Gorbachev played a unique role in world history

Former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin on December 21, 2004. Gorbachev, who changed the course of history by triggering the demise of the Soviet Union and was one of the great figures of the 20th century, died in Moscow on Tuesday, at the age of 91. Picture: AFP

Former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin on December 21, 2004. Gorbachev, who changed the course of history by triggering the demise of the Soviet Union and was one of the great figures of the 20th century, died in Moscow on Tuesday, at the age of 91. Picture: AFP

Published Sep 3, 2022


By Natan Sharansky

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at 91, was the last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a post he held for only a few short years, from 1985 to 1991.

During his final speech, he expressed regret that the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) had fallen apart, but also emphasised his personal achievements, including the promotion of political and religious freedom, the introduction of democracy and a market economy, and, of course, the end of the Cold War.

All politicians boast of their achievements when they conclude their terms in office. In this case, however, what Gorbachev said was not a boast, but rather an understatement. Just a few years earlier, the Soviet Union had been one of history’s most frightening dictatorships, sending its troops far and wide, ruling over roughly a third of the globe, and controlling hundreds of millions of its own citizens through intimidation.

And while Soviet dissidents (I was among them) told the world that the regime was internally weak, our predictions of its downfall were dismissed as wishful thinking by Western experts mesmerised by the USSR’s seemingly unshakable power.

Yet the regime did fall – and it did so without the firing of a single shot. In the eyes of the West, this outcome was the direct result of the decisions of one person: Gorbachev. It isn’t surprising that he was revered in the free world and was honoured with the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, or that terms he introduced to the political lexicon – glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) – helped define the era.

What is perhaps surprising: Gorbachev never achieved that sort of admiration at home. In a 2017 poll, only 8% of Russian citizens saw him in a positive light; the overwhelming majority view was negative.

Natan Sharansky gestures as he arrives at Ben Gurion Airport flanked by Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Yitzhak Shamir, left, on February 11, 1986. The Jewish dissident was released in Berlin by then Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev in an east-west spy swap. Picture: AFP

The obvious reason for this is that many Russians regard the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, in which their nation lost its status as a fearsome world power. Today, President Vladimir Putin explicitly represents that sentiment.

Meanwhile, we dissidents and others in the intelligentsia – those who did not believe in the regime, who wanted change, and who had even fought for decades for the very reforms Gorbachev introduced – held a rather more complicated view of the last Soviet leader.

For one, he was a true believer in the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and the original intention behind his pioneering reforms was to rebrand communism with a more human face. Moreover, the moment it became clear that the people’s desire for a greater freedom could ultimately topple the regime, he did his best to restrain the forces he had unleashed.

During his first trips to the West, before he became leader of the Politburo, Gorbachev discovered that the Soviet Union had paid a heavy diplomatic and economic price for its treatment of dissidents.

As a result, within the first year of ascending to power, he began to release political prisoners and long-time refuseniks (Jews fighting for their right to emigrate to Israel). When it soon became clear, however, that such a policy could lead to mass emigration, new restrictions were introduced.

It was only after 250 000 demonstrators convened in Washington in 1987 to support Soviet Jews, greeting Gorbachev during his first visit as Russia’s leader with chants of “Let Our People Go!,” that the Iron Curtain began to come down. Freer emigration from the USSR quickly led to demands by religious and national groups for self-determination.

This, too, Gorbachev resisted, sending troops to Georgia, Lithuania and elsewhere, killing dozens of demonstrators in the process. The dissident Andrei Sakharov, whom Gorbachev released in late 1986 and who initially appeared to be the leader’s natural ally, spent the last years of his life actively fighting against Gorbachev’s attempts to save the single-party system and to avoid competition in Soviet elections.

Shortly before Sakharov died in 1989, he called me in Israel to say that he could not visit as he had planned, since he would not permit himself to leave Moscow for even a single day and potentially miss an opportunity to block Gorbachev’s bid for unrivalled power.

I was the first political prisoner to be released by Gorbachev, in early 1986, and upon liberation, I was immediately asked whether I wanted to thank him for my freedom. I replied that I was grateful to all those who fought for my release, including fellow Jews and foreign leaders, because I understood that without their fight, it would not have happened.

At that time, I deliberately avoided thanking Gorbachev because, with so many of my fellow dissidents still in prison and emigration still not permitted, I felt it would be irresponsible and even disloyal to give him credit.

A decade after the fall of the USSR, circumstances had changed. Participating with Gorbachev at a conference in Poland, I was asked about the forces leading to the regime’s demise. In my response, I discussed three factors: Sakharov and other dissidents who fought valiantly to keep the spark of freedom alive; Western politicians such as senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, D-Washington, former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who had understood the nature of the regime and were ready to link relations with Moscow to the latter’s respect for human rights; and finally, Gorbachev, who perceived the direction of history and responded accordingly.

Immediately after finishing my talk, I approached Gorbachev to thank him for releasing me. I was surprised to discover that he was almost offended by my remarks, saying, “I released you against all advice to the contrary, and you listed me in only the third place?”

While I sympathised with his reaction, at that time I felt it was more important to amplify the voices of dissidents – particularly those in Asia and the Middle East, whose plight was so frequently ignored by the West – than to emphasise his role in the transition.

Yet if we look at the 20th century not through the lens of political struggles, but rather from the bird’s eye perspective of history, we see how utterly unique Gorbachev was. In nearly every dictatorship there are dissidents, and from time to time there are also Western leaders willing to risk their political fates to promote human rights abroad.

But Gorbachev was a product of the Soviet regime, a member of its ruling elite who believed its ideology and enjoyed its privileges – yet decided to destroy it nevertheless. For that, the world can be grateful. Thank you, Mikhail Gorbachev.

* Sharansky is a human rights activist, former political prisoner in the Soviet Union and chairman of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy

* * Sharansky’s article was first published in The Washington Post.