Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who changed the course of history and the world’s geography while pursuing his vision of revitalizing the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at 91. According to a statement issued by the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow, he died after a prolonged illness, and no other details are available. The changes that happened, including the disintegration of the Soviet Union, were contrary to what Gorbachev had envisioned. Gorbachev’s journey exemplifies how good intentions can belie expectations because of the inability to harness the forces used to bring about the changes.
His tenure of fewer than seven years as the Soviet leader was highly remarkable because of the series of raid reforms he triggered at breathtaking speed. However, the changes proved disastrous as they led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended the Russian domination of the Eastern European nations. Several countries in Eastern Europe declared independence from Soviet dominance. The end of the continued nuclear confrontation of decades between the East and West or the Cold War was the most significant contribution of Mikhail Gorbachev, which won him the Nobel peace prize in 1990.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the son of peasants and was born in 1931 in a village named Privolnoye in Southern Russia. He grew up learning how to operate farm equipment while witnessing the horrors of World War II as the Nazis occupied his village. The days of war shaped his later life as the terrifying experience of torture and destruction left an indelible mark on his young mind. He identified himself as one of the children of the war generation, as people would often call them. The painful experience of war left deep scars in his mind that permanently changed his ideas and thoughts about life and the future. Later, he admitted that not only was the change permanent but also determined many things in his life.
The end of the cold war
The agonizing war experience during Gorbachev’s growing years turned him into a die-hard anti-war crusader who never wanted to see global conflict. He was determined to work for world peace by driving away suspicions of the Western world about Communism. By the time he became the Soviet leader in 1985, he was already engaging with Western leaders like Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister who held him in high regard. He continued engaging with other world leaders like French President Francois Mitterrand and then American president Ronald Reagan to achieve his goal of nuclear non-proliferation. Although Reagan considered Communism evil and Gorbachev was a cheerleader of Communism, they shared the common belief that they need not use nuclear weapons against each other. It brought the leaders closer and finally ended the long-waging Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union
When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he inherited the infamous legacy of the war in Afghanistan that the Soviet Union fought throughout the decade. At the same time, the Soviet economy had to bear the burden of the escalating costs of the arms race. The combined burden caused growing dissent at home while the Soviet Union was unwilling to give up its stranglehold in Eastern Europe. However, there were enough signs about Communism waning across Europe and the Baltic nations. The razing of the Berlin Wall, opening borders, and holding of free elections were game changers during 1989 and 1990 as they saw the ouster of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe. The fearsome superpower became history the Soviet territory fractured into 15 independent nations after a failed coup against Gorbachev in 1991. The disbanding of the republics of the Soviet Union drove the final nail in the coffin of Communism and forced Mikhail Gorbachev to step down.
Reforms aimed at improving the Soviet Union
Gorbachev always wanted to strengthen the Soviet Union, and his reforms aimed at improving the Soviet system. He tried to overturn the world’s dislike for Communism, which most looked upon as an evil force. He succeeded in gaining the confidence of the Western leaders, which helped to end the Cold War. Soon after assuming power, Gorbachev focused on ending the country’s political and economic stagnation and introduced the concept of openness or ‘glasnost’ to help achieve the goals of restructuring or ‘perestroika.’ He moved quickly to bring about the changes to let people breathe easily in a country stifled by a bureaucratic command system. He encouraged multi-candidate elections and open debate, freed political prisoners, halted religious oppression, allowed free travel for his compatriots, strengthened the ties with the West, reduced his nuclear arsenal, and did not oppose the Eastern satellite states from Communist rule.
An anti-hero at the end
It’s a tragedy that despite all the good intentions of doing only good for the Soviet Union through various reforms, Gorbachev became a prisoner of his deeds. Although the speedy reforms brought about sweeping changes in the country, he failed to keep the forces he unleashed under his control. The country witnessed labor unrest and strikes in the Southern Caucasus region known for its trouble spots. Long suppressed ethnic tensions kept creating sparks that led to wars. Inflation, price rise, and scarcity of consumer goods transformed the country into a boiling cauldron.
Gorbachev ordering a crackdown on the disturbed Baltic republic in 1991 drew the ire of many of his fellow citizens. Reformers and intellectuals who, till then, went along with him denounced his violent moves and turned against him. A new breed of populist politicians appeared on the scene by winning competitive elections, and they challenged Gorbachev’s authority and policies.
A new sun was rising on the horizon, and Boris Yeltsin, who was Gorbachev’s protégé, became the challenger and finally Russia’s first president.
Russians still blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, he had to bear widespread hatred of his countrymen for the rest of his life. But his unwavering faith in humanity and deep concern for human lives remained intact as he firmly believed that nothing is more precious in the world than human lives.