How Much Credit Should History Give Mikhail Gorbachev?

How Much Credit Should History Give Mikhail Gorbachev?
President Ronald Reagan (L) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during welcoming ceremonies at the White House on the first day of their disarmament summit, on Dec. 8, 1987. (Jerome Delay/AFP/Getty Images)
Rocco Loiacono

Upon meeting Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time in 1984, just prior to his becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described him as “a man we can do business with.”

Over the course of the 1980s, the world would come to know Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the USSR, as the architect of glasnost and perestroika, words that entered the everyday English political lexicon, meaning “openness” and “restructuring.” He hoped these domestic policies would breathe new life into the Soviet Union’s anaemic economy, remake the political system, and loosen some civil restrictions during warming relations with the West.

Gorbachev’s rejection of crushing freedom movement in the Soviet bloc, the easing of censorship in the media and cultural life, and his support of a landmark nuclear arms control agreement with the USA won him much praise abroad—far more than he ever received in his own country. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

“I do not relieve myself of responsibility for the initiated reforms because I am still deeply convinced that they were vital and ultimately will serve the wellbeing of my Motherland and will be beneficial for the world,” Gorbachev wrote in a two-volume book called “Life and Reforms,” published in 1995.

However, Gorbachev wrote in his 2016 book, “The New Russia,” that he believed the world needed socialism with a human face, just as the Soviet Union did in the 1980s, while at the same time, he argued that it required democracy, with a strong parliament and independent judiciary.
There are other contradictions from Gorbachev’s time as leader of the Soviet Union. For example, while Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan and peacefully allowed the collapse of the Soviet Union’s central European empire. But to his discredit, he sent troops in to try and suppress the peaceful Baltic independence movements to keep the USSR together.

How Much Should We Credit Gorbachev for the End of the Cold War?

In April 1987, three years after her initial meeting with Gorbachev, Thatcher made an official visit to the Soviet Union. As she recounted in her memoirs, “The Downing Street Years,” one of the first stops on her trip was to the Russian Orthodox Monastery at Zagorsk.

At the time, the Soviet authorities still had very tight controls on the practice of religion—indeed, Thatcher was accompanied to the monastery by the Soviet “minister for religious affairs.” There was an increase in the number of churches that were allowed to reopen and the number of seminarians allowed to study.

This July 17, 1987, file photo shows former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as they pose for photographers on the patio outside the Oval Office, in Washington, D.C. (Mike Sargent/AFP via Getty Images)
This July 17, 1987, file photo shows former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as they pose for photographers on the patio outside the Oval Office, in Washington, D.C. (Mike Sargent/AFP via Getty Images)
Thatcher observed that there was no guarantee the pressure on Christians in the country was going to be removed simply because of glasnost and perestroika, rather that religious practice should be contained. There were still prisoners in Russian jails at the time for their beliefs.

As Thatcher wrote: “We were ready to fight the battle of ideas: indeed, this was the right way to fight.”

However, she had confidence in Gorbachev’s basic integrity.

An interview she gave to journalists from Soviet state television, in which nuclear weapons and the huge Soviet superiority in conventional and chemical armaments formed a majority of the discussion, was allowed to be broadcast uncut.

Discussion between the two leaders focused on defence matters and arms control. President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars,” clearly had Gorbachev and his comrades spooked.

Thatcher tells how Gorbachev promised that the Soviets would match SDI but that she was not convinced. The Soviets were desperate for arms agreements, but that Gorbachev was clearly worried about being humiliated by the West.

The deep and steadfast convictions of Reagan and Thatcher, along with the belief and saintly determination of Pope John Paul II were as much responsible for glasnost and perestroika as was Gorbachev.

The American defence build-up under Reagan stretched the Soviet economy to the breaking point until Gorbachev accepted it needed to reform or die and ensured his agreements for deeper nuclear arms limitation.

Gorbachev presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was Reagan, Thatcher and Papa Wojtyla who created the climate of change that allowed it to happen.

As Mark Galeotti, an expert on modern Russian history wrote in The Spectator: “Unlike so many leaders, he evolved. He came to power convinced all the system needed was a little modernisation and a light rebranding, that the party was his greatest ally and instrument and eventually came rightly to see it as the greatest obstacle to reform.”

Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev deserves his place in history, but if it weren’t for Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, he might not have one.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Rocco Loiacono is a legal academic from Perth, Australia, and is a translator from Italian to English. His work on translation, linguistics, and law have been widely published in peer-reviewed journals.