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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Gorbachev's legacy and Putin's war

    This appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “I like Mr. Gorbachev," British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1984. "We can do business together."

    Many Westerners shared the sentiment, including, most consequentially, Thatcher's iron-willed contemporary, former President Ronald Reagan. Along with his vice president and eventual successor, George H.W. Bush, Reagan did business with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on arms control and other issues that cooled, and eventually ended, the Cold War.

    That Western success was seen differently by many Soviet citizens then and Russian citizens today. Many, maybe even most, revile Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday in Moscow at age 91, despite his actions that ultimately freed them from decades of Communist dictatorship when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

    That dissolution wasn't Gorbachev's plan or desire. He was a believer, albeit a realist, about the Soviet Union and thus sought to reform, not end, the U.S.S.R. But the forces unleashed through his policies of perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness) revealed the rot, and contradictions, of the Soviet state, which led to its inevitable and welcome collapse.

    While his stature at home is diminished, his place in history is secure.

    Gorbachev "was enormously consequential — although not uncontroversial, particularly in his own country," Mitchel Wallerstein, a nonresident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told an editorial writer. Wallerstein, a former Department of Defense official, added that Gorbachev's ascension after generations of sclerotic Soviet leadership created a diplomatic aperture for Thatcher and Reagan. "When this younger, much more vital man succeeded to the (leadership) of the Soviet Union, then they began to engage with him and found him to be open to a variety of ideas that had been completely sacrosanct."

    Chief among them was arms control, in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. for the first time eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons and saw the beginning of the withdrawal of most of Moscow's tactical nuclear weapons from Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe.

    In the energizing era of sweeping postwar change, Gorbachev "was the most pivotal figure," Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told an editorial writer.

    Tragically, for those in Kyiv and other war-torn cities across Ukraine, the current Kremlin leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is no Gorbachev. Embittered by the breakup of the U.S.S.R. (the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, he's claimed), Putin seems intent on undoing Gorbachev's legacy with his illegal, immoral invasion of Ukraine and relentless repression at home. Indeed, had Putin been Soviet leader instead of Gorbachev, the Cold War may have ended up hot, with nearly unimaginable consequences.

    Gorbachev "was very, very sensitive to the nuclear threat," Hanson said. "And actually, he was a man of his era, because back then, both the U.S. leadership and the leadership of the U.S.S.R. were very conscious of the danger of inching toward any kind of nuclear confrontation. And that was the thinking that brought about all the arms control agreements. It also brought about the constant close communication between the two governments" — resulting in, Hanson concluded, an "unquestionably" better relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Gorbachev years than the U.S.-Russia relationship during the current Putin era.

    The Soviet Union's last leader was just that — a leader. He also was a committed Soviet who tried to reform, but not reject, a brutal, totalitarian state. While he was worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1990 "for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations," he was not nearly as heroic as dissidents defying the system like Andrei Sakharov, who was named the 1975 laureate "for his struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, for disarmament and cooperation between all nations." (Notably, Gorbachev freed Sakharov from detention in 1986). Nonetheless, Gorbachev was a man the West could do business with.

    Gorbachev himself perhaps summed up his legacy best when he told The New York Times in his final days in office: "For all the mistakes, miscalculations — or on the contrary, all the great leaps — we accomplished the main preparatory political and human work."

    Then, in words Putin should hear and heed, he added: "In this sense, it will never be possible to turn society back."

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