Mikhail Gorbachev, Who Sank the Soviet Empire With His Own Glasnost, Dead at 91

Mikhail Gorbachev, Who Sank the Soviet Empire With His Own Glasnost, Dead at 91
The West was euphoric with his dramatic steps to end the Cold War. But at home, his openness unleashed building pressures he couldn’t contain with half-measures toward freedom.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at age 91, Russian state media reported on Tuesday. Long before he died, the final Soviet leader had been consigned to near political oblivion in Russia.

After losing power in December 1991 when the Soviet Union imploded, he tried to persuade his countrymen that he neither sought nor triggered the collapse of the enormous state he once ruled. “I not only didn’t want it, I thought it would be a drama, even a tragedy,” he told me in early 1995, when I accompanied him on a trip to Novosibirsk, a city in western Siberia.

His mission, he insisted, had been to reform the Soviet Union and its empire, not to destroy it. In fact, he argued that only a sweeping program of political and economic renewal could have offered the prospect of preserving the Soviet system. That was why he had introduced perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Those initiatives could have worked, he believed, if they had not been undermined from within—particularly by Moscow Mayor Boris Yeltsin, who had pushed for more radical reforms and ended up in charge of Russia, the largest piece of the old Soviet Union.

On the trip to Novosibirsk, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of Gorbachev’s rise to power, I was able to observe the former Soviet leader up close for several days, when his personality traits and political ambivalence were on full display. Since the Russian media was paying him scant heed at that point, he welcomed my interest as a Newsweek correspondent, and I was free to accompany him everywhere.

Still lionized in the West for his role in helping end the Cold War (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990), Gorbachev was detested by many of his own countrymen, often for completely contradictory reasons. “He destroyed a great state,” worker Vasily Ivchenko told me as he watched the famed visitor tour his Novosibirsk machine-tool factory. “The collapse of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev, and Yeltsin continued with what he started.” In 1993, a mock court of hardliners condemned Gorbachev to “eternal damnation and infamy.”

Gorbachev’s protestations that he was trying to steer a middle course and to avoid the pitfalls of “shock therapy,” as he branded Yeltsin’s program, only reinforced the view of his opponents on the other end of the spectrum that he never committed himself fully to a new political course. “Gorbachev was a loser who, despite his youth, was a representative of the old generation,” said Sergei Grigoryants, a leading human-rights activist and former political prisoner. In short, Gorbachev alienated the hardliners and reformers alike: Depending on who you listened to, he had gone way too far or not far enough.

Born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoe, a village in the Stavropol region of the North Caucasus, Gorbachev grew up in a family that had experienced or witnessed many of the horrors of the early Stalin era: the forced collectivization of agriculture and the famines that took millions of lives in both western Russia and neighboring Ukraine, along with the political purges known as the Great Terror. Then Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. This meant, as Gorbachev recalled, that his and other fathers went off to war while young boys like him had to move “from childhood to adulthood, right then and there.”

In late 1943, Gorbachev and some of his friends came upon the decaying corpses of Red Army soldiers in the forest, partly “devoured by animals,” as he recalled. “There they lay, in the thick mud of trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye-sockets.”

While working on his authoritative biography of Gorbachev, William Taubman asked him whether such experiences explained his reluctance, once he was the country’s leader, to resort to brute force to suppress political unrest the way his predecessors regularly did. “Perhaps because that reluctance, so admired in the West, is as strongly condemned in Russia, he declined in an interview to answer the question,” Taubman wrote in Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

But if Gorbachev later broke many precedents, his early life and career were marked by his eagerness to please his superiors in the Communist Party apparatus, the better to propel himself upward. “From childhood on, I wanted to amaze everyone,” he recalled. His naked ambition and uncanny self-confidence often looked like arrogance. This was especially the case when, after graduating from Moscow State University, he and his wife, Raisa, settled in Stavropol, where he took his first steps up the political ladder, eventually emerging as the region’s party leader. “I got used to lording it over people,” he admitted.

By 1974, Gorbachev moved on to the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Moscow. In 1985, he was chosen as the young—at age 54—successor to the three sclerotic party leaders who had died in quick succession during the previous three years: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev had dutifully lavished praise on all those predecessors. But he was especially close to Andropov, the former KGB chief who had famously helped crush the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 but then tried to present himself as a reformer during his brief stint in power.

Gorbachev immediately showcased a new style to distinguish himself from the previous leaders he had once extolled. He stopped to talk to people on the street, fielded questions from interviewers on TV rather than only relying on set speeches, and he ostentatiously dressed down a Central Committee member who put on a show of praising the new boss’ “Bolshevik style and dynamic leadership.” That, along with his ban on portraits of himself at a Red Square holiday event, signaled his desire to introduce himself as more of a democrat than an autocrat—even if the political system was still anything but democratic.

While many Soviet citizens welcomed the sight of an energetic, younger leader, Gorbachev quickly alienated a large part of the population by launching a campaign against widespread drunkenness, severely cutting back on alcohol production at home and imports from abroad. Huge lines formed at liquor stores, and many would-be buyers returned empty-handed as supplies quickly ran out. Ignoring warnings from other party officials, Gorbachev stubbornly continued the campaign for far too long—and any anticipated economic benefits were offset by the steep drop in alcohol tax revenue, which only contributed further to the government’s budget woes.

