Newsweek – “He may smile, but he has iron teeth,” is one of the best remembered descriptions of the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91. The line belonged to long-time Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, a grim-faced Stalinist who offered it in March 1985 upon Gorbachev’s elevation to general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party—effectively, the country’s ruler.
More than anything else, Gorbachev embodied the hopes of a reformist faction in the Soviet leadership that realized the communist system could not survive without major renovation. An erratic burst of reforms immediately after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 had destabilized the system to the point where the reforms’ chief proponent, Nikita Khrushchev, was ousted in a bloodless coup. He was replaced by the uninspired Leonid Brezhnev, a Stalin acolyte who imposed stagnant rigidity of action and ideology until his death in 1982. As the West and much of the rest of the world raced past the Soviet Union in every measurable category of success and prosperity, Brezhnev’s heirs faced stark choices that they were ill-prepared to make or manage.
Gorbachev came to the forefront thanks to Brezhnev’s short-lived successor Yuri Andropov, a long-time KGB chief who, by virtue of his position, knew better than anyone else how badly the evil empire was faring. He was responsible for Gorbachev’s rise from provincial obscurity to the center of power. A divided leadership eventually settled on the relatively young arriviste as the new leader, cautiously endorsing a reformist path that Andropov had already set in motion.
Contrary to the view of most Western intellectuals, who saw, and continue to revere, Gorbachev as a kind of saint, his purpose in power was to revitalize the Soviet Union and its ruling ideology. His tools of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were not intended to grant Soviet subjects inalienable human rights, liberate them from authoritarian rule, or refashion them into Jeffersonian democrats enjoying the blessings of liberty. Instead, Gorbachev’s reforms were meant to remove or neutralize counterproductive features of the Soviet regime so that the USSR could remain a viable world power governed by a Leninist party-state apparatus unanswerable to anything or anyone other than itself.
This proved to be Gorbachev’s undoing. His reforms in Soviet economic and political life neither solved the country’s fundamental problem—that it was a communist dictatorship incapable of existing without top-down political and economic controls—nor satisfied the aspirations of the Soviet people, who for the most part hated the system, took major risks for the freedoms the regime continued to deny them, and expressed a powerful desire to govern themselves. While Gorbachev naively believed that communism was a fundamentally good idea that could be reformed into an ideology of genuine popular appeal, his people wanted it gone—and ultimately, Gorbachev himself and the party-state along with it.
Having survived resistance from the Soviet establishment, economic disaster, popular ferment, and a military coup launched by hard-liners, in the final months of 1991, political events Gorbachev could no longer control abolished the country over which he presided. The USSR’s core constituent republics, including Russia under Gorbachev’s rival Boris Yeltsin, chose independence.
Trying to reform the Soviet Union’s failing government and heinous ideology had major geopolitical consequences, as well. With their backs to the wall in economic, strategic, and military competition, the Soviets were forced to reconsider their massive military spending and unsustainable global commitments. The Reagan administration correctly perceived and exacerbated this weakness with a successful “rollback” strategy that challenged communism in countries where it was established and presented the Kremlin with insuperable obstacles to continued conflict.
Gorbachev’s Western liberal fans despised Ronald Reagan and have sought ever since to credit Gorbachev with the end of the Cold War. In 1990, he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—long before Barack Obama got it for doing nothing. This warped point of view, as well as a misleading “equivalence” interpretation of the Cold War’s origins, has complemented our discredited foreign policy establishment’s failed strategy of a new globalized world order, in which America could not be a winner, and no other country could be a loser.
In Russia, however, Gorbachev was a loser—and to many minds, even a traitor. When he sought the Russian presidency in 1996, he won a paltry 0.51% of the vote. His eventual successor Vladimir Putin has famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Supported by the old hard-liner camp, Putin, who perhaps understandably never consulted Gorbachev on any matter of statecraft, has reversed his predecessor’s policies in every possible way and refashioned Russia as an autocratic rogue state that accepts isolation from the international community while courting the comradeship of other rogue states. A Kremlin spokesman reflecting on Gorbachev’s death dismissed his vision of “an eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the world” and praised Putin for recognizing what he called the “bloodthirstiness of our opponents” in time to take decisive action.
Internationally, Gorbachev’s failure taught the world’s dictators that they can reliably maintain power as long as they preserve the loyalty of the army and security police, and have the will to use it. As we have seen with depressing regularity, and even before Gorbachev died, in places as diverse as Lebanon, Venezuela, Iran, Belarus, China, Syria, Cuba, and Nicaragua—to say nothing of Russia itself—a violent new philosophy of government has emerged in reaction to what happened to the Soviet Union under his leadership.
In our own country, it is certainly no coincidence that Gorbachev is mourned most deeply by the same people who favor an illiberal administrative state fueled by an ideology of moral and “scientific” superiority and guided by social philosophies rooted in Marxism. We can only hope they enjoy as much success as he did.