I once believed Mikhail Gorbachev was the greatest leader of the 20th century.
And he had A-list competition from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela.
I now know I was wrong.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, was the greatest leader I will ever see in my lifetime.
And as time goes on, perhaps the last great leader of the human race.
Never before has humankind lacked leadership so utterly as it does in the tail end of the second decade of the 2000s. It’s hardly controversial to say we have the worst examples of humanity, completely bereft of the most basic leadership skills, undeserving of the term: leader, attempting to navigate a path in a key era which decides if humanity prospers, falls back into the dark ages or simply ceases to be. From imbeciles like Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson, to blind PC-elitists like Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, to criminal gang lords like Vladimir Putin.
And it’s the citizens, through weakness, lack of education and sheer stupidity who have either put them in office, or sat back watching at the sidelines with the interest of bored children while they took power.
Richard Buckminster Fuller once wrote that: “None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.”
As humans become more enamored by triviality, waste countless hours on social media, spend less time reading books, fail to educate themselves on the difference between fact and fiction, and become an even more docile population, easily coerced into voting against their interest, this vacuum in leadership will only increase.
Mikhail Gorbachev was likely the last great leader of mankind… it seems clearer as time goes by.
His achievements are vast:
He ended totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.
Allowed free speech for the first time in seventy years.
Stopped dead nuclear proliferation.
Ended the cold war.
Gorbachev made freedom possible. Full stop.
In the Soviet Union alone he handed freedom to 280 million people. Taking in the whole Eastern Bloc he gave freedom to half a billion. Think about that a moment. He made massive, lasting change to people’s lives on a scale like no other person before or since. He proved a world leader can make a positive difference.
He did so with a strong intellect, and an inclusive leadership style, with politeness, tact, and an affable personality which earned him the nickname Gorby.
Yet his contribution to the world is largely forgotten, and he’s even the subject of scorn throughout the former Soviet Union… even blamed (erroneously) for the demise of the country. Fact check: The dissolution of the Soviet Union was sealed by Boris Yeltsin, and the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus who unilaterally withdrew Russia and the other states from the Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Gorbachev’s failure perhaps lies in giving people too much freedom, too quickly, and this action was repaid by treachery on all sides, and a population who not only failed to cherish what was given to them, forgot to even say thank you.
Modern Russia is little more than a criminal state ruled by a mafia Godfather orderings hits on all who oppose him. A criminal mastermind, a Bond villain, who has taken back the freedoms bequeathed by Gorbachev to his people one by one, kick-started a new cold war/arms race, sliding the Russian people back to where they began over thirty years ago.
When Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev took over the role of General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985 he was fifty-three years old and the fourth leader the country had seen in three years. His two predecessors: the aging Konstantin Chernenko and Yuri Andropov had each died within a year in office. Too old and too ill to govern by the time of their elevation. Chernenko described as: “an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not.” President Ronald Reagan famously quipped: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?”
Their predecessor Leonid Brezhnev had seen his own health declining since 1975, leading to a decade of stagnation which brought the economy close to the brink of collapse. In a time screaming out for hard, quick, decision making, politburo meetings instead took on a vaudeville atmosphere where Brezhnev was shuffled in to sit at the head of the table, read a few lines from prepared notes—which would then be rubber stamped by the entirety of the group. Never any disagreement, no new business… the country spiraled out of control, completely rudderless. For the next ten years.
The task Gorbachev inherited was therefore, mammoth. A vast machinery in which the cogs were wearing thin, jamming, and falling away. To give some perspective, this was the largest country in the world covering 22,402,200 square kilometers, and it was running out of food. The Soviet Union’s food shortage problem had been metastasizing for some time, the result of agricultural underproduction, and years of poor land maintenance, and would plague the country's future. Action was necessitated a decade earlier. Because that didn’t happen, this, like most problems facing the Soviets, posed no easy, short-term solution.
Gorbachev was the youngest leader the Soviet Union had known, and a sea change, inevitable though by no means predictable. Gorbachev was born in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai to a poor peasant family. While studying law at Moscow State University in 1953, he married fellow student Raisa Titarenko. Rising swiftly though the communist party, he was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee in 1970. In 1978 he returned to Moscow to become a Secretary of the party’s Central Committee and in 1979 joined its governing politburo, under the patronage of Andropov, to all intents and purposes a loyal and willing part of the bureaucracy, nothing outwardly suggested revolutionary views.
But a revolution he did unleash, and it was called Perestroika. The movement for the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system and reformation within the communist party (literally meaning restructuring), perestroika was intrinsically linked to glasnost (openness).
Although committed to preserving the Soviet state and the socialist ideals of Lenin, Gorbachev saw the obvious: significant reform was needed.
He withdrew from the Soviet–Afghan War.
Glasnost opened up freedom of speech and a free press.
He decentralized economic decision-making to improve efficiency.
Instigating democratization, he ordered the formation of an elected Congress of People’s Deputies.
When the Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria abandoned Marxist-Leninist government between 1989–91 Gorbachev declined to assist militarily. The new Soviet policy of non-intervention allowed the citizens of eastern European states to procure regime change on their own (mostly peaceful) terms. “What we were able to achieve within the country and in the international arena was of enormous importance,” says Gorbachev. “It predetermined the course of events in ending the cold war, moving toward a new world order and, in spite of everything, producing gradual movement away from a totalitarian state to a democracy.”
This precipitated the Berlin wall to fall, signaling the reunification of East and West Germany.
