Wednesday 31 August 2022

Adieu Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (1931-2022), History-Maker

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev by Mark Hess (1985). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

From the moment Gorbachev appeared on the domestic and the international stage he was quite evidently a man who was bound to make history.

He was relatively young and exuded the sort of charisma unknown to the succession of Soviet leaders including Nikita Khrushchev who had made crudity an integral part of his showmanship.

When he took up the reins as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Gorbachev's vitality and reformist agenda immediately set him apart from the dour personalities he succeeded. Leaders such as Chernenko, Andropov and Brezhnev represented the stagnation of the USSR.

His by-words for reform Perestroika (“Restructuring”) and Glasnost (“Openness”) entered the lexicon of everyday discourse and his charm, magnified by his glamorous wife Raisa, was palpable when he engaged with ordinary people during walkabouts when making public appearances and while on state visits.

His ideas on politics and economics evolved from hard-line Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy to Social Democracy. Like Khrushchev, he sought to make amends for the victims of Soviet repression and rehabilitated among several figures Nikolai Bukharin, the Bolshevik who had championed the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s; a model of market socialism which Gorbachev adapted during his tenure in an attempt to find an elusive middle ground between free market capitalism and the hyper-centralised Soviet-type command economy.

Together with US President Ronald Reagan, he ended the Cold War and buttressed the mood of peace by signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991 respectively with Reagan and Reagan's successor, George H. Bush.

But while eastern Europe became de-Sovietised and Germany became reunified, his legacy is a mixed one, particularly among the citizens of the Russian Federation for whom the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the coming to power of the ineffectual Boris Yeltsin inaugurated another Smutnoye Vremya ("Time of Troubles") in Russian history.

The Western overseen transformation from Soviet to Capitalist economy witnessed the massive pillaging of the Russian economy and the rise of the Oligarchs.

While it happened under the watch of Yeltsin, the destruction of the safety net of the Soviet system which led to widespread poverty and early deaths for many were blamed on Gorbachev's initial reforms. 

Further afield from Russia, many bemoaned the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a unipolar world in which U.S. policymakers, heavily populated by those subscribing to the philosophy of American Exceptionalism and the ideology of neoconservatism, decided that they would take the opportunity to pursue the path of militarism to keep at bay the rise of any power capable of challenging U.S. global hegemony.

Prior to the coming of Yeltsin, the prudent decision to finally withdraw Soviet Forces from Afghanistan underlined what many felt was the ominous loss of power and prestige under Gorbachev.

Still, the legacy of Gorbachev whatever the shortcomings of the man are still important: his determination to reform a moribund system and his efforts in making the world safer after decades of super-power rivalry and tension during the Cold War which threatened nuclear Armageddon, surely mark him as one of the most influential men in history.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2022).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He has an interest in history and geopolitics.

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