Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, died from an undisclosed illness on Aug. 30. Gorbachev was 91 years old and is widely considered as of the most influential leaders in world history, having overseen the collapse of the Soviet Union during his six years in power from 1985 to 1991.
President Joe Biden spoke of Gorbachev in an official statement and said he was “a man of remarkable vision” following his passing.
His legacy represents a separation between himself and the most recognized leaders in the tumultuous 69-year history of the Soviet Union. Mark Sachleben is a professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University who specializes in European politics and international relations. He explained the bleak circumstances of Soviet society when Gorbachev assumed power.
“If you take a look at what was happening in the 1970s with the Soviet Union,” Sachleben said, “they were bogged down in the War in Afghanistan, the economy had ground to a halt, it was not meeting consumer needs, and the country was moribund in terms of technological development.”
The economy still largely relied on centralized control in the late 1980s, and civil unrest grew as Soviet journalists exposed corruption within the government. Moreover, Gorbachev removed the Brezhnev Doctrine, a policy that permitted military force to stop European Soviet states from leaving the Soviet Union.
Satellite states detached from the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991, and nationalist Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russia. Gorbachev, still serving as the President of the Soviet Union, resigned from his position and declared it extinct on Dec. 25, 1991. This ended the Soviet Union and established the Russian Federation.
Regarding the Soviet Union’s collapse under Gorbachev, Sachleben said, “In hindsight, might it have been easier to say, ‘(Glasnost and perestroika) were not consistent with the notion of Soviet rule? Yes, that might be fair, but we don’t live in hindsight.” He continued, “Gorbachev to his dying day thought the way the Soviet Union was going in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s was unsustainable. The point of any reform is to go forward make things better so that whatever the organization is can continue to exist.”
Russia has returned to the forefront of international politics through the Russo-Ukrainian War.
The conflict’s origins are attributable to Gorbachev. He repeatedly criticized current Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the past two decades, and Putin’s recent actions indicate a negative attitude still persists after Gorbachev’s death. He refused to provide an official state funeral for Gorbachev, despite granting the courtesy to Yeltsin after his death in 2007. Putin was also absent from the ceremony, held on Sept. 3.
The current Russian president has spent much of his time in power combating Gorbachev’s democratic interests, deeming the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” in a 2005 speech.
“From the Russian historic point of view, they understand that their major threat comes from the West,” Sachleben said. “What the Soviet Union did was build a barrier between themselves and (Western) forces that have invaded them several times, and Gorbachev, in their mind, undid that.”
Sachleben ultimately observed that Gorbachev’s most crucial flaw was his failure to address the political ramifications of his policy reforms. “(I)t does kind of get to the point about where (Gorbachev’s) idea and his belief in communism may have been naive. He felt that, if you tell the people that it is for their own good, they will come and they will vote for you. That doesn’t take into account that his argument was based on an economic identity rather than a political identity.”