Lev Shlosberg: He Chose Freedom – a word of thanks to Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev on the day of his birth

2 March 2023

by Lev Shlosberg

Source: Novaya gazeta

Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of the USSR, was born on 2 March. This particular date has become a major event in world politics and a secondary news story in Russia. Gorbachev is the only politician in the second half of the twentieth century who can be said to have changed the world. The changed world is grateful to him for this and honors him as a political titan, but for many years the Russia that rose up on the ruins of the Soviet Union could not decide what it cared about: great power nostalgia for the Bolshevik empire; or constructing a modern democracy. Under Putin, the decision was made.

The millions of Russian citizens Gorbachev freed do not love (if they don’t hate) Gorbachev precisely for the freedom they were given. They didn’t need and weren’t prepared for it, and this “gift in vain, gift by chance” took them off guard. It cannot be said that Gorbachev anticipated the era. He was one of the few world leaders who intuited it precisely and followed it as much as they could until they either wore out or fell behind.  To this day, though, this leap of his moves the world, while his liberated fellow countrymen blame him specifically, more than anyone else, because they found the fruits of freedom indigestible.

* * *

Gorbachev came to power during the so-called funeral five-year plan, when elderly general secretaries kept being carried out of the Kremlin feet first at eighteen-month intervals and the propaganda department didn’t have time to change the portraits. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union seemed to be standing firmly on its feet, but the expression of the people in the first row was permanently funereal and no longer shared virtually anything in common with life. A strange mixture of failure to understand what was going on and a presentiment of the inevitable end froze on them and became the Soviet Union’s death mask while it was still alive. They had no energy, no desire for life, no  joy. It was a panopticum of political corpses gripped in mortal combat for power.

Gorbachev’s appearance among these people was a total surprise. In a certain utilitarian sense, it was utterly illogical in the system of power as it stood, although the logic of life is precisely that at the decisive moment it brings to the surface of being an element alien and contradictory to the system, an element whose mission is to break that system and open the way for vital forces.

To this day there are ongoing debates about whether he himself fully understood his own mission, whether he was conscious of the tectonic shifts he was producing in the world order. This will forever remain the enigma of Gorbachev, no matter what he himself said about it. Because no one could have fully predicted the results of his efforts. Gorbachev freed up forces for development and self-realization whose foray into freedom did not allow anyone to accurately predict their actions, to appreciate their consequences, or to insure against all risks, especially in his own country, where at the moment he came to power there was not a single institution of freedom.

Liberation makes life multivariant, and the variability of development that opened up before people, countries, and the world as such equally, was the main result of Gorbachev’s labor, predetermining his own political fate, among other things.

* * *

He could not and did not set himself the goal of bringing down the Soviet Union, of course. He set himself the goal of bringing down the CPSU. Having risen to the pinnacle of power, his lively peasant mind saw the unnaturalness of what was going on in the country and attempted to jumpstart the life mechanism in the enfeebled body.

Gorbachev’s perestroika was above all an attempt to bring the moribund Soviet system back to life. But the life forces it released did not agree to develop in the forms that had existed before but rather sought completely new life paths in keeping with themselves. At that point he entered a race with time, which was speeding up, a race that tactically, as the bearer of power, he ultimately lost because life’s challenges proved more complex then all the variations it had projected for the development of events.

He was very powerfully linked to and weighed down by political problems, and he underestimated the economic consequences.

Gorbachev was a failed economist who failed to hold on to the economic situation in the country. The parade of economic sovereignties (especially, on the part of the RSFSR, after Boris Yeltsin came to power) took taxes away from him right when oil prices were hitting record lows, and he took on foreign debt in hopes that the relative freedom of economic activity would yield its fruits for the country. But Gorbachev never did create a new economic model for the Soviet Union, and that spelled his loss of public support to a greater degree than his political blunders did.

All the market manifestations of the Soviet economy coming out from under plan oversight (inflation, goods shortages, the threat of famine, price hikes, the supply crisis) required immediate economic reforms, a completely different logic of decision making, a different organization for the state apparatus, and an organically different political model for the country.

The Soviet Union was not alone in not having or even being able to have that kind of political experience. No country in the world had the experience of the political and economic transformation of such a huge monopolistic state machine. Gorbachev’s desperate efforts became that experience, which has not been thoroughly analyzed to this day.

He lived the main six years of his political fate to the breaking point. He tried to reform the CPSU up until the very end, but as soon as Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution about the CPSU’s leading role was repealed, than immediately—quite naturally—the people’s political energy began to seek out solutions in other models, while the CPSU degraded before his eyes and became not reformist—as he’d wanted—but society’s most reactionary force. The CPSU petrified, refused to modernize, and drove out reformers, who themselves no longer had any desire to waste time and effort in order to make it a modern party. While he feared letting the CPSU sail freely and held it in his hands to the last moment, until the system came to hate him fiercely and definitively, betrayed him, and drove itself into a political grave after attempting to drag the whole country in behind it.

