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The meaning of Mikhail Gorbachev

The Soviet leader supported a corrupt system but didn't use force to try to keep it from crumbling


U.S. President Ronald Reagan talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, D.C., in 1987. Associated Press/Photo by Boris Yurchenko

The meaning of Mikhail Gorbachev

At first glance, the most remarkable thing about the new Soviet leader was that he seemed to have a pulse. Mikhail Gorbachev became the eighth leader of the totalitarian state on March 11, 1985. At age 54, he became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and he arrived at the top of the heap in Moscow just as things were falling apart at the seams.

Three successive Soviet leaders had died in the span of three years. The decrepit Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. His successor, former KGB boss Yuri Andropov, died after less than two years in power. At that point, the barely conscious Konstantin Chernenko took office, only to die after only thirteen months in power. Years later, U.S. President Ronald Reagan would explain: “My problem for the first few years was they kept dying on me.” Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, had been kept busy attending funerals for Soviet leaders. It was becoming a farce.

Western leaders recognized that Mikhail Gorbachev represented something new in Moscow, but how new?

Gorbachev was born in 1931, and his peasant family knew the hardships of the Soviet Union in the age of Josef Stalin. Interestingly, Gorbachev’s most significant biographer, William Taubman, relates that Gorbachev was secretly baptized through the efforts of his mother and grandmother. But the young Gorbachev would rise through the ranks of Soviet youth organizations, holding to the official Soviet atheism and ideology. His aptitude was noted by local authorities, and he entered the ranks of the most privileged young people when he was admitted to Moscow State University. There he studied law and also met his wife, Raisa Titarenko. Raisa, who earned a research doctorate, was an even more ardent student of Marxism and Soviet ideology. Together, they made for a Soviet power couple, but power came only in stages.

Over time, Gorbachev moved up the ranks of Soviet functionaries, party leaders, and bureaucrats. Along the way he had powerful patrons, which was key to advance in the Communist Party. Eventually, he came to the attention of Brezhnev, and Gorbachev became a member of the party’s Central Committee in 1971 and a full member of the Politburo in 1980—just in time to be on the scene as the gerontocracy crumbled.

KGB chief Andropov was the last of Gorbachev’s patrons, and when Andropov died after just two years as Soviet leader, Gorbachev could have been sidelined. Instead, he rose to be the leader of the Soviet Union barely a year after Andropov’s death. But Gorbachev rose as the Soviet Union was in what turned about to be a fatal dive.

The USSR was brought to its end by the concerted efforts of Western leaders and the pressures of internal corruption and incompetence.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” famously saw Gorbachev as a man with which the West could “do business” and Ronald Reagan undertook to get to know Gorbachev and take his measure. Gorbachev was a new face and he exuded a new style, but his aim until the very end of his days in power was to perpetuate the Soviet Union, not to preside over its demise. He remained a Marxist and intended to reform the Soviet Union, not to destroy it. Decades after the breakup of the USSR, Gorbachev would identify with Vladimir Lenin and break only with Josef Stalin. His famed programs of “glasnost” and “perestroika” were intended to open Soviet society—but only within limits.

The USSR was brought to its end by the concerted efforts of Western leaders and the pressures of internal corruption and incompetence. Reagan had called out the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” Joined by Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, Reagan confronted the Soviets with a challenge they could not overcome. The message of freedom reached even into the heart of Russia. The captive nations of Eastern Europe would eventually free themselves from Soviet domination, the Berlin Wall would fall, and the Iron Curtain would collapse.

The Soviet Union was an economic disaster, made clear by Reagan’s sustained effort to force the Soviets to respond to his buildup of military defenses and his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). There is more to the story than the roles played by Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, but these three individuals, and Reagan in particular, forced the Soviets into a race they could not win.

So why is Mikhail Gorbachev credited in the West as a man of peace? Put simply, it is because he risked his power and status (and eventually his life) and did not use the immense power of the Soviet Union’s military, including an arsenal of 40,000 nuclear weapons, in order to defend the dying Soviet system. He allowed the Berlin Wall to fall, the Iron Curtain to come down, and imprisoned nations to go free. In truth, he probably could not have prevented these liberating developments, but he did not resort to a military crackdown. For that he deserves full credit.

In today’s Russia, that amounts to full blame. Vladimir Putin saw the breakup of the Soviet Union as one of the darkest days in human history. Putin is Russia’s revenge on Mikhail Gorbachev. To understand the meaning of Mikhail Gorbachev, just imagine how history would have been different if someone like Putin, and not like Gorbachev, had held power in the Kremlin back in the crucial years between 1985 and 1991. History, as Christians know well, comes with many tragedies, and with plenty of near misses.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.


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