Sign up to
news feeds:

Select RSS feed catergory:

The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.

Русский Русский


Back to newsline
29 October 2022

Robert David English


Disparaging Gorbachev, Distorting Perestroika: Lessons of the Cold War’s End 

Characterizations of Gorbachev as a “quintessential apparatchik” or a blood-stained “totalitarian” who hadn’t sought “to end tyranny” and could only imagine Russia as “an empire” are truly bizarre—and tell us more about the present biases of their authors than they do about the past dramas of perestroika and the Cold War’s end.

 MIKHAIL GORBACHEV’S death has prompted a torrent of commentary confirming the old adage that “the history we write tells more about the present than the past.” Some pay fitting tribute to the former Soviet leader’s remarkable accomplishments in overcoming decades of Cold War confrontation and overseeing a peaceful retreat from empire, in humanizing and democratizing a ruthless command system that ultimately could not be reformed. But others denigrate or ignore his achievements in distorted, ahistorical, churlish accounts that cherry-pick their facts or simply get them wrong. Characterizations of Gorbachev as a “quintessential apparatchik” or a blood-stained “totalitarian” who hadn’t sought “to end tyranny” and couldn’t imagine Russia as anything but “an empire” are truly bizarre—and tell us more about the present biases of their authors than they do about the past dramas of perestroika and the Cold War’s end. Those biases go so far as to compare Gorbachev with Vladimir Putin or even blame him for Putin’s war on Ukraine. It will be unfortunate indeed—bad history of the past, and even worse lessons for the future—if such cynicism comes to predominate and turns audacious, principled, globally-minded leadership from an object of admiration into one of ridicule. Russia is not the only country that could use another Gorbachev right about now.

COMMON TO much misremembering is a condescending dismissal of Gorbachev’s leadership under perestroika, of his efforts to reform and liberalize the sprawling, stagnant Soviet system. Is Gorbachev to blame for failing to revive the economy because he was “bewildered,” because he “never understood” the system’s problems and had no plan for “orderly economic reform” as Anne Applebaum claimed in The Atlantic? Several things should be noted in reply, the first being to recall the colossal magnitude of the task—and the vast, entrenched, antiquated bureaucratic monster that was the Soviet economy in 1985. Of course, perestroika proceeded by trial and error, and of course, Gorbachev lacked a detailed plan for something that could not have been “orderly” even in the best circumstances, let alone those he inherited: a weary society and stagnant economy slammed by the one-two punch of plunging oil prices and a raging arms race. Nobody had such a plan, because nothing of such enormity had ever been tried before. Compared to the ossified Soviet economy under state control since 1917, reform of Poland (which had   retained private farming and much entrepreneurship, since communism was only imposed after 1945) or the Baltic states (small, agile, with key cultural and financial ties to the West) were child’s play. Crucially, Polish and Baltic reformers also benefited from a lack of concerted resistance since their transitions began after Gorbachev’s push for democratization and his acquiescence in the collapse of Communist Party rule. Nobody cleared the way for Gorbachev, whose initial economic reforms stumbled as he simultaneously struggled to liberalize the Soviet political system—first via glasnost, and then through competitive elections, from city councils and regional legislatures all the way up to a new national parliament.
A common cliché of Gorbachev’s detractors in the Soviet intelligentsia was that “Perestroika is like a plane that took off without knowing where it would land.” Well, look to China if you seek “orderly economic reform” in a vast, centralized, single-party system (and China’s agricultural economy was still easier to liberalize than the USSR’s complex industrial behemoth). In fact, even Deng Xiaoping did not quite know where China’s reforms would land, and to the extent that they were more or less steered to a desired destination, it was with much political violence and zero political liberalization. This deserves emphasis: Gorbachev’s reforms not only faced opposition from senior Central Committee officials and some Politburo members, but even when initiatives were agreed and laws passed they languished due to bureaucratic resistance and outright sabotage by local officials. In a ruling party where power had devolved and corruption metastasized, Gorbachev lacked the levers for implementation and enforcement available to his Chinese counterparts. Thus, another contradiction of Gorbachev’s critics is that they fault him for not exercising enough control over economic reforms while retaining too much control over political reforms. How do they imagine that more rapid democratization, with the paralyzing polarization and national separatism that it engendered, would have facilitated more “orderly” market reforms? This highlights yet another intelligentsia platitude of the 1990s that Gorbachev’s critics have resurrected upon his death, namely that he wrecked the old system but “put nothing in its place.” How do they explain this failure? According to Applebaum, “he knew that Soviet society was stagnant and Soviet workers were unproductive [but] he had no idea why.”