On the international stage Gorbachev embarked on summits with United States and the west to limit nuclear weapons and nullify the cold war. Not an easy task with seventy-three-year-old Reagan in office. Gorbachev wrote: “Reagan appeared to me not simply a conservative but a dinosaur.”
Bringing a sweeping intellectual change to international politics Gorbachev pressed for disarmament, suggesting a total ban on nuclear weapons (too much for hardliners like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) and found himself stonewalled again and again. “Regan reacted by consulting or reading his notes written on cards. The cards got mixed up and some of them fell on the floor. He started shuffling them looking for the right answer to my arguments, but could not find it.”
Because it was not there. Times had changed and the America president was left standing alone, Stetson gripped in hand, far in the past.
I recall watching TV news as a teenager in New Zealand; after being brought up on a diet of cold war dystopia, it was immediately clear that suddenly it was the west who were dragging their feet while the Soviets took the initiative for peace. It was the American president and western leaders who were the bad guys. The Evil Empire was suddenly not so evil.
Arms reduction occurred, thanks mainly to Gorbachev’s perseverance. For his efforts he was recognized internationally with a Nobel peace prize, but when he requested loans from the west to help the struggling Soviet economy was told in no uncertain terms that his reforms had not gone far enough.
That shortsightedness is never more clear than today. And it should be particularly obvious for the Americans who bemoan Russian election interference, and the Ukrainians who mourn the loss of the Crimea. How much different would the world be, had the Russian economy been kick-started earlier, had Gorbachev remained in power, been able to conclude his work, and select his successor?
This was not to be.
Beset on all sides, by the people using their new found freedom to complain about living standards, that the reform wasn’t going quickly enough, by growing nationalist sentiment in the Baltics, and by hardliners within the Communist party angered by the fast pace and level of reform, Gorbachev walked a wafer thin line.
The crunch came with an attempted coup by communist hardliners in 1991. Gorbachev and his family were placed under house arrest while on holiday at their dacha in Crimea. The coup failed—largely due to Boris Yeltsin, then Russian President, in his one heroic moment, joining barricades around the Russian parliament to stare down the tanks of the plotters with other protestors.
Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow, but his power was largely eroded.
Yeltsin would go on to betray, and humiliate Gorbachev by dissolving the Soviet Union in order to vacate the role of General Secretary and seize power for himself. Yeltsin’s own corruption in office would necessitate Putin.
“I was probably too liberal and democratic as regards Yeltsin,” Gorbachev admits. “I should have sent him as ambassador to Great Britain or maybe a former British colony,”
Gorbachev resigned. The Soviet Union was gone—wiped away by the stroke of a pen against his wishes.
“There were no farewells,” he wrote in his memoirs. “None of the leaders of the CIS telephoned me, on the day of my departure or since. Yeltsin put off his presidential duties to personality supervise my expulsion from the Kremlin. We had initially agreed that I should vacate my Kremlin office by 30th December. However, on the morning of the 27th I received a telephone from the Kremlin reception-room. I was informed that Yeltsin, Khlasbulatov and Burbulis had occupied my office at 8.30am and held a party there emptying a bottle of whiskey… I was told to vacate both the country residence and the presidential apartment within 3 days.”
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is conscious of his place in eternity. “The promise I had made to the people when I started the process of Peristroika was kept: I gave them freedom. This was reflected in many quite specific things: glasnost, freedom of speech, the end of ideological persecution, the right to live anywhere one wanted, the removal of the monopoly on property and power, the creation of the foundations of a genuine parliamentary system, the end of the nightmare threat of nuclear war, and openness to the world.”
“Peristroika did not give the people prosperity, something they expected of me as the head of state, based on an ingrained, traditional feeling of dependence. But I did not promise that. I urged people to use this new-found freedom to create prosperity with their own hands and mind.”
With scant regard for what they had in their hands, the people slowly threw away all the freedoms the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union entrusted upon them. Freedom of speech. A free press. Freedom of assembly. Democracy. Basic law and order. Gone. The sheer stupidity of the former Soviet citizens is unfathomable.
And the leaders of the west? Reagan. Thatcher. Bush. Kohl. Mitterrand. Their foolishness is equally transparent. Had they not treated Gorbachev with suspicion, grandstanding (proclaiming “Tear down this wall” in public, while strangling arms reduction negotiations in private) and instead supported his reforms with an influx of foreign aid… recognizing they had the right man to do business with at the time… would Russia be the utter menace it is on the world stage today?
After leaving office, Mikhail Gorbachev became a vocal critic of Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and campaigned for social democracy in Russia.
In 2021 Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev will turn ninety. His beloved Raisa, of whom he once wrote: “One day we took each other by the hand and went for a walk in the evening. And we walked like that for our whole life,” died in 1999. He spends time with his family, his daughter, his only child, and grandchildren. He still speaks internationally and gives occasional interviews.
Gorbachev never reconciled himself to Yeltsin’s nine years in power which he views as a period of chaos. Nor to Yeltsin’s pact with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to declare the Soviet Union dead in December 1991.
“With Yeltsin, the Soviet Union broke apart, the country was totally mismanaged, the constitution was not respected by the regions of Russia. The army, education and health systems collapsed. People in the west quietly applauded, dancing with and around Yeltsin,” Gorbachev says. “We had ten years after the Cold war to build a new world order and yet we squandered them.”
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev: Will see the likes of him again?