Mikhail, we hardly knew ye.
And the ones who may have known, or understood, Mikhail Gorbachev the least were his superpower rivals, the Americans who to the day the former Soviet leader died Tuesday at the age of 91 were bewildered about why he was reviled rather than revered in his home country.
The disconnect is as revelatory of Americans’ perceptions of the world as it is of Russians’ perceptions of their country and Russians’ view of the arc of their nation’s history, the role it played in global politics and the great truths of a vast nation that under czar, commissar – or modern-day commander-in-chief, prosecuting an invasion of Ukraine – has retained its essential character.
At turns a great success (in identifying the fundamental flaws of Soviet economic and social life) and a great failure (in his inability to translate his reformist notions into real transformations), Mr. Gorbachev ended his life a prophet without honour in his own country. This astonished Americans, who believed – or, more likely, who desperately wanted to believe – that Mr. Gorbachev was a Russian version of Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, one a reformer determined to file away the rough edges of the economy and culture, the other an imaginative magus with an instinct for maneuvering past political obstacles to salvage a country in crisis.
“Americans oversimplify him and his goals and his methods and didn’t understand what he was really up against,” said William Taubman, the Amherst College historian whose 2017 biography is regarded as the definitive examination of the life and times of Mr. Gorbachev. “He was a very complicated man trying to take on a gargantuan challenge. He might have been doomed from the start. He made a magnificent attempt. He accomplished a lot, at least for a while, and then he failed. A lot of people blamed him for that.”
At the heart of that oversimplification was excessive expectation.
Earlier Soviet leaders – Vladimir Lenin (roughly 1917-24), Joseph Stalin (1924-53), Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64) – were as forbidding as they were formidable. Whether declaring capitalism corrupt, purging and killing millions, or menacingly brandishing a shoe at the United Nations, they were frightening figures. Their successors – Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82), Yuri Andropov (1982-84), Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85) – were superannuated figures clinging to power. Mr. Gorbachev was different.
He was 54 years old when he ascended the greasy pole of Soviet politics. He had an easy way, especially in his travels abroad. He won the confidence of Ronald Reagan, perhaps the greatest opponent of Soviet Communism to inhabit the White House. Later he and George H. W. Bush developed a strong relationship, so much so that Mr. Gorbachev went to the 41st president’s 80th birthday and repaired with his friend to an anteroom in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, where the two downed celebratory vodka shots together with such ardour that Mr. Bush’s son, president George W. Bush, dispatched an aide to break up the festivities so the evening could proceed. His trips to Washington, Minneapolis and San Francisco took on the air of a travelling salvation show, with rapturous crowds greeting the man who might otherwise have been considered the country’s mortal enemy.
Mr. Gorbachev charmed British prime minister Margaret Thatcher but, perhaps more significant, he understood the art of the bromance. Mr. Reagan fell hard.
“Reagan understood Gorbachev very well,” said Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter. “All of us went into the Oval Office one day and heard the president tell us to go easy on Gorbachev, saying we need to give this man something of a chance. It was clear the president wanted us to back off rhetorically, because he thought Gorbachev was a different kind of leader and wanted to get out of Afghanistan. No one in the State Department or White House thought that. But Reagan did.”
Then came Mr. Reagan’s 1987 trip to Berlin. Mr. Robinson’s draft of the speech at the Brandenburg Gate contained a frontal challenge to Mr. Gorbachev:
“General secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Secretary of state George Shultz was horrified. Senior staff members of the National Security Council were appalled. Repeatedly they conspired to remove this passage; it was too raw, too provocative, too likely to injure the superpower relationship. Mr. Robinson persisted, and eventually asked the president himself whether to include the remark. Mr. Reagan agreed, with enthusiasm.
“The person who had spent the most time with Mikhail Gorbachev was Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Robinson said. “He was not only the president with the statutory power to decide what would go in the speech but he was also the man with the best judgment of what should go into the speech.”
Later, Mr. Gorbachev met Mr. Robinson and, warmly, greeted him as the “dramaturg” of the episode.
But overall, the West made a serious miscalculation with Mr. Gorbachev, who had provided indispensable support for the 1991 Gulf War that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“The security community never really understood why Gorbachev was trying to dismantle the communist system,” said Jeremy Kinsman, who took his position as Canada’s ambassador to Moscow shortly after Mr. Gorbachev departed office. “They thought it was because the Soviet Union could not compete with the United States economically. It wasn’t that. It was more for moral reasons.
“Gorbachev believed that the country suffered from PTSD, a burden that after the reigns of terror and totalitarianism had become more than the country’s collective spirit could handle, and that a transformation couldn’t occur unless that was removed.”
In the end, Mr. Gorbachev couldn’t manage that transformation. And his friends in the West failed to understand that, and as a result failed to understand the trajectory that Russia was about to travel in the post-Gorbachev era. Americans and Canadians will mourn the passing of Mr. Gorbachev. But in Russia, the Gorbachev era passed decades ago.
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