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Julius Apostata

Yo, I’m the host with the most Glasnost, a******s made a mess and the war got cold, shook hands with both Ronalds, Reagan and McDonalds, no doubt! If your name ends with “in”, it’s time to get out! *Ahem*, excuse me, I wasn’t supposed to start that way. I had a better introduction to this piece than some abrupt sing-along to one of the most well-known mentions of former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Although this portion of a song from the YouTube channel Epic Rap Battles of History gives us a fun way to learn about the former leaders of the USSR, it only gives us a brief rundown of what happened. Indeed, when most people think of the final days of the Soviet Union, we end up with images of economic and social reforms spearheaded by Gorbachev, a failed coup, and the eventual collapse of the USSR. It could best be described as a quick yet important flashpoint in modern history, in which Gorbachev is seen as the catalyst for the heroic undoing of what Reagan called “an empire of evil”. Recently, Gorbachev’s name has returned to the news, having passed away at age 91. Such a moment calls for a retrospective on this pivotal figure, and many have been doing such, myself included. But while I do think Gorbachev made many correct changes to the USSR in terms of policy, I would argue that he should not be viewed as a heroic figure.

To explain what I mean, we should go over some context preceding Gorbachev’s rise to power. The Soviet Union was once one of the leading communist powers (as well as one of the greatest violators of human rights), having led an arms race against the United States while sponsoring communist movements around the world. Beyond nearly bringing mutually-assured-destruction on more than one occasion, like during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR also engaged in the space race, proudly boasting about how it was the first nation to put a satellite and man into space. Of course, these achievements came with a notable asterisk: an immense bureaucratic system with enormous military spending. This eventually led to the aptly named “Era of Stagnation” under the premiership of Leonid Brezhnev, caused by the high military expenditure, overreliance on the export of natural resources, and lack of improvement of living standards. These factors led to severe economic turmoil that plagued the USSR for decades. To put this into perspective, for many in the West at the time, one could easily purchase a car almost immediately, whereas in the USSR one would have to wait months, even years, just for the opportunity to purchase a car of much lower quality. Moreover, much of the time, many of these goods would be snatched by corrupt officials, meaning most ordinary Soviet citizens wouldn’t even dream of having these items, instead having to wait hours on the morning bread line. This, combined with a renewed arms race with the United States under the Reagan administration, ultimately placed a great deal of unsustainable economic strain on the USSR. Compounding these problems even further was the fact that Soviet leadership was in decline; Leonid Brezhnev would kick the bucket in 1982, and his premiership would be followed by the elderly Yuri Andropov, who continued Brezhnev’s crackdowns on dissent. However, he died barely a year and a half into his leadership and was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, who couldn’t even rule for more than a year before dying. By the time Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Union was practically disintegrating at the seams.

The popular narrative regarding Gorbachev is that, once he came to power, he immediately began to implement reforms that would lay the groundwork for the USSR to become a social democracy. This narrative is ultimately flawed, mostly due to the fact that Gorbachev, frankly, had very little choice in holding back many of these desperately needed changes. Rather, the previously mentioned conditions had essentially forced him to make these reforms a reality. Gorbachev himself was still a communist, through and through. He had spent years in a bureaucratic apparatus that was dedicated to the promotion of Marxist-Leninist ideals. Consequently, especially in his early years within positions of power, Gorbachev was all too willing to publicly support suppression of dissent. For instance, at around the same time that he became Second Secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom, the Prague Spring occurred in  Czechoslovakia, promoting political liberalism. Contrary to his later actions as General Secretary, Gorbechev publicly supported the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush any resistance to the Marxist-Leninist agenda. Hardly the image of the great reformist that we picture later on, wouldn’t you say? This wasn’t exactly some one-off instance, either; following his promotion to Secretary of the Central Committee, Poland’s communist government began to experience greater calls for reform from the Polish trade union Solidarity. Again, instead of being the principled politician calling for reform or mediating between the Polish government and protestors, Gorbachev instead endorsed a crackdown. One could argue that these decisions were made under immense pressure and that Gorbechev himself regretted such actions, as he wanted to cultivate allies for some of his desired reforms (indeed, Gorbachev himself would later express sorrow over these actions). Nevertheless, despite some of the reforms and positions he advocated privately to his fellow Politburo members, Gorbachev still ended up promoting a lot of the worst elements of the Communist Party in his early years in politics.

