Foreign Policy Katrina vanden Heuvel Russia

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Gorbachev’s Legacy

A great reformer in his country’s tormented history.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pausing to smile while chatting up press during a lighthearted moment in G7 mtgs. (Dirck Halstead / Getty Images)

By Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Nation

On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Within a few weeks, the full-scale reformation he attempted to carry out both inside his country and in its Cold War relations with the West, particularly the United States, began to unfold. Perestroika (“restructuring”)—as Gorbachev called his reforms—officially ended with the Soviet Union and his leadership in 1991. The historic opportunities for a better future it offered Russia—and the world—have been steadily undermined ever since.

Usually forgotten is that the wave of democratization at the end of the 20th century began in a place, and in a way, that few had expected: in Soviet Russia, under Gorbachev’s leadership as the head of the Soviet Communist Party. Indeed, the extent to which his democratic achievements during nearly seven years in power have been forgotten or obscured is a measure of historical amnesia.

Lost in historical misrepresentation are his two great achievements inside his country. By 1991, Gorbachev had led Russia closer to a real functioning democracy than it had ever been in its thousand-year history; and the parliamentary and presidential elections he introduced in 1989­­–90—in the then-Soviet system—remain Russia’s freest and fairest to date.

It seems especially important to remember this history now, when there is renewed talk about democracy and authoritarianism, and its roots and risks, and as the US shepherds countries along the presumed democratic path. Recalling Gorbachev’s evolutionary democratization reminds us that whatever the merits of various US pro-democracy programs aimed at Russia, they played no role in the onset or unfolding of democratization in Moscow. Indeed, when Russians used to say their country had more democracy under Gorbachev than later, they point out that Boris Yeltsin’s election as Soviet Russian president in June 1991 was the first and the last time in the Soviet Union’s history that the Kremlin allowed executive power to pass to an opposition candidate.

Glasnost (literally, “openness”), or the ending of seven decades of government censorship, was Gorbachev’s other signature domestic democratic reform. I worked for three months in 1989 for the leading glasnost newspaper, Moskovskie Novosti (Moscow News), and I still remember how, step by step, from 1985 to 1991, the mechanisms and taboos of censorship were dismantled, Here, too, the result was astonishing: virtual freedom of the press, both print and broadcast, at least in the national media. Russian journalists I know still regard their freedom under Gorbachev more favorably than what followed under both Yeltsin and, certainly, his successor, Vladimir Putin: oligarchical control and corruption of the media, a resurgence of state interference in their work and the killing of journalists. Gorbachev cared so deeply about glasnost, he even invested in independent journalism, committing part of his Nobel Prize money to Novaya Gazeta, and its editor Dmitry Muratov, who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

In October 2009, my late husband and longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen and I conducted a wide-ranging Nation interview with Gorbachev at his Foundation offices in Moscow. “When did the Cold War actually end?” we asked.

“Without perestroika, the Cold War simply would not have ended,” Gorbachev said. “Sometimes people ask me why I began perestroika. The domestic reasons were undoubtedly the main ones, but the danger of nuclear war was so serious that it was a no less significant factor. Something had to be done before we destroyed each other.” Gorbachev was perhaps the most radical thinker about security to ever lead a major power—and certainly the most committed arms reductionist to ever lead a nuclear country. He was revolutionary when in the 1980s he called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And he reversed generations of perilous military buildup, a struggle among others that won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Due in large part to his leadership, by 2015, 85 percent of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals had been decommissioned from their heights.

Yet Gorbachev’s vision of an alternative security framework—“New Thinking,” as it was called—remains not only unfinished but increasingly under threat. The broken promise of no NATO expansion eastwards was a stab in Gorbachev’s back, a rebuke to his common sense and his humane vision of a “common European home” stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, as outlined in his 1987 UN Speech.

The escalating war in Ukraine, with its barbarism toward Ukrainians (and Russians), with its nuclear risks, led Gorbachev to a quiet despair in his last months. He began reading Pushkin at the clinic he lived in—an antidote to the news.

I could not end without a reflection on Mikhail Sergeevich, as Steve and I always called him, as a person and a friend. We were grateful to him for our visas, received in March 1985, a week after he came to power; we had been denied visas, together and individually, from 1980–82.

Our marriage coincided with perestroika. Steve spent the first day after our wedding at the UN with Gorbachev. On our first anniversary, in 1989, we were with President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev on Malta when they declared the end of the Cold War. And we thought of our daughter, Nika, as our perestroika baby because she was conceived in Russia during the Gorbachev years, made her first visit to Moscow in July 1991, and has visited some 40 times since then.

In a moving moment, a year after his beloved wife, Raisa, died, Gorbachev remarked to Steve that our marriage and partnership reminded him of his with Raisa because we too seemed inseparable (and took walks together).

Gorbachev told Steve how deeply influenced he was by his writings, especially his biography of Nikolai Bukharin. On Steve’s 70th birthday, Gorbachev contributed to a book in his honor. “I have known Stephen Cohen a long time. We have often met and discussed various historical and political questions. These frank conversations made us friends.”

In 2020, on Steve’s passing, he wrote, “He was one of the closest people to me in his views and understanding of the enormous events that occurred in the late 1980s in Russia and changed the world.” Gorbachev continued, “I always considered Steve and you my true friends. During perestroika and all the subsequent years, I felt your understanding and unwavering support.”

Decades later, little, if anything is left of the historic opportunities Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world.

