“Gorbachev is difficult to understand.” This he was telling about himself and speaking in the third person in 2006 to historian William Taubman, who had been writing a biography for a year and apologized for moving slowly. “Don’t worry, Gorbachev is hard to understand.”
In many ways, the last leader of the Soviet Union, the driving force behind the perestroika and of the attempted democratic transition that triggered the end of the iron curtain, he was an exception in his country and often escaped the understanding of his fellow citizens and those around him. Also to that of neighboring Western leaders, between the distrust of Helmut Kohl (who compared him to Goebbels) and the fascination of Margaret Thatcher, who said that she had never stopped arguing with Gorbachev since their first meeting in 1984, and that she never had tired.
“His admirers marveled at his vision and his courage. His detractors, including some of his former Kremlin comrades, accused him of everything from naivete to treason. The one thing everyone agrees on is that he almost single-handedly changed his country and the world,” Taubman writes in Gorbarchev: Life and Times, a detailed biography published in Spanish in 2018 based on documents and interviews, including several with the protagonist.
Between violence and hope
Gorbachev was born in 1931 in Privolnoe, a town in the North Caucasus, in a family of peasants who suffered from the hunger of those years and the persecution of Stalin. The memory of violence, through the story of his grandparents and his father, who fought in the Second World War in Ukraine, marked Gorbachev, who said he hated the conflict and was obsessed with ending weapons nuclear. To the point that he and Ronald Reagan were close to reaching a total disarmament agreement and that Gorbachev set himself the goal of nuclear weapons disappearing completely by the year 2000. Although they did not get that far, they signed the most ambitious pact until then.
Gorbachev knew the violence and hard work of the field from the summers when he helped his father with almost 20-hour days to achieve the harvest goals set from Moscow. But he always had a passion for reading everything he found, with a mix of intellectuality, romanticism and optimism unusual in the Soviet Union. His father, Sergei, supported him to study at Moscow University, the best in the country.
Since he was a teenager he seemed to dream of another life. At the age of 17, he wrote a postcard to a girlfriend that said “dum spiro spero” (“as long as I breathe, I have hope”). The bride replied: “Breathe, but don’t wait too long.”
That girlfriend was left behind when Mikhail met Raisa at the University, a serious and studious young woman like him, from a more affluent and urban family, and who did not want to suffer the fate of Russian women enslaved and often mistreated by alcoholic husbands. One of Gorbachev’s crusades as a politician would be the fight against alcoholism.
The doubts and the ascent
At university, Gorbachev came into contact with some critics of the establishment, including some of those who later participated in the Prague Spring riots and Jewish students who were persecuted for anti-Semitism fueled by hoaxes by the Stalin regime. Gorbachev often seemed disappointed with the limits on free speech and with frustrations over the ineffectiveness of the command economy that had driven his family into misery.
But despite his misgivings, he landed a provincial managerial position in Stavropol, near his village, and worked his way up from there, even as he grew dissatisfied with the way he managed the lives of peasants who lived lives of suffering, far from the privileges enjoyed by bureaucrats and party leaders. He was often perceived as an overly intellectual person, much like Raisa, who taught classes and wrote scholarly studies.
He did not stand out for persecuting dissidents, but he did not defend them either, and then took a few opening steps in local meetings to allow some degree of debate. He had been impressed by the secret speech in which Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin’s atrocities, but in his autobiography he acknowledges that for years he did not dare to share his views. In the 1970s, he worked his way up to the Politburo in Moscow, even after writing some critical texts calling for more independence in the management of agriculture and denouncing the lack of resources in places without schools or doctors.
Some contemporaries later recounted that his hypocrisy helped him rise and that he was a politician who told everyone what they wanted to hear. He made key friendships, by intellectual affinity or common interests. The most important, that of Yuri Andropov, leader of the KGB and later prime minister, with whom he shared a taste for reading Russian and foreign writers and philosophers.
Why do people live worse?
His ambitions were clear, at least to some, when he began traveling to the West, a privilege the Communist Party allowed only a select few. From his first trips through Europe (to Italy, France, Belgium and Germany) he marveled at the informality and calm with which the citizens of those countries spoke and behaved. And like many of his colleagues who were allowed to travel, life seemed so easy for citizens of free Europe. “People lived better there. Why did the people of our country live worse than in other developed countries? I couldn’t get that out of my head,” he would explain later.
