Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and arguably one of the most important figures of the 20th century, died last week at 91. Penn Today asked experts in history and politics to share their thoughts on Gorbachev’s legacy.
Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, NATO deputy secretary general, and Perry World House Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Mikhail Gorbachev, who rose to power as a loyal functionary in the Soviet system, showed the world—and his own people—that a different kind of Russia was possible: a more open, democratic Russia that places the freedom and welfare of its own people ahead of maintaining a repressive empire at home and in Eastern Europe. Although Gorbachev unleashed forces that he was ultimately unable to control, history will always recognize his pivotal role in peacefully ending the Cold War, unifying Germany, and significantly reducing nuclear and conventional weapons.
I was director of the State Department’s office of Soviet Union Affairs during Gorbachev’s final three years in power, from mid-1988, when his most radical reforms were launched, right up until the failed coup in August 1991. For me, a child of the Cold War, this was a very exciting time. Every day brought changes that would have been unthinkable under the Soviet system: an end to censorship and establishment of independent media, establishment of rival political parties and competitive elections, and the emergence of private businesses (even McDonald’s and Pizza Hut). Gorbachev declared that individual liberty and human rights were universal values, not just Western ones.
Of course, Gorbachev never fully escaped his Soviet upbringing. When the Chernobyl reactor caught fire in 1986, his government initially suppressed information rather than practicing glasnost (openness). And when Lithuania declared independence in 1991, Gorbachev’s initial response was to use military force to block its path. But Gorbachev, unlike today’s Russian leaders, was smart enough to learn from his mistakes. Understanding the power of freedom, he made the right choice in accepting the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and, two years later, the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.
For these decisions, Gorbachev is now vilified and demonized in Russia, as Putin seeks to discredit democracy, restore the Russian empire, and re-subjugate Ukraine to Russian domination and cultural assimilation. But having spoken with Gorbachev during my time as ambassador in Moscow (2001-05), I know he remained proud of those decisions to the very end. Someday, future generations of Russians will also appreciate Gorbachev’s legacy.
(This piece was excerpted from an article in The Atlantic Council.)
Kevin M.F. Platt, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, works on history and memory in Russia, Russian lyric poetry, and global post-Soviet Russian cultures, representations of Russian history, and Russian historiography in the Russia and East European Studies Department in the School of Arts & Sciences
Mikhail Gorbachev was the unlikely visionary of a better future that did not come to pass. By the 1970s, the Soviet political system had become an engine of conformity, virtually guaranteed to elevate risk-averse, predictable, and cowardly leaders. By some fluke, in Gorbachev it produced precisely the opposite result. In a world of static ideological confrontations, threatened by the specter of nuclear annihilation, Gorbachev had the temerity to dream of a future of global peace and prosperity and to act out of honest and sincere principle in the service of that dream. In this, he stands out not only in comparison to his Soviet predecessors in the Kremlin but in comparison to virtually any other world leader of the late 20th century, let alone the 21st.
Reflecting on his death in 2022, as the Russian Federation seeks to claw back territories that gained freedom and independence as a result of the nearly bloodless revolution overseen by Gorbachev, many will claim that he ultimately failed in his mission. Yet the failure was not his but the world’s.
It’s easy to be a critic. What if, instead, we were to try to learn from his example? As Gorbachev said in Strasbourg, France, in 1989: “There are no ‘bystanders,’ nor can there be any, in peace-building in Europe; all are equal partners here, and everyone, including neutral and non-aligned countries, bears his share of responsibility to his people and Europe. The philosophy of the concept of a common European home rules out the … very possibility of the use or threat of force, above all military force, by an alliance against another alliance, inside alliances or wherever it may be.”
Gorbachev was an idealist. Maybe we should be idealists, too.
Rudra Sil, professor of political science focusing on Russian/post-Communist studies and U.S./Russian relations, director of Graduate Studies for Political Science, and School of Arts & Sciences director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business
I have a deeply personal reason for mourning the passing of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. It was around the time of his ascension to general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that I switched my college major from physics to political science, with a focus on the USSR (and later, its successor states). My first few years as a graduate student coincided with perestroika (restructuring) and demokratizatsiia (democratization). In 1990, while on a language study program in Moscow, I was on the grounds of the Kremlin during the week when, at Gorbachev’s urging, Article VI of the Soviet Constitution was abolished, taking away the legal basis for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. While the breakup of the USSR was not yet imminent, this move effectively marked the end of Soviet communism.
When considering Gorbachev’s legacy, however, it should be clear that the end of communism—which many credit him with—was not something Gorbachev himself sought. While Western leaders warmly embraced the smiling man who spoke of “new political thinking” and a “common European home,” others saw an unpredictable leader in a hurry to revitalize socialism—introducing destabilizing initiatives in rapid succession, pursuing untenable political coalitions, and unleashing a political vortex into which he, himself, would ultimately fall. This particular aspect of his legacy is perhaps best evident in the lesson that China took from Gorbachev: that successful economic reform needs to be gradual and incremental, and not intertwined with risky political maneuvers that can threaten the stability of the state.
