Mikhail Gorbachev’s Project Was a Noble Failure Thwarted by Forces Beyond His Control

When he became the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to democratize the USSR without embracing free-market capitalism and end the Cold War without enabling US domination. The world is still haunted by his inability to achieve those goals.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Energy Globe Awards at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in May 2008. (European Parliament / Flickr)

Conventional wisdom most often depicts the events of 1989 as the failure of socialism. That powerful narrative has served both to discredit alternatives to the capitalism that triumphed and to bestow upon it an aura of legitimacy, which is based not solely on a reading of recent history but on accompanying assumptions about the natural order — not least human nature. Capitalism, from this perspective, is the normal state of affairs, socialism the deviation from it.

Capitalism, it is said, responds to the nature of “man” — acquisitiveness, competition, egoism, and the insatiable need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, creativity, and the drive for besting one’s neighbors. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals.

Therefore, it can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched elite and a repressive state. Once that force is removed and the rulers lose confidence in their right to rule, communism, naturally, falls, and people’s instinctual drives for material accumulation are set free. Markets win out everywhere, even where democracy does not.

History, however, is always more complicated and messier than the moral and ideological tales it may be deployed to serve. History is about context, both temporal and spatial; it is sensitive to the conjuncture of personalities, processes, contingencies, and structures that together contribute to the unfolding of events.

Two Revolutionary Series

We can tell the history of the founding and floundering of Soviet-style regimes in Europe and Asia in the second half of the twentieth century not as the inevitable failure of coercive utopian projects but as the story of two series of revolutions. The first series consisted of the Communist-led revolutions during the post–World War II years, from China to Hungary, that eliminated the former ruling elites and transformed largely rural societies into urban, industrial ones. The second consisted of the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 that brought down the entrenched party regimes in East Central Europe, and soon after the USSR, that were already long suffering from political sclerosis.

What in the second half of the 1940s would become “actually existing socialism” had itself been established at a particular moment, at the beginning of the Cold War struggle between a significantly weaker Soviet Union in the grip of senescent Stalinism and an enormously wealthy, nuclear-armed United States. Forty years later, Communism fell when political crises, economic stagnation (not collapse), and a will to change the way that the system worked combined during a particular historical conjuncture. To the lasting dismay of democratic socialists, those revolutions occurred in the era of Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberalism, vigorous anti-Communism, and muscular military and covert interventions against the Left and radical movements in all parts of the globe.

The figure of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–2022) is central to the story of the end of Communism and the failure of a middle road between state-centered “socialism” and neoliberal capitalism. His aspirations and achievements, positive and negative, have been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, both scholarly and polemical.

With his death on August 30, 2022, reflections and assessments of Gorbachev’s pivotal historical role have divided public opinion both in the West and East. Largely applauded in the West and despised in his own country, Gorbachev’s life, like that of Vladimir Lenin nearly a century before, fundamentally shaped the history not only of socialism but of capitalism, democracy, and the international security system well into the next century.

From Peasant to President

Americans pride themselves that many of their presidents were born in log cabins — at least they once did. A recurring image that reinforces the dream of upward mobility, it is linked to faith in a market capitalism ostensibly founded on principles of equality of opportunity and the promises of bourgeois democracy.

Few in the “Free World” notice that among the leaders of the Soviet Union, after the short tenure of the nobleman Lenin — probably the greatest class traitor in history — all the successive top guns in the party hierarchy were plebeians. Joseph Stalin, by official rank a peasant, was the son of a shoemaker and a seamstress; Nikita Khrushchev’s parents were peasants, and he started out as a metalworker; and Leonid Brezhnev was, in his own words, a hereditary proletarian. Mikhail Gorbachev rose from southern Russian peasants and never lost his sense of self as a man of the people, not to mention his villager’s accent.

From an early age, little Misha knew the brutalities of Stalinism and war. Both his grandfathers — one the chairman of a collective farm, the other an individualistic farmer — spent time in the gulag. Young Gorbachev was shunned by his playmates, and his biographer, William Taubman, speculates that such experiences gave Mikhail a balanced view of the Soviet experiment and a keen understanding of the injustices of the system.

An exceptionally hard worker, physically strong, and intellectually curious, he worked the fields during the German occupation of World War II. The experience of what he and his father had lived through affected his future reluctance to use violence when he had the power to do so.

Through native intelligence and ambition, he advanced steadily up the party ladder to become the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In a country without the rule of law, he was able to grow from provincial peasant to student of law at the most prestigious university in the Soviet Union, Moscow State. Even before meeting his more sophisticated, urbane wife, Raisa, the rawboned youth already had doubts about many Soviet practices.

Throughout, however, he remained faithful to the aspirations of Leninism. Gorbachev imbibed the values of Soviet-style socialism. He was fundamentally egalitarian and eschewed the privileges of wealth and position. He despised what he considered bourgeois. And he was a fervent Soviet patriot.

Gorbachev was “a true believer,” writes Taubman, “not in the Soviet system as it functioned (or didn’t) in 1985 but in its potential to live up to what he deemed its original ideals. Gorbachev believed in socialism, the faith of his beloved father and grandfather.” After all, it was the Soviet system, the socialist affirmative-action program that promoted workers and peasants upward, that made what he became possible.

But luck and fateful accidents played as great a role in his spectacular rise as did his natural talents. In the Soviet Union, whom you knew and who could do you favors and promote you were keys to advancement — certainly more than birth or wealth, as in much of the West. Gorbachev was skilled, charming, or lucky enough to attract important patrons, most consequently Yuri Andropov, whom he met when the one-time KGB chief and later general secretary vacationed in Stavropol province where Gorbachev headed the party.

