Publication Date

March 22, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • Europe


Current Events in Historical Context, Political

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev died on August 30, 2022. Gorbachev bears more responsibility than any other one person for the fact that the Cold War ended on broadly peaceful terms. That does not mean he deserves all of the credit—US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush deserve a great deal of credit, too. That does not mean that Gorbachev was as heroic as someone like Lech Wałęsa or dissidents who put their lives on the line to oppose totalitarianism. To me, it means that Gorbachev made decisions that few previous leaders throughout history would have even considered—the most important of which was to base policies on the view that neither the United States, United Kingdom, nor a unified Germany posed a threat to the Russian people.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sit behind a dark wooden desk in the East Room of the White House, signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Many recent events have their origins in Mikhail Gorbachev’s unusual decisions at the end of the Cold War. White House Photographic Office/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Three components of Gorbachev’s era represent this bold mindset, and they influence the present and our recent past directly. The first is the set of arms control agreements that includes the 1987 establishment of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRCC), the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), and significant headway toward the 1992 Open Skies Treaty and the 1993 START II agreement. Gorbachev made concessions that put aside his predecessors’ obsession with secrecy and strength. He accepted steep reductions in Soviet forces alongside modest reductions in US and allied forces. These agreements helped ensure that the world did not face a “Yugoslavia with nukes,” as US Secretary of State James Baker put it in December 1991. Along with the invaluable Cooperative Threat Reduction program (AKA Nunn-Lugar), they curbed the growth and proliferation of nuclear weapons following the Cold War by dismantling delivery vehicles and limiting access to nuclear technology. The implementation of INF and START I developed an onsite inspections regime that assured each side the other was not cheating. Although a handful of examples—most notably North Korea—has bedeviled the international community since the end of the Cold War, the spread of nuclear weapons would have been far wider absent these agreements.

Borders look the way they do not only because of Gorbachev’s decisions on where to relax Soviet control, but also where he was unable to maintain it.

Gorbachev’s influence also manifests in the geopolitics of eastern and central Europe. National borders in the region, for example, look the way they do not only because of Gorbachev’s decisions on where to relax Soviet control, but also where he was unable to maintain it. During a meeting in Washington, DC, in May 1990, Bush put to Gorbachev the rationale that people have the right to decide for themselves—and, therefore, the right to choose their own alliances—and Gorbachev accepted it. In contrast to decades of Soviet policy which positioned eastern Europe as an “Iron Curtain” against invasion, Gorbachev peacefully let go of the Soviet “outer empire” in 1989 by not contesting the collapse of communist governments in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. He accepted a unified Germany in NATO, a prospect that previous Soviet leaders would never have even considered. But Gorbachev was less generous and proceeded less nobly with respect to Ukraine, Lithuania, and other nations within the “inner empire,” countries over which tsarist Russia had ruled prior to 1917. As his economic reforms sputtered, Gorbachev insisted that he still could devise a new union treaty to replace the USSR and keep its territorial expanse intact—and he also insisted that his political nemesis and successor, Boris Yeltsin, sabotaged this plan. Despite his best efforts, Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991, an event Gorbachev lamented far more than the 1989 breakup of the Eastern Bloc.

The third component of Gorbachev’s legacy is the personal dimension: he considered himself a decent, sensitive human being. Gorbachev deeply respected and admired his wife, Raisa, who studied and taught philosophy and sociology. He developed an unlikely friendship with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He presided over the requisite parades in Red Square, yet otherwise had no use for trappings of chauvinism. In November 1985, he agreed with Reagan that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Five months later, the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accentuated that fact to him. Gorbachev was not a perfect person or a perfect politician, and he certainly was no saint. His slogans—“Perestroika,” “Glasnost,” “Common European Home,” and “New World Order”—contained less substance than he acknowledged. Still, his ambitions were noble, and this is of no little importance for a man in his position. Consider the three other most influential communists of the 20th century—Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Each sought to change social, cultural, and national borders to the benefit of their own power. They were willing to use brutal methods to bring this about. Lenin legitimized terrorism and class warfare. Stalin committed multiple genocides. Mao sacrificed millions of his own people during the calamitous “Great Leap Forward.” These were the leaders of international communism whom Gorbachev succeeded, and he made a conscious decision not to follow the models of rule they set forth. Had the members of the Soviet Politburo who selected Gorbachev had any idea what he was going to do after March 1985, they never would have chosen him.

His ambitions were noble, and this is of no little importance for a man in his position.

Were it not for Gorbachev, the Soviet Union might well have hobbled along past 1985, 1989, and 1991. It might even have recalibrated itself—as has the People’s Republic of China—by embracing economic reforms along the lines of state capitalism while rejecting the political “Glasnost,” or openness, that meant freeing political prisoners and tolerating dissent. We cannot ever know for certain, of course. But we do know that one person defied all expectations and made decisions that transformed Europe, brought the United States and Russia together as constructive partners, and for several decades banished the specter of nuclear war. It is a legacy that others, perhaps less noble in ambition, now seek to erase.

James Graham Wilson is a historian at the US Department of State and the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. The views expressed here, which are based on publicly available declassified material, are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the US government.

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