There are also the unintended consequences of glasnost (openness), which triggered a wide-ranging re-examination of official Soviet history alongside a mobilization of identity politics that caught Gorbachev off guard. When the Baltics wanted to secede, when protests spread in Alma-Ata (in present-day Kazakhstan), and when war broke out in Nargorno-Karabakh, Gorbachev realized the ground under him was shifting far more quickly than he could have ever imagined. In stark contrast to the bold leader who pursued arms control with the West, a shaken Gorbachev could do little to stop the centrifugal forces that ultimately led to the breakup of the USSR and sowed the seeds for future conflicts, including the devastating war we are seeing in Ukraine.
Mikhail Strokan, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is completing a dissertation comparing the evolution of policymaking and governance structures in the oil and gas industries in post-Soviet Russia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia
It feels like an eerie coincidence that in the same year, several key figures connected with the end of the USSR passed away. Stanislav Shushkevich, the first president of Belarus, and Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, were both signatories of the Belovezh Accords that formally dissolved the Soviet Union. Gennady Burbulis, another signatory and a close associate of the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, also died this year. Now, the man who presided over the chain of events culminating in that Accord has also passed away.
Mikhail Gorbachev will remain one of the most controversial figures in modern Russian history. A son of poor peasants, he was a Nobel laureate, the first and the last president of the Soviet Union, the initiator of nuclear disarmament, the main contributor to ending the Cold War, and the architect of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). Yet, to many ordinary Russians, his rule is likened to that of Tsar Nicholas II, a humble ruler with noble aspirations yet unable to cope with complex challenges, who made erratic choices that ultimately led to his country’s disintegration, accompanied by sharp economic decline and a demographic catastrophe.
Unlike Nicholas II, however, Gorbachev’s resignation in December of 1991 did avert a large civil war. And some of his decisions were transformative. The unification of Germany and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact would not have been possible without him. He dreamed that these events would be followed by the dissolution of NATO and the opening up of a “Greater Europe,” a trans-Atlantic community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” Now, the dream and the dreamer are no more.
Benjamin Nathans is the Alan Charles Kors Associate Term Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences; his book “To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: The Many Lives of the Soviet Dissident Movement” will publish in 2023
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was supposed to produce not just a new kind of society, free of exploitation and inequality, but a new kind of human being, a “Soviet person” liberated from capitalism’s relentless pressure to monetize everything and everyone. Mikhail Gorbachev was a shining example of the Soviet ethos at work. The provincial son of poor peasants, he rose through the Soviet educational system (tuition-free from kindergarten through graduate school) to the country’s highest echelons of power. Along the way, he developed an idealistic confidence in the teachings of Vladimir Lenin and the promise of socialism.
It must surely rank as one of the great ironies of the 20th century that this poster child for the Soviet system, this quintessential “Soviet person,” became the unwitting vehicle of that system’s undoing. Gorbachev’s idealism, boldness, and not least, people skills—which I once experienced in person at a gathering in the 1990s, after his fall from power—helped propel him to the leadership of one of the world’s two superpowers.
Those same qualities made it possible for him to accomplish something almost unthinkable: ending the Cold War. The social democratic ideals of this most educated of all Soviet leaders, however, did little to prepare him for the two forces that would ultimately trigger his country’s unraveling: economics and nationalism.
It is not clear that anyone bent on reforming the sclerotic Soviet system could have done better. What is certain is that Gorbachev never intended to dismantle the USSR or to convert it to American-style capitalism. Americans, eager for imitators, would do well to remember this, along with the fact that Gorbachev is widely reviled in today’s Russia—and not just by Vladimir Putin.
The German filmmaker Werner Herzog once asked Gorbachev what inscription he would like for his tombstone. His answer: “We Tried.” In reaching for the impossible, Gorbachev showed the world what was possible.
Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, and director of the Center for Media at Risk in the Annenberg School for Communication
Mikhail Gorbachev emblematized life in the Soviet Union beginning anew despite its Cold War burdens. His projects of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) pushed for expansive change, pointing to less combative politics, less restrictive culture, more attainable ideals, and more transparent institutions. He aimed high: A pivot to multilateralism and globalism improved ties with the West and a democratized eastern Europe, more freedom of expression and civil liberties, the beginnings of private enterprise.
But Gorbachev’s legacy also demonstrated that change would not come easily to the Soviet Union. He had to contend with Russia’s past as he sought transformation, and when much about perestroika and glasnost remained unclear, unpopular, and contradictory, many of the reforms he pursued dissipated. His uneven policies created food shortages, corruption, and oligarchs that drowned out his hopes for transformation.
What about Russia’s past shrinks the potential for change? When Catherine the Great famously declared Russia to be a “European power” in 1766, she did not renounce autocracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville a century later predicted Russia’s rise as a superpower, he aligned it with authoritarianism, autocracy, and servitude. Today, in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s reversal of what was left of Gorbachev’s reforms into mistrust of the West, a restored police state, denial of human rights, and muzzling of the media shows how close to the surface authoritarianism lurks.
Russia’s past keeps authoritarianism on speed-dial, where it repeatedly surfaces to shut down transformative potential. The past does not disappear just because leaders or regimes change character. It remains in some entrenched form, emerging to lend clarity when not enough exists. We need to recognize that and concentrate on unpacking its particulars.