Looking back at his brief tenure at the top, Gorbachev admitted that he had blundered on this issue. At gatherings in Novosibirsk, he even recounted a popular joke from that period. After waiting endlessly in a huge line at a liquor store, a frustrated man announces he is going to the Kremlin to shoot Gorbachev. Everyone cheers him on. But he returns quickly, having failed in his mission. The line for those who want to kill Gorbachev was even longer, he explains.

Gorbachev did not demonstrate the same sense of humor—or acceptance of responsibility—about his other early major blunder. When a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station on April 26, 1986, the Kremlin remained silent at first, offering no information about radiation levels or advice for people in the region. With radiation levels rising dramatically in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Gorbachev insisted on still holding the May Day parade there—and he did not speak publicly about the accident until May 14, when he berated the West for exploiting the news for anti-Soviet propaganda.

Nonetheless, Chernobyl prompted Gorbachev to launch his program of glasnost, trying to demonstrate that the Soviet system could change its ways by promoting more honest discussions about its failings. By then, however, the pent-up frustrations at home, and especially in the communist states of Eastern Europe, were threatening to explode.

Gorbachev did not recognize the dangers of his proposed half-measures—a sprinkling of new freedoms, including a modest loosening of economic controls, while still seeking to maintain Communist Party rule. “He didn’t realize the consequence of his actions,” Prof. Svetlana Falkovich of the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies in Moscow pointed out later. “He couldn’t imagine them.” The crisis in the state-controlled economy only deepened, while the centrifugal forces inside the Soviet empire steadily gained strength.

In effect, Gorbachev was trying to return to the notion of “socialism with a human face” that was introduced by Czechoslovakia’s Communist reformer Alexander Dubcek in 1968—and then crushed by Soviet tanks. Two decades later, Gorbachev helped spark the subsequent upheavals in the region by promoting what his spokesman called “the Sinatra doctrine.” Inspired by Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way,” it allowed the Warsaw Pact states to chart their own course so long as they maintained control of the process.

But by then, most dissidents had abandoned any hopes for a milder form of communist rule and were pushing for full freedoms. In 1989, Poland’s Solidarity, the independent trade union movement led by Lech Walesa, emerged as the overwhelming victor in semi-free elections, toppling the communist regime; protests in East Germany led to the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the Velvet Revolution brought dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to power in Czechoslovakia.

While Gorbachev was hardly pleased by those developments, he did not send in the tanks. That—along with his withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and continued push for reforms within the Soviet Union—won him growing popularity in the West. In late 1984, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had met the soon-to-be Soviet leader and declared, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” President Ronald Reagan came to the same conclusion, achieving a major arms-control breakthrough when the two leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

On his trips abroad, Gorbachev was usually accompanied by Raisa, who, unlike her almost invisible dowdy predecessors, looked comfortable and elegant in the spotlight. For a while, “Gorbomania” was all the rage. On the eve of Gorbachev’s visit to Bonn in June 1989, 90 percent of West Germans rated him as “trustworthy,” while 82 percent predicted that his political and economic reforms would succeed. Such euphoric predictions were wildly at odds with the deepening pessimism of so many of his own countrymen.

Gorbachev repeatedly floated the idea of replacing NATO and the Warsaw Pact with a vague confederation of all the countries in “the common European home.” But Western governments feared this would be a recipe for turning a reunified Germany into a neutral state, easily manipulated by Moscow. Instead, President George H.W. Bush backed West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s program to unify his country while keeping it firmly anchored in NATO. In the face of their determined push, Gorbachev accepted the unification of Germany that took place on Oct. 3, 1990. His calculation was that he was both bowing to the inevitable and laying the foundation for further improved cooperation with the West.

At home, Gorbachev had also instituted major political changes, weakening the control of the party apparatus. The new Congress of People’s Deputies elected him to the additionally created post of president of the Soviet Union, but it also offered a platform for his increasingly vocal critics. Nationalist protests erupted in several Soviet republics, at times sparking violent crackdowns.

In August 1991, hardliners staged a coup aimed at preventing the breakup of the country, placing Gorbachev under house arrest in the Crimea for three days. But the plotters were completely incompetent and the putsch swiftly collapsed. By the time Gorbachev returned to Moscow, Yeltsin had positioned himself as the leading reformer who stood up to the hardliners. Along with his counterparts in the other republics who were pushing for independence, he orchestrated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As a result, Gorbachev was left with no state to rule.

On our trip to Novosibirsk in 1995, Gorbachev expressed mixed feelings about his rapid rise and fall as a political leader. “I have never been as free as I am now,” he said. But it was clear he also felt bitter about how quickly he had been cast aside. “If you don’t produce results tomorrow, you’re good for nothing,” he complained over dinner one night.

During that visit, Gorbachev also was testing the waters, hoping to attract support for his bid for a political comeback in the 1996 presidential elections. While he attracted a huge audience at Novosibirsk State University, he failed to understand that they had come to see a historical figure, not someone they viewed as a viable leader anymore. “I don’t believe in his political future,” math major Yelena Yurchenko told me. “He didn’t use the chance he had.”

Gorbachev, who loved to talk and talk, failed to pick up on such signals. He insisted on running for president in 1996, and won less than 1 percent of the vote while Yeltsin, his old nemesis, won a second term.

But Gorbachev still relished any reminders of his spectacular entrance on the world stage—and how he had enthralled so many people at first. When he paid a surprise visit to Novosibirsk’s Globus Theater, actress Olga Stipunova asked him breathlessly, “Was it hard to be the most popular person in the world?” His eyes sparkled as he replied, “You can live with that.”