Law and Politics People and Community

Scholar: Gorbachev’s legacy strikingly different in the West and Russia

While Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at 91, may be principally remembered as a courageous reformer in the West, some Russian people will view the former Soviet leader far less respectfully, according to lecturer and Soviet expert Marcia Beck.

In this June 1990 photograph, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of business executives in San Francisco. The former leader died this week at age 91. Photo: The Associated Press

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader best known by Westerners for introducing radical reforms of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), died Tuesday in a Russian hospital following a prolonged illness, according to the hospital and Russian news agencies. 

Marcia Beck, a political science lecturer in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, pointed out that while Gorbachev was hailed in the West as a courageous reformer willing to take risks, most Russians continue to judge the last leader of the Soviet Union as a weak and ineffectual half-hearted reformer who undermined the position of their country domestically and in the international arena. 

“His two major reforms ultimately initiated a multifaceted process that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, something he never intended or wanted to happen,” Beck said. “Because the reforms, perhaps inevitably, took paths that he could no longer control, his legacy is not—and perhaps will never be—completely appreciated especially amongst Russians, for whom the disintegration of the USSR initially led to disruption, economic hardship, poverty, criminality, and loss of any kind of perspective in the first decade of independence,” she added. 

“Gorbachev’s legacy for being the initial impetus for the demise of the Soviet Union, insofar as that is viewed as a positive historical development in the West,” she continued, “depended in large part on serendipity: a charismatic Polish Pope, a courageous Solidarity reform movement, an unstoppable Boris Yeltsin, and a chain of events that took on a life of their own.” 

Few in the West or in Russia knew what to expect when Gorbachev became general secretary of the USSR Communist Party (CPSU: Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in 1985. 

“Up to then, Western methods of ‘Sovietology’—trying to discern the inner workings of the Politburo (the CPSU’s decision-making body) through a who’s in/who’s out analysis of photographs, nuanced hints in the bureaucratic language of official newspapers, and observation of leaders’ behavior on the podium on official parade days—bore limited fruit,” Beck said. 

A year later, in 1986, Gorbachev stunned both Russians and the world by announcing the two major reforms, both based on the correct observation that the USSR’s social and economic problems were either being suppressed or attacked in a piecemeal fashion that resulted in farm mismanagement, horrific infrastructure and transportation, and hardship for a large part of the population. 

Gorbachev made it clear from the start, however, that “glasnost,” a newfound transparency in the decision-making process and freedom of expression, was to take place within the confines of the Soviet system and its one-party state, according to the specialist in Russian politics. 

“Despite the limitations, there was at first a sense of genuine excitement among a certain portion of the population of Soviet Russia,” Beck said. “We saw footage of Gorbachev on walking tours speaking to people about the need to reform and get rid of hardline CPSU members who both feared for their own power and were convinced that any reduction of control over the economy and the population would lead to, if not mass uprisings, then a chaos that would soon get beyond their control.” 

Beck visited Moscow and Leningrad for the first time as a graduate student in 1987, yet observed no noticeable opening in the country. 

“We arrived in Leningrad late at night because of a plane delay and change of planes, and our little propeller plane was met by Soviet soldiers with guns at the airport,” she recalled. The group was bused to a hotel and taken on official tours. Their tour guide appeared afraid to say anything outside of her official template to a busload of U.S. and European undergraduate and graduate students.

They were prevented from taking pictures of any scene that might have a bridge or some other item that the guide feared could be of use to Western intelligence agencies, and the group was prohibited from speaking to Russian people on the street. 

She returned to Russia and visited Latvia in 1989 as a newly minted professor doing research on the exploding civil society movement in the Soviet Union. 

“Everything had changed,” she said. “In Latvia [one of the most prosperous and industrialized parts of the Soviet Union], members of new civil society groups were energized by the chance to partake in genuine independent activity and also to rediscover and re-promote the Latvian language and Latvian national culture.” 

Two impressions stood out to her. 

“In Moscow, people were energized, though not in the same singular direction as the Latvians,” she recounted. Beck and a colleague interviewed leaders and members of new civil society groups in Moscow and Minsk and discovered a sharp divide between Russian nationalist groups, like Fatherland (Otechestvo), and human rights and interest groups, like Memorial and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers—both founded in 1989. 

“The nationalist groups were convinced that Gorbachev’s reforms were going to weaken the position of Russia within the Soviet Union and were very suspicious of the West—including my colleagues and me—and the non-nationalist human rights groups were frustrated with the limitations of the reforms and actively sought Western connections,” she pointed out. 

Secondly, she observed that by 1989, Gorbachev had already lost his popularity amongst the Russian people. 

“I asked every Russian I could that summer their opinion of Gorbachev and the consistent refrain was: ‘He tries to compromise too much; he’ll never get anyplace.’ Russian political culture has historically not supported compromise as a value; rather, it is seen as a weakness. And thus by 1989, Gorbachev was viewed as a very weak leader who wouldn’t accomplish much,” she said. 

By 1990, Beck explained that these domestic forces dovetailed with other global events—one was the unlikely election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 and his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. There the new pope gave what turned out to be a massive motivational speech to the Polish people in Warsaw’s Victory Square, which had a direct impact on the formation of the Solidarity movement in 1981. 

Even though the Polish Communist Party squashed the movement temporarily, it came back to life in 1988-1989, just as Gorbachev’s reforms were starting to kick in, Beck pointed out. 

“The Solidarity movement had a huge impact on rising independence movements—it showed the citizens of Soviet satellite states the power they had against their regimes if they banded together to fight for the cause of independence,” Beck explained. “The movement also indicated to Soviet leaders that they were not going to be able to put the independence genie back into the bottle and that repression would no longer work in the ways it had before,” she added. “To Gorbachev it meant that he was no longer completely in control of the reforms that he had initiated.” 

The growing influence of political firebrand Boris Yeltsin, who advocated drastic economic reforms and advocated for national and territorial independence, likewise accelerated Gorbachev’s political demise. 

According to Beck, by the early fall of 1991, Gorbachev was quickly losing any ability to influence events, let alone control the political apparatus, at home or abroad. A somber Gorbachev announced to Soviet citizens on Dec. 25, 1991, that he had resigned.

The following day, the USSR was officially disbanded and Gorbachev’s lasting legacy, whatever the disagreements about the impact of his reforms, is as the leader who presided over the demise of the once-powerful Soviet Union and set in motion the rise of a new world order.