Gorby: a decent man who accidentally broke the USSR

In the West Mikhail Gorbachev was praised for dismantling the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and ending eight decades of Communist domination. In Russia he was reviled for shrinking and weakening Russia. Vladimir Putin has described his legacy as the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".

Gorbachev ruefully agreed with him. In an interview in 2006 with USA Today he said: “The Soviet Union could have been preserved and should have been preserved. ... I wanted to decentralize the Soviet Union and give the maximum amount of rights to the republics as guaranteed under the constitution, while preserving in the center the most important functions such as defense, diplomacy, coordination. That was it.”

This is not what happened. Instead, he pushed over the first domino in a long line which has culminated in a bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Failure is the first take-away from Gorbachev’s six years in power: he confirmed the law of unintended consequences. He was a convinced Communist who believed that the USSR would become a kinder, gentler place if there were “free elections, the separation of powers, a multiparty system, [and] recognition of market economics as a necessary tool to modernize our society”.

But the Communist Party was the linchpin of the Soviet system. As soon as it lost its dominant position, the USSR disintegrated.

The world is better off without a Communist Russia, no doubt about that -- even if the transition from the USSR to 15 independent states could have been managed better. But it is astonishing that such an intelligent man did not foresee that his good intentions would lead to political and economic chaos.

The sound of those slowly falling dominoes may be more muted but a similar situation exists in Western countries, notably in the United States. Well-intentioned, intelligent American apparatchiks bought into the Sexual Revolution as a kind of secular salvation. They hoped that escape from the bonds of traditional sexual morality would lead to a freer, more equal, more authentic society.

They ignored the law of unintended consequences. Marriage itself is disappearing in some countries. In the US 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock and the marriage rate has halved since 1990. One out of every five pregnancies ends in abortion. Marriage has been opened to homosexuals. The #MeToo movement has exposed a culture of sexual abuse in the highest levels of society. Birth rates are steadily declining and societies are ageing rapidly. Why go on? The litany has become a cliché.

Gorbachev’s failure presents a teachable moment. It should lead us to ask: how can intelligent people be so deluded? Perhaps it is because they have ignored the transcendent impulses of the human spirit. In the USSR, Communism reduced men and women to economic units and ignored their longing for freedom and dignity. In the West, consumer capitalism treats them as quivering bundles of sexual desire.

Pope John Paul II often said that the world was divided into two competing forms of materialism: Marxism and consumerist capitalism. Both are based on a flawed understanding of man which dismisses the highest of these spiritual aspirations, religion, as ''a kind of idealistic illusion to be fought with the most suitable means and methods according to circumstances of time and place, in order to eliminate it from society and from man's very heart.''

He was right; the real delusion is materialism.  

Success is the second take-away from Gorbachev’s death. How did he manage to dismantle the USSR -- in spite of himself? One reason, surely, is simply this: he was a decent man.

Like most high-profile politicians, Gorbachev was a complex personality with conflicting impulses and motivations. But fundamentally he was hard-working, sincere and humane. He loved his wife Raisa, who died in 1999 of leukaemia, dearly. He charmed both Party members and the Soviet people. His essential decency made it possible for him to begin the dangerous process of reforming the Soviet system.

One of the most impressive features of Gorbachev’s long life is that he left office without enriching himself. As The Economist notes: “Incomprehensibly, for modern Russian politicians, Mr Gorbachev emerged from his presidency almost empty-handed; he would earn money advertising Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton handbags.”

Nice guys finish last, they say in America. Perhaps in Russia they would agree when they remember Comrade Gorby. But the point is that without his essential decency, the Evil Empire would still be suffocating half of Europe. History will judge that Gorbachev was a nice guy who finished first.

Which leads me to wonder why the USSR was lucky enough to have a decent man as leader after a succession of monsters, tyrants, and mummies. There were rumours that Gorbachev was a closet Christian. Are they true?

Gorbachev took his religious beliefs to the grave. He was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church but apparently he never was a practicing Christian.

Nonetheless, in 2008 he visited the tomb of St Francis of Assisi and knelt there for half an hour, sparking rumours that he was considering becoming a Catholic. But he denied this, describing it as a fantasy. "To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist,” he told the media. Even the Russian Orthodox Church was sceptical. "He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him," a spokesman said.

His protestations notwithstanding, there is something mysterious about that visit to Assisi. Can anyone imagine the High Priest of Atheism, Richard Dawkins, kneeling at the tomb of St Francis?

Did anything happen since then to change his mind? But Paul Kengor, writing in the American Spectator, recalls an intriguing incident which happened shortly after the 2008 visit. One of President Reagan’s top aides, William P. Clark Jr, heard about Gorbachev’s interest in St Francis and sent him a Russian translation of the saint’s writings. Gorbachev responded and sent a message that he would like to talk with Clark “about St. Francis and the Christian faith generally”. That meeting never happened.

So no one will ever know what really made Gorby tick. But there’s no harm in asking.


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