His comrades-in-arms distanced themselves from him, accused him of indecision, illogic, and inconsistency. It’s easy to understand them, certainly, but objectively this magnified the influence on him of the reactionary circle that in the end became almost a blockade.

The greater the possibilities he opened up for the country, the greater the scale of actions the energy released from the people demanded. This avalanche of need for freedom proved much more powerful than his own expectations and substantially exceeded all the capabilities of the aged state system. The system began working against him. He began to lag behind and lose the initiative.

He never was able to launch fully a democratic, multi-party mechanism and parliamentarism, to stand above interest groups and become a “people’s president.”

He did not agree to direct national elections for USSR president, having been handed this post by the Congress of People’s Deputies, which was overwhelmingly under his control. This birth trauma of insufficient legitimacy, along with the appearance between him and the people of an incompetent and sluggish political intermediary whose authority was dwindling right before their eyes, deprived him of any opportunity to address the people directly at the decisive moment, to have a conversation with them over the bureaucracy’s heads, to set about full-fledged reform of the state apparatus that grew from the bowels of the CPSU.

Until August 1991, he remained much more the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee than he was the President of the Soviet Union, and the cup of the past turned out to be much heavier than he could have imagined. The farther it went, the more it fettered his movements. In August 1991, the system attempted to take full political revenge, but they miscalculated in a major way: the people Gorbachev had freed had no desire to bear the Communist yoke anymore.

This was the moment he lost the political leadership, and his competitors for power sensed their own strength.

The entire modern political system emerged from “Gorbachev’s overcoat.”

He opened the way for the entire modern Russian political elite—both the elite that recognizes his services to the country and the world and those who despise him. 

In the almost twenty years since Gorbachev resigned from the highest office — taken from him by his foolish political children, like a sort of King Lear — a huge portion of our country’s population has still not accepted one of the main postulates of freedom: regardless of whether you are granted freedom or if you pay a high price for it, you are still personally responsible for the way you use the conditions of your freedom. And no one bears that responsibility more than you yourself.

The lessons of freedom turned out to be questions that required daily answering. This difficult personal work was an inspiration to some and a burden to others. To this day, these chains of captivity prevent people from comprehending and accepting all that Gorbachev accomplished.

He placed the value of the individual above the value of the empire.

He returned freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, and freedom of religion to the country for the first time in the 20th century. He rid the media of censorship. Gorbachev is the real progenitor of free Soviet and Russian journalism.

He brought political prisoners back into the public sphere, many of whom, like Andrei Sakharov, became his key opponents.

He recognized the value of public criticism of authority.

He ensured the first alternative — that is, democratic — elections for councils at all levels and created space for political competition.

He freed the church from the government’s political diktat but left the country a secular state, without cloaking it in the cassocks of clericalism.

He tried to destroy the ‘besieged fortress’ mentality in Russia, when a country’s problems and troubles are blamed on other people and a ‘fifth column.’ (It quickly became apparent that he didn’t destroy it completely.)

He brought forward the idea of non-governmental watchdogs for power structures, although he never implemented it, which also led to a personal dramatic catastrophe.

He fought desperately against alcoholism, trying to save a nation bogged down in sin. Indeed, in the first few years of perestroika, the early 1980s, the last generally healthy generation in our country was born, despite all the nonsense of the anti-alcohol campaign in local communities.

He rehabilitated political prisoners from the Stalinist, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev periods. As the grandson of a dispossessed and repressed peasant, he had intrinsic immunity to Stalinism.

He acknowledged the tragedy of Katyn and opened up the Stalinist ‘special folders’ for the world.

He withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and saved thousands of lives.

He destroyed the ‘iron curtain’ between the USSR and the rest of the world, and made it possible to freely enter and leave the country.

He politically destroyed the Berlin Wall and allowed for the reunification of Europe and the almost bloodless — with the exception of Romania — liberation of its Eastern part from the communist morass.

He placed the people’s right to political self-determination above ideological interests and motives. This saved thousands of lives in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

He ended the Cold War, which had taken an enormous material and immaterial toll on the country and the world. Before he came to power, the USSR was spending 25% of the state budget on military expenditures.

He enabled nuclear arms limitation negotiations, including for strategic arms limitation, and he restored the world’s chances of lasting peace, without a nuclear confrontation.

The USSR unilaterally declared a nuclear test ban, thereby forcing all other nuclear states to review their international policy strategies. In 1996, he was the first of the world’s politicians to put forward the concept of a nuclear-free world.

A scion of the totalitarian CPSU, he was able to rise to an understanding and expression of European humanitarian values, which surpassed the level on which contemporaneous leaders of the foremost countries of the West, including the USA, understood the fundamentals of world politics. He earned his Nobel Peace Prize honestly.

Lastly, he demonstrated that the top-most person in a state can be humane, can above all be human, can love his wife, can be a loyal and devoted man rather than a mere pretence at one. 

Ultimately, he can weep. 

For the duration of his political life at the heights of power, he did not strengthen but weakened his personal power and facilitated (often without wanting to but fully aware of the significance of what was happening) the creation of new centres of power, new vectors of influence, new political institutions. 

