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OPINION: Gorbachev sought reform, but got more than that

By Lee Hamilton


Not many people can say that they changed the course of history. Mikhail Gorbachev, who died [on Aug. 30] at age 91, is one of those few people. He had a profound impact on world affairs. It may not have been the impact he intended, but he changed the world for the better. 

Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, presiding from 1985-1991. It was a tumultuous time. He oversaw the first free Soviet elections, ordered the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and dealt with damage from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. 

More consequentially, he saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of independence movements that brought democracy to much of Eastern Europe. In a few short years, the map of Europe was redrawn. The Cold War and the bipolar world, in which the United States and the USSR were rough equals, were no more. 

A faithful Communist Party apparatchik, Gorbachev didn’t intend such transformation. But he saw clearly that the hidebound and bureaucratic Soviet system was blocking economic progress. His reforms — glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring — unleashed change he couldn’t control. 

I met and spoke with Gorbachev several times, and I found him to be a fascinating and immensely talented individual, with high intelligence, charm, and charisma. My guess is he would have succeeded in any political system of which he was a part. On a personal level, I liked him and believe most Americans would have liked him if they had met him. 

After he left office, I invited Gorbachev to Indiana for a conference and lecture. To my surprise, he accepted. I think he wanted to learn a bit more about the American Midwest. During the visit, we went to eat at a restaurant in Bloomington. Of course, everyone there recognized him. He worked the room, shaking hands and chatting like an American politician campaigning for office. At one point, he noticed that employees were going in and out of the kitchen, and he followed them and shook hands with the kitchen staff. 

Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and was widely hailed as a liberator and modernizer. In his rhetoric, he did sometimes sound like a small-d democrat, although he would probably have rejected the label. He wanted to reform the Soviet system, not destroy it. 

One of his signal accomplishments was the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first arms agreement that eliminated an entire class of Soviet and U.S. weapons. Gorbachev understood that the arms race was stunting his country’s growth. From my conversations with him, I don’t doubt his commitment to a more peaceful world was genuine. 

Many Americans credited President Ronald Reagan with the Soviet collapse; they thought his U.S. military buildup created an arms race that fatally weakened the USSR. Gorbachev rejected that view. He insisted the collapse resulted from inconsistencies and contradictions within the Soviet system. 

The rigid Soviet system had been growing more brittle for decades. Gorbachev tried to reform it, but his economic restructuring didn’t bring prosperity. He was caught between hardliners who rejected reform and critics who wanted more radical change. He remained popular abroad but not at home, where he was blamed for the decline of Russian greatness. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” 

It may be too early to pass judgment on Gorbachev’s legacy, but I believe it will be largely positive. A talented leader, he was a reformer who ultimately failed to achieve his goals. His efforts to create a more open society had some success but were reversed by Putin. But the world today is more peaceful and secure than it would have been without Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership.                

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.