Reassessing Gorbachev

The death yesterday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has caused a lot of comment about his role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s worth a few moments to think about those events that occurred more than 30 years ago and how they are perceived now.

The Washington Post obituary presents Gorbachev as the agent of change; it states that he “embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse.” He was a “towering figure” who engaged in “improvised tactics,” took “increasingly bold risks,” and “pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.” The Post views Mr. Gorbachev as the indispensable figure in the end of the Cold War drama, stating flatly: “None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev.” That view is reflected in the fact that Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Others disagree with that assessment. They see Gorbachev as the reactor, not the actor; in their view, the true change agent was Ronald Reagan. This evaluation of the 1980s focuses on President Reagan’s decision to ratchet up the social, economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union and Gorbachev with events like his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. As a result, they contend, Gorbachev was left with few options and really didn’t have much choice as he took steps that responded to the Reagan initiatives and the outbreaks of resistance and freedom initiatives that began to appear in Eastern Europe. The Post obituary indirectly acknowledges this with its references to “improvised tactics” and “increasingly bold risks”: the person who sets the tone doesn’t need to improvise.

Which view of Gorbachev is right? I think the honest answer lies somewhere in between, recognizing that President Reagan’s approach helped to create and nourish the pro-freedom movement that narrowed the options and forced increasingly difficult decisions by the Soviet Union, but also that Gorbachev did always have a choice: he could have unleashed the Soviet army, applied the extreme and brutal repressive tactics that the U.S.S.R. had historically applied, or taken things to the brink of nuclear war–but he didn’t. We’ll probably never know precisely how essential Gorbachev was to those decisions, and how much support, or opposition, he had among members of the Politburo in refraining from calling out the troops or pushing the button, but it all happened on his watch. If a more bloodthirsty, reckless leader had been in charge of the Soviet Union at that time, things might have gone down very differently.

Mikhail Gorbachev may not deserve the over-the-top accolades he is receiving in some quarters, but he clearly was an important historical figure who played a key role. Mr. Gorbachev may not have torn down the wall, but he ultimately didn’t interfere with those freedom-loving Germans who did, and the world should remember him for that.

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