Mikhail Gorbachev is being hailed as the man who ended the Cold War, broke up the Soviet empire and freed Soviet Jewry. The former leader of the Soviet Union, who died this week at the age of 91, deserves a great deal of credit for those outcomes and as such is likely to be remembered kindly by history—or at least those histories written outside of Russia—for the foreseeable future. Yet as much as we should be grateful that it was he who succeeded a series of geriatric tyrants at the head of the nation that President Ronald Reagan aptly called “the evil empire” in 1985, as opposed to a more ruthless or clever member of the Soviet hierarchy, his status as a hero to the West and to Jews rests on something that often gets lost in the tributes to him: He failed.
It was Gorbachev’s failure to achieve his goal of preserving the Communist state that made him a widely respected statesman in the eyes of the world during the three decades that followed his exit from office in 1991. While he was glad to accept the accolades of the West during his long retirement, even as Russians deeply resented their country’s demotion from superpower to second-rate backwater, the point of his policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) was to reform the tyrannical government he inherited from Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev, not dismantle it.
His intention had been to keep the Soviet state and empire intact but to loosen things up just enough to undermine critics of its human-rights abuses and make the United States stand down in the Cold War rivalry. By loosening the regime’s control of life in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and then refusing to send in the tanks to repress the forces of freedom, he unwittingly set in motion a series of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Communist bloc. As former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky said of him, “What he didn’t understand was that if you give a little freedom, the people will demand a lot of freedom.”
That’s why the florid praise being heaped on Gorbachev on his passing by world leaders, as well as leaders of the Jewish community, needs to be tempered by a recognition that gratitude for the outcome of the drama in which he played a featured role should be directed elsewhere. It was his opponents in the West, like Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as refuseniks and dissidents that galvanized the world into action against Soviet tyranny, who must be considered the true heroes of the Cold War.
He hadn’t come into office as an advocate for human rights, economic liberalism or freedom for the captive nations that languished under Soviet control.
That is not to say that those who owe their freedom to his decisions shouldn’t honor his memory. As illustrated by the events of June 1989 when Chinese dissidents gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand freedom or the June 2009 protests in Tehran, the outcome of the effort to effect change in the Soviet Union could have ended very differently, and the world has Gorbachev to thank for that.
Despite what some historical determinists claim, individuals matter a great deal in determining historical outcomes.
A career Soviet bureaucrat and party official, Gorbachev’s elevation to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party was a turning point in history. He correctly understood that the empire over which he presided couldn’t be sustained in the face of an America that was, under Reagan’s leadership, rededicated to the goal of resisting Soviet aggression and ensuring Western military supremacy. He knew that a totalitarian system that suppressed creativity and competition couldn’t compete with Western freedom.
So with Reagan’s help, he set about defusing the rivalry between the two superpowers while also giving the people of his country more freedom. Part of that policy was to end the brutal repression of Judaism and Jewish life in the Soviet Union, in addition to allowing Jews to emigrate if they chose to do so.
Gorbachev hadn’t come into office as an advocate for human rights, economic liberalism or freedom for the captive nations that languished under Soviet control. Nor was he known for his love of the Jewish people. Had he been any of those things, he never would have been elevated to the head of the Communist state. But his ability to see the weakness of the Soviet state and, unlike his predecessors, his lack of any real prejudice against Jews led him to a series of decisions that would lead to the end of the regime and the opening of the gates to a million Jews who chose to leave for Israel and the United States.
Gorbachev’s failure to preserve the Soviet Union set an example that other tyrants aren’t likely to forget.
Still, none of that would have happened had the West continued to be led by weak leaders like President Jimmy Carter, or realists like President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who were so overawed by the facade of Soviet strength that they chose a policy of détente that essentially accepted it rather than seeking to resist it. Though hailed in the 1970s as astute foreign policy, détente helped prop up and preserve the Soviet Union. Reagan and Thatcher chose a different path, which eventually created the circumstances that led Gorbachev to concede that the Soviets couldn’t beat the West.
Equally important was the resistance to Soviet tyranny on the part of dissidents like nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and refuseniks like Sharansky, who inspired not just the movement to free Soviet Jewry but a spirit of revulsion against the Soviets in Western opinion that buttressed Reagan’s stand.
Sadly, Gorbachev’s failure to preserve the Soviet Union set an example that other tyrants aren’t likely to forget. In 1989, most people were sure that the Chinese Communist state would suffer the same fate as the empire of Lenin and Stalin. But the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of being merely shoved aside as their Soviet counterparts had been. It liberalized its economy, allowed massive investment from the West, and made it richer and stronger. Still, its leaders never loosened up their authoritarian instincts, repressing freedom of speech and all dissent even as they legalized free enterprise, albeit with the state always having the option to step in and take what it wants.
The Iranian regime understands that same fact and unleashes its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to massacre dissidents in the streets whenever protests arise.
Crucially, Gorbachev’s eventual successor in the Kremlin—former KGB agent turned Russian President Vladimir Putin—understands the same lesson. Not even his disastrous war in Ukraine has erased the resentment felt by most Russians about losing their empire and great power status because of Gorbachev’s unwillingness to kill those who wanted self-determination.
Indeed, part of the reason why the praise for Gorbachev is so fulsome outside of Russia now is the comparison between him and Putin.
Had someone as tough and utterly ruthless as Putin been given the task Gorbachev gave himself to preserve the Soviet Union, it’s unlikely that the Berlin Wall would have fallen. As corrupt, and intellectually and spiritually bankrupt as the Communist state was, like the Chinese regime, it, too, might still be alive with its gulag, as the Chinese laogai is now, full of prisoners. Soviet Jews might still be longing for liberty rather than living freely in Israel and America.
So, we should give thanks to Gorbachev both for his willingness to effect change, and maybe even more importantly, for lacking the same bloodthirsty instincts that keep tyrants elsewhere in power. Let’s hope that someday leaders with similar humanistic traits will arise in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran to topple those evil regimes. Nonetheless, when we honor the heroes of the Cold War, accolades should be given to the people who forced Gorbachev to change the course of history and led him to a failure that all should celebrate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.