Gorbachev, whose empire crumbled, is dead

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


September 8, 2022


Umair Jalali describes an outstanding life

However topsy-turvy career of Mikhail Gorbachev may be rated as but his brief yet eventful political presence as leader of the second super-power brings to fore the fact that personal factor in human history does carry weight though it may occur occasionally. History clearly points out to the fact that as singularly powerful head of the dictatorial Soviet Union he could have retained his office almost indefinitely had he not chosen the path of reform that became the main reason of his downfall. It is a widely acknowledged reality that almost singlehandedly he brought an end to four decades of east-west confrontation in Europe. Intriguingly, this was not his intention when he took over as head of the Soviet Union in 1985 and he certainly did not plan to end the Cold War the way it did but what he did was that he insisted upon following his personal perceptions that decisively altered the situation. There is hardly any doubt that Gorbachev completely differed from the typical Soviet leadership as once he started a process of reform, he did not try to reverse it even when it openly threatened his very position in the state and carried on till his power faded away.

Though Gorbachev was characterised as an ideologue but the events pointed out that he was one of the great pragmatists of modern Russian history. Though rather late in the day, he tried to reform the lives of his compatriots along with maintaining some form of democratic socialism with a continuing role for government intervention and a foundation of social justice. He was trying to drive home his perception that there were a variety of avenues for developing democracy and introducing a market economy conveying his view that the process should be done gradually as it was legitimate and honourable. The way the situation turned out was not predicted by anyone in the Soviet Union and even most stalwart Soviet observers failed to gauge its ultimate outcome and same thing could be said about western politicians or analysts. Though Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher tried to claim credit for the dismemberment of the Soviet state but the matter of fact is that the Soviet Union proved to be a classic case of self-destruction.

Gorbachev hailed from a humble background as his father was a tractor driver. He was educated locally and helped out in the summer with the harvest. A bright and ambitious boy, on leaving school he applied to enter the law faculty of the prestigious Moscow State University. The five years he spent there from 1950 marked him out as something of an intellectual who insisted to distinguish the life in the Soviet Union as portrayed in the media and the reality on the ground. After graduation he went back to Stavropol to work in the local agitation and propaganda department. He then was taken in the Communist Party and rose rapidly through its ranks as within 15 years he became first secretary of the Stavropol regional party organisation, a position equal to governor-general. The job gave the holder an almost automatic seat on the party’s central committee and at 40, Gorbachev was one of its youngest members.

In Stavropol, a rich and agriculturally efficient area, Gorbachev was given the agriculture portfolio, a job that also gave him candidate membership in the central committee’s inner cabinet, the politburo. This position brought him close to the seat of power where he became the youngest member of an increasingly ageing team of men. He saw the vain Brezhnev take the fateful decision with the veteran foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and the defence minister Dmitri Ustinov to invade Afghanistan in 1979 without consulting the politburo and like a dutiful party member Gorbachev fell in line. However, the man he admired was Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev in 1982 and tried to accelerate economic growth by raising the rate of investment and giving enterprises limited permission to retain some of their profits. Andropov died in 1984, after only 14 months in office and Gorbachev should have been the obvious successor but the politburo chose another ailing figure, Konstantin Chernenko thinking that Gorbachev was still too young. However, when Chernenko died a year later, Gorbachev’s turn as general secretary was almost inevitable.

With supreme power at his command Gorbachev started to tread a different path considered strange and alien in the annals of the Soviet Union that even his colleagues did not know he would. In the process he set off a chain of dramatic reforms and interestingly he was also not aware of their ultimate effect. He, however, indicated to some of his close colleagues in the politburo that matters may not remain the same after what he has initiated with particular reference to the economy where defence spending was growing faster than any other sector. At first, he continued on the Andropov path of controlled reform but there were two differences as the youth in the middle ranks of the party’s central apparatus as well as in the academic institutes thought like him and he soon found out that he could rely on their support. The next step he took was to become more open about the problems of Soviet society, bringing in the human touch with the hope that Soviet people, in return for the leadership’s new honesty, would join a new social contract and work harder and more efficiently.

He also sought to win greater consent by allowing to reopen many taboo issues and for the first time in the Soviet Union problems, such as drunkenness, prostitution, homelessness, crime and corruption were aired in the press, a process that was dubbed glasnost, a policy that meant the end of censorship. Unlike Andropov, Gorbachev also resolved to take unilateral steps towards disarmament and accept the demands of western peace activists to dismantle the new generation of medium-range Soviet rockets targeted on Western Europe. These actions brought to fore the new interpretation that the clash between capitalism and socialism was no longer the fundamental principle of Soviet policy as well as the concept of nuclear deterrence on which the Cold War was based had lost its validity. A year after taking power he signaled withdrawing forces from Afghanistan that did happen.

As Gorbachev’s reforms accelerated, party conservatives looked for a way of supplanting him. While holidaying in the Crimea a coup was mounted against him by the military but the coup was hopelessly ill-conceived and hastily planned, and, crucially, the plotters failed to arrest Yeltsin, the directly elected Russian president. His defiance split the army and on the second day of the coup the junta began to fall apart. Gorbachev was soon freed and brought back to Moscow but from then on he was doomed as leader of the Soviet Union and he resigned in 1991 as the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin, signifying the end of the Soviet Union. Like many reformers Gorbachev ended up in isolation but his years in retirement were energetic and dignified. He spent the last 23 years of his life alone as his wife Raisa whom he married in 1953 died in 1999. He is survived by their daughter Irina. TW


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