Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the age 91 on Tuesday, will likely be cast as a forgotten figure of another century by those who are penning encomiums to the former Soviet premier. But he has lately been very much alive—and very much relevant. While his name is never mentioned in recent news, he has been a true casus belli for the current war in Ukraine. For the war is an attempt of Putin’s Russia, shrinking in terms of population and power, to latch onto the prospering people that Gorbachev let go.
It is often said that the invasion of Ukraine is a reconjuring of the spirit of Mother Russia—or the resurrection of some dead fascist thinker, such as Ivan Ilyin—to which Putin is in thrall. Yet this is Putin’s project, his personal obsession: to undo everything Gorbachev accomplished. It is rare to hear a mention of Gorbachev’s name at all in this context. But lest we forget, excluding the brief and drunken interregnum of Boris Yeltsin, Putin is Gorbachev’s direct successor. Putin is there because of Gorbachev. It is also Gorbachev who cut loose Ukraine, but for which there would not be a Ukraine war. One might well see it as a form of vengeance on Gorbachev, or a ritual murder of him, carried out via a real-life murder of those whom we might regard as Gorbachev’s children—the Zelenskiy generation, who are now thinking adults because of the freedom Gorbachev gave them.
It is so eerie that Gorbachev has ended up as such a nonperson. At his death at age 91, he was living in state-owned housing, still a true Communist in Putin’s kleptocracy. Once, in the late 1980s, it was Gorbachev who roiled the world, as Putin longs to do today. It may be true, as some scoff, that Gorbachev should get no credit for the changes he wrought; that the USSR just ran out of money, and that he had no choice but to let the empire go. True or not, Gorbachev put an end to the whole nightmare of the twentieth century. He also put an end to a certain form of nineteenth-century imperialism that continued under the USSR, even if he had to order the people of that empire to be free. Yet that liberation is still playing out. If the young today have no notion of Gorbachev, or who he was, rest assured: At the time of his death, he was still roiling the world.
In 1989, the annus mirabilis, it seemed every month, thanks to Gorbachev, there would be a new comet in the sky: an election in Poland, a new congress in Hungary, a velvet revolution in Prague. Yes, some had a cynical read of the matter: “Either he behaves like a Western politician, and we can’t trust him, or he behaves like a Soviet politician, and we can’t trust him.” But that was a reason to be fascinated by him: What is forgotten about Gorbachev is that he was trying to rehabilitate Communism as a rival to Western capitalism, to create a new rivalry between the two systems in elevating the global human condition.
He used the word perestroika, or “restructuring”; but it was more than a restructuring of the state or the economy. It was a restructuring of our imagination as to what Communism could be; in his famous speech before the United Nations in 1988, he was explicit about that rivalry, which many others took to be a surrender to the neoliberalism of the Reagan-Thatcher camp or maybe a “Third Way” of navigating between these poles. But Gorbachev always aimed for a refurbished Second Way. He wanted to create something new and wild in the world, stitched onto familiar bones. Without knowing it, he grasped unconsciously that there might be a place for Communism (or let us say “communism”—to decapitalize and de-Stalinize it) to deal with climate change, pandemic, and runaway A.I. technology in the century to come. For a few years, to some Americans like me, Gorbachev seemed to take the role of the “great man” in Hegel’s theory of history—like Napoleon, in Hegel’s time, who to Hegel is the bearer of the “world spirit,” who understands even if unconsciously the next necessary stage in the history of the world. Far from bringing about the end of history, Gorbachev was grasping, perhaps too early, the next place it had to go.
But if 1989 made him a rock star in the West, it was the end of him back home. There was economic collapse when he launched his new form of communism without any clear idea what it should be. Perhaps the problem was that there was no young and educated elite, in their twenties and thirties, like those who have now fled Putin, ready to take over. For the 150,000 or 300,000 who have fled Putin, Gorbachev came too soon. Now the youth of Russia, coming of age under Putin and thriving on high tech, are far more interested in Silicon Valley’s promises than in being the pioneers who might usher Gorbachev’s updated version of communism into existence. Even so, Gorbachev came close to changing the world. He mesmerized Reagan, who came close to disarming the United States unilaterally after a meeting with Gorbachev in Iceland.
In any event, there has always been a mystery about the man. That birthmark on his forehead always seemed to be some symbol of mystical significance, as if an angel had bopped him in the womb. Then there was Gorbachev’s drinking, or lack of it—that he had risen to the top of the USSR without blowing out his brains with vodka or even being part of the KGB. Strangest of all: He had a wife. He was married, as no Soviet leader had ever been, and to a lawyer no less, at least as much a professional as he. He was so public about his love for Raisa Gorbachev and her role in his life; this was an exhibition of the very kind of “gender freedom” that Putin finds so disgusting.