 Anders Aslund, one of the West’s leading experts on transition economics who analyzed Gorbachev’s reforms firsthand from Moscow, disagrees. Midway through perestroika, he judged Gorbachev a “radical reformer” struggling against “top-level political resistance” to introduce key market mechanisms into the Soviet economy. Moreover, he emphasized that Gorbachev had led a no-holds-barred review of the country’s socio-economic problems in 1983, two years before taking power, and outlined a market-oriented reform agenda shortly thereafter, leaving no doubt that “Gorbachev had perceived the depth of the problems Soviet society was facing.” A large body of research since has amply confirmed Aslund’s early assessment. It details—in many articles, books, interviews, and documentaries—how even as Gorbachev rose through the Soviet system as an outwardly conventional member of the nomenklatura, he consistently supported reformist innovations and grew increasingly frustrated with the cruelty of that same system—from the oppressive conditions on collective farms, to the arrogance and corruption of party officials. Particularly notable was the breadth of Gorbachev’s (and his wife Raisa’s) early-1980s outreach to critical experts and liberal intellectuals in all aspects of politics— including reformist sociologists and economists. No doubt he was still more socialist than social-democrat, far from the radical reformer he would become in just a few years. But the open-minded and innovative Gorbachev was intensely studying a wide range of problems and attendant proposals for reform, belying the caricature that he was “bewildered” and “had no idea” what was wrong with Soviet society.
BUT WHATEVER his intentions, is it still true that Gorbachev undermined the old system yet “put nothing in its place?” In fact, over a few years, Gorbachev legalized private enterprise; he gave state enterprises broad autonomy from suffocating central planning; he opened the doors to foreign investment and even majority foreign ownership of joint ventures; he ended the state monopoly on foreign trade; he permitted long-term private leasing of state farmland; he even legalized the creation of private commercial banks. As someone who worked for a new private enterprise (a news agency, in 1989) and then in a U.S.-Soviet joint venture (consulting on foreign investment in manufacturing, over 1990–1991) I observed at close range both the sweeping nature of these reforms and the tremendous difficulty—chiefly, bureaucratic resistance and bribe-seeking officials—that they faced in implementation. No wonder conservatives opposed them; these were astonishing steps that had seemed inconceivable right up until the moment they were announced.
Yes, Gorbachev was slow to accept the need for broad marketization of the Soviet economy and some of his partial market steps backfired badly in a system that retained much central planning and state ownership. He shied away from large-scale privatization during his time in office, hence his vacillation over the 500 Days program devised by a team of economic reformers in 1990. Because it was ultimately shelved, 500 Days has acquired mythical status in hindsight for many Gorbachev critics. Yet insofar as it aimed to do in under two years what went so terribly wrong under his successor Boris Yeltsin in five—and would have attempted this not only in Russia but across the entire USSR, where it would have unleashed cutthroat property battles among the Soviet republics—500 Days would most assuredly have failed. While a “valiant effort” at rapid marketization, it was also “ill-defined,” “unworkable” and “riddled with inconsistencies.” Had Gorbachev tried it, he likely would have faced a hardline coup in 1990 instead of the one he did face in 1991. (Indeed, an “administrative coup” seeking to transfer his presidential powers to a conservative prime minister was also tried in 1990.) As his former advisers remind us, Gorbachev was never free of the threat of sudden ouster by hardliners in the senior leadership.