Thanks to his connections, he was called to Moscow in 1978 to become the youngest Central Committee secretary. Seven years later, after the death of three aged first secretaries in succession, his desperate comrades banked on his comparative youth (fifty-four) and chose him to be leader of the Soviet Union.

Perestroika and Glasnost

In his new, powerful post of general secretary, Gorbachev embarked, at first cautiously, on an evolutionary, gradualist “revolution,” intending to build a more democratic socialism. The Soviet leader was extraordinarily confident in his abilities and the potential of the sclerotic Soviet system to regenerate itself along the lines laid out by Lenin, Gorbachev’s deified hero.

He set out on a program of political democratization, economic liberalization, decentralization of control of non-Russian republics, emancipation of Soviet satellites, nuclear disarmament, and putting an end to the costly Cold War — all at once and as rapidly as possible. One wonders whether any state or society, anywhere in the world, could have multitasked at such an ambitious and ill-planned transformation and survived, let along the stagnating, overly bureaucratized, and geriatric Soviet state.

Just as he embarked on his radical perestroika (restructuring) of the largest country in the world, fortune seemed to abandon the determined reformer. The first great shock, after an ill-fated and unpopular prohibition campaign, was the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, which was followed by a devastating earthquake in Armenia, and the steady decline in the Soviet economy. World oil and gas prices fell, reducing the major sources of foreign exchange. The deep rot in the system was exposed more glaringly than ever.

He opened up the public sphere and allowed free expression (glasnost) to tap into the latent energies of ordinary people and attract the Soviet intelligentsia to his side. Intellectuals griped, and once Gorbachev ended censorship, the howls from writers and journalists grew louder and helped to erode support for the regime. Although he never clamped down on the freedom of the press that he had initiated, perhaps Gorbachev lamented, as had the writer Maxim Gorky, that “artists are irresponsible people,” or as Lenin put it more angrily in a letter to Gorky, “the educated classes . . .  consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact, they are not its brains but its shit.”

The impulse to reform, as in much of Russia’s history, had come from the top, not from society. When ordinary people became fed up with the irresponsible exploitation by a regime, they turned to revolution. But there was no upsurge from the bottom, no great popular expression of discontent at first from workers and peasants. Most party apparatchiki resisted reforms, though others were willing to go along if they occurred gradually and if they were controlled from above.

The possibility of changing the system in the late Soviet Union could only come from the regime itself, for control by the state, party, police, and army was secure. Dissent had largely been channeled or crushed in the Brezhnev and Andropov years, and most party and state officials were quite comfortable in their privileged positions. Gorbachev’s mentor Andropov had warned that freedom could get out of hand, but his pupil turned out to be less risk averse.

Gorbachev was faced with a dilemma: he needed the Communist Party to transform the system, but the party was reluctant or opposed to radical change. To carry out his revolution, the general secretary decided to weaken the party and mobilize society. He undermined the influence and power of the party bosses and by doing so eroded his own power.

Gorbachev wanted to be simultaneously pope and Martin Luther, to preserve much of the system but change it without destroying it. Or as Taubman puts it, “It was as if the tsar had turned Bolshevik and decided to overturn his own regime.” Occupying the center of the political system, he alienated both the conservatives on the Right and the liberals and radicals on the Left.

By opening up the public sphere and permitting free expression, he created the possibility for mass politics that his greatest nemesis, the ambitious, impulsive radical, Boris Yeltsin, exploited to his advantage. Taubman argues, in my view correctly, that “Gorbachev was instinctively democratic, Yeltsin an authoritarian populist.”

Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe was where both world wars and the Cold War began: the fragmented frontier zone between developed industrial capitalism and its agrarian poor relation, still largely peasant, traditionally religious, and fiercely nationalist. One can also argue that it was in this zone of imperial conflict that the disintegration of the USSR began. Whatever enthusiasm for the Soviet Army’s liberation of the region from fascism had existed in the mid-1940s, it had largely dissipated over the four decades of “actually existing socialism” and Soviet hegemony.

Eastern Europe was not a particularly hospitable place for socialist revolution as Karl Marx envisaged it — especially when that revolution was associated with Russia, the Great Power most resented by Poles, Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians. The “East European Revolutions” of the 1940s and 1950s were largely, though not entirely, the imposition of the Kremlin, and the system eventually built was modeled after the most draconian variant of what has been called “socialism,” namely the Stalinist command economy and police state.

I do not agree with the characterization of the Soviet sphere of influence in the region as an empire, which in my usage requires imperial control of both domestic and foreign policy. It is more useful to define Moscow’s control over the countries of the Soviet bloc in the period following Stalin’s death as “hegemony,” which involves dominance and coordination in foreign policy as well as some degree of interference in internal affairs to ensure conformity with the interests of the hegemon.

To various degrees after 1953, the countries in East Central Europe were able to shape their domestic policies and structures somewhat independently of the Kremlin’s proscriptions. But Moscow interfered and even intervened militarily to prevent the defection of these countries from the coordination of their foreign policies.

After the World War II, Stalin’s USSR slowly recovered from its massively costly victory over fascism, in which an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens had died. The dictator was suspicious of the intentions of its former allies — the United States and Great Britain — and was determined to hold on to the fruits of war up to Central Germany.

Realists in both the East and West understood that the question of which side would dominate Eastern Europe was a foregone conclusion, given military realities and Soviet notions of security. As historian Norman Naimark has shown, the real question was not whether but how Stalin would control those “liberated” countries. Would they become allied but autonomous states, like Finland, or end up with fully Stalinized and Soviet-manipulated police regimes?

