Mikhail Gorbachev’s death leads to uncertainty surrounding his legacy


Mitya Aleshkovskiy | Wikimedia

Aissata Sow

On Aug. 31, Mikhail Gorbachev was pronounced dead by Russian authorities.

The former president of the Soviet Union succumbed to a prolonged illness in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital. However, Gorbachev’s passing has brought little clarity surrounding his legacy.

In the west, Gorbachev is heralded as the man who ended the Cold War and ultimately disbanded the Soviet Union.

In Russia, however, there are mixed views on Gorbachev. Some consider him a traitor for his role in demoting the Soviet Union from a position of power and global status.

At best, Gorbachev is a hero for de-escalating tensions between Russia and the West.

At worst, however, he is a naive politician who destroyed his own country by pushing too fast and hard for political and economic change.

Mikhail Gorbachev was born Mar. 2, 1931, right before World War II and the era of Stalin’s Soviet Union, in present-day Ukraine.

Gorbachev joined Komsomol, a Soviet political youth organization, at a young age. He went on to study law at Moscow University and became a member of the Communist Party in 1952.

He quickly rose through the ranks, despite being the youngest member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making authority in the Communist Party.

Gorbachev strove to reinvigorate the stagnant Soviet economy by instilling rapid technological advancements and increasing the labor force.

Unfortunately, these new initiatives failed. From this, Gorbachev procured his most well-known policies: Glasnost and Perestroika.

Glasnost, meaning openness, referred to his policy of transparentness in government and media, entailing a repealing of state censorship of news.

Perestroika, meaning restructuring, referred to Gorbachev’s plans to reorganize the Soviet economy by incorporating small elements of capitalism into it.

Gorbachev allowed Soviet media sources to write freely on the Chernobyl incident without being required to paint the government in a positive light.

Additionally, Gorbachev encouraged the growth of business relationships with the West and attempted to modernize Soviet factories.

Gorbachev also attempted to reinvent the concept of a model Soviet citizen.

For instance, alcoholism was a huge issue in the Soviet Union. To rectify this, Gorbachev increased the drinking age, raised alcohol prices and restricted the sale of alcohol to specific hours.

In 1990, Gorbachev started to accelerate his plan to decentralize the Soviet Union by taking power from the Communist Party and transferring it to elected governmental institutions.

In the same year, Gorbachev was elected president and helped demolish the Soviet Union’s one-party system.

The most controversial decision Gorbachev made was his arms treaty with the United States, or the Start Reduction Arms Treaty I.

At a meeting with then President Ronal Reagan, both parties agreed to get rid of long-range nuclear missiles.

Shortly afterward, eastern European countries along the border of the Soviet Union began to declare their independence, as well as embrace a western influence in their culture and governance.

Thus, the persisting sting of Gorbachev’s failure to rebuild the Soviet Union is that he came so close to succeeding.

“The breakup of the union was the result of betrayal by the Soviet nomenklatura, by the bureaucracy, and also Yeltsin’s betrayal,” Gorbachev said in a 2012 interview with CNN. And he was entirely correct.

In 1989, Gorbachev met with President George Bush, who encouraged Gorbachev to shift the Soviet Union toward a capitalist economy and democratic system.

However, after the coup in 1990, the United States secretly began to support Yeltsin.

All the changes Gorbachev catalyzed angered many Soviet communities. In 1991, Gorbachev’s political power was significantly impaired during a coup that had to be ended by his political opponent, Boris Yeltsin.

Later that year, Gorbachev resigned from a Soviet Union which had already ceased to exist. Yeltsin was quick to take control and established a new regime in Russia.

Both Yeltsin and his later successor, Vladimir Putin, were motivated to restore Russia to its Cold War era of power and influence. They both saw Gorbachev’s changes to the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”.

Gorbachev’s legacy on either side of the Pacific Ocean is well deserved.

The processes of reducing Soviet control in eastern Europe and the democratization of the Soviet Union were rushed, both being compressed into a span of four to eight years.

It was naïve of Gorbachev to believe that it was possible to replace one political system with another so quickly, especially in a land which had never known true democracy.

In America, however, Gorbachev is a hero for his policies promoting free speech and free markets, while also greatly contributing to the end of the Cold War.

As a public figure, especially as a political leader, Gorbachev deserves both scrutiny and praise.

His actions have resulted in both a higher level of democracy worldwide and an aggravated Russia, which is retaliating now. But as far as whether his legacy was, on balance, more positive than negative — it’s still too early to tell.