Gorbachev's Lost Legacy

By Cohen, Stephen F. | The Nation, March 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

Gorbachev's Lost Legacy


Cohen, Stephen F., The Nation


The most important event of the late twentieth century began twenty years ago this month. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and within a few weeks the full-scale reformation he attempted to carry out both inside his country and in its cold war relations with the West, particularly the United States, began to unfold. Perestroika, as Gorbachev called his reforms, officially ended with the Soviet Union and his leadership in December 1991. The historic opportunities for a better future it offered Russia and the world have been steadily zundermined ever since.

The essential meaning of perestroika for Gorbachev and his supporters was creating and acting on alternatives to failed and dangerous policies at home and abroad. Inside the Soviet Union, it meant replacing the Communist Party's repressive political monopoly with multiparty politics based on democratic elections and an end of censorship (glasnost) and replacing the state's crushing economic monopoly with market relations based on different forms of ownership, including private property. Both of those liberating reforms, which were directed at czarist and Soviet authoritarian traditions, were well under way by the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union had already ceased to be a Communist or, as it was often characterized, "totalitarian" system.

In Soviet-American relations, Gorbachev's reforms meant ending the forty-year cold war and its attendant arms race, which had imperiled both countries and the world with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Here, too, having found willing partners first in President Ronald Reagan and then President George H.W. Bush, Gorbachev's initiatives were remarkably successful well before he left the historical stage. By mid-1988, standing on Red Square no less, Reagan had declared that the Soviet Union was no longer an "evil empire," and in December 1989, at a summit meeting in Malta, Bush and Gorbachev announced that the cold war was over. Treaties providing for major arms reductions were signed, and even more far-reaching ones were being negotiated.

Both at home and abroad, therefore, Gorbachev's policies bore historic fruit while the Soviet Union still existed, so there was no reason for them to end with that state. But they did. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev's successor, abruptly jettisoned his predecessor's evolutionary approach for the old Russian tradition of imposing unpopular changes on the nation from above--first the abolition of the Soviet Union itself, then the economic measures known as "shock therapy." Not surprisingly, those acts led to more undemocratic ones in the 1990s, enthusiastically supported, it should be recalled, by the Clinton Administration and most US media and academic Russia-watchers--Yeltsin's armed dissolution of an elected parliament, oligarchical privatization, the Chechen war, increasingly corrupted mass media and rigged elections. …

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