Revolution From Above

At first, the Soviets promoted coalition governments and gradual social transitions. The prewar elites had been discredited by their collaboration with the Nazis, and the politics of most of Eastern Europe gravitated leftward. Russians were popular as liberators, and Communists had significant support in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

There was enthusiasm for some of their imposed social changes. In Hungary, Poland, and Romania, land reforms favoring the peasants turned over hundreds of thousands of acres. Industry owned by Germans was nationalized in Czechoslovakia and Poland. But four of the countries taken by the Soviet army had been part of the Axis — Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria — and they were drained of resources, which the Soviets demanded as reparations for their colossal losses in the war.

As in the Soviet Union, so in Eastern Europe, Communists were brutal modernizers. Kremlin leaders believed that the security of the USSR and the transformation of the countries on its western border from agrarian to industrial, peasant to proletarian, went hand in hand. By the last years of Stalin’s life, any deviance from the strict Soviet form of “revolution from above” led variously to expulsion from the Communist bloc, as in the case of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia; the purging of dissenters; or even the execution of veteran party leaders like László Rajk in Hungary, Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, and Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia.

If socialism was as fatally flawed as the “inevitablists,” who believe its fall was foreordained, claim, it would not have lasted as long as it did, historian Constantine Pleshakov argues. These regimes not only survived for forty years but were relatively stable and even enjoyed a degree of popular backing. While no Communist state could be maintained without the secret police, there was at the same time a social contract between the rulers and the ruled that delivered goods and services to the people: free health care, free housing, and free education.

The Communists carried out social revolutions in the region. They not only took land from the aristocracy and the church but also secularized education, provided jobs in new industries, and made life and livelihood more secure and predictable. They redrew the borders of the countries they occupied, returning Transylvania to Romania, and creating a new Poland territorially by annexing German lands to make up for the loss of the prewar Polish state’s eastern part that Stalin had incorporated into the Soviet Union.

They abetted the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia and guaranteed the independent existence of the German Democratic Republic. Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles were not happy with the loss of territory ceded to the USSR and Romania, but the presence of the Soviet Army, along with the internationalist rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, at least prevented the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism that had so often and so recently plagued the region.

Jews, who had been subject to discrimination and ghettoization in the interwar years and mass murder by the Nazis and their East European fascist allies, were now protected, and many rose to power as Stalinist loyalists, although there were spasmodic periods of antisemitic discrimination. Economies grew in the years after Stalin’s death; energy was cheap, subsidized by Soviet exports; and East Europeans in general lived better in the periphery of empire than most Russians did in its metropole. As Pleshakov puts it: “Equating ‘bread’ with ‘freedom’ — that’s what made communism appealing after the war.”

From Goulash Communism to Shock Therapy

The dangerous Cold War competition between East and West was finally settled, not by ideological appeals or nuclear weapons, but by the most mundane material factors. The economies of the Soviet bloc, themselves eager to incessantly increase output, were ultimately outperformed by the West. Nowhere was this contrast more evident than in Berlin where the frenetic illumination of the western sector outshone the more subdued lights of the east.

Communists had promised not only social justice and equality but greater prosperity and productivity than was possible under capitalism. Soviet-style economies proved unable to compete successfully. More ominous, they fell under the dominance of Western bankers, dependent on huge loans with all the consequences of soaring debt.

The social contract trapped the socialist states: they could neither cut the subsidies that kept consumer prices low nor use the capitalist weapon of unemployment to restructure their economies. China’s “market Leninism” offered one way out — a turn toward capitalism without democratization — but East European Communists hesitated to go that far until it was too late.

Economic and social discontent led to attempts at revolution, first in 1956 in Hungary, then in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and calls for a more democratic, participatory society — perhaps another kind of socialism. The Soviets loosened control, made concessions, and allowed a kind of “vegetarian” communism or (for the carnivores) “goulash communism” — more goods, some travel abroad, less repression, but only the most muted voice in politics.

By the early 1970s, the regimes looked stable, relatively prosperous, and likely to be around a long time. However, in order to maintain the social contract, money had to be borrowed from the West. The debt owed to foreign banks grew, and a cycle of falling productivity and growing discontent accelerated, most massively in the Polish strike movements of 1970, 1976, and 1980 that eventually forced the government to permit the formation of an independent trade union, Solidarity.

But then, in the minds of dissidents, a miracle happened. A genuine democrat and determined reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, was given the most powerful position in the Soviet bloc. Gorbachev’s greatest gift to the USSR’s satellite states was to return sovereignty to them and pledge not to interfere in their affairs. To the dismay of hard-liners like Erich Honecker in East Germany, the Soviets refused to back up their former clients when they were faced by popular protests.

When the Hungarian Communists decided to open their borders in 1989 and allow East Germans to cross to the West, they set off an avalanche of dominos that led within months to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The stark symbol of the Cold War and of self-styled socialism came down and with it the division of Germany. For many in Russia, the security they had gained from their advances westward in 1945 disappeared in the rubble. Within months of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the question of the survival of the Warsaw Pact — and of NATO — competed for resolution with efforts to unite the two German states.

At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, the East Europeans moved quickly, with a normative confidence in the unavoidability of capitalism, to market economies. Communism, they concluded, was unredeemable. “Socialism with a human face” was utopian, they had come to believe. In the words of the Polish oppositionist Adam Michnik, it was simply “totalitarianism with its teeth knocked out.”

Gorbachev, however, fumbled between opening up markets and prices and rejecting full privatization and marketization. His trajectory headed toward a tragic failure of his democratic dreams.

