On the 32nd anniversary of Gorbachev's ascension to power, we remember his legacy and that of his Western counterparts.
On the 11th March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, marking a turning point in the Cold War. He was not like his inflexible predecessors, and that was for the good. His policies of glasnost and perestroika, meaning openness and reform, were important first steps towards liberalising the Soviet Union, and his refusal to invade Eastern Bloc nations overthrowing their communist regimes was crucial in ensuring the fall of communism was not as bloody as its reign. Today is the 32nd anniversary of that event.
It is important in any assessment of Gorbachev to remember that he was still a communist, his reforms aimed at shoring up and saving the crumbling communist system, not creating a democracy. That with a relative pragmatist at the helm the Soviet Union collapsed anyway pays tribute to the gaping flaws of the communist system. The shortages and deprivations, crackdowns and purges endemic in the Soviet Union are well documented. It is true though that the collapse came sooner because of glasnost and perestroika; while bettering the lot of the common man, they destroyed the cornerstone of the totalitarian state. Without violence silencing all criticism, the failures of the communist system ensured a whirlwind of dissent.
That said, Gorbachev was the right ruler at the right time for the Soviet Union; his rivals were altogether more doctrinaire, and would have ensured the inevitable collapse was bloody. Manoeuvres to keep him in place are among the highlights of western realpolitik. When there was great pressure for tariffs in response to the ongoing violation of human rights or the invasion of Afghanistan, leaders like Margaret Thatcher pushed to prevent them, knowing they would destabilise Gorbachev, paving the way for someone worse. In this Thatcher and her compatriots were successful, and their success was vindicated in the (coup attempt notwithstanding) relatively peaceful collapse of Soviet Communism.
Resolve from the West to stand up to the Soviet Union was arguably just as important as Gorbachev’s flexibility in hastening the fall of communism, however. After over a decade of accommodation during which the USSR had managed to seem mighty and its victory had not seemed impossible, the West created the wind. Tough negotiating from America and NATO more widely, insistence that invasion of Eastern Bloc countries would not be tolerated, consistent pressure for the release of dissidents, the thwarting of Soviet-backed coups, and forthright denunciations of the repressive communist system all played their part in undermining the diplomatic and moral credibility of the Soviets. The quagmire in Afghanistan and a series of other foreign defeats harmed both the finances and the resolve of the Soviet Union. The revolution-fomenting, rampant USSR of the ‘70s this was not.
It was American military build-up and the Strategic Defense Initiative that was crucial, however; the Soviets had to spend more and more to come close to keeping up with American military might, and this reinvigorated arms race bankrupted them. Without these pressures the Soviet Union could have endured decades longer, to the immense detriment of its people. A panoply of western leaders deserve credit for this muscular approach, above all its architects, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
None of this is to diminish Gorbachev’s importance; without his willingness to adapt the collapse of the Soviet Union could well have been far worse. It is only in the context of the Western strength that the Soviet apparatus felt the need to bend, however, and Western efforts to thwart Soviet ambitions that hastened the USSR’s demise. There are two linked lessons in this; the foreign sphere must be approached with an eye to what is, not what ought, and one of the things that is, is that dictatorships understand and respect power. If the West is to keep the peace, it must do so from a position of strength; as Reagan succinctly put it, ‘Peace through strength.’
This year marks the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution that birthed the USSR. The dark legacy of the communist system, and the developments of post-communism, will be the focus of ACRE's The Liberty Summit in Europe being held from the 7th to 9th of April in Tirana, Albania.
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