God has not been kind to Mikhail Gorbachev to not allow him to die before February 24, 2022 and not witness the senseless destruction of everything he stood for. And perhaps even to reflect how sometime the decision not to use force may later lead to a much greater carnage. If Mikhail Gorbachev had maintained the Soviet Union (perhaps without the Baltics), and used the force the way that Deng Xiaoping did, we might not be now looking at a senseless internecine war that has already claimed dozens if not hundreds of thousands of lives, and which in the worst case might degenerate into a nuclear holocaust. Politicians, even those who are the most humane, must unfortunately make this calculation where human lives are just numbers.
Gorbachev refused to do so. Perhaps to openly state that was a mistake: nobody was any longer taking him seriously, from Baku to Washington, although he sat atop of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, the second largest military in the world, hundreds of thousands of police and domestic security forces, and as the Secretary General of the monopolistic party disposed of unquestionable loyalty of 20 million of its members.
By the standards of statecraft, he must be judged harshly, like one of the most extraordinary failures in history. By the standards of humanity, he must be judged much more kindly: he allowed millions to regain freedom, not only proclaimed, but stuck to the principles of non-violence in domestic and foreign affairs, and left his office willingly, when he did not need to do so, simply because he did not want to risk lives in order to keep it. But being nice and, in fact, anti-political, he left the field open to much worse men.
He was incapable of running a complicated, fraught by too much history, multinational, and vast empire like the Soviet Union. The country was additionally “saddled” by its reluctant satellites, the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, arms race with a much stronger opponent, and a quasi-stagnant economy. The situation that Gorbachev inherited was far from easy. But, it was manageable, and the fact that nobody predicted the precipitous economic, military, and political decline of the Soviet Union confirms it. Gorbachev, by trying to improve things, made them catastrophic. Many people in retrospect, and perhaps out of respect for Gorbachev (which we do owe to him) tried to explain the descent into the chaos by claiming that the system was “unreformable” and that everything was preordained. The role of Gorbachev, the person, in that view of history is almost non-existent. But this is wrong. A more competent ruler, a savvier politician, a more ruthless man would have handled things differently, and might have forestalled the catastrophe.
The most mysterious part is his rise to power. I do not mean it in a conspiratorial way because there was no conspiracy. The part that must puzzle everybody who reflects on it is the following: given how badly skilled Gorbachev was in handling the economy and politics at the central level, how come that these defects have not become apparent much earlier as he climbed the ladders of power? Didn’t anyone notice that in Stavropol? Moreover, given how willing he was to reject the rule of bureaucrats who brought him to power and who worked with him for several decades, how is it that they have not seen the red danger lights flashing behind that man with the affable smile? How is it that Andropov, not a person who displayed a huge sense of humanity, nor who, by his job description, could have been fooled easily, did not see the fault-lines in Gorbachev that, once in power, would blow up the entire Empire?
I do not think that there will ever be a good answer to that, especially not because Gorbachev did not conceal his opinions nor pretend to be different person from what he was. The only way to understand how a powerful bureaucracy would let somebody who is going to destroy it climb to power within that same bureaucracy is to believe that Gorbachev’s own views had evolved over time. That when he started reforming the system his view were very much within the acceptable reformist camp, of which even Andropov approved, but that as each step of reforms proceeded, his views evolved in direction of greater freedom, so that at the end he was presiding over a party that was an amalgam of incompatible factions and tendencies, from KGB stalwarts (Kryuchkov), to anti-reformists (Ligachev), to red directors (Chernomyrdin), to corrupt thieves (many Komsomol leaders), to technocrats (Gaidar), to social democrats (Roy and Zhores Medvedev).
Can we draw some conclusions? Regarding politics, we would need a person of Machiavelli’s caliber to describe what happened and why. But for Russian politics of succession, the lesson seems clearer: Stalin could not have imagined that somebody like Khrushchev (whom he treated like a not very smart country bumpkin) could ever succeed him; neither could have Khrushchev imagined that the “beau Leonid” would engineer an internal coup against him; Andropov made a misjudgment on Gorbachev, who in turn underestimated Yeltsin. Yeltsin picked Putin to do one job, but received something entirely different. It is unlikely that Putin alone would not commit the same error.