Gorbachev Became a Hero to the West Through Massive FailureRoundup
tags: Cold War, obituaries, Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev
Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.
Despite what Americans want to believe about the man whom they credit with doing much to end the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev is probably best described as the greatest failure of a leader in Russian history. He is hardly being mourned by most Russians today.
When we evaluate his legacy, we need to do so outside an American context, even if we’re American and we’re glad the Cold War ended.
Born in 1931, in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, near the border with Ukraine, Gorbachev grew up in a poor peasant family. In fact, as a young child, he was caught up in the Stalin-created famine of 1932 and 1933. He survived. Gorbachev’s family were major supporters of the collectivization effort, which his grandfather led in his locality.
Both grandfathers were caught up in the purges, as was anyone who had stuck their head up. Both were imprisoned and tortured, but not killed and eventually released. Gorbachev’s father fought in World War II, was pronounced dead, but was in fact only wounded and then showed up at home after his family thought he was gone.
Gorbachev was an excellent student as well as a Stakhanovite type laborer. His father and he harvested ridiculous amounts of grain and were given medals for the service to the state. His dad received the Order of Lenin for this, the highest civilian award the Soviets had.
Gorbachev went on to college at Moscow State University, where he studied from 1950 to 1955. There, he went into the law, which was an unusual choice for a rising apparatchik. The law was not a highly respected field in the Soviet Union at this time. I can think of darkly humorous reasons why, but don’t want to speculate here.
As an apparatchik with ambition, Gorbachev was closely associated with the Komsomol, the student movement of the Communist Party, the chapter for which he was a leader during his college years.
But he was not overly zealous in the snitching part of the job, which made his fellow students respect him. After he finished with his degree, he quickly moved to be involved with this organization on a professional level. He got himself appointed deputy director of Komsomol’s agitation and propaganda department in the Stavropol region, where he sought to improve the lives of villagers.
Gorbachev became a follower of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms and began to consider Stalin’s extremes a perversion of Leninism. More importantly, he was a master politician for a young guy known for cultivating relationships with older politicians in a way that reminds me of a young Lyndon Johnson, which could mean being a sycophant, yes, while alienating other ambitious young men who didn’t do that.