Six months into the Russia-Ukraine War and the man who created a temporary truce in Russian history has passed away. “PBL,” that’s what they wanted, my history teacher said as she taught us about the Russian Revolution. They wanted Peace, Bread and Land. The story begins with the Romanovs, then the Bolsheviks and before we know it, there’s the Cold War and then Gorbachev: the grand finale, the final chapter.
I have no doubt I am missing many details and facts that I would be wise to include. I’ll tell you why I’ve always remembered Gorbachev. When I was a teenager, I was given this gift and it had a list of the famous people who shared the same birthday with me. On the list was Jon Bon Jovi (who was my favourite singer at the time) and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mikhail Gorbachev was only a leader for six short years and yet it is his name I seem to recall being spoken about so lovingly in the international press. I don’t believe any other Russian leader has had that sort of ‘luck’, if you could even call it that. The rest of them have been characterised as the epitome of evil.
Whenever I think of the USSR, however, I don’t just think of Russia. My mind harks back to all the other countries and vassal states that were a part of Russia, once upon a time. I remember that Stalin wasn’t born in Russia, but rather, in Georgia. There’s also the Stans–the linguistically and culturally different Stans–that all still share a common tongue even though the USSR has disbanded.
For the youth who have grown up with liberalism, the freedoms we enjoy are easy to take for granted. Certain governments have had a noxious and notorious track record of repression and for the creation of widespread suffering. Suffering is a fact of life. On some level, we all know this. It is when the suffering grows too big and too great and lasts for too long that we begin to cry out for freedom.
And occasionally, in comes a leader who is prepared to give it to his people. Gorbachev’s legacy has remained a mixed one for despite the ovation that he is given by the international community, his era has been somewhat vilified on the domestic front.
An empire, no matter how ill-managed, is hard to let go of. Even if there isn’t a chance in the world of getting it back, there is the sense that once upon a time it was indeed ours… Till someone messed it up. And as far as Russian domestic affairs go, that someone is Gorbachev.
“Reform, reform, reform…” That is what Gorbachev wanted for his country. All of this happened around three decades ago and Russia–as well as Eastern Europe–have changed considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I start hearing old stories that I haven’t heard in a long time–the Cold War, Communism, the Collapse–my mind is hovering back to the moment in time when I studied these matters. And I have studied these chapters of history, even though I never lived through them.
Ideologically, Gorbachev initially adhered to Marxism–Leninism but changed his trajectory towards social democracy by the early 1990s. Domestically, his policy of glasnost openness paved the way for enhanced freedom of speech and press. His perestroika restructuring sought to decentralise economic decision-making to improve efficiency in government.
Gorbachev declined to intervene militarily when various Eastern Bloc countries abandoned Marxist–Leninist governance in 1989–1990. Internally, growing nationalist sentiment threatened to break up the Soviet Union, leading Marxist–Leninist hardliners to launch the unsuccessful August Coup against Gorbachev in 1991. In the coup’s wake, the Soviet Union dissolved against Gorbachev’s wishes.
Gorbachev has recipient of a wide range of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been praised for the role he played in ending the Cold War. He tolerated the fall of Marxist–Leninist administrations in eastern and central Europe as well as the reunification of Germany.
On the home front, however, Gorbachev is often derided for facilitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union—an event which weakened Russia’s global influence and precipitated an economic collapse in Russia and associated states.
The heavy air of oppression and repression is hard to define, let alone understand, when one has not lived through it. We, as humans, are always seeking a better way. Our solutions do not appear overnight, but rather, seem to take us on a topsy-turvy and unexpected journey.
When we have to make choices that have never been made before, we end up having to deal with unforeseeable results. Apart from historians, no one really looks back in time to figure out how the current circumstances came to be. The conclusion I seem to come down to, then, is that no one is ever born with a slate that is entirely clean.
We are all a product of our time, place… and our ability to imagine, and perhaps even create, a world that does not yet exist.