Gorbachev and Bush signing bilateral documents during Gorbachev's official visit to the US. Photo: Yuryi Abramochkin / Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC-BY-SA 3.0 / license shared below

The last Soviet leader discovered the most dangerous time for a bad government is when it begins to reform, writes Sean Ledwith

The reaction to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev has been noticeably different on the two sides of what used to be known as the Iron Curtain. In the West, leaders such as Biden and Johnson have hailed Gorbachev for presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union and, according to them, consigning the idea of communism to the dustbin of history. Both have called him one of the great statesmen of the second half of the twentieth century.

In his native Russia, however, there is widespread indifference to the legacy of Gorbachev and even outright resentment of his perceived role in the collapse of living standards that followed the end of the USSR in 1991. There was no sign of queuing at a condolences book left open for him in Moscow. Putin has called Gorbachev’s legacy the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

This contrasting reaction reflects the inevitable failure of Gorbachev’s attempt to peacefully convert the top-down bureaucratic tyranny of the Soviet Union into a Western-style marketised economy, but also the hubris of Western leaders who ultimately spurned his efforts to promote greater international cooperation.

Revolution betrayed

The system that Gorbachev inherited in 1985 was not the same workers’ state founded by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. Despite its socialist pretensions, the USSR was a mutation of the aspirations and achievements of the first years of the Soviet republic. Under the pressures of civil war and foreign invasion in the 1920s, a parasitical bureaucracy had emerged under the leadership of Stalin, deploying the slogan of socialism in one country as a pretext to crush authentic proletarian democracy.

Rapid industrialization was ruthlessly imposed on the population with the objective of achieving economic and military parity with capitalist powers such as Britain, France, and the US. The consequence was the transformation through the blood of a vibrant workers’ state into a bureaucratic monstrosity that utilized a state-controlled brand of capitalism to compete with the traditional market driven-capitalisms of the West. Lip service was paid to the ideals of Lenin but his insistence on the self-emancipation of the working class was utterly ignored. Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution who masqueraded as its saviour. The word ‘soviet’ was drained of its original definition as workers’ power and became synonymous with brutal despotism.

Failed reformers

Over the following decades, cracks began to appear in the apparatus of ruthless terror inflicted on the Russian working class and in the expanded Soviet sphere that arose in Eastern Europe after WW2. The ruthless drive to maximize productivity became increasingly exhausted under the dual pressures of military competition from the US and simmering discontent from millions of workers with no voice. Within the Stalinised Communist Parties of the post-Stalin era, leaders such as Gomulka in Poland, Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, and Khrushchev in Russia itself, attempted mild reforms from above in terms of free speech but strictly within the limits of one-party control.

These all foundered on the fundamental contradiction of trying to reform an irreformable system. The apparatchiks, bureaucrats, and generals who enforced the Stalinist system were always predictably unwilling to risk the loss of their privileges which they assumed would accompany these types of liberalization. Gorbachev was in the mold of these failed reformers but by the time he emerged, the contradictions of the system had become too big to be suppressed any longer.


When he rose to power in 1985 he was hailed as part of a younger generation of CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) leaders who would shake off the corruption and stagnation of previous eras. His two fossilized predecessors as General Secretary, Andropov, and Chernenko, barely lasted one year in the post respectively, and seemed as animated in their coffins as they did while in post. As a leader in his mid-50s, Gorbachev was regarded a breadth of fresh air who would drive through the modernization of the Soviet economy and society. With his buzzwords of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), he took Western capitals by storm with a charm offensive that famously led the arch-cold warrior and capitalist ideologue Thatcher to declare him a man one could do business with.

After the public relations honeymoon, however, problems began to stack up for Gorbachev regarding what exactly restructuring and openness were supposed to mean and on whose terms they were to be implemented.

Bumps in the road

The first major bump in the road for the modernization agenda was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The first reaction of local officials was emphatically not openness but a default attempt to cover up the leak. Once the scale of the catastrophe became apparent with a massive radioactive cloud floating over much of Europe, however, the symptomatic inefficiency of the plant was exposed for the whole world to see. Gorbachev always had the challenge of weaving a path between the conservatives and the modernisers in the CPSU.

