Gorbachev’s true legacy: It’s far more complicated than most observers admit | NYDN Op-Ed | September 4, 2022


This article is a reprint. You can read the original in the New York Daily News.

“Mikhail Gorbachev died on Aug. 30. Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, which itself died in his arms on Dec. 25, 1991. His legacy will be forever debated and is as controversial today as it was when he was on the global stage as the ruler of a collapsing superpower.

Did Gorbachev smother the feeble Communist state with his reforms, or did it die of natural causes despite his best attempts to resuscitate it? How much do cause and motive matter when the results were undeniably good? For the hundreds of millions of souls freed from totalitarian slavery, including my own, very little. For establishing the legacy of a historic figure, quite a lot.

Like the light of a long-dead star reaching Earth, we are still learning new things about the USSR and its demise 31 years later. I write about Gorbachev from my personal experience at the time and my interpretations of the official record, acknowledging that they are contrary to the most popular Western and ex-Soviet storylines about the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

I met Mikhail Gorbachev once, in Moscow on Jan. 20, 1990. I had just managed to evacuate my family from our home in Baku, Azerbaijan, under the cover of night to escape the deadly pogroms against Armenians in the city of my birth. I was invited by reformist Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev to speak with Gorbachev about the situation there, where nationalist independence elements were surging as the cracks in Soviet power became apparent.

Yakovlev hoped that sharing my personal experience with Gorbachev might help him see the gravity of the situation. Instead, my story was met with a single question: who should he appoint as the new First Secretary of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutalibov or Hasan Hasanov? I was stunned. Who cared? Was he clueless about how far things had already gone, that there was no way back? This was nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and it turned out Gorbachev’s deadly emergency order to crush Azerbaijan’s political unrest had already been signed the day before. Twenty-six thousand Soviet troops were entering Baku the day I met with Gorbachev with my naïve hopes for peaceful de-escalation.

The troops fired into the protesting crowds, killing several hundred by most estimates, Azerbaijan’s “Black January.” This use of military violence was largely forgotten by the time Gorbachev again used force to kill civilians seeking independence in Lithuania and Latvia a year later. All these incidents were soon swept under the carpet of Gorbachev’s legend of refusing to use force to hold the USSR together.

There is an element of truth to any good legend, of course. Gorbachev had a genuine aversion to bloodshed, especially after he had caused it. His actions led to many deaths in many places, but he always pulled back from total violence, something that cannot be said about his Soviet predecessors or his Russian successors, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

A darkly humorous saying about the Soviet Union, where I was born in 1963, is that it was a country with an uncertain past. Official history was often changed to suit the rulers of the present, a tradition that has continued with Putin and his efforts to rehabilitate the image and deeds of his predecessor Josef Stalin.

One thing I can say with certainty is that the reality of Gorbachev is far from the caricatures of both his Western worshipers and the Soviet diehards who hated him. He was not a champion of democracy who brought down the evil empire from within. Nor was he a secret agent of capitalism who sold out the great empire.

Faced with impending economic catastrophe and Ronald Reagan’s refusal to concede an inch on military drawdowns that would have provided relief, Gorbachev turned to awkward political reforms. He aimed for “socialism with a human face,” as theorized by the Czechs, but my retort was that Frankenstein’s monster also had a human face! As a clear beneficiary of the policies popularly known as perestroika (“reform”) and glasnost (“openness”), I admit I appear ungrateful to criticize. After all, had it not been for Gorbachev’s appearance, along with Yakovlev’s, I would never have been permitted to face regime favorite Anatoly Karpov for the world championship in our 1985 rematch, where I won the title.

So what was Gorbachev? Most of all, and thank God, he was a failure. He failed to hold together the socialist Soviet state despite his best efforts. Even after the collapse of the hardliner putsch to replace him, Gorbachev talked about saving the system. I have many doubts about the official story of the August 1991 coup, by the way, including the possibility it was coordinated by Gorbachev to preserve the USSR at the last. Regardless, it was foiled by Yeltsin and thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Moscow and rallying at the Russian parliament building.

That week symbolized the stark differences between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev was a political agoraphobic who tried to keep everything behind closed doors, to maneuver in the Supreme Soviet where he was unchallenged. Even when he could have won on a public ballot, in 1990 for president of the USSR, he declined, preferring a controlled vote in the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin, for all his flaws as a statesman and person, was a natural-born populist at heart and realized the need to appeal to the people.

When Gorbachev finally did appear on a ballot, in 1996, he received less than 1% of the vote. This was not a matter of resentful Communists and nationalists. Even the Western-leaning Russian liberals and democrats considered him a contemptible failure and supported Yeltsin.

Gorbachev was the conductor of a steam train that was headed straight over a cliff when it ran out of coal. He emerged from the engine, coughing and covered in soot, and was hailed as a hero by onlookers. The train’s passengers, in contrast, had all watched in horror as Gorbachev tossed his cap and jacket into the furnace, hoping to move the train a few more feet toward the edge.

Gorbachev was in power, and the USSR fell. Because or despite? Gorbachev was clueless about the societal trends in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc, and he misjudged the impact of the reforms he felt forced to implement. He had so little sense of the frustration of the Soviet people that he never realized there could be no opening of a totalitarian system without its rapid downfall. The crack became a flood.

His eternal resentment of Yeltsin contributed to Gorbachev’s enthusiasm for Putin — ironically hand-picked by Yeltsin to succeed him in 1999. He saw Putin as restoring faded Soviet glory with tough talk and putting the state back in charge of corruption instead of Yeltsin’s privatized model. Gorbachev embraced his Western reputation as a Mandela-like figure, which obliged him to mildly condemn Putin’s accelerating crackdowns on Russian civil society and democracy. But that came well after his respected voice could have made a difference.

I retired from chess in 2005 to form an anti-Putin, pro-democracy coalition in Russia. The dreams we had in 1991 were being systematically destroyed by the former KGB lieutenant colonel. Our fragile democracy lasted just eight years as Putin dismantled every aspect of an open society — a free press, fair elections, an independent judiciary — one by one.

Today, most of my opposition colleagues are either in jail like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, dead like Boris Nemtsov, or in exile like me. And as I predicted in my 2015 book, “Winter Is Coming,” Putin is a Russian problem who would become a regional problem and then a global one. Ukraine is paying the price in blood for our failure to stop him, and still he must be stopped.

Alarmed by the increasing levels of extremism in American politics, I formed the Renew Democracy Initiative in 2017 to defend and promote the values of democratic society. It’s vital for citizens of democracies not to take their privileges for granted. So I was glad to hear President Biden bluntly address the need for Americans to wake up to the importance of institutions and the rule of law in his speech last Thursday. Calling out Donald Trump and his followers is playing politics too, but it’s democracy politics. Fomenting insurrection and denying election results is not.

Supporting institutions is what matters, not a person or a personality. We learned that in painful fashion with Yeltsin, who handed over the keys to our wobbly democracy to Putin, who found it all too easy to push over.

In his 1991 resignation speech, Gorbachev was already mythmaking his democratic credentials, as well as putting pressure on Yeltsin. As disingenuous as it was at the time, this line works as an epitaph for Russian democracy and a warning to others, whether their democracies are eight years old or 246.

“We have paid with all our history and tragic experience for these democratic achievements, and they are not to be abandoned, whatever the circumstances, and whatever the pretexts. Otherwise, all our hopes for the best will be buried.”

Kasparov is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.”


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