Reform and Revolution

Reform and revolution are not so much opposites as points on a continuum of political change. The difference is about tempo and degree of change: the faster and more radical the change, the closer to revolution; the slower and more moderate the change, the closer to reform. Over time, reform can turn into revolution and vice versa. Reform might occur so rapidly or go so far as to transform completely a regime and therefore can justifiably be labeled a revolution.

Gorbachev called his perestroika a “revolution,” even though he did not anticipate the loss of power by the party he headed. As the denouement of the drama of 1989 took place in Eastern Europe, that year in the USSR was still one of reform rapidly moving into revolution. Social order and political authority sharply eroded from 1989. Conflict broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in February, and the elections of May, fostered by Gorbachev, were the freest that Russia had experienced since 1917.

Gorbachev’s promotion of elected bodies — the Congress of People’s Deputies and later elected soviets — shifted power from the Communist Party to broad parliamentary institutions. Hard-liners in the Communist Party were stunned, and liberals and more radical reformers surged to prominence in the now-open politics. Political life moved from the opaque offices of high party officials into the televised give-and-take of unscripted debates. As Vladislav M. Zubok eloquently summarized it, “The Congress made political power transparent and electable, and thus destroyed its mystery.”

Fear changed sides; ordinary people were no longer afraid of the state, the party, or the KGB, and members of the nomenklatura now feared those whom Gorbachev had unleashed. The Soviet Union lasted two more years, but the Communist system of a single governing party and a command economy, all operating under strict censorship, was already gone.

What had once been an ironclad freighter labeled “totalitarianism” was daily being replaced by a jerry-built ship at sea, hardly seaworthy and already floundering in the turbulent waters of economic crisis. In the USSR, the essence of the political system — a one-party state — and the command economy had been taken apart two years before the union disintegrated into fifteen separate states. As British political scientist Archie Brown concluded, “From the spring of 1989 it is scarcely meaningful to describe the Soviet Union as a communist system.”

A Crisis of Confidence

Gorbachev intended to eliminate the top-down command system and introduce greater democracy, but he wanted neither the end of socialism — which he defined as dependent on and requiring democracy — nor that of the USSR. Gorbachev and his closest associates did not seem to have a clear idea what socialism would entail, other than liberating the pent-up energies of ordinary people.

He had a lingering Leninist aversion to private property and spoke about combining state property with cooperatives. As late as July 1991, he managed, despite their hostility and indifference to his ideas, to have his party comrades support the idea of “democratic socialism” — something akin to social democracy of the West European type.

The Achilles’ heel of the reform program was the economy, and here Gorbachev was out of his depth. He depended on Soviet economists who had limited knowledge of how the Soviet system worked and were bitterly divided about how to reform it. While those closest to Gorbachev opted for slower, more limited reforms, those who gravitated to Yeltsin were prepared to eliminate state controls entirely.

They wanted to adopt radical reforms along the lines of the pro-market, neoliberal “Washington Consensus” and were even enchanted by the perceived successes of the dictatorial Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile that Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” had promoted. Young Yeltsinist economists like Yegor Gaidar were convinced that macroeconomic laws were irrefutable and applied universally: radical marketization and the end of price controls were essential. High on Gaidar’s agenda was the destruction of the last “totalitarian” empire, the USSR.

As Zubok observes, “The Soviet leader also suffered from an accumulating crisis of confidence. His long-winded explanations, in contrast to Yeltsin’s more succinct populist style, no longer appealed to the majority who felt cheated and disillusioned.”

Gorbachev pleaded in vain for the Americans to bail him out. However, the West ultimately did not deliver the material aid that was so desperately needed. Moscow was on its own. Relying on good faith, his exalted charisma in the West, and friendship with key world leaders, Gorbachev never fully appreciated that international politics really is a self-help game. He would have failed a freshman exam in realist international relations theory.

After Gorbachev had successfully reformed the Soviet system out of existence and enabled the precipitous rejection of party rule in Eastern Europe, that example of decolonization became a powerful incentive, first to dissident nationalists in Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and later to Communists in the non-Russian republics, to strike out on their own and declare sovereignty or independence. Even the old Communist Yeltsin discovered nationalism: after repeatedly defending the unity of the Soviet Union, he encouraged non-Russians both inside and outside the Russian Republic to take as much power as they were able.

Along with the ethnic conflicts in the Baltic republics and the South Caucasus, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defection of East European states from Communist rule, Gorbachev was soon overwhelmed by cascading trends and events: disastrous economic collapse, massive public protests, miners’ strikes, and deepening divisions within the elites desperately trying to hold onto on some semblance of power. Still, he refused to use the armed muscle he had in his hands. Reluctant to deploy the police and the military, even when faced by riots and rebellion, Gorbachev also feared the reaction from the Western governments whose aid and support he needed.

Tug-of-war

In the last few years of Soviet power, despite calls from both hard-liners in the Communist Party and more liberal supporters for Gorbachev to establish stronger presidential power, even a dictatorship, he was extremely reluctant to use coercion against recalcitrant and rebellious Soviet citizens. Only on a few occasions, in the Baltic and Caucasian republics, did he sanction a crackdown.

Even then, the use of the state security forces was intermittent, hesitant, and usually followed by concessions or apologies. Like a parent who shifts from strict enforcement of the rules to tolerating mischievous behavior, he resurrected images both of repressive Communism and political weakness.

Revolutions are almost always accompanied by violence and often followed by civil wars. Lenin unhesitatingly called for civil war when he was struggling for power. Terror was one of his tools for state-building. Gorbachev’s successor, Yeltsin, proved to be far less reluctant to use force, comfortably speaking from the top of a tank or sending his army to quell his political opponents in Moscow or rebel separatists in Chechnya.

