opinion | George F. Will: Gorbachev’s reputation rests on the world’s amnesia


Frustrated by the world’s gratitude, Mikhail Gorbachev became a hero by hastening the liquidation of the political system he had reformed to preserve. He will be remembered as a visionary because he failed to recognize the incurable systemic disease of socialism: he cannot cope with the complexity of scattered information in a developed nation. Like Christopher Columbus accidentally discovering the New World, Gorbachev stumbled to greatness because he misunderstood where he was going.

Two of Gorbachev’s uncles and one aunt died in Joseph Stalin’s planned famine of 1932-1933. The tortures of the Great Terror afflicted both grandfathers. One of them recalled: an interrogator broke his arms, beat him brutally, then wrapped him in a wet sheepskin coat and placed him on a hot stove. In “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” William Taubman, a political scientist emeritus at Amherst College, quotes Gorbachev on his experiences as a boy during World War II when he found the remains of Red Army soldiers: “decomposing corpses, some of animals entwined, skulls in rusted helmets, bones bleached. . . unburied, staring at us from black, gaping eye sockets.”

Perhaps, says Taubman, such experiences explain Gorbachev’s finest facet, his “extraordinary reluctance to use force to hold the Soviet system together. But when Neil Kinnock, then leader of the British Labor Party, raised the case of imprisoned dissident Natan Sharansky with Gorbachev, “Gorbachev responded with a volley of obscenities against ‘shit’ and spies like Sharansky.”

Natan Sharansky: Gorbachev played a complicated but unique role in world history

President Ronald Reagan abandoned the subtleties of detente and turned up the rhetorical and military temperature. In 1983 he described the Soviet Union as a “focal point of evil in the modern world”. With the Strategic Defense Initiative, he launched a high-tech challenge to a Soviet Union where 30 percent of hospitals had no indoor plumbing. Reagan sent lethal aid to those fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. When Gorbachev withdrew from there, Taubman writes, it was “the first time that the Soviet Union withdrew from areas it had ‘liberated’ for communism.”

Taubman, who describes Gorbachev as “a tragic hero worthy of our understanding and admiration,” says the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the government’s botched response to it made the scales of the widespread rot of the Soviet system dizzy from Gorbachev’s eyes. A French official reported that when Gorbachev was late for a Kremlin reception, Gorbachev said: “He was trying to solve an urgent problem in the agricultural sector. I asked when the problem started and he replied with a mischievous smile “1917”. Secretary of State George P. Shultz explained to Gorbachev in 1987 the world shift from the industrial to the information age, and rendered obsolete the basic Marxist distinction between capital and labor because “we have entered a world where the capital that really matters is human capital — which is the People know how freely they share information and knowledge.”

Gorbachev’s lasting legacy may lie in the lessons China’s enduring tyranny sought to learn from his and the Soviet Union’s fall. Political scientist Graham Allison notes that “when Xi Jinping has nightmares, the apparition he sees is Mikhail Gorbachev”. According to Allison, according to Xi, Gorbachev’s three fatal mistakes were: he loosened political control over society before reforming the economy, he allowed the Communist Party to become corrupt, and he “nationalized” the Soviet military by changing commanders allowed to swear allegiance to the nation than to the party and its leader.

Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, dies at the age of 91

In 1988, when the French were about to celebrate and sane people were about to mourn a bicentennial, Gorbachev brazenly lectured the United Nations: “Two great revolutions, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, exercised a strong one Impact on the US by the nature of history.” Two? It was the American Revolution that unleashed the world-shattering passion for freedom based on respect for natural rights. The Soviet Union, hammered together with violence and held together by the iron rings of bureaucracy, never achieved the legitimacy that the United States exemplified – the consensual unification of a culturally diverse population.

The Soviet Union’s fragile shell crumbled as Gorbachev fought to preserve it. His reputation rests on the worldwide amnesia about it: when he was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party, Taubman said, Gorbachev claimed he had reread all 55 volumes of Lenin’s writings and said to a friend: “If you would read Lenin’s arguments with me [the German Marxist Karl] Kautsky, you would understand that they are much more interesting than a novel.” About Lenin, the architect of the first totalitarian system that shed torrents of blood, Gorbachev said: in 2006 — “I trusted him then and I still do.”

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