Introduction

By Hahn, Gordon M. | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Hahn, Gordon M., Demokratizatsiya


Max Weber wrote that to be allowed to put "his hand on the wheel of history," one should possess three essential qualities: "passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion." (1) Twenty years ago on March 10, 1985, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, a politician who was willing to risk putting his hand on the wheel of history, assumed power over one of the two great superpowers as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This issue of Demokratizatsiya pays tribute to that event, which many at the time failed to see as a watershed. Some denied that Gorbachev's rise to power could make him a reformer. Even as he carried out reforms, some asserted that his moves were part of an elaborate KGB-inspired ruse to lower the West's guard. Others, mostly in the USSR and among Western leftist and academic circles, saw Gorbachev as the savior of socialism--a reformer who would put a human face, even soul, to Soviet-style communism. (2) Indeed, Gorbachev would frustrate all such predictions and expectations, but also show that he had a passion for his reform cause, a feeling for responsibility for his country and the world, and a sense of proportion. Few suspected that his arrival to power would bring radical reforms, democratization, and ultimately, albeit unwittingly, bury socialism and bring an end to the Soviet Union and cold war.

Gorbachev undertook the unlikely cause of reforming the USSR with a passion, persisting as both the costs and risks escalated. Indeed, Western scholars still argue about whether the Soviet system was reformable at all, with many asserting that any substantive reform would destabilize the system. Gorbachev also set out to ease the strains of the cold war, which had become increasingly burdensome for his country and the world. Although there was surely some political opportunism here, particularly at the outset, it appears that Gorbachev increasingly felt a great responsibility and appreciation for what he was undertaking with his American counterpart, the late Ronald Reagan. Their work heralded the peaceful end of communism in Eastern Europe and end of the cold war, the greatest military and political standoff and global crisis in world history. Per estroika's destabilization of the once tightly integrated totalitarian Soviet system--which was embodied by the August 1991 failed coup attempt and the ensuing systemic collapse--testify to the amount of reform that Gorbachev achieved. The Soviet demise occurring accidentally and yet peacefully, without the end of history (in its apocalyptic and not liberalist sense), seemed implausible. This was largely the result of Gorbachev's new style of leadership. His sense of proportion and political moderation rendered him morally incapable of using imprudent coercion, but he was determined enough to moderate the Soviet political system that he rendered it institutionally incapable of mustering the force and will needed to save its power, not just in faraway Berlin, Prague, or Budapest, but also in Riga, Kiev, and ultimately, in Moscow itself. Ironically, the August coup's failure brought the demise of the Soviet state and Gorbachev's resignation from power on Christmas Eve, 1991. Here Gorbachev's sense of responsibility and proportion properly overwhelmed his passion for perestroika. To be sure, Gorbachev had his faults. He had become vain and arrogant after his years in the Kremlin (something which facilitated the August coup), but less so than most others in his position have. In some tight situations, such as the Baltic crises of January 1991, he uncharacteristically eschewed responsibility. Nevertheless, having put his hand on the wheel of history, Gorbachev produced more benefit than harm.

Eight years later, on New Year's Eve, the man most responsible for the events of August 1991 and their aftermath, Boris Yeltsin, was also forced to resign rather unceremoniously, handing over power to his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.

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