What a loss for the world. The death of Mikhail Gorbachev has pierced the heart of every human that was a mature person in 1990 and saw how he reshaped the world.
I have always maintained in my columns that the phenomenal presence of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela distracted from the greatness of Mikhail Gorbachev. I am contending that it is an arduous scholarly task to rate him below those two persons.
What Gorbachev did had profound positive consequences for the world. Gorbachev reshaped the world. No human with the kind of power Gorbachev had could have been restrained, if he/she wanted not to be shackled. Humans can act with obduracy and save their power and in the process kill millions of people, not caring about death and destruction once they remain in office.
Look at Spain today. The Spanish government is prepared to use force to stop Catalonia from separating from Spain. There were widespread detention and prosecution when the province declared independence. Gorbachev did not touch one person when East Germany broke away from the Warsaw Pact and unified with West Germany and when the Soviet republics broke away from the USSR.
He believed people should live in freedom. That was his message before the fall of the USSR in 1991 when he visited Cuba in 1989. Fidel Castro pretended for public relation purposes that Gorbachev would be welcomed with open arms but Castro knew Gorbachev was a different Soviet leader than all the others he dealt with since the Cuban revolution of 1959.
What Gorbachev did when he became president remains one of the unique moments in human history. This is why he rates and must be rated as one of the greatest leaders in history. In one stroke of the pen, Gorbachev just cleaned the Herculean stables of the USSR.
Political prisoners were released, Oppressive laws were abrogated. Censorship was removed. Banned publications were allowed to be printed. Banned films were permitted to be shown. But his most far-reaching innovation was the creation of a private sector.
A deeply transformative leader, the most phenomenal in world history, Gorbachev allowed every citizen of the USSR to go into the archives and confront the terrible past of the Soviet Union in which millions of people died through imprisonment, torture, execution and famine.
Gorbachev knew the USSR had to be reformed. His main concern was that the kinds of freedoms the West enjoyed, the Soviet Union should have. But this was his crucial mistake. The West and Russia had completely different traditions and evolved on different philosophical fulcrums.
But what he was naïve about was that he did not know that once the window was opened, breeze would come through. Under Gorbachev’s unlimited reach of perestroika and glasnost, the republics of the USSR saw their chances to become what they were never allowed to be –independent lands where their own culture and religion would flourish.
Gorbachev in opening up the USSR to democracy also opened up the doors to nationalism. The USSR was doomed to disappear. It is in this context one has to understand his misunderstanding of the West. He thought the peoples of the USSR would have embraced the same state of mind as pronounced in the West. But the people of western democracies were never repressed and suppressed as generations of Russians were.
When the doors to democracy were opened up, they bolted. This was in stark contrast to what happened in Quebec in Canada in 1980. When offered a chance to separate from Canada, Québécois voted 60 to 40 to remain in Canada. It had to do with the state of democracy in the federal system of Canada. There was no democracy in the Soviet system. When Gorbachev opened up the doors, the repressed nations of the USSR went their separate ways.
It was this crucial misunderstanding of the cultural history of the world that led to Gorbachev’s extreme disappointment with himself from which he did not recover. Gorbachev never foresaw that perestroika and glasnost would have led to the dissolution of the USSR. He simply believed that the USSR would have taken its place among the great democracies of Europe.
But even when the USSR was falling apart, he gave not one order to crush any movement or any individual or any organisation. Such deeds were not within his character. He ended up a very sad figure because he felt that the West betrayed him. Instead of forming an alliance with the new Russia, the West sought to encircle it with the expansion of NATO. For this, he lost a lot of admiration in Russia. But his greatness will live on.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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