Mikhail Gorbachev's Legacy

December 26, 1991

Revolutions tend to devour their children. Mikhail S. Gorbachev at least physically survived the incredible chain of events he set in motion after becoming the Kremlin leader in March 1985. He was a daring reformer but still lacked the courage to take the ultimate leaps to make his programs work and to stay in power. As he steps down as president of the now-defunct Soviet Union he leaves a changed world as his legacy.

Mr. Gorbachev was a visionary but his vision failed. He understood his country's deep problems but did not grasp their true cause. A life-long communist, he believed that the &r Communist Party should be the facilitator of a 15-year program to reform the Soviet Union without realizing that the party and its belief in scientific Marxism were the root causes of the country's stagnation. In the end, he was betrayed by his former comrades -- first by an inept clique of conservative bureaucrats who staged a fumbled coup against him and then by men like Boris Yeltsin, former true believers who had seen the light and believed no longer.

Despite his ultimate failure, Mr. Gorbachev will go into the annals as a man whose actions reshaped the world in a way and at a pace that few historical figures have achieved. Future scholars will debate how much of what he did was intended to end as it did. For example, did he really think that the only way to shock the Soviet Union into renewing itself was to set its Eastern European satellites free and reunify Germany? Or did he merely lose control over the course of events?

Mr. Gorbachev's goal internationally was a new world order. Unlike all the previous Soviet leaders, he rejected the Marxist-Leninist tenet of class struggle and its concomitant thesis that capitalism and communism were implacable enemies. This revisionist view ushered the Soviet Union and the United States into a period of unparalleled cooperation. Milestone arms reduction agreements were negotiated, tensions in perennial trouble spots around the world began easing. Mr. Gorbachev earned his Nobel Peace Prize.

As he now recedes into private life, Mr. Gorbachev's ability to influence developments in his homeland seems to have ended, at least for now. Communist hard-liners scorn him as a traitor; the gray mass standing in endless lines berates him as the man who brought a one-time superpower to its knees, begging amid food shortages. History may see him as a tragic figure but also as a giant.

Like so many Russian rulers before him, Mr. Gorbachev seemed to think that things are practically done if enough resolutions are passed. Ideas abound, but nobody carries them out. This no longer is Mr. Gorbachev's predicament but the burden of the new men who succeed him. To America, he was a skilled adversary who became a trusted partner. He will be missed -- and so will the simpler times that existed under him.

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