a major contributor to the victory over Nazism. Of course, he had no intention of doing so, and yet it became one of the main long-term consequences of the perestroika transformation. In this regard, I tend to put Mikhail Gorbachev on the same pedestal as the greatest idealists of the last century: Woodrow Wilson, Aristide Briand, and Hjalmar Branting, who were sincere in their dreams of a united world governed by democratic international organizations, a planetwide kingdom of reason, and of course, a united Europe. However, the Treaty of Versailles did not only lead to the establishment of the League of Nations but also to the Second World War, which the idealists had in many parts premeditated by the incompleteness of their peace experiment.
Today, we're nearing the end of yet another peaceful era, which Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in along with his great contemporaries: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and François Mitterrand – all of whom he eventually outlived. Similarly to how Germany in the 1930s – a nation that had sustained defeat but was not sufficiently incorporated into the community of European countries – demonstrated to the entire world the horrible grimaces of slumbering reason, Russia in the 2020s was not offered an appropriate position in the new world order and turned into the most destructive power in the global politics. The 1990 Charter of Paris has proven to be just as imperfect as the Paris Peace Conference treaty in 1919, which is a giant historical tragedy for Gorbachev and those who attempted to build a new 21st-century world alongside him.
Russia is beginning another loop of its cursed history, bent on convincing the world of its uniqueness, whereas in reality its sole unique feature is an unprecedented lack of regard for the values of law, freedom, and human life. However, history knows no mercy: time after time, it denies such rogues the right to determine the fate of humanity. Even if Mikhail Gorbachev did not understand it rationally, he felt it deep in his soul – which he had, unlike most Russian rulers.
Mikhail Gorbachev visiting the Stavropol Territory, March 1985. Photo credit Konstantin Tarusov / Photo Chronicle TASS
He tried to catch the wind of history with the threadbare, torn sails of Soviet reality instead of wasting the last resources of the Russian nation, which had barely escaped extermination in the 20th century, on countering historical trends. Alas, he failed.
History knows no mercy: time after time, it denies such rogues as Russia the right to determine the fate of humanity
Personally, the only analogy I see for Gorbachev's memorial service in Moscow in 2022 is Gustav Stresemann’s funeral in Berlin in 1929. Ahead of us lies a time of Russia’s yet another historic defeat, the elimination of the Kremlin's fascism, and a new perestroika. I like to think that the world will soon have new Gorbachevs and Mitterrands who will avoid repeating the mistakes made by Wilsons and Lloyd Georges. After 1945, Europe realized that Germany could only be welcomed back into the family on the condition of its total denazification and demilitarization. The country received a great many formal duties stemming from its official membership in pan-European associations. In the exact same way, the 2030s will be marked by the global understanding that Russia, apart from undergoing a complete defascization and ridding itself of its obsession with advocating power and lawlessness, must be firmly incorporated into global structures as a full-fledged member with equal obligations and equal rights with other members. This was precisely what the world failed to do when the Soviet Union collapsed and the European Union had just been declared; when the Warsaw Pact had been denounced, and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization had barely consolidated.
The new Gorbachevs have their work cut out for them. And I have no doubt they will emerge because, now that we’ve known Mikhail Gorbachev, we cannot treat it as an unprecedented scenario...
Tallinn – Vilnius, September 1, 2022