The Soviet machinery of state, created as an apparatus of compulsion and violence, constantly recrudesced, seriously belabouring both the people and Gorbachev in person as the state’s number one. He underestimated the risks of Soviet ethnic administrative borders, drawn in Stalin’s red pen onto the map of the Russian Empire. He underestimated the destructive force of nationalism altogether.

The condition of the state and his own political life were grievously undermined by the bloody events of ethnic enmity in Alma-Ata, Karaganda, Fergana, Osh, Andizhan, Nagornyy Karabakh, Baku, Dushanbe, Yerevan, Tskhinvali, Tbilisi, Novyy Uzen, the Dniester Region, Vilnius and Riga. With each new blood, he lost legitimacy – irrespective of whether he was himself accused of organizing the bloodshed or of a lack of control over security officials. 

At the crucial moment, however, when the use of force was the only (and, as he well understood, senseless) means of protecting his personal power, he consciously rejected violence because the main victim of the use of force in any scenario would be the people.

He departed, avoiding bloodshed. 

He opened the way to others, gave them the chance to take action.

The people did not come out to defend the USSR or its president. The Soviet empire no longer had common political value for either the people or the elite.

His choice of freedom was stronger than he was. Stronger than a country that had grown up in unfreedom. Stronger than a people who had suffered for freedom but failed to recognise all its challenges. 

He picked an “overcoat to grow into” for the country and the world and many found that wearing it was very uncomfortable, empty and cold. If we could remember the feeling of a newborn baby, it would probably be very similar. 

* * *

Gorbachev is the only leader of our country for many centuries to achieve something unique in Russia: he remained a political and public figure even after he retired. Most importantly, he remained (perhaps even fully became) a free man.

For centuries before Gorbachev, the end of power meant the end of life for a politician in Russia and the USSR, while some of his predecessors ended their lives amid agonizing convulsions of power. Whereas he showed that the end of power is not death, the end of power is that life goes on. 

When he retired, he did not request legally guaranteed immunity for himself and his family. And over two decades of absolute freedom, not one “case” has appeared in the search for compromising material on Gorbachev, not one suspicion of financial irregularity, not one accusation of self-interest.

Neither he nor his relatives went on to found joint-stock companies, become offshore tax residents, or set up dacha co-operatives staffed with mafiosi.

A reserve colonel since 1978, he did not add a single star to his epaulettes throughout his tenure as head of state (including in the post of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the USSR), nor did he sign a single decree awarding himself honours.

As a matter of fact, he didn’t take anything for himself.

A key point here is that Gorbachev left no political heirs. The authorities of the Russian Federation were not his political successors. They did not take his achievements into account, and they did not learn from him. They took power for the sake of power itself. Ultimately, this brought about the complete moral collapse of the Russian state and is now leading it to its political downfall.

The first and most important thing the authorities of the Russian Federation gave up was freedom. They gave up the right of the people to make their own political choices, to make politics subordinate to the will of the people, and to put the value of the individual above that of the state.

The high-ranking political crooks who have installed themselves in power in Russia today are genetically incapable of recognising Gorbachev as their political predecessor and will never do so. That is because he fought not for power, but for its reform. Instead of sitting on the throne and clinging to it with all his might, he gave away ultimate power. He did not blame the people for anything but gave them the right and a genuine opportunity to make their own choices.

Gorbachev is fundamentally antithetical to the ‘power vertical’ and the United Russia people. Moreover, he poses a threat to them with his vast political experience and close affinity with freedom.

And they are dragging Russia back into the putrid imperial swamp. Freedom as a core personal and social value is deeply alien to them.

In the first ten years of the 21st century, Russia has rapidly retreated on a political level into pre-Gorbachev times – a time of unremitting stagnation. “One country, one people, one national leader, one centre of power, and one authority.” And one political impasse for all, with worrisome prospects for finding a way out.

Twenty-odd years ago, a single man who had all the instruments of ultimate earthly power at his disposal attempted to reform a system that was in its death throes. He tried to find a way out of the impasse and lead the people to freedom.

The way out was not at all as he imagined it would be. Nevertheless, he stoically embraced this closing chapter in history and accepted both the will of the people and his own fate.

He sacrificed personal power in the name of public freedom.

He set an example of respect for freedom as a vital institution and core social value of our time. In the second half of the twentieth century, he was the key driver behind the creation of a strategically new global political landscape for Russia and the world. Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and dozens of world leaders have all lived and worked, and continue to live and work, in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev: the first and last president of the USSR.

He chose freedom for them, too.

They have answered and continue to answer the questions asked of them without mentioning his name or even thinking about him. Unlike dictatorship, newfound freedom is not embodied in any one person; it belongs to everyone.

Since Gorbachev left power, the path he followed – his actions, his achievements, and his mistakes – has guided world politics in practice for thirty years. 

That path still serves a purpose. It continues to create space for freedom for millions of people in different countries whose fate was decided in the six Gorbachev years.

The world is still trying to grow into Gorbachev’s overcoat.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Nina dePalma, Melanie Moore and Lindsay Munford.

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