SocraticGadfly: RIP Mikhail Gorbachev

August 30, 2022

RIP Mikhail Gorbachev

The last leader of the old Soviet Union is dead at 91.

Was he a tragic figure, as Council on Foreign Relations lifer Mary Elise Sarotte talks about in "Not One Inch," a deep book about German reunification and the first round of NATO expansion? Yes, but "more and less" than that. Gorbachev was wedded to the USSR even as it became clear that ethnic and other centrifugal forces had doomed it, which Boris Yeltsin better grasped, even when deep in his cups. That's the less. The "more" is, of course, that he really hoped the USSR could be reformed. But, per Sarotte and others, Poppy Bush wasn't going to pay for that, and at some point, Helmut Kohl stopped paying, too. Even before the Soviet Union imploded, perestroika was also becoming mafiyyatroika, if I may invent a word in Russian. And glasnost was being turned inside out.

As part of the "more and worse," don't forget that wife Raisa, apparently love at first site, was herself a Communist apparatchik.

(Update: Related to that, read this Twitter thread by Kamil Galeev. He argues that Gorbachev in his first couple of years as as much a traditional USSR Communist "demand economy" guy as anybody else, including his mentor Andropov. It was only after oil prices started sagging, and the hits that gave to the Soviet economy, that he switched gears, Galeev argues. It's the source of the oil price graphic below.)

Keep that in mind for a couple of paragraphs down.

(Same update, continued. Many commenters reject Ganeev's take on both Gorby and Andropov, one claiming Andropov was a reformer play-acting a Stalinist. I'm not at all convinced by that claim. I'm not convinced by claims oil wasn't that important. Oil, wheat and heavy metals were all the USSR had, along with bits of gold and diamonds.)

That said, by early this year, Gorbachev so hated Vladimir Putin that he lied and claimed James Baker never said "not one inch further," and many of the Nat-Sec Nutsacks™ inside and outside the government parroted this. That's despite John Mearsheimer, in "The Great Delusion" and elsewhere also noting this was true. And, he, and even more Sarotte, notes this torpedoed nuclear arms talks while Yeltsin was still alive, which carried over to Putin.

The member states that emerged from the USSR would have been better off had Gorbachev recognized, and accepted, the same reality that Yeltsin did, and early on. The two Gorbachevs would have surely been far less tempted by corruption than Yeltsin's family. That, in turn, means that Gorbachev would have found a better successor than Putin. (Yeltsin tabbed him, Sarotte notes, precisely because he promised the Yeltsin family a clean slate.)

Well, Yeltsin faced trouble in both of his elections because oil remained in the pits, obviously. (That still doesn't excuse the graft.) And, while Clinton helped him as he could? 9/11, and likely its global exacerbation by Shrub Bush's invading Iraq, boosted oil prices and bailed out Putin. He might have been deemed a failure otherwise in four-five years.

The "love at first site" link, which Reuters calls "Gorbachev on Gorbachev," has this quote extract from his Dec. 25, 1991 "fare-thee-well" as USSR leader:

"For this reason, I never regretted that I did not use my position as General Secretary merely to 'reign' for a few years ..." 
"I leave my post with concern – but also with hope, with faith in you, your wisdom and spiritual strength. We are the heirs of a great civilization, and its revival and transformation to a modern and dignified life depend on all and everyone."

Makes it sound like he just casually decided to step down rather than rudely being elbowed out of the way, doesn't it? But, in reality, that's what happened. How much of that was Gorbachev seeking to preserve face, and how much of it was other things, who knows? If Yeltsin hadn't pushed, would he have moved on eventually on his own? Who knows? 

At Foreign Policy, Vladislav Zubok offers a detailed take on Gorbachev's legacy, starting with his ego. The title of the Reuters piece is no accident:

Gorbachev, who suffered from the sort of cheerful vanity that led him to speak of himself in the third person, told biographer William Taubman that “Gorbachev is hard to understand.”

Sounds about right, given the above.

At home? Even more tragic, beyond his possible self-delusion about holding the USSR together and other things. As the Yeltsin-era Russia faced catastrophic inflation, catastrophic grifting, and a fragile semi-democratic governance in which the West eventually bribed Yeltsin with money Gorbachev never got, just to get Yeltsin re-elected, Gorby regularly faced epithets of "traitor." Blamed by many for unleashing Yeltsin-era debauchery when that was actually all on Yeltsin, with an assist from the West. Sarotte is good on this, in her book. (UnHerd, meanwhile, has a simplistic hot take that omits Yeltsin being the primary cause of Putin's rise and tries to blame Gorbachev too much and the West not enough. Of course, this is of a piece with most of mainstream media, Gnu Media and Nat-Sec Nutsacks™ alike in the last 24 hours — performing a Joe Stalin "vanish the commissar" on Yeltsin and pretend there's a straight line in USSR-Russia history from Gorbachev to Putin.)

As far as Yeltsin shoving him aside? Per Zubak (it's paywalled, couldn't read all of it), it seems likely Gorbachev saw himself as the indispensible man. We know he kind of looked down on Yeltsin as a yokel. Probably couldn't believe that this drunken ass (Sarotte says that his alcoholism appears to have started as pain management after an accident) could outmaneuver him. But that's just what happened.

But, back to the West.

I found about his death by seeing his name trend on Twitter. And, then, it went back away and didn't pop up before I went to bed last night. For anybody much under my age in the West and not one of the Nat-Sec Nutsacks or close to them, he's probably most remembered by his Pizza Hut commercial if anything. Indeed, per Puff Hoes, THAT trended on Twitter.

Many Russians hated him for that too, and castigated him for the money he got. It never aired on Russian TV. Years and years later, having seen it and a certain movie more than once, I was reminded of the opening portion of "Cast Away."

That said, per all that I said above? If all politics is local, this cuts both ways. The Russia-Ukraine war of today connects both to Gorbachev's overestimation of his abilities to hold the USSR together and Poppy Bush's refusal to give him as much financial support as Clinton gave Yeltsin.


Interestingly, I had never had a "tag" or "label" for Gorbachev. No need to start now.

Update: In death, despite Putin trying to shunt him aside, Gorbachev became more popular than he had been in life inside Russia for most of the past 25 or more years, it appears.

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