But Gorbachev, it turned out, did not have the “iron teeth” that Andrei Gromyko, in nominating him to the highest post in the land, had promised he would show. “The majority of Russians,” Zubok writes, “wanted Gorbachev to use his power, not to devolve it; and Gorbachev’s reluctance to use that power appeared to many as weakness.”

Rather than embracing grassroots nationalism and a desire for independence, most people in the Soviet Union wanted order, security, a strong government, and greater prosperity. Once the government of Gorbachev and the Communist Party wavered and appeared unable to deliver, popular affection shifted to the democratic movements and the efforts of republican elites to achieve sovereignty and eventually independence.

As late as March 1991, there was much greater enthusiasm for a single, unitary state — the USSR — than for independence. A referendum on the future shape of the USSR won a majority of over 75 percent in favor of preserving some form of union. But in the words of Zubok, “the vacuum of central power,” the failure to adopt effective economic reforms, the massive disaffection from the “socialist choice,” and the abortive coup against Gorbachev of August 1991 doomed perestroika. As he concludes, the Soviet Union “was dismantled and dismembered largely by the internal tug-of-war.”

A Post-Soviet World

Gorbachev had more in mind than just reforming the USSR. He elaborated plans for a new international system that would unite East and West and end the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Soviet leader spoke of a “common European home” extending from the Atlantic to the Urals and perhaps beyond.

As the Soviet economy disintegrated in the chaos of market reforms, Moscow’s bargaining power with the West diminished, for the Soviets desperately needed financial aid from Europe and the United States. George H. W. Bush’s national security team wanted to preserve the NATO alliance, with a united Germany within it and with nuclear weapons stationed on its soil. As Zubok puts it, “The White House wanted to keep intact all structures that would allow the United States to continue waging the Cold War if necessary.”

Some in the Bush administration frankly admitted that the interest of the United States was to turn the Soviet Union into a “third-rate power.” At their shipboard meeting in Malta in early December 1989, a few weeks after the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush pressured the Soviet leader to cease his assistance to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Surprised by these demands, Gorbachev used the occasion to deal with the German question. He suggested that Germany be neutral or nuclear free, but Bush’s secretary of state James Baker suggested that the two states be joined with a guarantee that NATO would not “shift one inch eastward from its present position.” Gorbachev eventually gave in but asserted that any expansion of “the zone of NATO” was not acceptable. And according to Gorbachev, Baker answered, “We agree with that.”

Soon after, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher reiterated the promise that “NATO will not extend itself to the East.” To the amazement of many in his foreign policy team, Gorbachev conceded that the question of unification should be decided by the German people themselves. He later went further and agreed, as stipulated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, that every state could choose whichever alliance it wanted to join.

Gorbachev continued to call for limitations on or even the elimination of nuclear arms, which in the fatal calculus of power at that moment of decline was the most important asset the Soviets still possessed. To his critics, the general secretary had essentially given away a major prize of the Soviet victory in 1945 — that is, the division of its major European adversary, Germany — without any significant concessions or guarantees from the West other than verbal promises.

One Soviet official confided to his diary, “This carelessness will take its revenge on us.” Yet what was clearly a loss for the Soviet Union was a colossal gain for other states — most immediately for the members of the Warsaw Pact, which enhanced their sovereignty, and later for republics of the USSR, which became full subjects in the international system.

Decline

The international order was once again being rejiggered by the Great Powers, but the leverage of one of them, the USSR, was declining rapidly. Gorbachev was unable to stem the growing economic collapse of his country. Western banks cut the USSR from international money markets and desperately needed credit since it was no longer clear who would repay the loans: republics or the central state?

Miners in Kuzbass and Donbas went on strike demanding some relief from perpetual deficits. Most threatening were the ethnic clashes that tore at the fragile fabric of druzhba narodov (“friendship of the peoples”) in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Non-Russian Soviet republics, beginning with Lithuania, were demanding independence from the union, and Gorbachev’s major rival, Yeltsin, grew increasingly popular as he exploited the indigestible freedoms that Gorbachev had implemented. In the new politics of openness, with elections determining power, Yeltsin outperformed his nominal boss.

Gorbachev repeatedly reminded the Western leaders of how his reforms and policies had ended the Cold War and spread democracy, and he pleaded with Bush not to take advantage of Soviet weakness and assert world dominance. The world should emerge multipolar, he argued, not unipolar with a single hegemonic superpower. Gorbachev would live long enough to see the opportunity to reshape the international order squandered and a new cold war turn into a hot war in Ukraine.

Several East Central European governments were eager to join NATO, and there was talk of making some arrangement between NATO and the USSR. Gorbachev favored bringing his state into the alliance, but the Americans generally considered this proposal a fantasy. As Bush told the French leader François Mitterrand: “It is difficult to visualize how a European collective security arrangement including Eastern Europe, and perhaps even the Soviet Union, could have the capability to deter threats to Western Europe.”

The Soviets offered the East Europeans an arrangement that would have essentially Finlandized those countries — in other words, coordinated their foreign policies with the interests determined by the USSR. The offer was rejected by now-independent governments. Three decades later, Vladimir Putin made a quite similar offer to Ukraine, which was likewise rejected by Kyiv.

Chancellor Kohl’s party allies won an overwhelming victory in East German elections in March 1990. With all the cards in his hand, Kohl made it clear to both Gorbachev and his own free-floating foreign minister, Genscher, that he was committed to Germany staying in NATO and willing to pay dearly in aid to the Soviets for this choice. The Americans were much more hesitant about largesse to the USSR but were enthusiastic about Eastern Europeans joining NATO.