But here is what must gall Putin: In a way, Gorbachev was KGB. He was put in power by the equally mysterious Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief, who had become head of the USSR only when he was mortally ill. Putin must grasp that Gorbachev, like Putin himself, owed his power to the KGB but that Gorbachev betrayed it. Nor was Gorbachev the truly equal partner to his wife Raisa, in at least one sense: He later admitted to a biographer that he kept secret from her his likely ascendancy. He knew she would have tried to stop it.
She was right. Soon enough he was gone. He ended up doing commercials for Coca Cola, but he also went on the road for Greenpeace, one of the few political organizations that comes close to seeking the Communist perestroika, free of capitalism, that he intended. It was his destiny to be forgotten, even while still alive. Unlike others who stride the world, he has left no monument, no constitution, no new type of communism, in which one could anchor his memory. All he did was liberate—and liberate people now in EU countries who do not wish to acknowledge they had a liberator, least of all a Communist one. It is an embarrassment to the peoples he liberated that such a liberator was necessary.
Yet what has kept him with us as an aura, still roiling the world, is Putin’s hatred of him, a desire to destroy every trace of him. It’s a much simpler explanation for the invasion of Ukraine than the philosophy of Ilyin, or labored comparisons to the Third Reich. After all, by 2014, Putin must have thought he had dispensed with Gorbachev, both in Russia and Ukraine, the country that is the mother ship of Mother Russia. Now in this war on Ukraine, Putin has his opportunity to murder the children of Gorbachev. And nothing must enrage him more than those who should tremble before Putin not only resisting but sticking out their tongue at him, led by a war leader who is a comedian. No doubt the enlargement of NATO also enrages Putin, but the war at this point seems to have little to do with NATO. It is to do away with the sight of Gorbachev’s children, all of them, just over the border, mocking and resisting him.
But for all of those Ukrainians he successfully slays, a longer line of them remains, rolling out further before his eyes. Maddened by the sight of them, Putin now sees them reflected in the children of his own country; he is now trying to reeducate the young Russian children, Soviet-style, to stop them from turning into future Ukrainians. Putin has been driven to so much murder as he reels at the sight of Gorbachev’s metaphoric offspring, who stubbornly persist in the face of his villainy, much as Macbeth reeled at the sight of the children of vanquished Banquo. Perhaps Putin will end up in a stalemate. But Macbeth does not end that way: The murder goes on until Macbeth is gone.
Putin is running out of soldiers to do the fighting for him; his obsession with driving Gorbachev’s children out of Russia may prove to be fatal to his rule. There are 50,000 new exiles in Tbilisi, Georgia, who constitute, digitally, a second front. They are young, culturally hip, and out to get Putin; they are organizing, both in and out of Russia, online. After coexisting with Putin, they are trying to get rid of him. One might say they are engaging in perestroika: a new way of imagining Russia, which can be disseminated to the young who get their news from social media and not Russian state TV. Putin was on safer ground when these exiles were content to ignore him. His attempts to ritually murder these children of Gorbachev seems to have the effect of making Gorbachev loom larger.
Even Gorbachev’s form of communism is having a kind of afterlife. And there is a touch of perestroika in the way Ukrainians have fought the war with lateral networks, set up by tech-savvy Ukrainians. Theirs has been an “open society” war, one in which all Ukrainians play a role. It is this openness that Putin has sent in an army to destroy. This is a true people’s war for the Ukrainians, a kind few liberal democracies in the EU—or the U.S.—could easily undertake. And private property, going up in flames, is being sacrificed for its sake.
It was fitting for Gorbachev, out of power, to take up with causes like Greenpeace: It may take some new legal form of property, unknown in the West, to shelter us from the storms like climate change that are bearing down on us. That is a project for which socialism, not social democracy, may be better suited. Long ago, in Red Vienna, after the Great War, in the 1920s, there was a brief movement seeking a new type of socialism. There was even a slogan: “No to Social Democracy, No to Bolshevik Communism, Yes to Continuing Education.” This movement left an actual brick and mortar legacy: the public housing for people of all income levels for which Vienna, as well as other cities, such as Graz, are famous. There is no parallel to it anywhere in the West. In Graz, people have even elected a Marxist mayor, Elke Kahr, the leader of the city’s Communist Party, to protect it. It is only through a commitment to live together—communally, but in an ever more open society—that the human species may be able to survive. We may all have to figure out a way to be Gorbachev’s children. And in our own century, Gorbachev may yet turn out to be Hegel’s man.