Gorbachev's tragedy - a flawed reformer on an impossible mission

By Mark Trevelyan

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In the 1996 presidential election he received less than 0.5% of the vote. That tells you how popular he was at home.

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He attempted political and economic reforms simultaneously and on too ambitious a scale, unleashing forces he could not control.

Key was Gorbachev's good-natured acceptance of crony capitalist investment, leading to the rise of oligarchic forces that were his undoing and the curse of Russia today.

Some Stalinist repression against carpetbagging investors probably would have led to a more prosperous transition to a democratic socialist state at that stage.

Many still blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union - which President Vladimir Putin famously called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century

Transforming a feudal economy in 40 years into a superpower that was the first to reach into space was a notable accomplishment that should not be forgotten in all the eulogies.

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I still can't wrap my head around how unpopular he was at home. Did the ordinary Russian really want to continue living under the old, brutal Soviet regime?

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What destroyed the Soviet Union? It's mystery in my mind.

The decades-long war (hot and cold) was likely the the decisive factor to bring the Soviet Union down. But it was a surprise for me. The Soviet Union had endured so much.

The U.S. and 13 other nations invaded the young Soviet Union. It is a miracle that the Soviet Union survived that at a time of poverty and illiteracy that was Russia's lot after years of Czarist sloth and the ravages of the First World War. Russia was 80% illiterate when the Soviet Union was born. Then came WWII, or the Great Battle for the Fatherland. The Soviet Union lost more people than any other nation. Still the Soviet Union survived. Yet the Soviet Union was at a high point in the 1950s.

What suddenly happened? Afghanistan? Likely. Or was it the sloth and incompetence that I saw throughout the Soviet Union.

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Another thought. Democracy (in the Shakespearian sense) was thrust upon the the Soviet Union. The country was simply not ready for it--structurally and mentally. It made them easily to be fooled.

Then remember that Gorbachev was removed from power by a coup. Not an auspicious birth of democracy.

In the end Russia was fooled by Putin. He gave the Russians Western consumer goods. While the Russians were enjoying their McDonalds and Nikons Putin took away their human rights and made himself a kind of Czar.

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I still can't wrap my head around how unpopular he was at home. Did the ordinary Russian really want to continue living under the old, brutal Soviet regime?

I don't think it was just nostalgia for the old days. What followed was a time of utter corruption, state assets were looted and regular supply systems were cut. A lot of people were suddenly in a much worse off state.


Putin took away their human rights and made himself a kind of Czar.

Not quite.... Putin put the Russian economy back on track. The average Russian is much better off than before Putin. That is why his popularity is in the 80% range. The kind of support any western leader can only dream about.

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Did the ordinary Russian really want to continue living under the old, brutal Soviet regime?

The "ordinary" Russian probably wasn't brutalized so much. They had work, housing, and food.

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Gorbachev ironically thought he could give people more freedom, while keeping the coercive Communist Party as the monopolizer of all aspects of political expression. He insisted that, inside the confines of the Party, a measure of "openness" would spread, without damaging the prerogatives of the Party itself. What he failed to see was that it was HIS PARTY that had long been THE stumbling block to all "openness" in the first place! So why even keep it going, many began to wonder?

It should've been obvious that the very first thing people would do with their new freedom is to criticize the party and its many failings. Yeltsin used this masterfully, using Gorby's restrictive "openness" and working against the party from within the party, until he became a bulldozer of Communist Party power by reigniting Russian Nationalism so that Russians demanded that Russian interests should take precedent. "This is a union of Socialist Republics? OK then. And Russia, being the most powerful of all, must have the premier slot, must come first before the rest. Primus inter pares!"

(You can imagine all the other non-Russian republics happily following Yeltsin's lead, claiming that THEY too had to put THEIR republic's/enthnicity's interest before the "party unity", to the point of demanding independence FROM Gorbachev's beloved party)...and STILL Gorbachev clung to power, insisting that his broken, bankrupt Party must come first, that any move towards democracy must provide his party with unfair starting advantages no one else was afforded...until an attempted coup sought to put Gorby's Glasnost genie back in the bottle...and Gorby himself faded into irrelevance, and the USSR ceased to be because nobody wanted or needed it anymore!

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Another thought: Russia did not know how to go about the business of democracy. The Russian never had it, except for a brief historical moment.

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But [fear, repression] turned out to be the actual essential elements of the Soviet system - having removed them, the system unravelled as well."

A lesson China, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela haven’t forgot.

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Putin has distanced himself from Gorbachev. He won't attend the funeral. on Saturday. Only sent a short note to his family.

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Your freedom is worth giving your own life for, because no else will give it too you

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