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A Decent Man at the Head of an Inhuman System

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 60 by Tobias Rupprecht

№ 60/2022 from Sep 12, 2022

Who was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev? Tobias Rupprecht tells the story of a man who manoeuvred between the forces of the liberal-democratic awakening and the conservative Soviet elites in one of the key periods of modern history. As a “decent man at the head of an inhuman system”, his legacy is now debated. Perceived at the time of his death as both an icon of liberal-democratic transition and a traitor to Russia, his political actions continue to shape current conflicts to this day.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev shows openness towards the Western liberal power: Visiting President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Bush on Governor's Island in New York on 07 Dec 1988.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev shows openness towards the Western liberal power: Visiting President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Bush on Governor's Island in New York on 07 Dec 1988.
Image Credit: Public Domain in the United States/not eligible to copyright. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as a work by Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989.

Shortly before the end, he would have had another opportunity to turn the tide. The amateurish coup by the old guard in late summer 1991 had failed after mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow. After his return from Crimea, where he had been detained for a few days, his popularity experienced a final surge. Perhaps, historians later debated, he could still have spearheaded a liberal democratic awakening by immediately ordering the required dissolution of the Communist Party.

But in this historical moment, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev left others to fill the political vacuum. In the following days, he stuck to socialism in his speeches, which the Moscow demonstrators no longer associated with anything but repression and economic misery. His project of perestroika could be described as finished at this point.

Rise to power

His ideals, now out of time, were shaped by the spirit of optimism of the 1960s. After studying law in Moscow, the son of a southern Russian peasant and a Ukrainian mother had returned home, where, after a career in the Communist Youth League, he rose to become party leader of the Stavropol region at the age of only 39. With enthusiasm but little success, he tried to jump-start the agriculture industry, which had been crippled since collectivisation. Rather untypically for a provincial, he read the Western neo-Marxists and was particularly impressed by the popularity of the Eurocommunists in Italy.

The Moscow party elite were taken with the jovial, hands-on, and ideologically stable young party secretary. With the failed economic reformer Alexei Kossygin, he hiked through the Caucasus and spoke openly about the ills of the planned economy. The top party ideologist Mikhail Suslov appreciated that Gorbachev spared him the usual alcohol banquets of the provincial party elite, and was instead willing to have sober discussions about Marx and Lenin, both of whom they had actually read and internalised.

Gorbachev's closest relationship was with the many-faced KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who came from the same region. After Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 following a long illness, Andropov was appointed his successor at the head of the party – and opened the doors in the Kremlin to his protégé during his short term in office.

When Gorbachev finally took power there in 1985, the young and charismatic party leader was highly popular among the population. Like his mentor Andropov, he initially relied on discipline in the classic Soviet campaign style at the beginning of perestroika ('restructuring'): more control at the workplace, more ideological training and a massive restriction on the production of alcohol were measures meant to accelerate the weakening economy.

He secured the support of the intelligentsia through glasnost ('transparency'): freedom of expression increasingly predominated, long-banned literature was published, dissidents were gradually released from prison. Open debates on history, culture and economics became possible. Gorbachev tried to appease the sceptical powerful elites in industry and agriculture with ever higher subsidies. He sent some reform sceptics in the party to their retirement; later he built up democratic parallel structures with a People's Congress, which undermined the power of the CPSU.

Gorbachev also became increasingly popular in other Western countries: confident and winning in appearance and conciliatory in tone. After initial attempts to revive and democratise worldwide socialism, Gorbachev ended the Cold War practically single-handedly at the end of the 1980s. He agreed with US President Ronald Reagan to end the nuclear arms race, withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, enabled the release of Eastern Europe into freedom, as well as paving the way for the reunification of Germany.

The contribution through his political actions to the significant decline in political violence in the rest of the world is enormous, having in mind that the ideological conflicts of the supposedly 'Cold' War had claimed over 20 million lives. Gorbachev withdrew from dysfunctional brutal dictatorships such as the Derg regime in Ethiopia and the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq by ending the multi-billion loans for their armament from the Soviet arsenals. Without the Soviet threat, anti-communist autocrats and violent liberation organisations in Latin America and Southern Africa also agreed to peacefully negotiated transitional governments.

Perestroika fails to deliver economic improvement

Hardly anyone ever deserved the Nobel Peace Prize as much as Gorbachev. But when he was awarded it in 1990, he did not accept it personally. The mood at home had already turned against him, and his critics accused him of selling out Soviet interests to the West. In addition, there was the catastrophic economic failure of perestroika, which was often blamed afterwards on the liberal advisers of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Greater autonomy for economic enterprises did not bring about the hoped-for efficiency, but instead resulted in the destructive self-enrichment of the elite nomenklatura. The USSR's financial equilibrium collapsed due to numerous factors, including the lack of revenue from restricted alcohol sales and falling oil prices, high investments in ailing infrastructure, the huge costs of the Afghan war, and the enormous subsidies for agriculture.

