Mikhail Gorbachev, the last constitutional leader of the Soviet Union, died Tuesday night at the age of 91. He was certainly the only one, and the last, to attempt a last-ditch effort to reform that system, but with an openness that shook up the West due to the scope of his proposals and initiative, so much so that, incredibly, he seemed to make fans out of the Western leaders. When Gorbachev appeared on the scene, il manifesto saw it precisely as the can’t-miss opportunity for the reform of real socialism.
At the same time, in those days in the mid-1980s, the satirical imagery of our own Stefano Benni was also turned on Gorbachev in our pages, jokingly proposing an explanation for the large purplish spot that the new CPSU secretary had on his forehead: that it was “a Coca Cola birthmark.” It wasn’t.
In reality, Gorbachev, who had been supported for secretary in 1985 by Andropov and the CPSU apparatus, was a reform-minded communist who still wanted to save the idea of socialist transformation but combining it with advanced democracy; he wanted glasnost and perestroika, a breath of truth, openness, freedom and transparency, to change from within a regime of closure, omertà and privileged party members. He pursued that by immediately attacking the political and institutional superstructure — Deng’s China did the opposite, with adherence to capitalism but directed by a hyper-centralized and immovable Party.
The new secretary of the CPSU began in 1986, immediately questioning the role of the Party and the very figure of the secretary, who was no longer supposed to play a central role in society. It was almost as a continuation of the Prague Spring wanted by Dubcek in 1968 — whom Gorbachev in fact rehabilitated — and repressed by Warsaw Pact tanks. Gorbachev proposed for this task a “Congress of People’s Deputies,” a body with a new model of representation of Soviet civil society, bringing back, together with the issue of human rights, a critical historical memory (during the years of the birth of Memorial) that was substantially anti-Stalinist (Bukharin was also rehabilitated).
On the international front, he initiated the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, from the disastrous adventure sought by Brezhnev in 1979 that ended 10 years later in 1989, and ended the Brezhnev doctrine of armed USSR interference in the satellite countries. Military blocs in Europe persisted: there was still the Warsaw Pact – which would only end in 1995 – and the Atlantic Alliance, which is still around; here, Gorbachev advanced the proposal of a “Common European home from the Atlantic to the Urals,” in a perspective of peace, disarmament and integration of peoples and systems. He offered a glimpse of the prospect of the reunification of Germany, an arduous and difficult task for a country ravaged by Nazi fury in World War II, knowing that the Berlin Wall could not last, and indeed collapsed in 1989. However, he proposed this with the reassurance from the US and NATO that the latter would never expand to the east; later, in 2014-2015, he would harshly criticize NATO on account of the Ukraine crisis, after the one in Georgia. He also negotiated seriously with US President Ronald Reagan on the possibility of the total elimination of strategic nuclear weapons.
In hindsight, so many detractors of his policies, both domestic and foreign, are now declaring that this mammoth transformation proposed by Gorbachev was a sanctimonious illusion, because it failed. Of course Gorbachev failed, abandoned by everyone. The USSR, with the onset of the decentralization of power, plunged into the abyss of new nationalisms, opposed to one another, and the Pandora’s box of the assault on the assets of the collective and socialist property of the Soviet state was opened. It goes without saying that the party managers of this vast property got their hands full: thus the oligarchs were born, accompanied by the suffering and deprivation of the former Soviet society.
Gorbachev was deposed in August 1991 by a reckless failed coup by the regime’s hardliners; even worse, he was “saved” by his worst enemy, Boris Yeltsin. It was the beginning of the end for the USSR and Gorbachev; in late 1991, the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.
Yeltsin revived the always-lurking nationalist centrality of Russia within the dying Soviet Union, along with his own. It was a farcical process of replacement, strongly sponsored by the West (Yeltsin was shamelessly financed by the US, led by Bush Sr., in the 1996 elections) – which would lead Yeltsin in 1993 to bomb the Russian Parliament that Gorbachev had wanted, and, in the late 1990s, to anoint the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the presidency and leadership of the country.
It was certainly a failure. But above all, it was a missed opportunity, not only for the Soviet Union, but for the whole world, starting with Europe. Because if we look closely at the miserable present we are living in, dark, with no glimmer of a future perspective and opportunities, with the return of too many wars in the world, the Cold War itself and armed conflicts in the heart of Europe, the tragedy in Ukraine, Putin’s “big Russia” imperialistic aggression, the downfall of Europe left without a purpose, leadership and foreign policy, the provocative and explosive enlargement of NATO to the east after admitting all the former Warsaw Pact countries – looking at this devastation, this “end of history,” how much better would it have been for Gorbachev’s “delusional” but “visionary” moment to have won and become reality?
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