Two books were published practically simultaneously in Great Britain and France to commemorate the forthcoming 30th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union. They had almost identical titles: Seven Years that Changed the World by Oxford historian Archie Brown, and Six années qui ont changé le monde by Helene Carrere d’Encausse, Perpetual Secretary of the Académie Française. Both were dedicated to the exceptional historic event of the end of 20th century —Soviet Perestroika and its leader and symbol Mikhail Gorbachev.
Obviously, without coordinating between themselves, neither author resisted the temptation to draw a parallel with the legendary book of American journalist John Reed called Ten Days that Shook the World, devoted to the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The reason is obvious —both events are closely connected not only because they took place in Russia, but also by the logic of history.
According to Gorbachev, Perestroika started as the “continuation of the October Revolution” but on the contrary put an end to the unprecedented social experiment of realizing on the huge territory of Russia the utopian communist project launched by Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks 70 years earlier.
In the opinion of another famous British historian, Sir Eric Hobsbawm, two events marked the time frame of the political “short 20th century”: the first global crisis of capitalism leading to the First World War, then the tragedy of the Second World War, luckily escaping the third event which would have been the last with a good chance of becoming nuclear, “Had it not been for Gorbachev!,” conclude both our authors unanimously.
Obviously, the significance of the peaceful ending of the strategic and ideological conflict between East and West and the unexpected political suicide of one of the two world’s superpowers cannot be reduced just to the ending of the Cold War. Beyond doubt, the political revolution of Perestroika launched in the Soviet Union by Gorbachev and his supporters radically transformed Russia and left its footprint on subsequent world development.
The unprecedented political breakthrough realized during the years of Perestroika allowed Soviet Russia to catch up with world history and break the walls of the besieged fortress inside which it had been kept by the repressive regime. For the first time in Russian history its citizens gained the right to free elections, freedom of speech and access to pluralist sources of information.
For Gorbachev himself, the initial goal of Perestroika was to seek to give a second chance to the project of socialist renovation of Russia. Dreaming about the merging of the socialist ideal with democracy, he had in mind the image of the “socialism with a human face,” similar to the project of the Communist reformers of the Prague Spring of 1968.
The complexity of his task was based on an ambiguity: Gorbachev was obliged to destroy the totalitarian system using the only political tool that he had at his disposal —the one-party State. But having started as an attempt to modernize the archaic political system Perestroika very quickly provoked the resistance and opposition of conservative forces concerned with the perspective of losing their privileged positions.
Another challenge he faced consisted in achieving an economic reform that would allow the Soviet Union to build a competitive economic model combining market imperatives with the social concerns and achievements of the previous years that Soviet citizens were not ready to sacrifice.
The basic precondition for this was the ending of the arms race with the West which was forcing the Soviet Union to spend a disproportionate part of its national budget for military purposes, thereby affecting the living standards of its population. Yet, despite the huge price that the Soviet Union was paying for the maintenance of its superpower status, by the 1980s the country was living a situation of unprecedented political isolation, engaged in various conflicts not only with its Western adversaries, but also with China and the Muslim world, particularly after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Having initiated the bold policy of détente with the West and suggesting to the Reagan administration in the US an ambitious program of nuclear disarmament, Gorbachev sought to stop the absurd arms race and counteract the image of the USSR as a source of military danger to the outside world.
In the several years of his new foreign policy, the world changed radically. The climate of political confrontation dissipated, Soviet and American middle range nuclear missiles were removed from Europe, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the territories of Warsaw Pact members, and finally the sad symbol of the Cold War —the Berlin Wall— was destroyed, opening the road to the unification of Germany.
In October 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “leading role in the promotion of the peace process as an important component in the life of the world community.” Yet he was obliged to decline the invitation to participate in the ceremony in Oslo since he was facing an acute political crisis at home provoked by the unprecedented scale of the reforms he had initiated.
After six years of the dramatic political changes that Perestroika introduced into Soviet society, ordinary people were impatient to obtain the “dividends” of democracy in their daily life, but economic crisis aggravated the political confrontation inside society unleashed by the conflict between radical reformers and conservatives.
In these times of unprecedented transition, the Western partners of Gorbachev were not inclined to share with the Soviet State the “dividends of peace” and the unexpected ending of the Cold War which they owed to Perestroika. Gorbachev’s pleas to assist the Russian economy at this stage of its radical transformation twice addressed to the leaders of the G7 at their meetings in Houston and London were rejected with the explanation that they were not economically “rentable.”
Very quickly, Gorbachev had to realize that ending the Cold War was easier than transforming and democratizing Russian society and resisting the attacks of his political opponents. The weakening of the repressive mechanism of the central State offered a chance for the activation of nationalist and separatist movements, threatening the integrity of the federal State.
In August 1991, as in August 1968, the Soviet tanks sent by the organizers of the anti-Gorbachev putsch interrupted his attempt to realize in Moscow the scenario of the Prague Spring twenty years later. And in December of the same year, another political conspiracy —a plot staged by his political rivals, the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine— heralded the dissolution of the Soviet Union and forced Gorbachev to resign from his position as its President.
Gorbachev himself considered the dissolution of the Soviet Union as one of most important failures of his action. He believed that the federal State uniting historically and culturally close and interdependent nations could be maintained in the form of a voluntary democratic union that would be inspired by the example of the European Union.
He was also convinced that existence of such a kind of geostrategic alliance of nations occupying the vast area ranging from the Baltic and the Black Sea and reaching the Pacific in the Far East could serve as a factor of stabilization of the chaotic international landscape that emerged after the end of the Cold War and which was not based on the principles of “New Political Thinking” but on the “Right of the Might” and was subject to the violence of extremist forces.
Unfortunately, after the resignation of Gorbachev, Russia and the West did not find the common exit from the Cold War and ended it not as partners but as rivals. Instead of becoming part of the common “European home” designed by Gorbachev, post-Soviet Russia is being pushed to the periphery of the world politics and observes with growing resentment the competition between major world players for the partition of the succession of the Soviet Union.
But Western politics too is obliged to pay a high price for the loss of “the chance of Gorbachev.” The fact that in the West the peaceful ending of the Cold War —made possible by the bold action of Gorbachev— is seen as the historic capitulation of the Soviet Union, contributes to the feelings of national humiliation within Russian society and nourishes anti-Western and nationalist tendencies in its foreign policy and the wish for historic revenge.
And yet, even the present uncertain and worrying image of the world scene is not to be regarded as reason for pessimism. The “End of History” announced by Fukuyama has not occurred and the worldwide triumph of the Western model of liberalism looks as illusory as the promised land of communist utopia.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev’s dream of a world free of nuclear weapons is gaining new supporters. This perspective has been recently shared by Pope Francis, while the text of the declaration banning nuclear weapons has been adopted by the great majority of UN members during the General Assembly. So perhaps, even on the occasion of his 90th anniversary on March 2 this year it is too early to draw the final balance sheet of the “time of Gorbachev.”