Since Gorbachev did not want to suppress public discontent by force, he also had to keep consumer prices for food artificially low and maintain supply through expensive imports, especially from South America. The resulting gigantic budget deficit could only be financed with ever higher debts to the West, ever higher money issuance, and the almost complete sell-off of Soviet gold reserves. The old economic system – more a mixture of bureaucratic negotiation processes and the cadres' fear of the so-called “power vertical” than a centrally controlled planned economy – no longer worked. In 1989, when the Eastern European markets collapsed, the Soviet Union slid into a hidden inflation: with low prices set by the state, the shelves remained empty and a black market flourished, creating the conditions for organised crime to enrich itself. The result was mass strikes and thus a further collapse in production.

The rocky path to a liberal-democratic awakening of “Glasnost” ultimately led to the discrediting of the entire system through the crimes of Stalinism, which were publicly discussed for the first time. Nationalists were now also able to express themselves publicly, sometimes in productive ways, as in the Baltics or among some Russian liberal nationalists who themselves called for a dissolution of the empire.

However, the opening-up led to ethnic unrest and anti-Russian uprisings in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Latvia. It is historically disputed whether Gorbachev himself ordered the bloody suppression, as has often been heard in many European comments. It is more likely that he, who harboured an almost physical aversion to violence, had lost control of both the republican leaderships and the security apparatuses through his manoeuvring between the democratic awakening and the conservative forces.

His democratic intentions are credible: Before the first Soviet presidential election in spring 1990, Gorbachev's liberal advisers unsuccessfully urged him to leave the CPSU and be elected directly by the people. Gorbachev also rejected calls for a military dictatorship from within his own ranks.

But his manoeuvring between the forces of the liberal-democratic awakening and the conservative Soviet elites ultimately became Gorbachev's undoing. In a conservative swing, he himself had appointed putschists from the ministries and the security apparatus, who wanted to prevent the signing of a new Union treaty in August 1991, to the highest offices inthe previous year. When he subsequently defended some of those involved in the coup before the Russian Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin intervened, forcing Gorbachev to read the names of the traitors from a list, thus humiliating him in front of running television cameras.

In the end, they all wanted Gorbachev gone: the communists blamed him for the decline of the Soviet empire; the liberal intelligentsia had had enough of his ideas of democratic socialism; and the Russian nationalists despised him for his perceived weakness. Over his head, the presidents of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union. Before the end of the agreed transition period, Yeltsin literally forced him out of his office in the Kremlin. Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991.

With the collapse of the state and in the course of the painful transformation of the 1990s, contempt for the supposedly weak leader grew, which he himself did not always want to admit. Against the advice of his friends, he ran against his intimate Yeltsin in the 1996 Russian presidential elections, and received a humiliating 0.5 percent of the vote.

In his retirement, Gorbachev devoted himself to the activities of his foundation, and occasionally participated in debates about the historical classification of his perestroika. Like some Russian and international historians sympathetic to him, he insisted on the basically good ideas of his reform plans, which, however, had failed due to the resistance of the powerful agrarian and heavy industry lobby, and were ultimately betrayed by Yeltsin and the turbo-capitalists.

He was ambivalent regarding his relationship with Vladimir Putin as well as Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West. Sometimes he criticised Putin's authoritarian tendencies, and sometimes he supported his anti-Western outbursts. He was sympathetic to the Crimean annexation, but made no public statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

To be sure, most Russian liberals see him as the father of Russian democracy, for whose stalling in recent years he bears no blame. But they also accuse him of a lack of consistency, and of his “naive” socialist idealism, which exposed the problems of the Soviet system but did not eliminate them.

A Decent Man at the Head of an Inhumane System

His comrade-in-arms Andrei Grachev once described Gorbachev as a curiosity in Russian history: a political leader who possessed 'normal moral reflexes and common sense.' This did not help his bad reputation among the Russian public, while in the West he became an icon of the democrat-liberal transition. Had he followed the cynical pragmatism of his predecessors, one could speculate that Mikhail Gorbachev would have presided over a half-heartedly reformed Soviet Union until last week and died in office, like almost all his predecessors. Conversely, had he been more resolute against his own party, he himself could have led a possible democratic evolution of the USSR. It is an irony of history that it was precisely his adherence to the socialist ideals of his generation that led to the collapse of the Soviet state and its economy.


Dr. Tobias Rupprecht is a global historian with a particular interest in the history of (state) socialism and (neo)liberalism. His research has mostly addressed Soviet and Eastern European encounters with the Global South, and economic reform debates in socialist countries. He taught both Russian and Latin American history in Denmark and the UK before joining Scripts in 2020 as the head of the Junior Research Group “Peripheral Liberalism”.