The media jumps at anniversaries of historical figures and events. For those of us who write about history, we, too, seize these opportunities to teach history, especially history Americans should know.
Here’s one such case: Can you believe it has been 25 years since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power? Gorbachev seized the reins of the Soviet state on March 11, 1985. As an illustration of how much the world has changed since—in part because of Gorbachev—I was reminded of this anniversary by a journalist from no less than Pravda; that is, the Slovak version of Pravda.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Pravda was synonymous with the grand un-truth that was Soviet communism. I say “un-truth” because, in fact, Pravda is a Russian word that means Truth. In truth, however, for the first seven decades of its existence, nothing published in Pravda was believable. This official Soviet mouthpiece epitomized what the brilliant Czech, Vaclav Havel, called “the communist culture of the lie.”
It was Havel, recall, who was the face of the Velvet Revolution that oversaw the peaceful end of communism in Czechoslovakia. As the first elected president of Czechoslovakia, Havel also oversaw the nation’s split into two good states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And now, today, a reporter at the Slovak version of Pravda calls me, a free-market/Reagan conservative, to ask my thoughts on the contributions of Mikhail Gorbachev. How the world has changed.
This brings me to Gorbachev. Liberals in the West woefully exaggerated Gorbachev’s positions and role in ending the Cold War. Their misunderstandings and misrepresentations were based on a fatal combination of wishful thinking, partisan politics, and blind adherence to ideology—an irrepressible desire to credit Gorbachev at the expense of Ronald Reagan.
The reality is that both men—Gorbachev and Reagan—were critical to ending the Cold War, along with Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel, to name a few.
The most important thing that liberals got wrong—even as Gorbachev himself reiterated it a thousand times—was their failure to understand that Gorbachev’s first priority, from the outset, had been to save and sustain the USSR, not to mention the entirety of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, to the point where he even initially opposed taking down the Berlin Wall. This fact is undeniable, as Gorbachev emphasized in his best-selling 1987 book Perestroika. To this day, he calls the breakup of the USSR his greatest regret. (See, for instance, “Soviet Union ‘should have been preserved,’” interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, USA Today, April 6, 2006.)
At the same time, however, Gorbachev also sought to create a peaceful USSR. He vigorously opposed totalitarianism. To get there—and here’s where conservatives need adjustments in their understanding—Gorbachev took several monumental steps that, unwittingly, led to the implosion of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc. These ranged from freedom of press, speech, assembly, and religion, to the introduction of political pluralism (democracy) by formally ending the Soviet Community Party’s constitutional monopoly on power. These were wonderful feats.
No doubt, much of what Gorbachev did was prodded by other forces, whether internal—the inherent un-workability of communism—to external: the actions of the likes of Reagan, John Paul II, Thatcher, Walesa, and Havel. In fact, all of these figures publicly called for such changes before Gorbachev, and understood far better than Gorbachev what the changes would unleash. As Ronald Reagan put it in a speech in Cambridge, England, “As is always the case, once people who have been deprived of basic freedom taste a little of it, they want all of it. It was as if Gorbachev had uncorked a magic bottle and a genie floated out, never to be put back in again.”
That’s exactly right. Nonetheless, intentionally or not, Gorbachev’s actions enabled millions throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe to remove their chains—and their walls. Those uncorked freedoms today allow a Pravda reporter from the former Czechoslovakia to call me for a frank appraisal on Mikhail Gorbachev—25 years later.
On that, I will finish with this thought: There were two other meaningful anniversaries relating to the Soviet Union in the last week: On March 5, 1953, Stalin died, leaving this world for another he murderously denied. On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan gave his Evil Empire speech, succinctly describing the pernicious system that annihilated some 20-70 million people beginning in 1917.
That is what Mikhail Gorbachev ended, and quite deliberately: He stopped Stalinism and closed the Evil Empire. Even as he tried to preserve the USSR, it would be neither Stalinist nor evil. He deserves our gratitude for his role as executioner and pallbearer.
Sure, the Gorbachev story is complicated, a mix of the intended and unintended. Ultimately, however, it has a happy ending. To mark the birth of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power is to also mark the death of Stalin’s Evil Empire. And that’s a moment worth celebrating.