Editorial Roundup: Gorbachev’s legacy remains uncertain

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev took the helm of the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s knowing the communist state was in decay. He thought he could reform, strengthen and preserve it.

But the rot was too deep. Gorbachev’s themes of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (reform) led to the stunning collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics crumbled into 17 states (with Russia obviously the largest); Moscow’s Eastern European satellite states fled its orbit for that of the West.

The Cold War was over, and with a minimum of bloodshed. In the West, this is viewed as a magnificent accomplishment. In Russia, it is humiliating.

Email newsletter signup

Gorbachev’s death Tuesday came early in the seventh month of the Ukraine war, which is Vladimir Putin’s most vivid and violent move to restore the Soviet empire Gorbachev accidentally dismantled. Gorbachev was not only irrelevant in Russian life in his final decades, he was actively repudiated.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR lent credence to a theory that we were witnessing “the end of history” — meaning not that events would cease to happen, but that Western-style liberal democracy was inevitably ascendant.

That is a harder sell today than it was when Gorbachev left power. Today’s authoritarian figures — be they in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang or Mar-a-Lago — see his story as a cautionary tale, a warning against “softness” in their use of power to serve greed, nationalism and repression.

Gorbachev was no liberal democrat, and his greatest achievement was unintended. But he did not embrace evil as Putin has. We need not mourn him, but we must learn from him. The conflict between authoritarianism and liberalism did not end when Gorbachev left power, and it is indeed growing today, as evidenced by the blood and rubble in Ukraine and the bustling belligerence of Beijing.

The Free Press, Mankato, Sept. 1

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

email author More by Editorial