Gorbachev – a complex character who changed the world

1 SEPTEMBER 2022

Gorbachev – a complex character who changed the world

With the death this week of Mikhail Gorbachev, a leading Charles Sturt University security expert assesses the contribution of the former leader of the Soviet Union to political history and world affairs.

By Associate Professor Intelligence and Security Studies Patrick Walsh in the Charles Sturt Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security in Canberra.

Every so often in history a leader comes along who is the right person for the moment. We think of allied World War II leaders US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in this way.

But so too we can think of the late Mikhail Gorbachev (pictured, inset), former President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) and his pivotal role in ending the Cold War peacefully. This no doubt is his great legacy.

Like FDR and Churchill, Gorbachev was also a complex character with a score board of successes and failures.

Gorbachev famously championed the concepts of ‘perestroika’ (the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system) and ’glasnost’ (increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the USSR) which were positive in opening up the oppressive and sclerotic political and economic system of the former Soviet Union.

Yet in many ways they were failures in their inability to provide a sufficiently firm foundation for a modern Russia that could replace the old order.

Perhaps some would say that his reforms merely resulted in cementing a chasm between the nationalist old guard and the liberalists which saw the former prevail in Russian politics in the form of the ascent of now-President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Gorbachev’s mixed domestic legacy during his stewardship of the dying years of the communist party in the USSR are captured in his own self-deprecating humour.

During a speech in the US Gorbachev mentioned he once decided to limit the sale of vodka to boost economic activity. He joked that there were three men waiting in line to buy vodka. One becomes exasperated and leaves, saying he would go to the Kremlin to assassinate Gorbachev. The man later rejoins his friends to wait for vodka. “The line was even longer over there,” he told them.

In the West, Gorbachev’s strength, intellect and reformist credentials were far better received than back at home and his belief in democracy, human rights and the non-use of military force to not preserve the Soviet Union have long been celebrated.

We should never gloss over the entire picture of Gorbachev’s place in history.

Debates will continue about the extent he wanted to preserve the Soviet Union albeit as a more open and market capitalist nation, or whether all along he wanted to take the ‘patient’ off life support and replace it with a liberal democratic state.

But we should celebrate Gorbachev’s life, and particularly be grateful for his central role in ending the Cold War, and the opportunity he provided, however brief it turned out, for a more democratic, rules-based and economically stable Russia to begin to emerge.

Sadly, just as this Russian leader sought to end a dangerous decades-long political, ideological and military rivalry with the West, another, together with his chief ally, China, seeks to create the foundations for a new Cold War.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Associate Professor Patrick Walsh contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

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