Gorbachev believed that with Germany in NATO, the Cold War division of Europe would be recemented and “it [would] be too late to create a credible security structure in Europe.” Secretary of State Baker told him that the idea of a pan-European security structure was “an excellent dream, but only a dream.” Increasingly it became clear that NATO was to remain the cornerstone of European security with its primary adversary, the USSR (soon to be the Russian Federation), outside.

On October 3, 1990, Germany was reunited as a powerful state within NATO. Two months later, Gorbachev accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Soviet troops withdrew gradually from Germany and the rest of East Central Europe; American troops and weapons remained. “The alliance had started its post–Cold War expansion to the east,” as Mary Sarotte writes.

A Fatal Flaw

The end of the Cold War meant the movement of East Central European countries, one by one, out from under Soviet economic, political, and military dominance toward adoption of Western democratic and capitalist formations. The pull and power of the West was irresistible and the fear of Russia too great. Whatever good intentions Gorbachev had or conciliatory actions he took — for example, signing the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty of 1990 — the relative weakness of the USSR undermined his alternatives, such as pan-European security structures or reliance on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

Bush was determined to resist Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and rebuffed Gorbachev’s efforts to negotiate a solution. The Soviet special envoy to Iraq, Yevgeny Primakov, had convinced Hussein to withdraw his troops, but despite Gorbachev’s pleading, Bush went ahead with the invasion. It is estimated that somewhere between 60,000 and 200,000 Iraqis were killed while fewer than 150 Allied soldiers died. The United States had rejected Gorbachev’s requests for aid but found $100 billion to pursue the war in Iraq.

Humiliated by the Americans, Gorbachev was seen by his own military leaders as weak and distracted. They were distancing themselves from their commander-in-chief and engaging in their own maneuvers around the CFE Treaty, and they would eventually join the plot in August 1991 to overthrow Gorbachev. The Bush administration feigned that financial support might come with further reforms but preferred to aid the East Europeans rather than the Soviets.

As plotters planned their coup against Gorbachev, Bush entertained his principal opponent, the recently elected president of the Russian Soviet Republic, Yeltsin, at his home in Texas. Yeltsin, who worked consistently to undermine Gorbachev, effectively imperiling the union, promised that Russia would destroy the Soviet command economy and rely on markets. In fact, Russia was by this stage not turning tax revenues over to the Soviet center, effectively defunding the government of the union.

A sober account of the Soviet predicament was given behind closed doors in Moscow by Gorbachev’s KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, in the absence of his boss: the USSR was becoming dependent on the United States, which was demanding lethal concessions that were exclusively in the West’s interests. Indeed, Bush told Gorbachev in July 1991, “If you still feel that a rapid transition to the market is too risky . . . then we will find it harder to help you.” As Zubok notes, rather than facilitate the transformation of the Soviet Union into a Western-style democratic capitalist state with Marshall Plan–size loans, Washington “continued to pursue the short-term vision of locking in the Cold War gains.”

Yet the Bush administration did not favor the breakup of the Soviet Union, which would result in the unpredictable expansion of new states with which it would have to deal (three of them armed with nuclear weapons). The president expressed this view in his unfairly maligned “Chicken Kiev” speech in early August 1991. Still, with Gorbachev attending the G-7 summit just before that, Bush rejected all the suggestions of his European allies to soften the economic transition in the Soviet Union. The neoliberal Washington Consensus had to be accepted unconditionally.

Soon afterward, Yeltsin emerged as a hero defending democracy against the coup that held Gorbachev captive for three days. He was supported by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who stood guard around Russia’s parliament, the White House, and rallied massively in Leningrad in front of the Winter Palace to prevent an assault by the army and the KGB. When the Soviet president returned to Moscow, Yeltsin effectively carried out his own countercoup against Gorbachev, reducing him to a figurehead and engineering Russia’s exit from the USSR.

Personal enmity between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the Russian president’s ambition to become the key player in what would be left of his country were the immediate contingent factors that destroyed the USSR. But as the British ambassador to Moscow Rodric Braithwaite remarked later about Gorbachev, “Exasperation at his endless talk, and his absolute failure to act, in the end destroyed what popular support he had left.”

For his part, Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, mused:

For all his brilliance, Gorbachev appeared to have a fatal flaw. He seemed unable to make tough decisions and stick with them. . . . Had Gorbachev possessed the authoritarian and Stalin-like political will and the determination of his predecessors, we might be still facing the Soviet Union.

“The Most Revolutionary Event”

Under pressure from Yeltsin and in his weakened position, Gorbachev reluctantly abolished most of the Soviet institutions, including the CPSU, the base of his own power and the apparatus that constituted the last sinews holding together the USSR. “Gorbachev was a bizarre political animal,” Zubok notes, paraphrasing one of Yeltsin’s advisers, “who misunderstood power.”

Gorbachev struggled for the next three months, from September to December 1991, to hold together what was left of the country he headed. However, Yeltsin and the other leaders of Soviet republics, most importantly Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, stealthily undermined his authority and usurped one institution after another. On December 1, Ukrainians, who had voted in March to preserve the Soviet Union by a huge majority, now voted overwhelmingly (90 percent) for independence.

The die had been cast. The end of the Soviet system, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, exposed a major problem for independent Russia and its most populous neighbor, Ukraine. The Soviet Empire ultimately disintegrated, not from a popular, massive uprising from below, as many in the West imagine, but from a meeting of three inebriated leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in a forest setting where they conspired its demise. The Soviet world ended, in a phrase once coined by T. S. Elliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

The US ambassador to the USSR at the time, Bush’s personal friend Robert Strauss, sent a prescient warning to Washington:

The most revolutionary event of 1991 for Russia may not be the collapse of Communism, but something that Russians of all political stripes think of as part of their own body politic, and near to the heart at that: Ukraine.

The post–Cold War settlement reinforced American dominance, not only in Europe but globally. While the Russian economy collapsed, impoverishing most of its people, the US economy embarked on a period of expanding prosperity. In Russia, cronies of the state enriched themselves buying up the assets of the Soviet command system. Yeltsin aided and was aided by a new post-Soviet bourgeoisie led by oligarchs who benefited from their closeness to the government.

Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, established an unusual personal relationship with the Russian president, explaining that his commitment to democracy and good relations with the West made Yeltsin, drunk or sober, the best Russian leader America could hope for. In October 1993, Yeltsin carried out another coup, this time a violent one against his own elected parliament. By December, he had established a new strong presidency with himself in charge.

The US government and many American scholars and pundits, liberals as well as conservatives, supported Yeltsin as the best bet against the coming to power of the post-Soviet Russian Communist Party, now led by right-wing nationalists, in the 1996 presidential election. Eastern Europeans worried that an unstable Russia would endanger them and continually pressured President Clinton for their admission to NATO.

Kennan as Cassandra

A Pentagon strategy memo stated that the aim of the United States was “to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge.” Clinton pressured Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons while agreeing to extend NATO eastward. The Russians were increasingly frustrated by Clinton’s interest in NATO enlargement and the alliance’s military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia.

However, Moscow was too weak to do much more than protest. At dinner with the Polish president Lech Wałęsa, Yeltsin inadvertently said that he did not object to Poland joining NATO, and he withdrew the last Soviet troops from Poland.

In late 1994, Yeltsin launched a fierce campaign against the breakaway region of Chechnya, the images from which only confirmed the view of many in the West and Eastern Europe that Russia’s erratic and brutal warfare presented a military threat to their security. That unsuccessful effort actually revealed how weak the Russian armed forces had become and how fragile the relations were between Moscow and the regions.

A key adviser to Clinton, Madeleine Albright, soon to become secretary of state, described the key issue for the United States as managing Russia’s “devolution from an imperial to a normal nation.” The president believed that NATO could move eastward and Russia could be bought off with economic aid as its economy foundered. In December, the Clinton security team opted secretly for moving ahead on bringing a select few East European states into NATO. The president said he was convinced that “here we have the first chance ever since the rise of the nation-state to have the entire continent of Europe live in peace.”

The father of “containment” during the Cold War, George F. Kennan, predicted that NATO expansion would prove to be “the most fateful error of American policy in the post–Cold War era.” Other former US policymakers such as Robert McNamara, Paul Nitze, and Scowcroft issued similar warnings but in vain. In May 1997, the United States and Russia signed an agreement that several countries would be admitted to NATO in exchange for aid to Russia.

Relations between the two largest nuclear powers quickly soured over the next few years. Mired in a sordid drama stemming from his affair with a White House aide, Clinton actively encouraged NATO to fight against the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s efforts to keep its Kosovo autonomous region within Serbia. In 1999, NATO bombing raids attacked Belgrade and on one occasion accidently bombed the Chinese embassy.

Yeltsin and his prime minister, Primakov, were furious at US disregard of Russia’s close alliance with Serbia. A lasting enmity was developing over Washington’s engagement in the Balkans. One of the results of NATO’s new positions, geographically and strategically, was the end of arms control efforts. Another was the elimination of any constraint on the temptation to extend NATO even further eastward.

The Visegrád Group — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia — joined in 1999. The Baltic states were admitted alongside Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009. More ominous, other states on the borders of Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, were promised potential membership, though no clear steps were taken to assure their entry. In a compelling analysis, Tony Wood sums up the process at work: “The main reason NATO expansion could gather such momentum was precisely because Russia was not a threat.”

Liberal Hegemony

As international relations scholar Richard Sakwa reminds us:

The demise of the Soviet Union removed checks on international liberalism, and its radicalisation in the form of the expansive ambitions of liberal hegemony is at the heart of post-1989 international politics. . . . Liberal institutionalism gave way to liberal hegemony.

Once Communist universalism had collapsed before its chief competitor, liberal universalism, the post-Soviet present was distinguished from the years of the Cold War in that no serious anti-capitalism existed. As in the period before 1914, dual crises — of liberal democracy and liberal internationalism — have produced a particularly dangerous world of Great Power rivalry and competitive forms of governance taking place in the context of unbridled and confident capitalism and civilizational imperialism.

The United States emerged from World War II more powerful economically and militarily than any other country on the globe (or indeed any imaginable combination of countries). It had willingly constrained its foreign policy independence in the early Cold War years by helping create and agreeing to work within a system of international organizations, which included the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic order.

However, the discrepancy between rhetoric and good intentions, on the one hand, and the inordinate power of the Americans, on the other, made irresistible the temptation to establish an international order that fostered the hegemony of the United States. The Cold War had been won by the West, and a single model of politics and economics had eliminated the alternatives to it, or so things seemed. The world had become unipolar, one dimensional, and in the eyes of many commentators had been returned to the path of civilization. History had ended, it was said, with the triumph of the West.

Yet the euphoric optimism about democracy and capitalism generated by the collapse of state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989–91 was short-lived. That triumphalist optimism — “bland futuristic complacency” in the words of economic historian Adam Tooze — began to dim rapidly as predictions about the transition to democracy proved to be wide of the mark.

Botched Transitions

In the first years of the twenty-first century, would-be transitions to democracy turned into transitions to new forms of authoritarianism. Particularly vicious and xenophobic populist nationalisms spread from Narendra Modi’s India through Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey to Donald Trump’s United States. Instead of the single-party oligarchies and military dictatorships familiar in the decades of the Cold War, something distinct in the history of authoritarianism appeared in the early twenty-first century: populist authoritarianism of the Right as a substitute for the collapse of Soviet-style “socialist” regimes and the subsequent disillusionment with more liberal democratic alternatives.

In an age of partial democratization, the new populism claimed that present elites were corrupt cartels that did not represent the people, that the “real” people were not getting what they deserve, and undeserving others were benefiting from the policies promoted by unresponsive elites. Post-Communist societies were infected by oligarchy, financial and political, and Western democratic politics were distorted by increasing inequality and plutocratic influence in elections and decision-making. Illiberal leaders, using populist and nationalist rhetoric, worked to shift power toward strong executives.

The failure of Gorbachev’s efforts to establish a democratic socialist polity in the Soviet Union left a global political vacuum that was filled by a variety of authoritarian regimes, many of them religious in nature (Iran and India come to mind), others nationalist. The defense was to rally around the flag, defend the border, and preserve the nation, something — so populist nationalists claim — that liberals, globalists, internationalists, and the European Union have neglected.

The appeals of the populists differed across the globe, but they generally appeared to be responses to class, regional, and religious resentments that grew in the absence of socialist expression for such discontent. Resentment about being left out, hostility to the idea of goods and benefits going to the undeserving (people of a different race or immigrants), and anxiety about their future dominate these social layers emotionally.

Anxiety is fear without a direct object — without an immediate, clear reason to be fearful. Such trepidation about an unknown, anticipated future was amorphous but was ginned up by elites that played on the instabilities and insecurities produced by the anarchy of the market and modernity’s unpredictable changes. Though far from Marxism, those who responded to the Trumps of the world felt there was a class war between themselves as the authentic people on the one hand and a hostile, unresponsive elite and its paternalistic government on the other.

In many ways, the political struggle of our own times is the heir of the historic socialist movements of the past. The fight is over who gets to be represented in and favored by the state. Will it be the elites of wealth, property, and inherited privilege, or will it be the broader public?

While neoliberal capitalism and its attendant politics favor the elite with an anti-statist, pro-market rhetoric (while actually using the state in its own interests), those outside the favored few fight for recognition, protection, and promotion by the state. In the past, this would have been working people, women, people of color; in our own times, besides these still-aspirant groups, there are others who are marginalized and want into the game.

This is the source of identity politics, which is then opposed by those already in and fearful of losing their privileged status. Populism is the politics of defining who the authentic, deserving people are. If, as Leon Trotsky once said, Stalinism was “the syphilis of the workers’ movement,” then populism is the syphilis of bourgeois democracy.

Gorbachev’s Legacy

The world that Gorbachev helped create moved in directions he could not have anticipated, but his contradictory legacy globally and in his own country was indelibly imprinted on what followed his fall. Political scientists talk of path dependency, the ways in which past events constrain and enable future events. We historians call this history.

The collapse of Gorbachev’s project and its replacement by the neoliberal “shock therapy” of the Yeltsinists, carried out in line with Western economic schemes and institutions, not only destroyed what was left of the Soviet safety net, drove ordinary people into penury, and created obscenely wealthy oligarchs but reduced life expectancy to levels hitherto unknown in modern industrial societies. Tens of thousands of Russians and non-Russians perished in ethnic bloodletting from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In the two decades after the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin, Russia devolved from a chaotic, crime-ridden period of mass impoverishment in the 1990s under Yeltsin — a period hailed in the West as democracy — into an authoritarian state dominated by Vladimir Putin and his crony oligarchs. As Gorbachev aged and grew frail, he watched his project wither and die.

Although millions of people had been made freer by his policies and the weakening of the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, other millions lost the support that the Soviets had given to anti-imperialist movements across the globe. The experience of Cubans differed completely from that of Estonians. Gorbachev’s “new thinking” about international relations evaporated in fresh confrontations between Russia and the West.

When Yeltsin could no long carry on because of heart disease and alcoholism, he appointed a relatively unknown policeman, Putin, as his successor. At first, Gorbachev had high hopes for the vigorous, fit young leader. Indeed, for nearly a decade, Putin opened to the West and promised to integrate Russia into the economic and security structures of the capitalist world.

But in time, the Russian elite and much of the public felt that their interests had been thwarted by the US-dominated unipolar system. From the pursuit of integration, the Kremlin turned to withdrawal, isolation, and confrontation. Gorbachev lived just long enough to see his dreams completely shattered on February 24, 2022, when Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine.

The former Soviet leader’s translator, Pavel Palazhchenko, told Reuters that his boss had been “shocked and bewildered” by the invasion, which “really crushed him emotionally and psychologically.” According to Palazhchenko, Gorbachev “believed not just in the closeness of the Russian and Ukrainian people, he believed that those two nations were intermingled.” But unlike Putin, he had never contemplated sending troops to force them back into Russia’s imperial embrace.

On his death, one of Gorbachev’s former colleagues, Grigory Yavlinsky, gave a most generous assessment of his legacy:

Mikhail Gorbachev freed us — his contemporaries. . . . He liberated us. And he did this of his own volition. We didn’t even ask him. At the time only a miniscule number of people were fighting for freedom, while even fewer believed that this was actually possible. Gorbachev gave us all freedom. He is not to blame for what we did with this freedom.