Gorbachev with Putin in 2000. www.kremlin.ru. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, who has died aged 91, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War when he led the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. But on Saturday Vladimir Putin denied him full state honours and was ‘too busy’ to attend the funeral.

Most government officials also stayed away. Only one foreign leader attended, President Orban of Hungary. Despite glowing tributes from world leaders, the war in Ukraine meant that no western heads of state felt able to attend.

Putin did not even lower the flags on government buildings. Riot police and security guards were out in force to marshal the thousands of people who turned up to file past the coffin and pay their respects, more than had been expected. The ceremony was meant to end at noon but had to be extended by two hours to accommodate the crowds. Many of them were too young to remember Gorbachev, and exiled Russian journalist Farida Rustamova has suggested that they used the funeral to express their opposition to Putin.

The popular narrative today is that Gorbachev was the good guy trying to bring freedom and democracy to Eastern Europe. He was undermined by hard-line nationalists who still blame him for the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the chaotic regime of his successor, Boris Yeltsin, it was the hardliners, many of them KGB, who regained control, and bad old Russia is once more the evil empire while our government ignores our own legacy of empire building.

In 1989 Gorbachev warned the East German leader, Erich Honecker, “Life punishes those who come too late.” Honecker was clamping down on protesters in East Berlin in the weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall that marked the end of his regime and brought about a united Germany.


It may be that Gorbachev came too early. He was a loyal Communist Party member who was quickly promoted to the Politburo and was still in his fifties when he succeeded the elderly Andropov as General Secretary and became the effective ruler of Russia. Gorbachev was both a liberal and a democrat, and also a supporter of the Soviet Union. He wanted to reform Soviet Russia in order to save it but was reliant on a party apparatus tied to the old ways of thinking.

Gorbachev’s achievements were mixed. The collapse of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was probably inevitable, given the strain of being a military superpower sustained by a Third World economy. Without Gorbachev that collapse would have been more like the bloody turmoil that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, only much worse.

He refused to use Russian military might to prevent the breakaway of the Warsaw Pact countries. But he did try to use force in a failed attempt to prevent the secession of the Baltic states from the Soviet Union.

He ended Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, but this led to the western-backed Mujahadeen installing the Taliban regime.

Glasnost and Perestroika

His policy of openness and restructuring Russian society – Glasnost and Perestroika – did encourage democracy within Russia. Glasnost opened up society to allow debate and opposition to flourish and it empowered his critics, both conservative hardliners and liberals who were impatient with the pace of reform. This undermined his authority to push through economic reforms needed to deliver on Perestroika by restructuring the old bureaucratic systems. It also led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin. When Gorbachev brought the old school hardliners into his government in an attempt to build consensus, they plotted against him. It was Yeltsin who faced down their attempted coup in Moscow and went on to negotiate the end of the Soviet Union. This consolidated his power and led to Gorbachev’s resignation.

One unequivocal success was the START Treaty, signed in 1991, which committed both the USA and the USSR to actually reducing their nuclear stockpiles, as opposed to slowing their increase. That is the only time this has ever happened.  

Gorbachev’s Failure

Gorbachev’s failure was that he sought to reform a system that needed a revolution to overthrow a ruling class who hid behind a phoney socialist rhetoric to disarm its opponents. And, not having built his own power base inside the USSR, Gorbachev’s chosen allies were the Western powers whose interests lay in the defeat of Russian power and the triumph of US imperialism.

Bush and Thatcher betrayed Gorbachev in much the same way as the USA betrayed the Kurds in Syria after the defeat of ISIS. Like them he served a purpose and was then discarded. Thatcher even opposed German reunification because she thought this would make it stronger than Britain. And US President Bush never gave Gorbachev any credit for what he did. Instead, he boasted about “winning” the cold war, ending communism and ending the Soviet Union itself. Bush took all the credit while in Russia Gorbachev took all the blame.

There is only one reliable ally in the fight for freedom and democracy in this world. Both conservatives and liberals are too heavily invested in the system to overthrow it. They may argue amongst themselves. But they will always unite against a threat to their shared privilege and sense of entitlement. Only the working class has nothing to lose but our chains and a world to win.

The lesson from Gorbachev is that there are no more heroes anymore, unless they are working class heroes who are there to serve and not to lead the struggle for socialism.

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