Whether or not one views Soviet democratization and the fundamental insight that true security can be achieved through demilitarization and cooperation as Gorbachev’s lost opportunity, he is nonetheless an essential figure in the modern history of democratization. As he turned 90, outliving by decades the historic breakthroughs he introduced, and having watched many of his democratic achievements being squandered, Gorbachev, always an optimist during the years I’ve known him, said he was an optimist no longer. It may be that actuarial realities had made him melancholy. In an interview in Novaya Gazeta a year or so ago, Gorbachev spoke out more bluntly than ever before against the Putin regime for undermining reforms he had introduced.

Only history will eventually decide Gorbachev’s ultimate reputation. In his own country, a younger generation has come to be interested in his era and its markers. Yet many Russians still revile him; they blame him (along with Yeltsin) for destroying the Soviet Union and for the economic and social misery that followed. Other Russians, however, view him, as I do, as a leader of vision and courage. If democracy eventually returns to Russia, Gorbachev will (and should) be remembered as the greatest reformer in that nation’s tormented history.

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editorial director and publisher of The Nation, America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture. She served as editor of the magazine from 1995 to 2019.

9 comments

  1. Katrina,

    Thank you for providing some historical background Russia and for sharing the moving and personal account of your and Steve’s relationship with Gorbachev.

    1. Katrina,
      Thank you for providing some historical background on Russia and for sharing the personal and moving account of the relationship you and Steve shared with Mikhail, a great visionary.

  2. He made the mistake of trusting Washington to keep it’s word.

    Washington never keeps it’s word.

    Putin will not make the same mistake.

  3. Thank you Katrina for this great piece on a great and visionary leader who should be an example for all leaders today. However, we are now stuck with the warmongers club led by Biden, Tuss, and the whole lot of useless western leaders who will be remembered for their utter lack of vision and dangerous brinksmanship if we survive. May this great man Rest In Peace!

  4. If I read between the lines correctly I have the strong impression that, on a personal level at least, Putin has sincere respect for Gorbachev: the flowers, all his gestures at the coffin, the great honour given by the choice of the chapel, the guards in uniform.

    Most telling is Putin repeating Gorbachev’s quote of General De Gaulle’s 1959 Strasbourg speech “from the Atlantic to the Urals” as “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. In May 2018 in St. Petersburg at the International Economic Forum Putin quotes Gorbachev’s words while Macron quotes De Gaulle’s! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkeS6if-9jM

    Indeed, it’s high time Europe stops serving the US/WEF global hegemony and chooses to lead her own future. Bring hope of a clear path towards a shared and prosperous European spanning the entire continent instead of the war and poverty we are now clearly offering us. If she doesn’t, well we will soon rudely wake up on the wrong side of history. As the only parties in Europe that currently have a coherent vision are the far-right Nationalists. We know only too well where that will leads us.

  5. While Gorbachev was a great man from the West’s point of view, he is reviled in Russia for “surrendering” the Cold War and for the raping and pillage of the former Soviet Union by Western and Russian oligarchs (“privatization”). Russian lifespan dropped to <65 years old after Gorbachev's reforms took place; it has now risen to about 73 under Putin (while the US lifespan is falling).
    Unfortunately for the idealist Gorbachev, life does not happen in a vaccuum, and Russia's changes were perceived as weakness by Clinton and Americans, who briefly had the buffoon Yeltsin as their puppet, a result of CIA-rigged Elections. The Americans took full advantage of Gorbachev's reforms. Now Putin has given up on the vile backstabbing West and has turned to Eurasia and the third world. It will be interesting to see what wins out: manufacturing and commodities exchange (a multipolar world), or paper pushing rentier banks with usurious interest and overpriced corrupt MICIMATT (the American Empire).

  6. I’m interested by Dr. Cohen’s writing a biography of Nikolai Bukarin. I’ve always thought of him as an unprincipled ally of profiteers during the NEP phase of stalinism, and an enemy of the goals of the October revolution. I would have liked to hear Dr. Cohen’s opinions on Alexandra Kollontai, who made the last real attempt to democratize the USSR in favor of its original principles. I would recommend a book to those interested in the subject: “The Conscience of the Revolution” by Robert Vincent Daniels. It is well written, exhaustively researched, and will stir any socialist’s sense of ethics regarding the one true attempt at creating a state based on the working class.

  7. Gorbachev badly underestimated the venality of the West that had fallen prey to Neocon extremism, starting under Reagan and accelerating to this day. To the Neocons, Russia was never anything more than a goose to be plucked and gnawed on to the bone. Putin saw it, most likely during his Dresden days. He certainly saw it under Loony Tunes Yeltsin. So please, Katrina, spare us the tears. Gorby was a nice guy, for sure, as you are no doubt a nice gal. But nice is often not enough in this fallen world.

  8. History has already decided.

    Gorbachev’s vapid embrace of liberal democracy went straight to oligarchy and kakocracy , exactly as it has done here.

    China’s maintenance of Communist Party control and adoption of a variety of Lenin’s New Economic policy have made it a world power and potent adversary to US imperialism and capitalist criminality.

    One of the key people in the effort to re-make China was Wang Huning, an intellectual who now sits on the Politburo. He traveled and observed various systems, including the US — which he concluded was not a suitable model for China.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-wang-huning.html

    He also foresaw our current chaotic shambles. is major study, “America Against America” forecast the U.S.’s decline due to domestic conflicts more than 30 years ago.

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