From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Dec. 27, 1991. Complete text:
In the year of his 60th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the greatest reformer of the 20th century, has been forced to leave the post of president of the USSR, which he himself established. The great totalitarian empire that was founded on the ruins of the tsarist Russian Empire in 1917 by the Communist Lenin collapsed in 1991 under the chaotic burden of the reforms begun by the Communist Gorbachev. This collapse had been predicted by many – only not by Gorbachev himself. The collapse of the empire cost him political prestige (especially within the country) and the post of head of that state. Neither his comrades-in-arms in Russia, already powerless, nor his colleagues in the West stood up for him. Yet just a year ago he was crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize.
One cannot belittle what Mikhail Gorbachev did for the country and the world. But his services to the world were achieved in large part at the expense of his defeats within the USSR. He withdrew the nuclear threat from the West but destabilized the situation in Eastern Europe and, most important, in the USSR itself, which turned into a smoldering hotbed of conflicts between nationalities and states over an area covering one-sixth of the earth’s land mass.
Certainly Gorbachev did not foresee how events would develop in the USSR. Very soon after perestroika began, he lost control over them. I think that Gorbachev’s main achievement – glasnost – turned at once into his main defeat. He removed from the colossal edifice of totalitarianism only one piece (at first glance, a tiny one): the curbs on expression. And he replaced those curbs not even with free speech, only with glasnost. But even that was enough – the rest came tumbling down like an avalanche.
Could Gorbachev have halted this process? I think he could have. All he would have had to do would have been to once again “gag” the “loudmouths” – at that time, still a small group of intellectuals. Why didn’t he do that? Probably because, despite his provincial origins and Communist complexes, he was embarrassed before the world. He didn’t want to cut short what he had begun; he didn’t want to show weakness in the face of his initial failures. He really felt responsible not only for his own country but for its humanistic image and his, as a politician. He wanted to conduct a civilized policy in an uncivilized country, a policy even more civilized than the policies of Western leaders. And he succeeded, introducing the so-called new thinking in international affairs. He failed to take one thing into account: While outstripping Western politicians in the world arena, he increasingly lost touch with the real course of events in his own county, and in this respect he was outstripped by many people, who formed a rift between him and the nomenklatura elite of the Soviet Totalitarian State – a rift that was very narrow at first but widened rapidly with each passing month.
A man with fewer international and humanistic ambitions than Gorbachev, the provincial from Stavropol, would probably have acted more circumspectly. And he would not have been overthrown by those to whom he gave freedom. In essence, Gorbachev suffered Khrushchev’s fate – if the August coup had succeeded, the analogy would have been complete. In December 1991, Gorbachev was overthrown by a new nomenklatura that someday will become part of a real democracy. A nomenklatura that thinks not in the context of mankind but in the context of its own specific republics: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc. – they cannot yet be called citizens of the world. They will go down in the history of their own countries, for the most part. Whereas Gorbachev will go down in the history of mankind as a whole. This is his chief tragedy and his chief triumph – he did not become a national hero; he became an international hero.
(This article was written for the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.)