What must it feel like to be revered in much of the world, yet widely reviled in your own country? Such was the fate of Mikahil Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Soviet Union, who died last week in Moscow.
His death has brought back memories for me and my former colleagues at the Central Intelligence Agency, which I joined in 1986, just one year after Gorbachev became general secretary. He quickly consolidated his power within the Politburo by promoting like-minded allies, then launched his perestroika and glasnost – or restructuring and openness – reforms.
In the last week, I have reconnected with several of my CIA colleagues. Despite the passage of 36 years, we still feel the excitement of having been small spokes in an enormous wheel, working on something important.
We were in the Soviet division of the now defunct Office of Leadership Analysis within the CIA. My “account” was the leadership of the 15 Soviet republics, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan to the Baltic states. While I didn’t directly write about Gorbachev, his policies impacted everything I did, as the reforms he launched led to a push for greater freedom both within the USSR and in the Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain.
It’s well-documented that current Russian President Vladimir Putin was no fan of Gorbachev, and that Putin blames Gorbachev for Russia’s lost empire. Putin is correct that the empire would have lasted a bit longer if not for Gorbachev’s policies.
But the real wonder is how quickly it all crumbled and how explosive the pent-up desire for freedom and self-determination was in all of those countries and republics. It was like a lightning strike on a parched California mountain: the raging fire that perestroika and glasnost produced could not be contained before it consumed everything in its path. Which in this case was the USSR itself.
Of course, glasnost and perestroika were just the matches that set the fire, not its cause; those arid conditions had been almost 70 years in the making before Gorbachev arrived on the scene. A repressive, corrupt government coupled with a dismal economy was going to crumble at some point anyway.
Yet absolutely no one within the CIA – at least no one I ever talked with, heard from or read anything by – was predicting that the collapse of the USSR was imminent.
There were definitely hints, though, that change was coming: first from then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s statement that Gorbachev was someone the West could do business with, to then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick saying in a talk at the CIA that Gorbachev was a “rose in a sea of gray” within the Soviet Union, to President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987.
I think Gorbachev had no idea what he was unleashing when he implemented his reforms. The consensus was that he thought he could make the existing system work better. Instead, the pent-up desire for freedom blew up the entire system, culminating with the coup attempt 31 years ago that led to Gorbachev’s resignation and the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it.
At the time, this joke about perestroika was told:
A man walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender says, “That will be two kopeks. One for the beer and the other for the perestroika.” The man puts down two kopeks. The bartender picks them up, then hands one back, saying “We have no beer.”
Putin blames Gorbachev for that – and much more. It’s likely that Putin would have faced down the protests that occurred in the Baltics and Poland and East Germany with force. Gorbachev bravely chose “the hard right over the easy wrong” and reacted with restraint. In the end, he chose the loss of an empire over mass destruction and death.
Perhaps Gorbachev was something of an accidental statesman. But there’s a reason he’s loved in the West much more than in Russia.
The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. She worked as a leadership analyst at the CIA from 1986 to 1992.