The Irish Times view on Mikhail Gorbachev: the man who changed the world

The ex-Soviet leader’s death marks the passing of the last giant of 20th century history

In six short years from his ascent to leadership in 1985 to resignation in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in a new world. This man of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – as he would admit, “a product of the nomenklatura [the party elite] and at the same time... its grave digger” – changed the face of his country, broke the shackles on its eastern European vassal states, consigning Russia’s empire to history, bringing an end to the Cold War and setting the nuclear arms race into reverse for the first time. His death marks the passing of the last giant of 20th century history.

He was, the historian Dmitri Furman wrote, “the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, voluntarily opted to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values”. Looking back in 2020, Gorbachev himself wrote that he became politically active when his country and the world were ripe for change. “We took on the challenges. We made mistakes and misjudged some things. Yet, we initiated changes of historic dimensions, and they were peaceful.” And irreversible, although Vladimir Putin is doing his best to disprove that.

But Gorbachev’s reputation, although stellar outside Russia, has been sadly traduced by his countrymen, not least by Putin, who blames him for what he calls the greatest mistake of the century, the loss of Russia’s empire and its diminished status as a world power.

Gorbachev is blamed for all that came after him, foreseeable or not – the shortages and economic chaos, the rise of the kleptocracy now running Russia, remilitarisation and resurgence of a bullying Great Russian nationalism. Yet these, in truth, were the poisonous legacy of Gorbachev’s predecessors, embedded so deep in Russian society that even his revolution was unable to shake them. “Clearing socialism of the distortions of Stalinism” was to be his life’s work, he said, in the spirit of those other tragic failed communist reformers, Hungary’s’s Imre Nagy, and Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek. As historian Orlando Figes would later write: “He was a political Columbus, setting off to find the promised land, only to discover something else”.

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The Soviet Union had become a major world power weighed down by a weak economy, blighted by bureaucratic, corrupt management and a distribution system that guaranteed consumers little but empty shelves and shoddy goods. “We cannot live this way any longer,” Gorbachev in 1984 told Eduard Shevardnadze, his trusted foreign minister. The great projects of perestroika and glasnost, reconstruction and openness, were intended to offer the opportunities for change in a country that was rotten ripe for it. Opportunities ultimately unfulfilled; they are what Isaac Deutscher called the legacy of October 1917, “the unfinished revolution”.