The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev may be an invitation to reread the epilogues of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the attempt by the Russian writer to work out the logic of history or, to put it in plainer terms, the forces driving the events that shape the world. For good measure, we could also pick up Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, the Anglo-German philosopher’s critique of Tolstoy’s idea of history, even though Berlin said the essay was all about a joke with his friends at Oxford.
Famously, Tolstoy dismissed the “great man” theory (i.e., Napoleon was a mere instrument at the mercy of the much more powerful processes of history). That may be a doubtful proposition, if not moot altogether. Yet it is also true that he may have a point. If so, Gorbachev may be the exception to the rule. Outside the leaders of the warring powers during the world wars, especially the second one, no other figure in contemporary history may have done as much as Gorbachev to change the course of history. In the same way that we may wonder whether the second half of the 20th century would have unfolded differently had it not been for Hitler and Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, it is legitimate to ponder if the demise of the Soviet Union would have been as relatively peaceful and auspicious as it was, or at least seemed to be, in the ecstatic days of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989.
Yet by the same token, the current war in Ukraine, and the much less publicized wars in the former Soviet Union and its periphery—from the 1990-94 and 2020 ones in the Armenian enclave of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), attacked by Azerbaijan, to the long simmering conflicts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as other flashpoints in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan—are the aftershocks of the Soviet Union’s collapse, still unfolding three decades on.
In other words, the extinction of the Soviet Union was not that peaceful. It is just taking much longer, and it is only now becoming much messier than anyone would have imagined, than the more catastrophic scenarios that many feared, especially as it involved a totalitarian, nuclear power.
Yet it could have been different. Gorbachev’s plans for openness and the restructuring of the Soviet Union are still remembered by their Russian names in the pertinent literature —glasnost and perestroika, respectively, yet much less remembered is his foreign policy initiative of the Common European Home, that envisaged an integrated political landscape of open borders from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Part of the New Political Thinking (Новое политическое мышление), the now forgotten third leg of his reform program along with the glasnost and perestroika, the Common European Home was fundamentally different from the hardcore realism that had marked the Soviet foreign policy, with the very brief exception as an Allied power during World War Two in 1941-45 and the immediate aftermath of the war.
Nothing came out of the Common European Home idea. The West suspected it was meant to be a wedge between the U.S. and Western Europe, as it originally was when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had coined the term in 1981.
Yet taken at face value, Gorbachev envisaged the Common European Home as the international political arrangement that would save a political order that was collapsing under the weight of an inefficient and corrupt police state, one that could no longer sell or enforce its lies about the economic calamity the Soviet Union found itself in. The first precondition for that would have been a democratic country.
Yet with democratization came freedom of expression, and that brought to the surface the pent-up discontent of decades. By the last two years of its existence, the Soviet Union was breaking at the seams, and nobody was thinking about the Common European Home when there were more urgent matters to attend. Ethnic conflict in the Caucasus—which began with the pogroms of Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1988, followed by war in Nagorno-Karabakh—and restiveness in the Baltic republics, notably Lithuania (so much so that the Red Army tanks rolled in to restore order) were the first cracks to open. By then, Gorbachev was simply trying to put away fires until the failed coup d’État in August 1991 sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, withdrew his support for Gorbachev and the Soviet government. The Soviet Union’s demise came in December.
Or did it? In response to a question asked by the author of this article during an interview in March 1997, Gorbachev said that he did feel guilty for the collapse of the Soviet Union. ‘I was trying to save the Soviet Union’, he said. Perhaps no factor is more powerful in History than the law of unintended consequences.
Now with Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to its realistic foreign policy as it feels itself encircled by hostile neighbours keen on joining the growing ranks of NATO. As Putin said in his speech on February 24th in which he announced the invasion of Ukraine, 'after the disintegration of the USSR, given the entire unprecedented openness of the new, modern Russia, its readiness to work honestly with the United States and other Western partners, and its practically unilateral disarmament, they immediately tried to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us'.
Insecure with an economy still massively reliant on commodities and too big and autocratic to be trustworthy for its neighbouring countries and beyond, Russia could never be seen as a reliable partner for the European Union and the West. Russia’s tragic track record in the Central and Eastern European countries that the Red Army liberated from one totalitarianism to subjugate them to its own does not help. And a Russia that feels besieged and fears its partition would predictably react the way Putin did.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both… Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire.” Gorbachev wanted to turn it into a democracy. Putin has decided otherwise, or perhaps he had no choice, as Tolstoy would have us believe.