Gorbachev: End of an Era | Daily News

Gorbachev: End of an Era

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called the disintegration of the Soviet Union (USSR), the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”. And the man who made it all happen, Mikhail Gorbachev (91), passed away on August 30.

It would not be incorrect to say that President Gorbachev literally changed the political map of the world, perhaps irreversibly. Even President Putin, who has made no secret of the fact that he wants to restore the glory of the Old Russian Empire, has acknowledged this fact: “Anyone who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brain.”

Even Gorbachev did not have the heart to see the Soviet Union itself break up into 15 countries, with a vestigial Russia at the front. This was not the result he foresaw when he let go of the Eastern European countries that were earlier mere appendages of Moscow. But after heeding US President Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down that (Berlin) Wall”, Gorbachev witnessed many previously unthinkable developments taking place at a very rapid pace. Within just one year of the Wall coming down in 1989, Germany was unified again.

Gorbachev was instrumental in not only tearing down that divisive wall, but also ripping apart the very fabric of the dreaded Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War as well as the nuclear arms race that simmered between the Soviet Union and the West since 1945. The USSR itself was hit by this yearning for freedom that had been stifled for decades and the Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin on Christmas Day, 1991, which is also the day that Gorbachev stepped down as the last leader of the Soviet Union after just six years in power. Thirty years later, there is a whiff of another Cold War between these two old adversaries, aggravated by the War in Ukraine. This new Cold War is a phenomenon that Gorbachev never really wanted to witness.

Privolnoye, the little village in Stavropol, Southern Russia, where Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, is a far cry from the corridors of power at the Kremlin in Moscow. Having suffered in his formative years from the famine and the Great Terror unleashed by Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” delivered on February 25, 1956, denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and the use of violence and persecution was like an arrow that pierced Gorbachev’s soul. After all, both his grandparents had been imprisoned for “anti-Soviet” activities under the Great Terror.

By 1956, Gorbachev had already been a member of the Communist Party for four years, but Khrushchev’s blistering speech was perhaps the moment that steered his political trajectory in an entirely new direction.

Gorbachev moved up rapidly through the party ranks in Stavropol to become the highest-ranking official, the First Secretary, from 1970 to 1978. A lengthy article Gorbachev wrote that year on agricultural reforms caught the eyes of the powers that be in Moscow. He was elected a Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee and was put in charge of agriculture in Leonid Brezhnev’s final years in power, thereby bringing him to Moscow.

This was the start of a journey that propelled Gorbachev to the seat of the General Secretary of the Party (and hence the Presidency) by March 1985 at a rather youthful 53 following the death of Konstantin Chernenko. He was in fact the youngest member of the Politburo.

By this time, Gorbachev had already made several trips to the West, where he saw that democracy really works. He had also met several world leaders including “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, who famously said “I like Gorbachev – we can do business with him”. He also formed a lasting bond with former US President Ronald Reagan, with whom he worked closely on nuclear arms control from November 1985 when the duo first met.

Gorbachev lost no time in bringing in radical reforms to the Soviet way of life and the political apparatus, mainly through the concepts of Glasnost (Openness) and Perestroika (Restructuring). He also held the first democratic election in the USSR. But by opening up his country and loosening the grip on vassal States, Gorbachev unleashed forces that he could not control, which eventually led to the implosion of the USSR and a completely redrawn map of Europe. In the three decades that followed Gorbachev’s exit from power, many hitherto unforeseen events have taken place – including some newly-independent States becoming members of arch-nemesis NATO.

Indeed, Gorbachev had the rather unfortunate distinction of being loathed at home for the dissolution of the Soviet Union while being idolized abroad for ending the Cold War and giving freedom to former satellite States. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, Gorbachev cemented his legacy by launching the fiercely independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Gorbachev Foundation which is dedicated to achieving world peace. And he genuinely believed in his mission to bring peace to a world on the precipice of war. Along with South Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela, Gorbachev will forever be remembered as a Statesman who changed the world for good.


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