In Memoriam: Mikhail Gorbachev 1931-2022

September 2nd, 2022 - by Masha Gessen / The New Yorker & The National Security Archive

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Fundamentally Soviet Man

Masha Gessen / The New Yorker 

(August 31, 2022) — Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow, on Tuesday, at the age of ninety-one. In the last two decades of his life, he rarely granted interviews. So, in 2010, when he agreed to speak to someone from a Moscow magazine that I edited, I felt both awe and some misgivings: here was a unique opportunity that would almost certainly be wasted.

Gorbachev was a notoriously terrible interviewee. He rambled; he went off on tangents; he almost never finished a sentence. In a desperate move, my colleagues and I asked readers to send in questions. Someone asked, “What could bring you joy now?” This time, Gorbachev was ready with a concise answer. “If someone could promise me that in the next world I will see Raisa,” he said. “But I don’t believe in that.” Raisa, his wife of forty-six years, had died, of leukemia, in 1999.

“I don’t believe in God,” Gorbachev continued. Raisa had not been a believer, either, but “she progressed faster than I did in this direction.” What he seemed to be getting at was that Raisa had stayed in step with her country, becoming a post-Soviet Russian, while Gorbachev remained a fundamentally Soviet man.

His was the quintessential life story of an apparatchik: plucked from the southern Russia countryside by the Party when he was still a secondary-school student, university in Moscow, and a series of Party jobs that culminated with his appointment, in 1985, as the General Secretary of the Central Committee, the highest job in the USSR.

At the time, Gorbachev was fifty-four — shockingly young. He was surrounded by octogenarians who expected deference and gratitude. But he had a greater love in his life, and a loyalty that superseded any debt he had to the Party and its doddering leadership.

Gorbachev lived and worked to impress Raisa. They had met as students at Moscow State University, where he studied law and she studied philosophy. Raisa’s classmates were an extraordinary cohort of postwar Soviet thinkers, and that, perhaps more than anything else, helped shape the policies that will forever be synonymous with Gorbachev’s name: glasnost and perestroika.

Within weeks of becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev announced his intention to reform and modernize the Soviet Union. In June, 1987, he announced a new concept: perestroika, or restructuring, of Soviet policies in every area.

Although he didn’t explicitly say so, what he meant by restructuring was liberalization: the Soviet Union would legalize limited private enterprise and relax censorship, allowing public discussion of topics that had previously been taboo. Censorship laws were never abolished, but the loosening of restrictions — the explicit aim of glasnost — an unprecedented explosion of writing, publishing, filmmaking, performance, and music.

Obscure journals that published long, quasi-academic articles saw their pressruns soar. People lined up to read the new issues of papers such as the Moscow News or to get into a theatre to see a newly staged play by, say, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The reason, more often than not, was that the journal, the newspaper, and the playwright tackled the previously censored topic of Stalinist terror. For the first time since Stalin’s death, in 1953, Soviet citizens were publicly talking about their past.

Years later, Gorbachev wanted to preserve this part of his legacy. In 2008, in coöperation with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Gorbachev formed a working group to try to create a museum of Stalinist terror.

As General Secretary, he said, he had received full access to the archives. This was when he had learned that terror had been truly random, that people had been arrested and executed not for any wrongdoing, nor on suspicion of wrongdoing, nor even on specious accusation of wrongdoing, but simply because every local law-enforcement entity had to fill its quota of arrests and executions.

He had also learned that at the height of the terror, when thousands of people were executed every day, Soviet leaders had signed off on these executions by the page — with dozens of names per page.

Gorbachev, who had created a commission that ultimately reviewed millions of cases from the Stalin era and repealed hundreds of thousands of guilty verdicts, seemed to shudder in disbelief as he talked about the things he had learned. Here was another quality that set him apart from any Soviet leader before him: he could be shaken.

His worldview could be challenged and changed; he himself, it seemed, could change. The same could not be said of his successors: it soon became clear that the museum Gorbachev wanted to build could not exist in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which was busy eliding the memory of Stalinist terror from its own version of Russian history.

Gorbachev is both credited and reviled for the dismantling of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But he never set out to change the world in that way. In 1987, he released all Soviet political prisoners, who numbered several hundred at the time. (Russia is currently holding more political prisoners than it did in the nineteen-eighties.)

His policies of glasnost and perestroika enabled critics of the Soviet structure to be heard. Andrei Sakharov, a dissident who was elected to the Supreme Soviet after Gorbachev released him from internal exile, argued against the monopoly of the Communist Party. Galina Starovoitova, an academic ethnographer turned politician, argued that the empire must be dismantled, and proposed a union treaty to replace the Soviet colonial structure. Gorbachev rejected both notions.

In 1989, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union released its grip on its European satellites — the countries that Moscow had effectively ruled since the end of the Second World War. One after another, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and others brought down their pro-Soviet governments. But, when Russia’s internal colonies — the countries that had been forcibly subsumed by the Soviet Union rather than simply dominated by it — reached for independence, Moscow reacted with violence.

In April, 1989, authorities brutally crushed pro-independence protests in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, killing at least twenty-one people and injuring two hundred and ninety.

In January, 1991, Soviet troops killed pro-independence activists in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, after the Baltic countries, which had been occupied by the Soviet Union during the Second World War, declared independence.

Many tributes to Gorbachev have credited him with presiding over the “bloodless” dissolution of the Soviet Union — forgetting that blood was and, in some cases, continues to be shed in conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and elsewhere.

In March, 1991, after not only the Baltics but also Russia and Ukraine — the largest Soviet republics — voted to secede from the Union, Gorbachev staged a referendum on preserving the USSR. Six of the fifteen constituent republics refused to participate, but Gorbachev claimed that the remaining nine validated the continued existence of the empire.

In August, 1991, a group of elderly hard-liners attempted a coup. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer residence in Crimea and declared a state of emergency, restoring censorship. Three days later, the coup had been routed, but Gorbachev returned to Moscow a lame duck: he had been supplanted by Boris Yeltsin, the leader of an independent Russia.

In December, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus negotiated the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned his post as the head of a country that no longer existed. He had been willing to use violence and rigged votes to try to maintain the country, but he made no attempt to use such tactics in order to stay in power himself.

Gorbachev was that rare sort of politician who acted on the belief that the world and the people in it — including himself — can be better than they often appear to be. The ultimate tragedy of his political life is that, for the past twenty-three years, Russia has been ruled by the opposite sort of politician. Vladimir Putin believes humanity to be rotten to its core, and all of his acts, in one way or another, are designed to validate this world iew.

Putin was a relatively junior KGB officer in Dresden, in East Germany, for most of perestroika. He was not in Russia when the streets seemed to fill with the intoxicating air of freedom, but he was in East Germany when Moscow let it go.

He has never forgiven Gorbachev for abandoning KGB officers in Dresden, the satellite country itself, and the dream of a giant European empire. (Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said, on Tuesday night, that the Russian President would be issuing his sincerest condolences to the family.)

In his resentment of Gorbachev, Putin is in agreement with most Russians, who commonly associate the former General Secretary with instability, chaos, and the end of everything that once felt familiar. With some exceptions, the intelligentsia, who arguably benefitted the most from glasnost, dilute their fondness for Gorbachev with disdain — for his crackdowns on pro-independence movements, to be sure, but also for the way he talked.

In the West, where Gorbachev was once revered, he spoke through interpreters, who turned his ramblings into orderly sentences. In Russia, people heard a man who could never finish a sentence or get to the punch line — and whose accent marked him, to the end, as a country bumpkin.

After leaving office, Gorbachev largely stayed out of public life. He started a think tank called the Gorbachev Foundation. He did charity work. He tried and failed to create that museum of Stalinist terror.

In 2013, after Putin cracked down on protests and shepherded a number of laws that would make protest itself almost impossible, Gorbachev exclaimed in an interview, “Don’t be afraid of your own people, goddammit!” But he never spoke out against the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 or the invasion of Ukraine.

In the end, he was the most un-Soviet of all Soviet leaders, but he remained the flesh and blood of the Soviet system. He was limited by his imagination, not the beliefs and institutions of his youth, which had crumbled quickly. But, even as Russia waged an aggressive colonial war, Gorbachev seemed unable to imagine what his country could be, if it wasn’t an empire.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Ended the Cold War, Only to See Apparatchiks Destroy His Country,
Which They Continue to Do Today

National Security Archive

WASHINGTON (August 30, 2022) — The National Security Archive mourns the passing today of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 1931-2022, first and last president of the Soviet Union, who ended the Cold War and enabled through his “glasnost” our work to open archives around the world.

Mr. Gorbachev deserves the credit, according to observers as disparate as Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, for the revolutionary changes in the 1980s that transformed the Soviet Union, brought down the Iron Curtain, reunited Germany, enabled Eastern Europeans to reclaim their countries, abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons, ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settled regional conflicts, and put forward a model of international politics that denounced violence as any real solution to political problems.

He lived to see his visions of a “common European home” and a demilitarized social democratic Soviet Union demolished by opponents.  Power-seeking party apparatchiks and nationalists from both Russia and Ukraine led by Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Burbulis dissolved the USSR in 1991, chasing Gorbachev from the Kremlin; and their successors in Moscow continue to destroy Russia today.  Western triumphalists in the 1990s took all credit for Gorbachev’s courageous actions, and learned nothing from his “new thinking” but how it cost him power.

Mr. Gorbachev personally helped the National Security Archive open the primary sources on all this tumultuous history, even when the documents did him no favors.  He empowered his former national security adviser Anatoly Chernyaev to release the transcripts of all his highest-level talks, which we took to the Reagan Library and George H.W. Bush Library and still had to wait a decade or more for the U.S. declassification process to disgorge the American versions.

His inspiration and dedicated aides like Chernyaev, Georgy Shakhnazarov, Vadim Medvedev, and Pavel Palashchenko, with the editorial guidance of Vladlen Loginov, built an extraordinary Gorbachev Foundation documentary series of volumes that ultimately published thousands of pages of the top secret transcripts and Politburo memos that the CIA would have killed for only a few years before.

Mikhail Gorbachev generously met with us on multiple occasions, answering our questions and contributing his recollections and retrospective analysis, in venues ranging from the Reykjavik shorefront where he met with Reagan in 1986, to the Milan conference where he proposed a green revolution, to the international speeches in Atlanta or Fairfax where he earned the money to keep his Foundation alive, to his own conference room in Moscow.  We treasured his insights then, and his legacy today.

Gorbachev Made History, then Freed History by Opening His Documents
Letter from Reagan to Gorbachev. March 11, 1985

Vice President George H.W. Bush hand delivered this first letter from President Reagan to the new leader of the Soviet Union, after the state funeral for Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985 (“you die, I fly” as Bush memorably remarked about his job as the ceremonial U.S. mourner for world leaders). The letter contains two especially noteworthy passages, one inviting Mikhail Gorbachev to come to Washington for a summit, and the second expressing Reagan’s hope that arms control negotiations “provide us with a genuine chance to make progress toward our common ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.”

Reagan is reaching for a pen-pal, just as he did as early as 1981, when he hand-wrote a heartfelt letter during his recovery from an assassination attempt, to then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev suggesting face-to-face meetings and referring to the existential danger of nuclear weapons – only to get a formalistic reply. Subsequent letters between Reagan and the whole series of Soviet leaders (“they keep dying on me,”

Reagan complained) contain extensive language on many of the themes – such as the ultimate threat of nuclear annihilation – that would come up over and over again when Reagan finally found a partner on the Soviet side in Gorbachev. Even Chernenko had received a hand-written add-on by Reagan appreciating Soviet losses in World War II and crediting Moscow with a consequent aversion to war.

Gorbachev Letter to Reagan, March 24, 1985

This lengthy first letter from the new Soviet General Secretary to the U.S. President displays Gorbachev’s characteristic verbal style with an emphasis on persuasion. The Soviet leader eagerly takes on the new mode of communication proposed by Reagan in his March 11 letter, and plunges into a voluminous and wide-ranging correspondence between the two leaders – often quite formal and stiff, occasionally very personal and expressive, and always designed for effect, such as when Reagan would laboriously copy out by hand his official texts.

Here Gorbachev emphasizes the need to improve relations between the two countries on the basis of peaceful competition and respect for each other’s economic and social choices. He notes the responsibility of the two superpowers for world peace, and their common interest “not to let things come to the outbreak of nuclear war, which would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for both sides.”

Underscoring the importance of building trust, the Soviet leader accepts Reagan’s invitation in the March 11 letter to visit at the highest level and proposes that such a visit should “not necessarily be concluded by signing some major documents.” Rather, “it should be a meeting to search for mutual understanding.”

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