Gorbachev's Vacuum: His Legacy and Russia's WarsRoundup
tags: Cold War, Communism, Soviet Union, Russian history, Mikhail Gorbachev
MICHAEL KIMMAGE is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America and a Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.
Russian folk culture cherishes the figure of the holy fool. Derived from Orthodox Christianity, the holy fool is out of sync with conventional society. The holy fool speaks the truth, though to others it may sound like nonsense. The holy fool stumbles through life, experiencing successes that are failures and failures that are successes. Holy fools can be prophets. Although everyone else is preoccupied with the world as it is, the holy fool can intuit the world as it might be, and perhaps the world as it will be. Wisdom can initially look like folly, and folly can appear at the outset to be wisdom.
It is possible to see Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who died on August 30, at the age of 91, as a holy fool. He was out of sync with the conventional Soviet society into which he was born, in 1931, precisely because he was so sincerely Soviet—and because he never ceased being sincerely Soviet, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He spoke an important truth about international politics, which is that it should show some concern for humanity and not just for national egotism, a truth that took on particular significance in the nuclear age. And his greatest success, the reform of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, turned out to be his greatest failure, when reform led to peaceful revolutions across the Soviet imperium. Gorbachev reformed the Soviet Union out of existence.
But in another sense, Gorbachev was the opposite of a holy fool, for he was anything but a prophet. In the early 1980s, he did intuit the world as it might be. His utopia featured a Soviet Union with a shining Leninism at its core and a Europe peacefully stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok: liberty, fraternity, and equality finally achieved. But he did not intuit the world as it would be once his reforms ran their course. He did not intuit the fall of the Soviet Union. He did not intuit the piecemeal Europe of the 1990s, half in the European Union and half out, half in NATO and half out. He did not intuit the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was no less Soviet than Gorbachev but who had no investment in Soviet idealism. Putin had an appreciation of Soviet power (and of Russian power) that Gorbachev never shared.
Ultimately, the mystery of Gorbachev rests on a distinction between Gorbachev the man and Gorbachev the statesman. They were two very different people.
In his heyday, Gorbachev could be arrogant. He is a case study of the intellectual in power, with the intellectual’s temptation to follow big ideas—all the way to the point of self-immolation. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s decency was exceptional, and not just for the Soviet system, in which crime and state power seamlessly mingled. Because of his decency, he would accept costs that few other politicians would accept. Gorbachev’s arrogance did not stop him from sacrificing for principle.
This decency would itself come to have world-historical implications.
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