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Complex Legacies

The Failed Dream of Mikhail Gorbachev

The late Soviet premier is popularly regarded as a leader who ushered in a new era. The more complicated truth is that he failed to fully extricate himself from the old one.

Mikhail Gorbachev stands next to the Berlin Wall in 1998.
Micheline Pelletier/Getty Images
Mikhail Gorbachev stands next to the Berlin Wall in 1998.

On a chilly day in late 1986, thousands of protesters gathered on the streets of Alma-Ata, then the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. They were mostly young, and mostly ethnic Kazakh. And they all had one demand: a basic say in the political direction of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, which was still a part of the Soviet Union.

The protesters had reason to believe they’d be successful. Just a year earlier, a new figure had risen in the Kremlin. Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, had recently ascended as the new Soviet premier. He’d pledged a pair of new policies. The first was a turn toward openness (glasnost), which would address the Soviet Union’s historic crimes. The second was reconstruction (perestroika), the rebuilding of the Soviet Union’s crumbling economy. It was, in many ways, an era unlike any previous. And compared to the Soviet premiers who’d come before—KGB thugs like Yuri Andropov and genocidal maniacs like Joseph Stalin, to name a few—Gorbachev appeared to be a saint.

At least, he was until those days in December in Kazakhstan. With demonstrators reaching into the tens of thousands, the Soviet forces commanded by Gorbachev reacted in the same ways they always had: They cracked down, cracked skulls, and cracked open the full tool kit of the Soviet regime’s violence. Thousands were arrested. Hundreds were beaten. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, Soviet troops killed at least 200 protesters. Another official report found that as many as 100 others, dragged out of town and stripped, froze to death.  

For any other regime, a massacre of hundreds of protesters—especially among a traditionally persecuted minority, like the Kazakhs in the Soviet Union—would have instantly transformed that government into a pariah. But Gorbachev and his government were, in the eyes of the West, different. Part of that had to do with perestroika, which began freeing up state controls of the Soviet economy. Part of that also had to do with glasnost, which allowed Soviet citizens to finally discuss the crimes that many in the West were already aware of.

But much of that also had to do with the fact that Gorbachev offered the world a convenient opportunity to rewrite the rules of the Cold War, redraw the borders of Europe, and recast the foundations of the entire relationship between Moscow and the West and all those other nations caught in between. And if the West had to ignore the massacres and crimes of Gorbachev’s own regime, so be it. There were, as the West saw it, bigger realities at stake and a new world order to forge—all of which left Gorbachev with arguably the most complicated legacy of any Soviet premier, both then and now. And all of which have, in just the past few months alone, come roaring back to relevance.

Even before he took power in the Kremlin, Gorbachev was unlike any leader the Soviet Union—or even the Russian empire before it—had seen. Coming from a humble rural upbringing, Gorbachev’s background informed a more skeptical view of the Soviet project. While Gorbachev was always a faithful backer of the Communist Party, both of his grandfathers had been arrested during the Stalinist purges, with one of them later telling Gorbachev about the pain and the torture suffered at the hands of Soviet interrogators.

But Gorbachev’s difference also stemmed from the factors then swirling within the Soviet Union itself. His predecessors had all died in quick succession, victims of the USSR’s gerontocracy. Indeed, much of the reason Gorbachev rose as quickly as he did stemmed directly from his relative youth. He provided the face of a new generation and a new way of thinking. He was everything his predecessors weren’t.

For the Soviet Union, the timing could not have been better. By the time of Gorbachev’s ascension, the USSR was well on its way toward implosion, both economic and military. The paradoxes and the shortcomings of the communist economy had finally caught up with the Kremlin, and years of failures in places like Afghanistan—as well as rising pushback from satellite states still occupied by the Soviets—was eating away at Moscow’s influence abroad. The combination of the two would have been an uphill task for any leader in the Kremlin. But Gorbachev believed he had a solution.  

Gorbachev, of course, failed—thanks in large part to his own myopic efforts to steer the Soviet Union to a newer, brighter future. There was his blinkered anti-alcohol campaign, which starved the Soviet economy of much-needed revenue. There was his noteworthy political aloofness, which alienated potential allies and provided further fodder for his domestic opponents. (Gorbachev’s naivete about basic politics earned him the nickname “The Martian.”) And there was the fact that, despite the promise of perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev always seemed hesitant to follow through on many of his pledges. He was a man in a blindfold, groping his way toward some unknown destination, increasingly frustrated that he kept getting lost and that fewer and fewer people were following him.

As events began spiraling beyond his control—as pushback in places like East Germany and the Baltics and the Caucasus began eroding the Kremlin’s influence faster and faster—Gorbachev flailed, tacking right, and then left, and then right again. He was praised in the West for his international maneuvers: for pulling Soviet troops from both Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and for talking about potentially ridding the world of nuclear weapons once and for all. “Gorbymania” was a real phenomenon, especially once the Cold War ended.

But domestically, Gorbachev showed a different side. An autocrat like his predecessors, Gorbachev couldn’t handle the fact that Soviet citizens weren’t coming along with his project—and that, in fact, some were outright opposed to his rule altogether.

Which is why, in 1986, Soviet forces under Gorbachev began massacring protesters in Kazakhstan. And then they did the same against anti-Soviet protesters in Georgia. And then again in Azerbaijan. And then again in Lithuania. And then again in Latvia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev may have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios. But it was never the peaceful venture that some in the West still regard it. Gorbachev’s victims were almost always those populations colonized by the Soviet Union, firmly opposed to Moscow’s rule and trying to finally break free.

Even when it became clear that the USSR was on the verge of disappearance, Gorbachev refused to recognize reality. He clung on, holding out hope that one more day, or one more speech, could finally rally the population to his side. When the collapse finally arrived, Gorbachev ended up as a man without a country and without a purpose.

His post-Soviet career hardly helped. At home, Gorbachev was widely loathed for his role in overseeing Soviet disintegration. Abroad, he became a farcical figure, remembered not for his high-level achievements but instead for his Pizza Hut commercials. Gorbachev’s later years were somehow even worse. The former Soviet head repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, saying Putin was “right” to illegally annex Crimea. Putin, Gorbachev purred, “stopped the chaos” of the 1990s and “literally took everything on himself.”

All of which makes the legacy of Gorbachev far more complicated than most in the West remember. Yes, he helped end the Cold War. Yes, he removed Soviet troops from a broad swath of occupied nations. And yes, he was significantly more moderate than his predecessors. (Which is hardly saying much.)

But Gorbachev was hardly a hero. His economic failures helped immiserate millions. His political failures helped usher in a revanchist, right-wing surge that still saturates Russia, and that threatens nuclear warfare once more. And his massacres—all aimed at populations trying to break free from Moscow’s grip—set the tone for the Kremlin’s wars that would follow, in Chechnya, in Georgia, and now in Ukraine.

All of which complicates his legacy—which will take decades to sort through—even further. He may be a hero to some in the West, and he may be reviled by many more in places like Russia. But it’s clear that Gorbachev was a man simultaneously stuck in the past and in the future, and never quite able to understand the present.