A fervent believer in a more humane version of communism, he thought the policies of glasnost and perestroika that he introduced in the late 1980s would revitalize the stagnating Soviet system. Under his leadership, Gorbachev imagined that the U.S.S.R. would once again inspire admirers, both at home and abroad.
In fact, the revolution he started soon swept him away.
Gorbachev was an accidental democrat
In falling victim to forces he unleashed, Gorbachev was hardly unique. I recently studied more than 300 instances of democratization that occurred between 1800 and 2015. Conventional wisdom suggests that such political changes are the result of deliberate choices by incumbent leaders.
In fact, I found that most were triggered by the incumbents’ mistakes. In only about one-third of the episodes that I examined did an authoritarian leader intend to share or give up power in the way that ultimately occurred. At least two-thirds of the time, democracy emerged because of the dictator’s misperceptions and miscalculations.
Autocrats make a variety of fatal errors. Some leaders, such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, call plebiscites or elections and lose, empowering their opponents and splitting supporters. Others, such as Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina, start wars expecting victory, only to be weakened by military defeat.
Gorbachev’s mistake was sliding down the “slippery slope.” That’s when leaders make concessions or launch reforms thinking they can later rein them in. But they lose control as their early steps reconfigure the political arena in unexpected ways.
Besides Gorbachev, other sliders include Poland’s Communists, who thought they could defang the country’s opposition movement, Solidarity, with minor compromises. And in Mexico, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party assumed it would continue to triumph at the polls even with an independent electoral administration.
Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet system — by mistake
Gorbachev’s glasnost was initially meant to be limited. The word often translates as “openness,” but it also has connotations of “publicity.” A more open media was supposed to boost Gorbachev’s reformers in power. But journalists rewrote the rules, claiming unlimited freedom of expression and the press.
Perestroika — economic restructuring — wasn’t intended to spawn free markets but rather to rebuild the planned economy. Instead, reforms destroyed it. In allowing the non-Russian republics some autonomy, Gorbachev was aiming for a more balanced federalism. But, starting too late and moving inconsistently, he ended up undermining the Soviet Union.
To many in his party, Gorbachev did not just make mistakes — he was a mistake. He had fooled the old Politburo into thinking he would defend the regime, only to turn against it. Like Adolfo Suárez in Spain after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, Gorbachev tore apart the system that had promoted him — from the inside.
Gorbachev was a ‘hero of retreat’
Can we consider someone great if his career consisted of a series of failures? Gorbachev’s true greatness was in how he reacted to defeats. He became what the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger dubbed a “hero of retreat.”
“Any cretin can throw a bomb,” Enzensberger argued. “It is 1,000 times more difficult to defuse one.” Gorbachev was the world’s most successful “historical demolition man,” even if he did not realize until too late that wrecking was his true vocation.
Why didn’t Gorbachev resort to force to restore his control? In part, he had genuine moral qualms and a distaste for violence. “They say we need to thump our fists,” he told aides at one point, clenching his hand to illustrate. “Generally speaking, we could do that. But I don’t feel like it.”
Gorbachev did share responsibility when, on his watch, Soviet troops killed 19 unarmed civilians in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1989 and 17 more in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991. The details remain murky. And in November 1991, he seemed to have considered tougher measures, at least according to Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the Soviet defense minister at the time.
Shaposhnikov wrote later that Gorbachev called him into his Kremlin office and said, “You, the military, take power into your hands, install a government that suits you, stabilize the situation and then step aside.” When the defense minister responded sharply, Gorbachev claimed to have been merely “thinking out loud.” By the time of the Belavezha Accords that formally ended the U.S.S.R. in early December 1991, Gorbachev clearly saw that force would not work.
Over time, Gorbachev became more democratic, acclimatizing to the boisterous public politics that broke out in the early 1990s. He even humbled himself to run for election in 1996, against his wife Raisa’s pleading. This campaign — which netted him 0.5 percent of the vote — looks almost like a deliberate penance.
Gorbachev’s embrace of nuclear disarmament was no mistake. He deftly harnessed President Ronald Reagan’s utopianism to push the world toward an ambitious rethinking of international security. Previous Soviet leaders had sought only to win the competition with the West. Gorbachev sought to end it.
If not a mistake, this initiative certainly ended up a disappointment. The West matched Gorbachev in reducing its nuclear arsenal. But there was little evidence to suggest a rethinking of security. After his military bloc — and country — disintegrated, Gorbachev saw NATO expand eastward. The advocate of a new “common European home” ended up outside it.
From Gorbachev to Putin … and back again?
The decade after 1989 was the most democratic that Russia has ever seen — and remarkably peaceful, given the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Since then, the pendulum has swung the other way.
Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan; Vladimir Putin sent tanks into Ukraine. Gorbachev ended one cold war with the West; Putin started a new one. Gorbachev let his citizens speak freely; Putin is jailing Russians for social media posts. Gorbachev introduced the first competition into Soviet elections; Putin has turned Russia’s ballots into a farce.
As Brezhnev-style economic stagnation returns, there’s a familiar sense in Russia of a society that has outgrown an archaic political system. Russia’s current president seems ever more determined to cling to power, come what may. Will a new Gorbachev emerge from inside Putin’s regime to demolish it? Only time will tell.
Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at UCLA and a co-author of “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century” (Princeton University Press, 2022).