The troubled legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev Despised in his homeland: Gorbachev's presidential bid was soundly rejected by Russian voters who do not share the West's adulation for the Nobel prize winner and father of "glasnost" and "perestroika."

June 23, 1996|By Hal Piper

AND IN SEVENTH place, with half a percent of the vote . . . Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

Seventh place? Half a percent?

Six years ago Gorbachev was master of the world's second superpower and of a nuclear arsenal capable of ending human life on the planet. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and was Time magazine's Man of the Decade. And now 199 out of every 200 voters want someone else for president. Gorbachev has become an Unperson -- just like all those people who were written out of history by Stalin's purges. At the Army Language School in California many years ago, new encyclopedia pages were sent from Moscow, containing an expanded article on the Bering Sea and instructions to tear out the page containing the biography of the newly disgraced secret-police chief Lavrenty P. Beria.

And now poor Gorbachev is being written out of history without even the formality of a revised encyclopedia entry. What a ridiculous outcome for the man who transformed his country and the world.

Have we forgotten that Gorbachev delivered us from the Cold War? Sure, give George F. Kennan ("containment strategy") credit. Give Ronald Reagan ("Evil Empire") credit. They won the Cold War, too, and so did a lot of people in between, including European statesmen, notably those of Britain and West Germany.

What was finally necessary was for a Soviet leader to recognize that the status quo would not hold, and to negotiate for a safe way out. That was what Mikhail Gorbachev did.

We were suspicious, of course -- but not only us. Gorbachev's own Politburo was far more suspicious than we were. The stakes were higher in Moscow. If Gorbachev was a smooth-talking deceiver, it didn't matter so much to us, for we were already mobilized for Cold War. On the other hand, if he did mean what he said, it was the end of the Soviet Union.

And so it proved to be. Don't listen to those silly, well-intentioned Americans who say nobody won the Cold War. Our national life has hardly changed since Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The Soviet world has turned upside-down. In fact, there is no Soviet world any longer. And that, of course, is why Mikhail Gorbachev is an Unperson today in his homeland.

Nothing in Gorbachev's background would have suggested that he would be a reformer. Indeed, if there had been a hint of unorthodoxy in his resume in those stagnant Brezhnev days, he would never have been raised to the Soviet Politburo in 1978.

He was a curiosity, a stripling of 47 in a gerontocracy of septuagenarians. He was saddled with the make-or-break agriculture portfolio. We foreign correspondents in Moscow at the time figured that he must be either an incandescent genius or a sacrificial lamb. Collectivized agriculture was a huge embarrassment to scientific socialism and the reliable terminator of political careers.

It took seven years for Leonid I. Brezhnev and the other septuagenarians to die off before Gorbachev came to power. That was in March 1985. By December 1991, he was gone. Yet how much happened in six years!

The Cold War ended. We no longer fear nuclear war. We no longer scuffle in the Third World for influence, propping up corrupt dictators as bulwarks against opposing superpowers.

"Glasnost" -- frankness -- gave Soviet people permission to tell the truth. Americans, accustomed to saying any damn-fool thing that pops into their heads, cannot appreciate what this meant in Russia after 70 years of Communist repression. Conversation became free. History became open to inquiry instead of a political bludgeon. Honest artistic criticism became possible. Failure could be admitted and analyzed.

And if failure could be admitted and analyzed, then alternatives might be tried. "Perestroika" meant the rebuilding, or restructuring, of the Soviet system. Experience now became as important as ideological theory. If nobody wanted to buy some product, it could be discontinued instead of treated as an element of price stability.

Finally, the Soviet Union went out of business. It had been a mighty empire. Now its vassal states -- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria -- gained the freedom to go their own ways. The captive nations -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and the various Caucasian and Central Asian territories -- gained self-determination.

Gorbachev's achievement was not what he planned. He intended a thorough-going reform that would strengthen the Soviet Union, not destroy it. Perhaps it was mere inadvertence that created a safer world and a reformed Russia, that promoted political honesty and banished fear. Whatever, we'll take it. Our longings were satisfied. Of course we respect Gorbachev.

But his own people don't. To them, Gorbachev upset Soviet stability and stripped them of their self-respect. And if he did it by inadvertence, well, even worse.

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