His agenda was to encourage modest reform from above but within the limits set by the hierarchy. The contradictions that had accumulated in the Stalinist system over decades made this an inherently volatile process. Boris Yeltsin was sacked as party boss in Moscow in 1987 for labelling perestroika as an inflated language for public consumption. The attempts in Gorbachev’s first few years to cautiously inch the system towards modernization had the effect of releasing the genie of popular protest out of the lamp and he never fully managed to regain control. At the beginning of the 1990s, there was an explosion of political engagement among millions of Russians who had been silenced for decades.

Return of the working class

Open criticism of the regime became acceptable, banned books and films were made available and new parties sprang up. Gorbachev’s gentle encouragement of greater participation, however, had the unintended consequence of reigniting the militant traditions of the working class that had installed the regime in 1917. In 1989, almost half a million miners in the Kuzbass and Donbas regions went on strike for better pay and conditions in the biggest mobilization the country had seen since the revolution. This was definitely not the sort of change that Gorbachev had in mind and he denounced the mass action as the worst ordeal to befall our country in all four years of restructuring and attempted to introduce a 15-month ban on strikes.

Sinatra doctrine

Gorbachev’s rise in Russia encouraged like-minded CP reformers in the Warsaw Pact states such as Hungary and Poland to initiate similar top-down liberalization. His response to them became known as the Sinatra Doctrine; in other words, let them do it their way and not send the tanks rolling in as previous Soviet leaders had done with reformist projects in previous decades. As in Russia, Gorbachev did not anticipate that this tolerance would accelerate the complete collapse of the client regimes and, most dramatically, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nationalist tensions within the USSR were also unleashed, erupting into civil wars and uprisings across Transcaucasia and the Baltic states. In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Gorbachev did send in the troops in 1991, leading to the deaths of up to a dozen protestors. Despite his benign image, there were numerous occasions when he displayed what another Russian politician described as nice teeth but with an iron bite.

Tightening grip

The ambiguous legacy of Gorbachev was also apparent by his withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan in 1989 which on the surface looked like another act of statesmanship. His redeployment of some of those forces to reinforce the KGB and Ministry of the Interior, however, revealed the true agenda of tightening his grip at home. The increasingly authoritarian nature of his rule continued in 1990 when he created the new role of executive President for himself. This was an attempt to carve out a new power base for Gorbachev outside the traditional structures of the CPSU. The party was increasingly torn between the conservatives who feared the violent implosion of the Stalinist state, as had occurred in Romania, and the pro-Western elements led by the emboldened Yeltsin who wanted to intensify the rush to extensive marketisation.

Yesterday’s man

In 1991, the former made a botched attempt to stall the reform agenda and initiated a coup that saw Gorbachev detained by armed forces with his family while on holiday with his family in Crimea. The conservatives had no real support among ordinary Russians however, who, while unenthusiastic about him, definitely did not want to return to the bad old days of the stony-faced bureaucratic dictatorship. Yeltsin was able to rally popular support back in Moscow and the coup ignominiously collapsed. This event also marked the effective end of Gorbachev’s political career. He was exposed as yesterday’s man as he waited helplessly in his dacha while Yeltsin and the conservatives fought out the battle for real power. At the end of that year, Yeltsin forced him to step down as President and the USSR officially ceased to exist.

Nato’s big lie

One of Gorbachev’s deals with the West before the end of his Presidency was that there would be not one inch eastward expansion of Nato. This was the assurance from US Secretary of State James Baker as the condition for Gorbachev accepting German reunification in 1990. Of course, what has actually happened in the intervening decades is that the Western military alliance has relentlessly expanded thousands of miles towards Russian territory. The climax of this process was the recent attempt by Nato to absorb Ukraine which has now disastrously backfired and provoked Putin’s invasion of that country earlier this year.

Not the end

Putin’s revived Greater Russian nationalism- and domestic authoritarianism-is the outcome of the West’s hubris in greeting the downfall of the USSR in 1991 as the End of History and the triumph of capitalism. Gorbachev naively thought the US and its allies would be willing to welcome Russia into their exclusive club. Unfortunately for him, the rise of the neoliberal brand of capitalism in the 1990s ensured that his compatriots were exposed to ruthless exploitation by Western entrepreneurs alongside the new generation of native oligarchs who feasted on the carcass of the Russian command economy.

Gorbachev’s political failure should be welcomed on the left as the collapse of the USSR marked the beginning of an opportunity to reclaim the authentic tradition of socialism that characterised the birth of that state. Real change to improve the condition of the working class will only come when they take power from below for themselves; not from the act of a supposedly benevolent bureaucrat from above.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters