THE passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), at 91 years of age brings a fitting end to the life of this revolutionary leader who sought to fundamentally change his country but who in so doing, changed the entire world. Gorbachev was the inheritor of the pulsating structures of a Cold War that kept the entire world on edge of nuclear annihilation when he became the leader of the USSR. He was committed to preserving the Soviet state and its socialist ideals. However, he realised that significant reform was necessary, particularly after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He withdrew troops from the Soviet-Afghan war and embarked on summits with United States President Ronald Reagan to limit nuclear weapons and end the Cold War.
Although he was concerned about the uneasiness and uncertainties imposed on the world by the Cold War as the head of one of the two principal factions into which the world was polarised then, his focus and reform measures were to tinker with the apparently unsustainable structures over which he presided at home and at the level of the Warsaw Pact. He is reputed for two major domestic policy initiatives: Glasnost “openness” that allowed for enhanced freedom of speech and the press, and the Perestroika “restructuring” that sought to decentralise economic decision-making to improve its efficiency. These policy initiatives which democratised governance in the Soviet Union led to the formation of the elected Congress of People’s Deputies that undermined the one-party state.
He correctly discerned that the Soviet Union was sustaining itself at home and over the Warsaw Pact more by the instrumentalities of force of arms and coercion than democratic legitimacy. Indeed, he discerned that such a foundation of the Soviet Union was sustained at great cost to the economy, beset with inefficiencies and non-satisfaction of the needs of the people. Economic production was not at the maximal level and the support of the people was only skin-deep. He therefore sought to rejuvenate the entire system by introducing Perestroika and Glasnost to open the energies and freedom of the people to make the system more responsive to the people and their needs. His rejuvenation policies led to the collapse of the vassal states in the Warsaw Pact as many of the governments in those states could not continue to keep the support of the people outside of the force of arms that Gorbachev would not allow again. His policies emboldened various Warsaw Pact countries otherwise referred to as the Eastern Bloc countries to abandon Marxist – Leninist systems between 1989-1990. He refused to intervene militarily to put those countries back on track.
Internally, growing nationalist sentiment threatened to break up the Soviet Union, leading Marxist–Leninist hardliners to launch the unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. Following the coup and the attendant crisis, Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and what was left of the Soviet parliament voted to end itself. The Soviet Union collapsed, marking the end of the Cold War and a big relief for the world as the world was saved from the tentacles of nuclear overhang that was the definition and operating framework of the Cold War.
Gorbachev is widely considered one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century because of his role in ending the Cold War, introducing new political and economic freedoms in the Soviet Union, and tolerating both the fall of Marxist–Leninist administrations in eastern and central Europe and the reunification of Germany. He was the recipient of a wide range of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing an end to the Cold War. Conversely, in Russia, he is often derided for facilitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union—an event which weakened Russia’s global influence and precipitated an economic collapse in Russia and associated states. Russians continue to bemoan the loss of prestige, power and grandeur associated with the Soviet Union as a contending world power, no matter the fragility and frailties of the power, which loss they attributed to Gorbachev. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that the war with Ukraine is remotely connected with the dissolution of Russia.
The truth, however, is that Gorbachev was only being true to history, knowing that it would be impossible to continue to keep people together ad infinitum based on force of arms and coercion when the people do not want to be together. Invariably, it would still have been only a matter of time for the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to eventually collapse in the absence of the inherent support of the people for such structures. This is buttressed by the current war in Ukraine over the Russian invasion, a war that could not have been sustained for more than six months by the Ukrainians if truly they desired to be part of a larger Russian entity as Putin would make the world to believe.
As the world mourns the death of the revolutionary Gorbachev, therefore, the lesson of his life and standing, particularly to a country like Nigeria, is the inescapable reality that it would be difficult to keep any mega country together outside of the prevalence and pervasiveness of justice that would ensure the support of all the component parts. To seek to hold a mega country together with injustice through the force of arms and coercion would ultimately not last or be sustainable. Reform is an integral part of a progressive society. People of different nations should not be forced to cohabit. There must be clear terms for their relationship to hold. Otherwise, an implosion is inevitable. That realisation is the real testament to the life and achievements of Gorbachev.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931 in Privolnoye, a village in the North Caucasus Krai region of the then Soviet Union. He was born to a poor peasant family of Russian and Ukrainian heritage but grew up under the rule of Joseph Stalin, He studied at Moscow State University and married a fellow student Raisa Titarenko in 1953 before receiving his law degree in 1955. He worked in various cadres of the communist party and was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee in 1970, overseeing construction of the Great Stavropool Canal. He became secretary of the party’s Central Committee in 1978, and in 1979, joined its governing Politburo. In 1985 the Politburo elected Gorbachev as General Secretary, the de facto leader. He died on 30 August 2022 as a hero in the West but a villain in Russia.