 In fact, if one were to look at the early years of his leadership, we could see a hint of what his government would have looked like had circumstances not guided him away from hardline tendencies. His biggest mistake from this came from the Chernobyl disaster, which came about during a nuclear meltdown. At first, communist hardliners near Gorbachev tried to dissuade him, minimizing the scale of the disaster and encouraging him to suppress news of what had happened. Of course, one could only hide the fact that the worst nuclear catastrophe in history has occurred for so long, and several days after this disaster, Gorbachev finally learned the full extent of the situation. Consequently, he had to embarrassingly admit to the true scale of the event, effectively undermining any sense of credibility the Soviet government had. None of this exactly absolves Gorbachev of any wrongdoing: he unwittingly downplayed one of the worst man-made disasters in human history, leading to thousands of people dying or being exposed to toxic nuclear waste. However, we could mark this moment as a true transition for Gorbachev’s character: not only would this moment create a rift between him and communist hardliners, but it put Gorbachev in a position where he needed some way of reaffirming public trust in the Soviet government. It would also prove a key example, in Gorbachev’s mind, of the general incompetencies within the Soviet governance model. If Gorbachev had struggled in making up his mind between reformist policies and siding with more traditionalist elements in his early years, this moment ultimately set his course in becoming the reformer that we are typically taught about.

With all this in mind, it is here where we begin to hear about the policies Gorbachev is most known for: Glasnost, a policy in which the government and wider Soviet Union would have greater transparency and allow for open criticism in the hopes of rebuilding public trust, and Perestroika, a restructuring of the Soviet economy to include market-economy reforms. Gorbachev had hoped that these reforms would allow the Soviet Union to adapt, allowing for the leading communist power to survive. Unfortunately, Gorbachev had gravely miscalculated; the resulting reforms, in the face of the complete and utter economic, political, and social stagnation of the USSR only made these tensions more insurmountable. Freedom of the press gave way to open criticism of the government; economic liberalization meant more people were aware of the economic stagnation and opening up the government to non-communists meant greater challenges to his authority. Despite these more liberal reforms, Gorbachev did hope to preserve the Union in more hardline methods, exemplified by his attempts to crush pro-independence movements in Georgia and the Baltic states. Could Gorbachev have gone further than this and ordered a full crackdown on any dissent within the USSR? Probably, and we should be grateful he didn’t go beyond these failed crackdowns. These actions demonstrated his desperation to keep the Soviet Union intact. However, reality must have been made clear to Gorbachev, as from this point onwards he increasingly loosened the reins of power. Following a brief coup by hardliners in August of 1991 that only lasted a couple of days, the writing was on the wall: the Soviet Union collapsed on Gorbachev’s watch on December 26th, 1991.

So what do we make of our birth-marked politician? It would be easy to simply accept this picture of Gorbachev as a man of reform, one who actively discouraged political suppression, and one who resisted the temptation to bring back the Gulag. And, while this might be true for a brief snapshot of Gorbachev’s life, this assessment proves to be incomplete. Instead, analysis of Gorbachev reveals a man who had grown from this communist apparatus, had perhaps entertained and even encouraged crackdowns at several points in his career, yet understood the reality that the Soviet Union faced. It was in the face of these economic and political pressures that he desperately tried to fix what he could, eventually to no avail. This is evidence of the complex character Gorbachev inhabited; his greatest regret failing to preserve the USSR, but still trying to improve the lives of those that lived in it. Therefore, I believe he is a deeply flawed, bureaucratic man who only took the heroic steps needed to dismantle the system he was molded by when the harsh economic and political realities forced him to do so.

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