Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1931-2022

 By no reasonable person's standards could he be considered a saint. Attaining the position he held at the apex of his power, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which he held from 1985 to 1991, required a high degree of ruthlessness. He combined this with skill at making allies who would support his ambition. According to his New York Times Obituary, as a student "[h]e became familiar with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau." 

During his time as General Secretary he pursued perestroika, or restructuring, and later glasnost, or openness (though perhaps not quite transparency). These were pragmatic moves. Throughout his career he became keenly aware of the sclerotic condition of the Soviet economy and politics. He sought a way to change Soviet society so as to eliminate the sclerosis while staying within the Marxist-Leninist tradition. 

In December of 1990 I attended a Christmas party given by a friend and law school classmate and his wife. My friend had become a United Nations official and worked in a division of the Secretariat that, under U.N. protocol, was always headed by someone from the Soviet Union. My friend's boss, who to hold that position most likely was at least a KGB colonel, was there. He was quite the contrast with a predecessor of his whom I had met at a Christmas party during the Reagan years who, when I asked him how he liked living in New York, scowled and said, "Why should I like it?" The new boss was nothing like that, and I recall his insisting that we should take what "Michael" - he deliberately used the English version of Gorbachev's name - was saying and doing seriously.

It's tempting to use the buzzword "transformative" to describe Gorbachev's time as General Secretary. In some important ways the transformations he helped to bring about endure today. The former "captive nations" of Eastern Europe are now independent, though some, Hungary in particular, are lapsing into authoritarianism, as Russia itself unfortunately has. In his later years, Gorbachev had an uneasy relationship with Putin; the Times reports that he praised the seizure of Crimea and Putin's restoration of order after the chaotic Yeltsin period, but opposed "Mr. Putin's crackdown on news media freedom and his changes in electoral laws in Russia's regions." Gorbachev described Putin as thinking himself "second only to God".