He died this week. That is, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (1931-2022), aged 91, our arch-rival, of the other, one-time lesser superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, (USSR).
I remember him, having met him in Moscow and in Geneva, as an outgoing, vibrant, always talking, loquacious, rather bubbly, Russian. He did not drink, swear, or womanize, unlike most Soviet types. He had that very large, tell-tale purple birthmark that looked like the map of South America emblazoned on his forehead. Some evangelicals, I recall, thought it was the, ”mark of the beast.” He was radically different from all the other past hardcore, stern Soviet leaders and equally different to his successors, Boris Yeltsin, and then, Vladimir Putin. In that sense we should all appreciate just how special he was and what a world transformative figure he became, even if most of those changes have now disappeared from the land he deeply loved and cherished.
As the country’s head of state from 1988 to 1991, Gorbachev served as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, and president of the Soviet Union from 1990 until the country’s dissolution in 1991.
Ideologically, Gorbachev initially adhered to Marxism–Leninism and came up through the Stalinist ranks from his home in Stavropol, but gradually moved towards social democracy by the early 1990s. He spoke with a thick southern accent, liked both pop and folk music, read Dostoevsky, thought himself an intellectual, and oddly had a good sense of humor. He could hit it off with diverse people and that included our own Ronnie Reagan, and as important, the Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, who said she could trust him. My friend, Paul Dietrich, for a time was his lawyer and financial advisor. He found that he cared most about family, ending war, and the European future. His horizon, like Peter the Great’s, was always looking to the West.
You can read any number of good and other not-so-accurate, biographies of Gorbachev. I think some are erroneous, others hagiographic, and most, politically slanted. His own autobiographical materials are all of those things but they do open a window to the man, his mentality, and his priorities. He was, after all, Russian! He once said. “We are born; we suffer; and we die.” But there is more to life and the man than that. I would list a number of things, not so well known, that actually hold him out as a figure who should be long remembered, both historically and politically.
This may surprise you, but Gorbachev himself once let out that he was baptized as a Russian Orthodox Christian. The biggest influence on him and what made him a decent and human person were the values imparted on him by his grandparents, also sincere Christians. Notably his wife, Raisia, the true love of his life, whose picture decorated his office, was a “quiet” believer, as well. This was not easy in the Soviet Union but it made him who he was and shaped his view of the world, war and peace. He could never publicly disavow state atheism but then he rarely talked about his faith, either. It was just there.
Gorbachev was the principal author of two important trends in reformed Soviet history. One was glasnost. The other was known as perestroika.
The first, was simply the Russian word for “openness.” It meant that literally—more debate and more transparency, especially after the Chernobyl disaster. Most critically, it allowed many of our friends, the reformers, the space they needed to operate. The latter was much more complex and revolved around a set of interrelated issues, relating to society and economic restructuring and perhaps, most importantly, productivity, which was abysmal in the USSR. As it turned out it was no easy feat.
Gorbachev’s willingness to end the Cold War was monumental. I personally know how much of a hand he had in it from his unwillingness to use force, to his keen desire to rid the world of at least as many nuclear weapons as possible, to his decision to allow East Germany, and then others, to move away from the rigidity of the Pact and the very disassembly of the Berlin Wall.
I was there in those heady days, and believe me, it would not have happened, without Gorbachev allowing it. I also recall Reagan’s famous speech on the same subject. Our then ambassador to West Germany and the oh-so-diplomatic State Department asked, well told, Reagan to please take that one line out of the speech, as excessive and confrontational. He would not, refused, and Gorbachev knew it and was himself shaped by our policy of peace through strength. Russia has always respected that strength, something we need to recall even today.
Neither Gorbachev or the Soviet Union really became very capitalist, although for a decade or so it tried and failed to reform itself (with many of us trying to help). The crony form of capitalism cum authoritarian oligarchy that came to the fore did not please Gorbachev and, in many op-eds and foreign speeches, he criticized the leaders, Putin included, for what he saw developing.
I should remind you that at one point, Gorby did a television commercial for Pizza Hut. Remember it? I know a little bit about that because I was on a late period Soviet mission to Moscow, headed by the CEO and Chairman of Pepsi, Donald Kendall, an Uncle Sam figure, if ever there was one. He later talked Gorbachev into doing it since they opened so many of those fast-food restaurants—with lines forming all the way around the block. As a proponent of what can only be termed a degree of destabilization, Gorbachev wanted to end Gosplan and price controls, indeed the whole centralized planning system. Give him credit.
Gorbachev remained a subject of great controversy in Russia right up to his death. The Nobel Prize winner was revered in the West, and especially Germany, and praised for his willingness to end the nasty and long Cold War. His new freedoms and tolerant spirit meant the end of statist Marxist-Leninism and the eventual reunification of Germany. In Russia, however, as years wore on, Gorbachev was often derided for the dissolution of the country, its perceived weakness internationally, and was scapegoated for its economic collapse.
Putin and Gorbachev never saw eye to eye. Gorbachev never liked the secret police and their power and Putin was part of that and his new mission seems to be the reestablishment of what Gorbachev allowed to dissolve.
With Gorbachev’s passing, we certainly see the end of an era. What he didn’t know then is that those of us involved in Team “B” (the howling right-wingers doing National Intelligence Estimates under Reagan’s then CIA director, William Casey) were working to end the evil empire and as it turns out, not altogether unexpectedly, Gorby was our guy.