Mikhail Gorbachev died in obscurity in Moscow at the age of 91. He was a bright star on the world stage at the end of the Cold War. He held the West spellbound by his crafty proposals as academics, pundits and the man on the street were transfixed by his image, rhetoric and actions. His two signature programs, glasnost and perestroika, entered political discourse and suggested hope for the future.
Many are now remembering his accomplishments that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. However, most are repeating a false narrative that lionizes the person and his programs while ignoring the reality of his goals to reform Socialism.
The real story is very different. The last Soviet leader was a failure, not a success. His contribution to world peace has proven ephemeral.
Communist Gone Rogue?
The false Gorbachev narrative consisted of a high communist official gone rogue. However, nothing in his life indicates opposition to the Communist Party. The young Gorbachev grew up in the Stalinist era with parents who supported the new regime. Everything in his upbringing and education was that of a typical and brutal Party member who survived the purges of Soviet dictators until he took power as General Secretary in 1985.
The communist leader, with a deceitful smile, was quick to propose a new program for the nation. Like all communist countries, the economy was in shambles. Western trade and technology provided life support to the regime while the weight of military expenses dragged the nation down.
The U.S.S.R. needed even more Western support to survive. Thus, glasnost or opening was conceived to open the closed nation to the West and allow more freedom of expression inside the country. Perestroika, which means restructuring, was heralded as a way of making radical market-driven changes to the socialist economy. However, as the encyclopedia Britannica notes, “he resisted any decisive shift to private ownership and the use of free-market mechanisms.”
The false narrative portrays Gorbachev’s reform as too little, too late. The impetus of opening markets proved too great to keep the programs on track. The Soviet Union imploded, and everything came tumbling down—including the fortunes of Gorbachev, who even made a commercial for Pizza Hut in Russia.
He is remembered as a leader with good intentions that went awry.
The Real Narrative Is Different
The real narrative is different. He should be remembered not for his role in the demise of Communism but for his fortunate failure to keep Communism in power.
At the height of his prestige in 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev released, in all major languages, his bestselling book, Perestroika, New Thinking for Our Country and the World. In his book, he insists that perestroika did not seek to defeat Socialism but to refine it—to make it more socialist. He hoped to transform the centrally-planned Soviet-style Communism into a more advanced Marxist decentralization called self-managing Socialism. It would result in more Socialism, not less. Indeed, the more he insisted on his socialist goals, the more the optimistic West claimed that the reforms were market-driven and opened up Western doors, publicity and aid.
Mr. Gorbachev should be remembered negatively as a failed leader who did not succeed in making his socialist revolution prevail.
His failure to implement perestroika is due to his second major policy failure, which was equally disastrous.
Opposing Lithuanian Freedom
The last Soviet leader is credited with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, either by design or blunder. However, his restructuring plan did not seek the regime’s end but merely a cosmetic rearranging that would allow it to continue in the face of the economic catastrophe it faced.
While Mr. Gorbachev preached freedom and democracy for all under the Communist yoke, the reality was quite different. When Lithuania sought to regain its independence, Gorbachev showed his true colors by opposing the move with threats and brutal force.
Indeed, the Soviet master did not recognize the desires of the Lithuanian people. However, many in the West saw through the maneuver. In 1990, the Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) organized a worldwide petition drive that called for the freedom and independence of Lithuania. The massive effort secured 5.2 million signatures, which the 1993 edition of the Guinness Book of Records recognized as the largest such petition in history (pp. 477-78).
The support of so many people in the West encouraged Lithuanians to resist and demand their independence, even to the point of confronting tanks in the streets. The Soviet measures to keep Lithuania under its yoke unmasked the regime and eventually led to its downfall. People saw the contradiction of a leader smashing peaceful Lithuanian protesters with his tanks while accepting the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
A Third Way Turns Sour
If the figure of Gorbachev is to be remembered, let him be recognized as one who sought to make the Soviet Union more socialist, not less. He was much more popular in the West than in Russia. After his fall, he was showered with gifts and prestige from the liberal establishment.
Above all, the West should celebrate his failure to implement the programs that would have provided a “third-way” model for the world to embrace self-managing Socialism. The ideologues of the left saw in perestroika the realization of a new kind of Socialism. When it failed, the left became demoralized.
The world is still paying the price of the resulting chaos. What the West and Russia needed then and now is a moral regeneration. Mikhail Gorbachev should be remembered as the evil man he was, not as the optimistic and unrepentant West imagined him to be.