This is the concluding part of a three-part article by a retired Indian diplomat who had a ringside view of the Gorbachev era in Russia.
Was Gorbachev a failure? In his later years in power, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years later when he received less than 1% popular support for a failed Presidential bid, he was scorned and hated by the people at large. It was not just because the Soviet Union had been broken up, and day-to-day survival had become an ordeal for ordinary people. The sense of despondency and despair deepened during the tumultuous decade of the 1990s. Gorbachev slid into irrelevant anonymity as a drunken and dysfunctional Boris Yeltsin did nothing to set things right, the West and local oligarchs looted Russia, and NATO steadily spread eastwards. Yet it is noteworthy that he was given, albeit grudgingly, a modicum of respect by the establishment when he passed away, and many ordinary citizens, as well as former Russian President Medvedev and Hungarian Prime Minister Oban, attended his funeral. Gorbachev was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Like him or hate him, he cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is wide consensual acknowledgment of his enormous global contributions—a peaceful end to the Cold War, reduced risk of use of nuclear weapons, freedom to Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and the reunification of Germany without bloodshed. Just for that, he deserves a grateful salute. Outside Europe, Gorbachev’s policies have shaped, for the better, the development path that China and India have taken over the last three decades. The Chinese leaders drew their lessons from Gorbachev’s failed perestroika and took a reform path that was intended to avoid the pitfalls of Gorbachev’s strategy. India was forced to open up its economy and diversify its foreign relations, which is why India today is a more self-confident country with global influence. Ideological regimes across the world that had been propped up by the erstwhile Soviet Union have collapsed.
As far as his ideology goes, Gorbachev continued to believe in socialism, but a “humane socialism.” Even if the socialist and communist experiments around the world have left much to be desired, the idea of socialism remains firmly entrenched among hundreds of millions around the globe, especially as it is glaringly evident that capitalism has been unable to ensure either sustainable or inclusive growth, has caused irreversible damage to the environment, and accelerated climate change. Gorbachev’s call for “new thinking” remains painfully relevant.
For Russians, the touchstone of Gorbachev’s legacy is the transformation he has brought about in his homeland. Was he responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union? He certainly set in motion policies and processes that led to the breakup, but the Soviet Union could have survived as a confederation were it not for the selfish ambitions of the demagogic Yeltsin who stoked Russian chauvinism, and the inherently artificial and semi-colonial structure of the former Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Central Asian republics, heavily dependent on Russia, did not want the breakup of the Soviet Union; it was Russia that spurned them in the mistaken belief that they would become a burden on Russia. Gorbachev also made mistakes—there was too much breast-beating and self-flagellation about the crimes of Stalin and other preceding Soviet leaders. He did not realise that sovereign states have an obligation to engender a positive national narrative, and not admit their mistakes. He was naïve in trusting the West, and failed to secure ironclad guarantees about the future direction of a united Germany and the Soviet Union’s erstwhile satellite states in East Europe. It was humiliating for a proud and patriotic people to stomach the betrayal of their toil and sacrifices to build up their country and the squandering of the gains of a hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany.
Was perestroika a failure? Certainly, from an economic perspective, perestroika failed. Should it have been even tried? There was a strong feeling among the leadership, though not a complete consensus, that there was an urgent need to change the way the Soviet Union was functioning; otherwise, Gorbachev would not have been elected as the General Secretary. He could well have taken a safe line and done nothing, but the danger was that the Soviet Union was likely to have become a giant, and more dangerous, version of North Korea.
Could Gorbachev have gone about perestroika differently? Could he not have followed the Chinese reform strategy? Not really—for many reasons. Apart from the fact that the Chinese had the benefit of learning from Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia was saddled with far more baggage than China. While China had the advantage of having a tradition of entrepreneurship that had survived the three decades of Mao’s rule, Russia had been catapulted from a feudal society to a completely new and untested form of governance, communism, whose prolonged life over seven decades of Stalinist rule had snuffed out all spirit or knowledge of entrepreneurship. Unlike Russia, China also benefited from having Hong Kong as a crutch and a teacher, as well as a large and prosperous Chinese diaspora. Since earlier incremental reform efforts had got bogged down and ended in failure, Gorbachev felt that a more radical, even if riskier, approach was called for. In pursuing this line, the deeper he dug, more and more unanticipated problems surfaced, and soon Gorbachev found that he had opened a can of worms.
As I see it, Gorbachev’s biggest and lasting achievement is the eradication of the cancer of Stalinism in Russia. He definitively and irreversibly destroyed the old centralized, inefficient and corrupt authoritarian system of governance based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Equally importantly, he radically transformed the psyche and liberated the minds of his people. His domestic critics would do well to reflect on the irony that they got the right and courage to speak out only thanks to Gorbachev. By bringing down a crumbling, hollowed out edifice, Gorbachev created the precondition for a rejuvenated Russia. It is unrealistic to expect that he should also have managed to clear the rubble and erect a new structure. Those who destroy are not destined to create as well; that is a task left for new leaders and generations with different skills. To those who may regard this as an unduly apologetic and charitable perspective, it is worth pointing out that the suffering and trauma that millions of Indians experienced as a result of the Partition of India does not take away from the achievement of Independence from British rule. Many might even regard the Partition, perhaps justifiably, as a blessing in disguise.
Although three decades have passed since the end of the Gorbachev era, it is still too early to pass a definitive judgment on Gorbachev. As long as Putin, the handpicked successor of Gorbachev’s arch-rival Yeltsin, remains in power, it would be difficult for the Russian establishment to make or even permit an objective assessment of Gorbachev. In the decades to come, history is likely to judge Gorbachev more kindly. Russia is once again at a turning point. Russia’s break with the West is likely to be a definitive one for at least a generation or two. Russia appears to have finally given up its centuries-old effort to gain acceptance as a “European” country, and is now focusing on forging an independent Eurasian identity. It will have to rely more on its indigenous talent and resources and build cooperative relations with countries that constitute the Rest rather than the West. The conflict in Ukraine is for Russia an existential battle for survival. It is a war that Russia cannot afford to lose. Its outcome will shape the future of both Russia and the West. Should Russia be confronted with the admittedly remote possibility of losing, then, sadly, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Putin’s Russia will not go down without taking the West down with it. On the other hand, if Russia were to prevail, it would be only because, thanks to the flywheel that Gorbachev set in motion, Russia is a stronger, more confident nation than the old Soviet Union could ever have become. Either way, Gorbachev would be smiling in his grave, whether ruefully or happily.
Rajiv Sikri is a retired Indian diplomat who has over the last five decades spent long periods living in, dealing with, and studying the Russian-speaking world.