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Mikhail Gorbachev, Who Helped Save The World, RIP

Hated by Russians and blamed for losing their Evil Empire, the last Soviet leader brought Cold War to close
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Look at that image, from when giants roamed the Earth.

One of the great men of the 20th century has died. From the NYT obituary of Mikhail Gorbachev:

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Few leaders in the 20th century, indeed in any century, have had such a profound effect on their time. In little more than six tumultuous years, Mr. Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world.

At home he promised and delivered greater openness as he set out to restructure his country’s society and faltering economy. It was not his intention to liquidate the Soviet empire, but within five years of coming to power he had presided over the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He ended the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and, in an extraordinary five months in 1989, stood by as the Communist system imploded from the Baltics to the Balkans in countries already weakened by widespread corruption and moribund economies.

I guess I understand why Russians today hate him, at least I understand it in terms of emotional logic. They associate him with the collapse of the Soviet Union from world power to world-historical catastrophe. It was bound to happen, though: a system built on lies and terror could not endure forever. If not under Gorbachev, then under someone. Gorbachev's tragedy was that he really did believe he could reform Communism. The minute people stopped having to be afraid, it fell apart. This was not Mikhail Gorbachev's fault. He was the first Soviet leader to try to live in the real world. If you want to get an insight into why the Soviet Union really fell apart, watch the great HBO drama Chernobyl. Russians today might tell themselves that it's all Gorbachev's fault that Russia went to hell, but that's just cope.

I'll leave it to historians to sort out Gorbachev's legacy as a world leader. Hearing of his death, though, feels oddly personal. I was in high school when he came to power in 1985. He was 53 then -- two years younger than I am now, as difficult as that is for me to believe. It is very hard today to convey to people who didn't live through the Cold War how awful it was. For me, the Cold War became real on the day in 1979 or 1980, when I was twelve or thirteen, riding in a Bronco jeep with my dad across a wet and cold field, driving home from the hunting camp, and it occurred to me that wait a minute, it would take a Soviet ICBM nineteen minutes to reach us in Louisiana ... so that means that we are at any moment potentially nineteen minutes away from total annihilation.

I asked my father about that. He simply said, "Don't think about it." And then I knew. What else was he supposed to say? That was the Cold War, kids.

Gorbachev ended it. As did Reagan. But before Gorbachev, the US had nobody with whom to negotiate. But with Gorbachev, as Margaret Thatcher said, the West had a man "with whom we can do business." Gorbachev was a Communist, yes, but he at least had the virtue of living more in reality than the stolid old sacks of medals, lint, and bile that preceded him. It was he who refused to turn the Red Army onto the enslaved peoples of Eastern and Central Europe, when they sought freedom. In 1989, he told the Warsaw Pact governments that the Soviet Union would not interfere if they decided to dissolve the socialist state. The Guardian's obit points out that though Gorbachev is remembered with respect and gratitude in the West, he is loathed in his own country. But:

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After visiting Gorbachev in hospital on 30 June, the liberal economist Ruslan Grinberg told the armed forces news outlet Zvezda: “He gave us all freedom – but we don’t know what to do with it.”

He was always doomed to be the scapegoat for the failure of an evil dream. I believe history will remember him well -- as will the God in whom he did not believe. For all his sins and failings, had Mikhail Gorbachev not lived, it might have gone far worse for you and me, and the world. May his memory be eternal.

One more thing: this was pretty humiliating for him, I suppose -- I guess he needed the money -- but it demonstrated who won the Cold War in a symbolic way that can't really be captured by dry historical texts:

And to bounce the cultural rubble, here is the last leader of the Soviet Union appearing in an ad for the luxury retailer Louis Vuitton, motoring along the Berlin Wall with a fabulously expensive French bag at his side. That, too, was the Cold War, or at least its aftermath.

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Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
I'm old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. The night Kennedy spoke my mother made a tuna noodle casserole for dinner (1962, after all). She dropped the pot between the oven and the table, shattering it. She burst into tears.
schedule 3 months ago