Although in his long walks with Raisa (his favorite activity) he confessed his concerns, in the Politburo Gorbachev continued to support the repression of the protests in Eastern Europe and the usual messages against US imperialism in his few interventions. As he rose and accumulated support, his positions became more critical and more explicit.
In 1985, the year he was elected to lead the party and the country, he began to use the words “perestroika” and “glasnost”, in reference to the reforms and transparency that he timidly began to defend in his country.
His speeches had promises of change, although he was slow to implement them, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, after the disastrous invasion of 1979. But he began changing his style, with less ceremony in the treatment because he wanted to be a more accessible leader, like those he had known in the West, and closer to the people. He even scolded those who applauded him too much or those who always agreed with him in speeches. The new style of leadership also included having his wife around, who used to impress the hosts of the European countries he visited with her knowledge of literature and history.
Gorbachev’s colleagues often criticized Raisa for her influence over him, something unprecedented in a country where the partners of the leaders – all men – were not even invited to ceremonial acts. When Gorbachev was interviewed on the American network NBC, he said that he consulted with his wife “almost everything” and the Russian media omitted this answer.
Chernobyl, a before and after
What, according to Gorbachev, definitively changed him and sealed the course of the end of the Soviet Union and its satellites was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in April 1986, and the Kremlin’s lack of reaction between passivity, cover-up and lack of information. “Chernobyl really opened my eyes,” Gorbachev told Taubman for his biography. His life, according to him, could be explained in two parts, before and after Chernobyl. And the truth is that after the accident and the lack of measures and preparation, his disgust for almost everything that surrounded his country only increased.
The fear of a nuclear war and the feeling that the system would collapse if he did not do something pushed him to try to reach an agreement with Reagan, with whom he met for the first time in Geneva in November 1985. They connected despite their ideological and character differences. and they ended up becoming friends with the mediation of an unexpected character, former President Richard Nixon, who went to visit Gorbachev and convinced him that Reagan had liked him very much.
One of his obsessions was for politicians and the population to accept the horrors of their own history, in particular Stalin’s purges and the persecution of peasants, among other places in Ukraine, the land of his mother and Raisa’s parents. “Stalin was a criminal who had no morals. A million party activists were killed, three million sent to fields to rot. That was Stalin… Clear up the chaos in your head,” he told a Politburo colleague that he complained about the emphasis on the country’s more negative history.
It allowed the publication of censored books, even those that were taboo and circulated on the black market, such as farm riot by George Orwell. He allowed the first private businesses and encouraged the governments of the Eastern countries to decide on their future. “We want to live and let live,” he said in an interview with the magazine Time. In March 1989, he agreed to hold the closest thing to free elections and left the debate open and televised in Parliament, where some of his rivals, such as Boris Yeltsin, arrived. In February 1990, he became the first president of the Soviet Union, holding a position equivalent to that of other neighboring governments. That year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to reforms in Eastern Europe. So for the first time, the majority of the public in the United States It said that the Cold War was over.
But the resistance was inside the house. The most conservatives opposed his reforms in the Politburo. In the midst of the push of the declarations of independence of the countries of the East, he resorted to arms to quell protests in the Soviet republics or to the most modern tactics of cutting off gas to the rebels who wanted to rule their country, such as gas cuts and embargo even of medicines to Lithuania after its declaration of independence.
The failed coup of the ultras in August 1991, which kept millions of Europeans in suspense, weakened Gorbachev’s power enough to make way for Boris Yeltsin, the leader who ended up marking the democratic transition and the end of the Soviet Union, on December 25 of that same year.
Gorbachev remained active giving speeches and working on his foundation to promote disarmament and the fight against pollution and even doing commercials for Pizza Hut or Louis Vuitton.
In 2011, during the celebration of his 80th birthday, he lamented the drift that his country was taking again in the hands of Vladimir Putin in what, according to Gorbachev, was an “imitation” of democracy. Criticism of him was often unwelcome among his fellow citizens, who have hardly mobilized to defend civil liberties. former soviet president used some of the Nobel money to help found the independent newspaper Novaya Gazetawhich this year has been forced to close in Russia due to the persecution of its journalists and the impossibility of reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In June, one of the last friends to visit Gorbachev in hospital, the economist Ruslan Grinberg, said: “He gave us all freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931 in Privolnoe and died on August 30, 2022 in Moscow.