Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, has died. Many testimonials will focus on his humanity and his vision. But these qualities are not what made him great. Gorbachev attained greatness by failing.
This sounds odd in the West because Westerners have always loved Gorbachev more than his own people ever did, and the tendency outside Russia is to ascribe to him great achievements that were not his own. The night he died, for example, I watched a CNN reporter discuss how Gorbachev helped bring down the Berlin Wall. This is simply not true: Gorbachev made the decision not to deploy Soviet troops to prevent Germans from tearing the Wall apart, which is a very different thing.
As you listen to the tributes, remember always that Gorbachev was trying to rescue, rather than destroy, the U.S.S.R. and Soviet Communism. We should all be thankful that he did not succeed in his mission. He was too decent for a job that required a fundamental lack of decency. In the end, he showed the courage and humanity not to use force to try to turn back the clock—a lesson lost on his latest successor, Vladimir Putin.
The story of Gorbachev’s career is not a neat and unbroken narrative of reform. It is a very Soviet story of intrigue and gamesmanship, with a very Soviet ending of both disaster and dashed hopes.
Although Gorbachev is now known as a reformer, he was a Soviet reformer. He was brought to Moscow under the aegis of his patron, General Secretary Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB. Andropov, too, was a Soviet reformer, in that he wanted a leaner and meaner Soviet Union, a more efficient Soviet state, and a more diligent, and more sober, Soviet workforce. He tried to develop protégés, such as Gorbachev, who would further this mission and save the U.S.S.R. from what the Soviets would come to call the “era of stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev.
This is not to say that Gorbachev was just another heartless apparatchik. He was smart, and unlike many of his older colleagues, he had not deluded himself about the parlous condition of the Soviet economy and society. He had a vision for the U.S.S.R. that was ambitious enough to worry the old men around him in the Kremlin, so much so that when Andropov died, in 1984, they stiff-armed Gorbachev and made him cool his heels for another year while a terminally ill nobody named Konstantin Chernenko was allowed to preside over the party and the Soviet government. When Chernenko died, in 1985, Gorbachev defeated one more challenger—a genuinely dangerous man named Grigorii Romanov—and he became the top Soviet leader.