The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger labelled him “the hero of retreat”. But does retreat produce heroes? A lost man haunted by the death of his beloved wife and torn apart by a sense of guilt and anger for the tragic death of his beloved country. This is how Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s first and final president, vividly appears in Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Gorbachev. Heaven. This was also my experience several years ago when I visited Gorbachev in his foundation’s empty offices. This stark, poignant impression of Mikhail Sergeevich, who died last week at 91, will forever stay with me.
I recall two other Gorbachevs. The first I saw on TV in my native Bulgaria in 1985. I was a 20-year-old studying philosophy at Sofia University and Gorbachev had just been elected general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. His arrival to power, not to mention his opening policy gambits, was as surprising as snow in July. The very fact that the Soviet nomenklatura elected somebody who was younger than 70 and able to finish a sentence was a miracle. Even more supernatural was the sense of an opening that he brought – an infectious feeling that something impossible only yesterday was possible today and that even more might happen tomorrow.
He freed us from the psychological abyss that tomorrow is nothing more than the day after today. My entire political maturation took place in the shadow of this Gorbachev phenomenon. He did not free us, but he gave us a chance to taste freedom. He made the world interested to learn Russian and to imagine a different Russia. There are groaning shelves of volumes written by political scientists, dissecting what constitutes open and closed societies. Far less is written about the striking difference between coming of age in a society that is opening its shutters and coming of age in a society, even a relatively open society, in which the air smells of fear and stagnation. This first Gorbachev was not the hero of retreat, he was the angel of opening.
Then comes the second Gorbachev I remember only too well. It was August 1991 and the reactionary anti-Gorbachev coup had just been put down. This time, Gorbachev was defeated alongside it. He had become the man who failed to save socialism but succeeded in destroying his country. He was broken, angry and bitter. You could feel sorry for him, but it was not possible to admire him any more. He was a loser without a cause.
For most westerners, what is difficult to grasp is that the man who destroyed Soviet communism was one of the few genuine Marxists in the Soviet leadership. “I still see Lenin as our god,” Gorbachev confesses in Mansky’s film. It was this devotion to Marxism that explains so much of the last Soviet leader’s time in power. It was his firm belief in the attractiveness of socialism that saved the world from a Soviet version of Tiananmen.
In the late 1980s, Soviet and Chinese elites had stopped seeing the future as an extended struggle to build a communist society. But their views contrasted on the role of the Communist party and the role of violence. Gorbachev traced the downfall of communism to the party’s failure to fulfil the inspiring promises of Marxism and he believed that socialism would morally discredit itself if the army fired on its own people.
Chinese leaders saw the crisis of communism through a different lens. Sceptical of the central tenets of Marxism, they remained impressed by the capacity of the Communist party to exercise power, to organise society around shared long-term aims and to defend the territorial integrity of the state. Gorbachev believed communism had failed because it had not managed to build a socialist society. For the Chinese leadership, communism had succeeded because the party had managed, against formidable odds, to unify the state and society while preserving its monopoly on power.
We shouldn’t be surprised that, according to Deng Xiaoping’s youngest son, Zhifang, Deng thought Gorbachev “an idiot”. Vladimir Putin thinks like Deng and this is why his schedule will not permit him to attend the funeral of the last Soviet leader. In Gorbachev’s view, the west’s liberal order was the best chance for the Soviet Union to survive, especially at that febrile moment when nationalist mobilisation was on the ascent. Gorbachev wanted to join the west and for the west to save his country. This did not happen. He felt betrayed; perhaps by the west, perhaps by people’s natural demands for independence and freedom, perhaps by history itself.
In Mansky’s documentary, Gorbachev ruminates that the next generation of Russians will consider him differently from those today, who have Putin’s visage flickering on TV screens. Is this the self-delusion of a historical loser or the prophetic insight of the “hero of retreat”? A year ago, a Russian colleague, a professor in one of Moscow’s best universities, said he was surprised how differently his students saw the last Soviet leader to their parents’ generation. “They did not blame him for the collapse of the empire,” he told me, “because the Soviet Union was not their country. On the contrary, they admire his courage to go against the system and his decency to step peacefully from power.”
Some of these same students are on the frontlines today. How will their war experience make them remember the last Soviet leader? For them, is the real leader one who starts a war or the one who has the courage to end a meaningless war?
The question that has haunted me since I learned of Gorbachev’s death is whether dictionaries have more use than history books and opinion polls in measuring the significance of political leaders. Gorbachev made us all memorise two Russian words – perestroika and glasnost. Those words are understood without translation in all the major European languages and they are written the same way they are pronounced in Russian. Vladimir Putin is making us learn only one word – siloviki, strongmen.