Mikhail Gorbachev, the recently deceased leader of the Soviet Union, was a cult figure in the West, where he was admired for jump-starting pro-democracy reforms and allowing the USSR to peacefully dissolve. Westerners viewed “Gorby” as a nice man, awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize and a starring part in a Pizza Hut commercial. Within the USSR, he was, as many reformers are, a controversial figure.
His opening reformist effort was an anti-alcohol campaign. Although he later insisted that the Politburo had developed the blueprint before he became general secretary in March 1985, as the newly appointed head of state, he owned it. Under Gorbachev’s leadership, the USSR closed distilleries, cut down vineyards, turned bottle shops into juice stands, and herded workers to demonstrations under banners that read, “Sobriety is the norm of life.” To make matters worse, the government announced the campaign in early May, days before the 40th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, the holiday traditionally marked by heavy drinking.
Gorbachev’s public persona didn’t necessarily win hearts and minds. The general secretary was young and energetic, a stark contrast to the three decrepit characters who preceded him. He looked odd, however, with a distinct spot on his forehead that the superstitious believed to be the mark of the devil.
The Russian leader loved his wife Raisa dearly and made her a Western-style first lady. Prior to Gorbachev, Soviet ruling elites never took their wives to public events; they didn’t necessarily take them to private events, either. Stalin, for example, was a misogynist who partied with the boys, drinking and throwing tomatoes at the celling, and drove his wife Nadezhda to suicide. Under Brezhnev, even if the rumors about his scandalous family ran wild, the general secretary kept his relations out of sight. The Politburo acted fully in line with the medieval custom of secluding elite women in terems, or high towers.
With Gorbachev, there all of a sudden came a reformist leader who brought along his wife, pretty and educated—granted, her degree was in Marxism-Leninism—who could hold her own against Hollywood glamorati Nancy Reagan. The masses didn’t understand why Raisa accompanied her husband to high-level meetings. Was it for attention?
Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” literally restructuring, and “glasnost,” or vocalness, were still more divisive. Economic restructuring didn’t entail the privatization of all government assets, but it did allow small-scale enterprise for the first time since the 1920s. Kiosks selling shoddily made local goods immediately filled Soviet city squares. And in 1990, the country approved a law legalizing private property “as the foundation of everyday human life,” a declaration that remains central to post-Soviet mentality.
That said, the Soviet economy, much like the Soviet society, spun out of control toward the end of the decade. Exports of natural resources plummeted and sky-high inflation decimated savings. Neither development was the consequence of privatization, but the unraveling of the Soviet economy was inevitably associated with its leader.
Gorbachev was not the first Soviet reformer, but he was the most daring one. It very quickly became apparent that glasnost would go further than Nikita Khrushchev’s hushed-up yet very public destalinization efforts. In 1956, Khrushchev gave a “secret speech” denouncing Stalin to a closed session of the Party Congress, after which the dictator’s body was removed from the mausoleum and his monuments toppled.
When Gorbachev took charge, Stalin’s crimes became a subject of intense public discussion. It was a transformative moment in the country’s history. In Kharkov, where I lived, there was a tradition of displaying the latest issues of newspapers in glass cases outside Shevchenko Park. For decades, local men assembled by the sports section to talk about soccer. Then, in 1986, the crowd swelled in size and started debating politics. And it was a real debate, with a wide range of opinions, the kind that a year earlier would have only taken place in someone’s kitchen.
The Iron Curtain was lifted, meaning the refuseniks (my uncle among them) were free to leave, and foreign tourists were no longer shadowed. No one was shadowed, actually; Andrei Sakharov, the country’s highest profile dissident and the winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, returned to Moscow from internal exile in the city of Gorky.
Previously banned books were printed in literary journals. Foreign radio was no longer jammed. The popular mood was at once one of excitement and seriousness. Jokes, both political and apolitical, seemingly disappeared.
The country, it seemed, stood on the precipice of something big. That’s when it all came undone.
Trying to thread the middle line, Gorbachev was seen as insufficiently radical by many liberals, most notably by the recently freed Sakharov. In 1989, Sakharov was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. At the congress, televised live for the entire country, he pressed for more reforms, including ending the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The future Nobel laureate feuded with the former one, making snide remarks and cutting off his microphone. The leader of the dissident movement, who we now know had Asperger’s syndrome, turned out to have had zero charisma. The author of elegant and impassioned essays squirmed under Gorbachev’s ire. The general secretary, on the other hand, came out looking sadistic. More radical liberal leaders emerged, President of the Russian Federative Republic Boris Yeltsin among them.
A great deal of opposition to the reforms came from hardliners who didn’t share their boss’s confidence that Communist ideas are correct and could withstand a trial-by-debate. They were bothered by the notion that society needed to be reformed to eradicate corruption. In August 1991, the hardliners attempted to depose Gorbachev in a coup, similar to how Khrushchev was “retired” in 1964. Unlike Khrushchev’s Thaw, which was limited in scope, Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika ushered in genuine societal transformation. On Yeltsin’s urging, thousands turned out against the tanks assembled in the center of Moscow, prompting the army to take the side of the crowd.
Once freedom of expression was allowed to take hold in the Soviet Union, all aspects of life were bound to be examined. In the spring of 1988 my schoolmates decided that we would no longer wear uniforms. We showed up for classes wearing everyday clothes and there was nothing school administration could do about it. At the time, it felt exhilarating.
I attended a magnet school, so we were the good kids; not just college-bound, but headed to the country’s top universities. Once the pre-Gorbachev behavioral limits were gone, our elders failed to set limits anew. It is no wonder that my generation was plagued by substance abuse and high divorce rates and many failed to start a family.
Teens with attitude did not upend the Soviet Union, the national question did. Having received an opportunity to express their concerns, some ethnic minorities immediately began demanding independence, while others rushed to settle age-old scores. The Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority-Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. In a peaceful protest, the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania joined hands in a human chain across the three Baltic republics. But when Lithuania attempted to declare independence in January 1991, Gorbachev dispatched the military, killing 14 civilians. That was not his only use of force to quell efforts for independence. The man known for allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to go their own way likely dispatched troops to pacify a protest in Georgia in 1989 in which 18 people died, most of them from asphyxiation from tear gas.
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Ethnic Russians weren’t immune to separatist sentiment. They were incensed that the USSR prioritized funding of the ethnic republics over the Russian hinterland and feared that the Central Asian population that maintained a high birth rate through the 20th century would overtake the Slavs, who were reproducing below the replacement level.
The USSR broke off not on the margins but in its heartland. In December 1991, the leaders of Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian republics agreed to dissolve the Union. And the young, energetic man who brought much-needed reforms stood passively as the empire evaporated.
Gorbachev’s beloved Raisa suffered a minor stroke during the coup attempt, and was an invalid for the rest of her short life. Gorbachev was able to galvanize society to survive the coup, but failed to contain the country. He spent the final decades of his life a lonely and wounded man, despised in his homeland, and nearly forgotten abroad. His passing barely made news across the former Soviet satellite states. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the sole foreign head of state to attend Gorbachev’s funeral. Kindness and power don’t easily mix. Rest in peace.