Still, Gorbachev did lay a foundation for market reforms. Instead of claiming that he didn’t, wouldn’t it be better to ask why his successor Yeltsin failed to build on it in an “orderly” way? While Gorbachev’s final year saw deep popular disillusion and crippling polarization of the ruling elite, Yeltsin became the unchallenged leader of Russia in 1992 with a broad popular mandate, special emergency powers, and the Communist Party banned. With those advantages—and tens of billions in Western aid that Gorbachev had been denied—why didn’t Yeltsin build on his predecessor’s steps to complete “orderly” market reforms? For example, why was regulation of a booming private banking sector earlier legalized by Gorbachev subsequently neglected until Russia’s disastrous financial collapse of 1998? Why did Yeltsin ignore the urgency of small-business loans and agricultural credits, instead allowing Russian banks to morph into the tools of oil oligarchs and money-laundering machines of organized crime? Why did he do the oligarchs’ bidding in excluding foreign competition from the financial sector, thereby abetting their parasitic practices? Why, over nearly a decade in power, did Yeltsin fail to legalize full private ownership of land? Yeltsin’s one major “market” reform was a process for privatization of state property that was so thoroughly corrupt, in a society so deeply impoverished, that it soured a generation of Russians on free-market capitalism. If anybody should be faulted for wrecking the old system and “putting nothing in its place”—except misplaced faith in the magic of the unfettered free market—it is Yeltsin.
IT IS unfortunate that the manifest failures of the 1990s have not prompted some reflection on the challenges of the 1980s and at least modest appreciation of what Gorbachev faced. It is an odd kind of “presentism”—exhibiting both the bias of hindsight yet a confused picture of the past—that can be traced in part to prejudices of the Soviet intelligentsia that had hardened by 1991. One of these prejudices was a haughty disdain of Gorbachev simply for who he was—a party official who spoke with a distinct southern accent, definitely not one of them. Another was broad ignorance of economics; beyond their own experience of a corrupt command system, the basics of agriculture and industry, or money and trade, were alien to most. (In one year, I visited more factories and farms than most intelligenty would see in a lifetime.) Hence the frequency with which one heard such bromides as “What we need is real self-management” and “You can’t cross an abyss in two leaps” or “Why are we trying the Yugoslav model? The Swedish one is clearly better” gravely intoned as if such keen insights were beyond the ken of dullards like Gorbachev. Perhaps most important was that, by 1991, most of the cultural intelligentsia—writers, filmmakers, historians—had abandoned the “indecisive” Gorbachev for the “bold” Yeltsin and have since found it difficult to say “Maybe we were wrong.”
Their paradigm of prejudice is so strong that, for some, it literally scrambles memory of basic facts and key events. As Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker in late August:
 Andrei Sakharov, a dissident who was elected to the Supreme Soviet after Gorbachev released him from internal exile, argued against the monopoly of the Communist party. Galina Starovoitova, an academic ethnographer turned politician, argued that the empire must be dismantled, and proposed a union treaty to replace the Soviet colonial structure. Gorbachev rejected both notions.
Sakharov was actually elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the largely democratic new legislature that Gorbachev created in 1989 (a fact that some might find salient in recalling how the USSR was democratized). As for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, it was actually Gorbachev who in March of 1990 proposed to that same Congress—and overrode fierce Party opposition to pass—a constitutional amendment ending that monopoly. Four months later, in July of 1990, it was actually Gorbachev who declared in a nationwide address that the country must decentralize under a new Union Treaty, and devoted enormous effort   to pushing the project through arduous negotiations until a draft was agreed by nine of the fifteen Soviet republics in 1991 (and it was precisely the formal signing of this decentralized new Union Treaty that the coup plotters of August 1991 sought to prevent).
If one really believes that “Gorbachev rejected both notions”—of ending the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and of negotiating a new union treaty— then scorn for Gorbachev’s democratic, anti-imperialist reputation is understandable. The problem is that he didn’t, and it’s not the only such problem. Gessen continues:
In March 1991, after not only the Baltics but also Russia and Ukraine—the largest Soviet republics—voted to secede from the Union, Gorbachev staged a referendum on preserving the   USSR.
But Russia never held a vote on secession from the USSR, ever. (Belief that it did, and that Russians voted to leave the USSR, represents a misunderstanding of   Russian politics akin to the belief that Donald Trump won the 2020 U.S. presidential election; opinion polls conducted immediately after the breakup showed that, by a three-to-one margin, Russians regretted the end of the USSR.) By contrast, Ukrainians did vote overwhelmingly for secession in a 1991 referendum. But they only did so on the eve of the USSR’s collapse in December, not March, and only after several critical events intervened—most dramatically, the August coup attempt. Given this jumble of errors over what happened and when, it is difficult to understand the conclusion that follows: “Gorbachev used violence and rigged votes” in an effort to preserve the USSR.
WITH NO evidence offered for his “rigging” of votes (until Gorbachev there were no real votes!) what about his use of violence to save the USSR? As with the Soviet economy, so with the Soviet Union’s breakup, a short primer helps place events in context. The first major incident under Gorbachev was a mass protest—and its brutal suppression—in the republic of Kazakhstan in 1986. One version of events has Kazakh students angry that Gorbachev appointed a party secretary who was ethnically Russian. Another has those same students, inspired by Gorbachev’s call for perestroika, protesting against miserable living standards and official   corruption. In either case, those responsible for violently suppressing the protests— taking dozens of lives—were local party and security officials.
Every subsequent outbreak of interethnic violence was different, yet similar in two respects. One was their origins in long-smoldering grievances rekindled by Gorbachev’s unleashing of glasnost and democratization; second is that local officials took key decisions, with no evidence that Gorbachev ever ordered the use of deadly force. Armenian political mobilization began in 1987 with environmental protests, followed by demands for unification with Karabakh (an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan), when people were permitted to rally, the press to report, and the Karabakh and Armenian parliaments to vote. In 1988, interethnic clashes escalated into vicious anti-Armenian pogroms. Gorbachev certainly fumbled the diplomacy of Karabakh, vacillating between pro-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani policies and eventually infuriating both sides. But it’s also clear that he tried to avoid violence, and was afraid that granting historic justice for Karabakh would spark far more bloodshed by legitimizing demands to redraw many other disputed borders.
Interethnic disputes, aggravated by economic disparities, flared in the Ferghana Valley shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1989–1990. In Georgia, free elections empowered extreme Georgian nationalists who in turn curtailed the rights of their Abkhazian and Ossetian minorities. The dissident and human-rights defender Sakharov, who championed the Armenian underdog, saw things differently in Georgia and faulted Georgian nationalists for dominating “a mini empire” of their own. Over 1988–1991 Georgia would be rocked by violent interethnic clashes and one brutal military crackdown in Tbilisi (taking twenty-one lives) that was ordered by local party bosses.
Best remembered in the West—and frequently recalled in the denunciations of Gorbachev published since his death—were the January 1991 clashes between Soviet security forces and pro-independence protestors in the Baltic republics of Lithuania and Latvia. Twenty died when a Soviet army detachment (in Vilnius) and Interior Ministry troops (in Riga) deployed bullets and tanks in an effort to re-take government buildings under separatists’ control. Here too, Gorbachev himself first empowered the Baltic independence drives—by sanctioning the elections that created democratic parliaments, and by encouraging the glasnost that shed light on a bitter past, including the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 that sanctioned Soviet annexation of the Baltics. Here too there is no evidence that Gorbachev ordered use   of deadly force—and much evidence that it was the decision of local commanders in concert with hardliners of the local Latvian and Lithuanian “Committees of National Salvation” and the national Soyuz (union) parliamentary faction. The   latter, led by reactionary military officers, had called for Gorbachev’s ouster and, by provoking violence, hoped to prompt the imposition of martial law. Gorbachev can certainly be faulted for raising tensions with the Baltic republics as he sought to obstruct their drive for independence, and for not doing enough to prevent the attacks. But he must also be credited with moving quickly to halt the cascading violence, replacing officials and pulling back forces.
Some twenty lives lost in the Baltics, twenty-one in Georgia, and perhaps 2,000 overall in the disintegration of a vast empire—where many of the casualties were victims not of Moscow’s efforts to preserve imperial control, but of local interethnic hatreds. What are these numbers in perspective—do they justify calling Gorbachev a bloody imperialist? Perhaps 200,000 died in the final decades of British rule in India, and 500,000 in the Algerian war for independence from France—two hundred and fifty times more than in the USSR. And these were the mid-twentieth century decolonization struggles of two mature democracies, neither of which were simultaneously struggling to overhaul their entire political-economic system. Gorbachev eventually accepted that reforms meant to revive the multinational Soviet state had failed, that it could not be saved without major violence. The imperial sinews of the Soviet ideological and military-industrial complexes never accepted it at all, and in the chaos of surging nationalism and crumbling central authority—with hardliners’ defiance turbocharged by the loss of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe—it is certain that under any other Soviet leader the bloodshed would have been many times greater.
IT IS flatly wrong to assert as Applebaum does that Gorbachev “did not help design democratic institutions” when he proposed or promoted all of them—freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and multi-candidate elections from city councils up to a new national legislature—against fierce party opposition. To describe Gorbachev as a bloody “totalitarian,” as Peter Dickinson does, is positively Orwellian. And to claim as Gessen does that “he wasn’t able to imagine what his country would be if it wasn’t an empire” is a gross distortion. Early and often he warned Eastern European party leaders that they needed to reform, that Moscow would not intervene to save them, and they must win popular support. The winds of glasnost blew from east to west, and when free elections were held and the communists voted out, Gorbachev stood by. So much for the external empire, and as for the internal one—the Soviet Union itself—Gorbachev tried mightily to convert it from a repressive empire to a prosperous, consensual, democratic union. When economic reforms failed, nationalism flared, and separatist demands gained overwhelming popular support in the non-Russian republics, Gorbachev stepped aside.
Adam Michnik, the longtime Polish dissident and human-rights activist, certainly understood the reflexive cruelty of the communist system and the tenacity of Soviet imperialism better than most—from beatings, jailings, and the 1981 crushing of the Solidarity movement that he helped found and lead. Thus he reveled in Gorbachev’s encouragement of democratization in Eastern Europe and marveled at the emergence from this system of a leader so liberal and audacious—describing him as a “genetic error.” Andrei Gromyko—the longtime Soviet foreign minister who helped craft that imperialism from the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia through the suppression of Solidarity and beyond (until Gorbachev fired him shortly after taking power in 1985)—saw the same traits but characterized them somewhat differently: Gorbachev, he said, was like a “Martian.”From their diametrically opposing perspectives, Michnik and Gromyko agreed on one thing with absolute certainty: Gorbachev was anything but a “quintessential Soviet apparatchik.”
Could he have designed better economic reforms? Yes, absolutely. But try as you might, you will not find a practicable plan for wholesale reform and rapid market transition from either Soviet or Western economists in the early-mid 1980s. (And in any case, Western economists were rarely found among the ex-collective farm chairmen and factory managers who made up the Politburo.) Such proposals as existed were either impractically vague and utopian, or offered what are now denounced as “half measures.” Which goes to say that Gorbachev did the best he could with limited analytical resources, and only in looking back is it “obvious” what he should have done at this or that crossroads—or even that this or that was a crossroads. Even with 20/20 hindsight we still haven’t found a feasible alternative    to Gorbachev’s piecemeal approach. Those most frequently touted either ignore the powerful vested interests of the old USSR and assume that legions of military- industrial managers would meekly retire to an imaginary new private sector (and they also assume massive hard-currency reserves to cushion years of dire austerity and a lost social-safety net). Or they follow some variant of the Chinese path and impose extremely painful, wrenching reforms in the absence of any democratization. The former was obviously impossible, and the latter clearly unacceptable.
Couldn’t he have just announced in 1989, as separatist currents grew strong and some republics declared independence, that the USSR was indeed a “hateful and oppressive” empire, that he apologized for the decades of communist rule and now demanded “a full reckoning with the Soviet past,” and that the republics were now   all free to leave the USSR? This is wildly unrealistic, and needs no counterfactual analysis to demonstrate; the hardline forces that arrayed against Gorbachev—those that demanded he “restore order,” that called for imposition of martial law, that repeatedly sparked violence, and that twice tried to oust him—were driven by the singular imperative of preserving the Soviet Union. Yet this is exactly what Applebaum suggests Gorbachev should have done. And the explanation for this incredible argument lies less in what was possible in 1989, and more in trying to blame him for Putin’s attack on Ukraine in 2022.
The fact that Gorbachev approved Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was, according to Applebaum, “an action that helped catalyze the wave of imperial nostalgia that has now brought us the war in Ukraine.” This is ludicrous, both for claiming that Putin was swept along by a popular “wave” in deciding to invade Ukraine, and also for blaming this apparently irresistible force on the aged Gorbachev’s influence over Russia—when he was actually scorned and ignored in his own country. In fact, this scorn stemmed precisely from belief that “He gave in to the West, and gave up the Soviet empire, without a fight. ”Far from a precursor to Putin, Gorbachev was in every respect the anti-Putin. And the bloody consequences of Putin’s imperial nostalgia today should serve as a reminder of what the Soviet hardliners arrayed against Gorbachev were fully prepared to do to preserve the Soviet empire.
But Gorbachev “never spoke out” against the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, critics complain, overlooking that as he struggled with his final illness the ninety-one- year-old Gorbachev spent most of his final months in and out of the hospital (and so was incapable of catalyzing waves of anything). But what Gorbachev had done repeatedly, and for over twenty years, was to criticize the expansion of NATO, something that apparently makes him a virtual accomplice to Putin. Simply by being the main witness to the broken promises of 1990—that if Moscow assented to German reunification and membership in NATO, then the alliance “would not expand one inch Eastward”—Gorbachev was a constant reminder that, if anything, it was the West’s continual expansion of military power directed at Russia that “helped catalyze a wave of imperial nostalgia.”
This argument is radioactive in today’s climate, as anyone who suggests that Western policies such as NATO expansion—along with America’s “export of democracy” through regime change, or abrogation of key arms control treaties— have contributed to the souring of Russia-Western relations will quickly learn. There can be absolutely no crediting of the Russian perspective—or risk being branded Putin’s dupe—since Russians are inveterate imperialists, from Gorbachev, to Putin, to the general population wallowing in “imperial nostalgia.” As conservative columnist George F. Will once claimed in arguing for NATO enlargement, “expansionism is in Russia’s national DNA”—an argument now essentially echoed by many Western liberals.
WILL, AN unabashed Russophobe, is incensed at tributes to Gorbachev that place a Soviet apparatchik alongside an American hero—President Ronald Reagan—as statesmen who worked together to end the Cold War. Echoing the “he didn’t know what he was doing” sneer, Will argued in the Washington Post that “Gorbachev’s reputation rests on the world’s amnesia,” namely that he “stumbled into greatness by misunderstanding where he was going.” Maybe it is Will’s reputation that rests on his readers’ amnesia, since in 1988 it was Will who denounced the Cold War- ending nuclear arms control agreements hammered out by Reagan and Gorbachev as a “chimera” that reflected the “incoherence” of Reagan’s foreign policy.
Personal animus rings through these postmortem denunciations of Gorbachev, which are extraordinarily petty when they turn to Gorbachev’s life after leaving office. “He was invited [to Cold War anniversaires] as a trophy, a living, breathing souvenir” and “He started a think tank called the Gorbachev Foundation. He did charity work. He tried and failed to start [a] museum of Stalinist terror.” Such descriptions are not just mean, but ignorant. More accurate would be:
He supported independent media, particularly the newspaper Novaya Gazeta which he launched with his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winnings. He founded and supported Green International, an NGO dedicated to environmental protection and education. He raised money to build a state-of-the-art hospital for the treatment of childhood leukemia in St. Petersburg. He sustained the Gorbachev Foundation, which not only maintains a presidential archive and runs an active program of political seminars and historical conferences in Moscow, but also collaborates with Western research groups such as the National Security Archive to translate, edit, and publish hundreds of documents and memoirs. And even if largely ignored in both Russia and the West, he continued to advocate international cooperation on pressing global issues, to lament the squandering of the opportunities created by the Cold War’s end, and to decry both unilateralism abroad and the fraying of democracy at home—whether in Russia or the West.
Ignoring most of this, Gessen instead mocks the elderly Gorbachev as somebody who “rambled,” “went off on tangents,” and “who could never finish a sentence or get to the punch line—and whose accent marked him, to the end, as a country bumpkin.” Yes, shockingly, as he neared the end of life Gorbachev failed to improve his diction or elevate his accent (though I can attest that he certainly finished sentences and told jokes with sardonic punch lines). And that apparently is what galls most of all—that he wasn’t a cultured Russian intelligent but a hayseed apparatchik who soared high above his humble origins, accomplished historic deeds and gained international acclaim, and then had the temerity to look at us and say: “You have become arrogant, a danger not only to the world but to yourself. America needs perestroika too.” As psychologists tell us, an angry, disingenuous, ad hominem attack is often simply confirmation that the criticism has hit home.
Robert David English, who teaches International Relations and Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California, is the author of Russia and the   Idea of the West. He interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev four times between 1996 and 2019.