Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow, on Tuesday, at the age of ninety-one. In the last two decades of his life, he rarely granted interviews. So, in 2010, when he agreed to speak to someone from a Moscow magazine that I edited, I felt both awe and some misgivings: here was a unique opportunity that would almost certainly be wasted. Gorbachev was a notoriously terrible interviewee. He rambled; he went off on tangents; he almost never finished a sentence. In a desperate move, my colleagues and I asked readers to send in questions. Someone asked, “What could bring you joy now?” This time, Gorbachev was ready with a concise answer. “If someone could promise me that in the next world I will see Raisa,” he said. “But I don’t believe in that.” Raisa, his wife of forty-six years, had died, of leukemia, in 1999.
“I don’t believe in God,” Gorbachev continued. Raisa had not been a believer, either, but “she progressed faster than I did in this direction.” What he seemed to be getting at was that Raisa had stayed in step with her country, becoming a post-Soviet Russian, while Gorbachev remained a fundamentally Soviet man. His was the quintessential life story of an apparatchik: plucked from the southern Russia countryside by the Party when he was still a secondary-school student, university in Moscow, and a series of Party jobs that culminated with his appointment, in 1985, as the General Secretary of the Central Committee, the highest job in the U.S.S.R. At the time, Gorbachev was fifty-four—shockingly young. He was surrounded by octogenarians who expected deference and gratitude. But he had a greater love in his life, and a loyalty that superseded any debt he had to the Party and its doddering leadership. Gorbachev lived and worked to impress Raisa. They had met as students at Moscow State University, where he studied law and she studied philosophy. Raisa’s classmates were an extraordinary cohort of postwar Soviet thinkers, and that, perhaps more than anything else, helped shape the policies that will forever be synonymous with Gorbachev’s name: glasnost and perestroika.
Within weeks of becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev announced his intention to reform and modernize the Soviet Union. In June, 1987, he announced a new concept: perestroika, or restructuring, of Soviet policies in every area. Although he didn’t explicitly say so, what he meant by restructuring was liberalization: the Soviet Union would legalize limited private enterprise and relax censorship, allowing public discussion of topics that had previously been taboo. Censorship laws were never abolished, but the loosening of restrictions—the explicit aim of glasnost—produced an unprecedented explosion of writing, publishing, filmmaking, performance, and music. Obscure journals that published long, quasi-academic articles saw their press runs soar. People lined up to read the new issues of papers such as the Moscow News or to get into a theatre to see a newly staged play by, say, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The reason, more often than not, was that the journal, the newspaper, and the playwright tackled the previously censored topic of Stalinist terror. For the first time since Stalin’s death, in 1953, Soviet citizens were publicly talking about their past.
Years later, Gorbachev wanted to preserve this part of his legacy. In 2008, in coöperation with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Gorbachev formed a working group to try to create a museum of Stalinist terror. As General Secretary, he said, he had received full access to the archives. This was when he had learned that terror had been truly random, that people had been arrested and executed not for any wrongdoing, nor on suspicion of wrongdoing, nor even on specious accusation of wrongdoing, but simply because every local law-enforcement entity had to fill its quota of arrests and executions. He had also learned that at the height of the terror, when thousands of people were executed every day, Soviet leaders had signed off on these executions by the page—with dozens of names per page. Gorbachev, who had created a commission that ultimately reviewed millions of cases from the Stalin era and repealed hundreds of thousands of guilty verdicts, seemed to shudder in disbelief as he talked about the things he had learned. Here was another quality that set him apart from any Soviet leader before him: he could be shaken. His world view could be challenged and changed; he himself, it seemed, could change. The same could not be said of his successors: it soon became clear that the museum Gorbachev wanted to build could not exist in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which was busy eliding the memory of Stalinist terror from its own version of Russian history.
Gorbachev is both credited and reviled for the dismantling of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But he never set out to change the world in that way. In 1987, he released all Soviet political prisoners, who numbered several hundred at the time. (Russia is currently holding more political prisoners than it did in the nineteen-eighties.) His policies of glasnost and perestroika enabled critics of the Soviet structure to be heard. 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.
In 1989, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union released its grip on its European satellites—the countries that Moscow had effectively ruled since the end of the Second World War. One after another, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and others brought down their pro-Soviet governments. But, when Russia’s internal colonies—the countries that had been forcibly subsumed by the Soviet Union rather than simply dominated by it—reached for independence, Moscow reacted with violence. In April, 1989, authorities brutally crushed pro-independence protests in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, killing at least twenty-one people and injuring two hundred and ninety. In January, 1991, Soviet troops killed pro-independence activists in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, after the Baltic countries, which had been occupied by the Soviet Union during the Second World War, declared independence. Many tributes to Gorbachev have credited him with presiding over the “bloodless” dissolution of the Soviet Union—forgetting that blood was and, in some cases, continues to be shed in conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. 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 U.S.S.R. Six of the fifteen constituent republics refused to participate, but Gorbachev claimed that the remaining nine validated the continued existence of the empire.
In August, 1991, a group of elderly hard-liners attempted a coup. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer residence in Crimea and declared a state of emergency, restoring censorship. Three days later, the coup had been routed, but Gorbachev returned to Moscow a lame duck: he had been supplanted by Boris Yeltsin, the leader of an independent Russia. In December, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus negotiated the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned his post as the head of a country that no longer existed. He had been willing to use violence and rigged votes to try to maintain the country, but he made no attempt to use such tactics in order to stay in power himself.
Gorbachev was that rare sort of politician who acted on the belief that the world and the people in it—including himself—can be better than they often appear to be. The ultimate tragedy of his political life is that, for the past twenty-three years, Russia has been ruled by the opposite sort of politician. Vladimir Putin believes humanity to be rotten to its core, and all of his acts, in one way or another, are designed to validate this world view. Putin was a relatively junior K.G.B. officer in Dresden, in East Germany, for most of perestroika. He was not in Russia when the streets seemed to fill with the intoxicating air of freedom, but he was in East Germany when Moscow let it go. He has never forgiven Gorbachev for abandoning K.G.B. officers in Dresden, the satellite country itself, and the dream of a giant European empire. (Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said, on Tuesday night, that the Russian President would be issuing his sincerest condolences to the family.)