Following Mikhail Gorbachev’s election as general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on April 23, 1985, his future aide Anatoly Chernyaev wrote in his diary: “There are great expectations of Gorbachev, just as there were of [one of his predecessors, Yury] Andropov. After all, what’s needed is a ‘revolution from above.’ Nothing less. Otherwise it won’t come to anything. Does Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] understand this?”

Gorbachev did understand that, but only partly: the final Soviet leader could never have imagined that by loosening the screws and ushering in glasnost and elements of a market economy he would lose not only socialism, but the empire itself.

Perestroika was a revolution of expectations. After nearly twenty years of economic stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev and the deaths of three aging Soviet leaders in just two and a half years, people were ready for change—and for a change in leadership. The emergence of Gorbachev was greeted with relief by the country.

Perestroika and the ensuing reforms of 1992 were a political, social, mental, behavioral, psychological, and economic revolution. But the Soviet authorities clearly overestimated the extent to which that revolution could be controlled. As the economic reformer Yegor Gaidar said later, “There’s no point in shouting to a crowd rushing to storm the Bastille: ‘Wait! Are you sure that France has all the institutions needed for an effective democracy? Let’s stop and take a look at what prerequisites are in place.’ A revolution has its own logic and momentum.”

If Gorbachev wanted anything, it was to preserve socialism and the Soviet Union. After all, he was the leader of the Soviet Union, and wanted to remain so. He resisted separatism within the individual republics of the Soviet Union, and was at war with Boris Yeltsin, in whose interests it was to see Russia become a sovereign nation.

Even after the loss of the Baltic countries and Ukraine, Gorbachev still tried to salvage the Soviet Union in some form: from April 1991, he made attempts to reach an agreement with the heads of the republics on signing a new union treaty that would essentially have been a confederation: the main thing was to save the empire. The heads of nine republics were involved in those talks. Yeltsin, as leader of Russia, was constantly hedging, first agreeing to sign the treaty, then laying down new terms.

Even so, an agreement on a new union treaty was eventually due to be signed on August 20, 1991. But the day before, a coup d’état was launched by Soviet hardliners. That failed coup sounded the death knell for the Soviet Union several months before the official agreement of December 25, 1991, when the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered forever.

Gorbachev did not think, and indeed could not have thought that the process of becoming a democracy that he put in motion would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet all empires collapse eventually, and in the Soviet Union’s case, the dawn of democracy also gave rise to national movements within the individual republics. It was impossible to stop the process of the union’s collapse. Such is the logic of history.

Abroad, Gorbachev’s actions—giving the Eastern Bloc its freedom, tearing down the Iron Curtain, and ridding the world of the fear of nuclear war—would give rise to “Gorbymania,” the phenomenon of Gorbachev’s popularity in the “old” West and in Eastern Europe. But before that, there was a time when he was spectacularly popular at home. Back in 1985, it came as a shock to people to see a relatively young leader speaking without reading from his notes. It wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it, and that he was thinking aloud.

There was real chemistry between Gorbachev and his people, but this was also precisely why people expected nothing short of magic from him: for everything to stay the same, to be able to sit around drinking tea for days on end in pointless Soviet institutions, but at the same time for the stores to be full of goods, and for life to be at least like in East Germany or Hungary, or better still, like in Western Europe.

Reality, of course, turned out to be quite different. People found themselves having to work a lot and to adapt to the new circumstances. Many people never forgave Gorbachev for that, just as they never forgave Yeltsin for promising and then failing to deliver a time of plenty and stability by the end of 1992, or Gaidar for being forced to take responsibility for the country’s liberal reforms.

The architects of perestroika really did perceive it as a revolution, even a continuation of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, only purged of the influence of Stalin. Gorbachev envisaged a socialist revolution combining Lenin with democracy and a market economy. This was a historical oxymoron that did not work, and indeed could never have worked. 

Gorbachev’s unqualified achievement was a new kind of political thinking, opening his country up to the world, and the rapprochement with the West. It was this kind of convergence of values that made it possible for the U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama to theorize the “end of history” (a global liberal-democratic consensus) in 1989.

Reality and later events turned out to be more complicated, but Fukuyama was absolutely right that the process begun by Gorbachev should have led more or less to a historic unity of values between Russia and the West. Everyone was a winner in the adoption of those values: the state became more humane, while society became more unfettered.

The last Soviet leader also put an end to the Cold War. In his book, The Age of Extremes, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “the world owes so enormous a debt to Mikhail Gorbachev, who not only took this initiative but succeeded, singlehanded, in convincing the U.S. government and others in the West that he meant what he said.”

The paradox of history is that the more freedoms the Soviet people received, the less popular Gorbachev became at home. The leader himself couldn’t see where the limits of that expansion of freedom were, or how not to lose power while ushering in democracy.

Having inherited a country plagued by economic stagnation, Gorbachev began economic reform, but was so inconsistent in its implementation that by 1991 the cost of that reform had skyrocketed. The authorities failed to bring prices down or start privatization, while the very idea of unemployment was anathema (despite the fact that as the threat of war receded, much of the vast Soviet military-industrial complex had become obsolete).

A whole raft of economic programs had come to nothing. The country got into debt, and people’s savings became more or less worthless. The next generation of politicians inherited a mountain of unsolved problems.

Having set in motion the process of becoming a democracy, Gorbachev lost the Baltic countries, and then used force to try to bring them back under control. Similarly, having long resisted calls to disclose the truth about the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Katyn massacre, he was forced to acknowledge historical facts. He ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1989, but by that time, it was too late to boost his waning popularity.

At a certain point, Gorbachev the conservator began to look like a destroyer who was not in control of the situation, while to radicals, he looked like a hardline conservator. The times required a new leader, and Yeltsin, as Russian president within the Soviet Union, proved more popular than the president of the Soviet Union.

Whether willingly or not, Gorbachev turned out to be a great reformer by dint of his personality. Perestroika meant freedom and the emancipation of society from the state for the first time in Russia’s entire history. It meant the chance to talk freely, and for the country to open itself up to the world. That is Gorbachev’s principal legacy, and one that has been rejected by all ensuing generations of Russian leaders—with the exception, ironically, of his political opponent, Boris Yeltsin.

The Soviet Union under Gorbachev was more free than Russia today. Back then, it was thanks to him that we had something we do not have right now: hope for a better future and faith that there is a way out of all this.

Gorbachev gave us the chance to be free. Some people made use of that freedom and were grateful, while others lost control over their own freedom, and now blame Gorbachev for that, when in fact they have no one to blame but themselves.

The phenomenon of the “escape from freedom” was described so long ago that there is nothing surprising in the fact that perestroika and reforms and their leaders are as unpopular as conspiracy theories about the causes of the death of the empire—not to mention the cruelest Russian leader in history—are popular. People cannot forgive Gorbachev for their freedom, and are now sacralizing their own lack of freedom.

Even so, we still live partly in the world that Gorbachev tried to create and, in the end, created. Only now that world seems like a utopia; a retro-utopia: once upon a time, we lived in freedom and believed in something better.

Attaining Gorbachev’s world is perhaps a laudable goal and dream for the state and society today. At the very least, Gorbachev’s revolution showed us a glimpse of a society that desires freedom, and a state that doesn’t stand in the way of society. A worthy example to strive for, indeed.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov