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Mikhail Gorbachev and the lonely crusade of changing the system from within

The last Soviet leader was a flawed man — and a moral inspiration.

Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, California, on June 5, 1990. Gorbachev died Tuesday at the age of 91.
David Longstreath/AP
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died Tuesday at the age of 91, and I’ll confess to being somewhat shocked at how muted the reaction in the US press has been.

His obituaries of course mention his achievements: bringing free speech and elections to the Soviet Union, allowing its vassal states in Eastern Europe to break away and become liberal democracies, ending the Cold War with the United States. But they’re sure to temper these by lingering on his more mixed reputation at home and his failure relative to a more nationalistic goal: preserving and strengthening the Soviet Union.

“Poor Gorby,” one particularly solid remembrance put it, “All the obits are like, ‘We are forever grateful that this man completely failed at what he saw as his one job: the preservation of his country’s continued existence. RIP you magnificent loser and thanks for not blowing the planet up.’”

To which I say: Yes, that, but unironically. Gorbachev betrayed the project of the Soviet Union in some profound sense, and people who work to undermine bad systems are among the greatest heroes in history.

The case for undermining regimes from the inside

Suppose you sat down and wanted to make a list of the best people of the 20th century: Those who saved the most lives, or made the most lives profoundly better. This is obviously a highly subjective, perhaps impossible exercise (how many East Germans freed of Stasi surveillance equals one life saved?) but give me some rope here. Think of who would be on such a list.

One category of answer is “scientists.” Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch’s process for turning atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer dramatically expanded food production to the point that around 3 billion people now living would likely not have enough food to survive if not for those two chemists.

Maurice Hilleman led the creation of more than 40 vaccines for everything from measles to hepatitis and saved millions of lives in the process. Another category is public health officials on the border between science and politics. Think of the Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov and American CDC chief William Foege, who led the successful effort to eradicate smallpox, a disease that previously killed millions annually.

A third would be people who successfully resisted injustice, either by promulgating ideas (e.g., Simone de Beauvoir on gender inequality or W.E.B. Du Bois on white supremacy) or through direct action, particularly in the global anti-imperial struggle. In India you could pick figures like Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan; in Africa figures like Seretse Khama, who led Botswana not only to independence but to improbable prosperity.

But a fourth, equally compelling category would be figures who worked in unjust regimes and undermined them in a dramatic way.

Gorbachev is a prime example. Yes, he destroyed his own nation. He also freed Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and dramatically reduced the odds of nuclear war. From a Russian perspective, his career is a tragedy; from a global one, it’s a blessing.

Deng Xiaoping, the oft-purged Communist functionary who managed to take control of the Chinese state in the late 1970s, provides another example. Deng’s liberalizing instincts when it came to fair elections and free speech were far weaker than Gorbachev’s; he was the leader who butchered the protesters at Tiananmen Square.

But his economic liberalizing instincts were stronger, and bore fruit. Upon his accession in 1978, 97.5 percent of China lived below the World Bank’s extreme poverty threshold ($1.90 per day per person). In 2000, three years after his death, 49.8 percent did; 308 million fewer people were in extreme poverty. As Deng’s successors continued his policies, the rate fell to 0.6 percent by 2019.

Deng tried to paint his “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as a variation on the same basic system, but as with Gorbachev’s reforms, they amounted more to a wholesale revision of the nature of his regime. Like Gorbachev, he labored in the bureaucracy for decades, and then seized his opportunity to turn it upside down.

Everyday disobedience by non-world leaders can matter too

Deng and Gorbachev aren’t exactly “unsung.” They’re wildly famous political figures and broadly popular in the West and, in Deng’s case, in their home country. But more anonymous acts of resistance, and disobedience of one’s nation’s orders, have also had a profoundly positive effect on the world. Shortly before Gorbachev came to power, the US and Soviet Union came very close to a nuclear exchange.

On September 26, 1983, the Soviet missile attack early warning system displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; a computer screen stated to the officer on duty, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, that it could say with “high reliability” that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. Soon another was detected, and then another, until it showed five ICBMs coming toward the USSR. Petrov was obliged, as an officer, to report the strike and enable a Soviet counterstrike, which would likely have resulted in a full nuclear war killing hundreds of millions or billions of people.

Petrov declined; he thought the warning was likely in error. He was right, and he saved his nation and mine.

As an act of systemic sabotage, Petrov’s was less dramatic than Deng’s or Gorbachev’s, not least because he lacked the power to do what they did. But it undermined the Soviet nuclear system, and its hair-trigger posture, profoundly. And that was a system worth undermining.

Those three figures all undermined Communist regimes but one can identify similar violations of institutional rules in Western regimes with salutary effects.

In 1999, NATO and Russian troops almost came to blows in Kosovo. Toward the end of the NATO intervention in the region, the Russian government expected a sector to be under its control, akin to the sectors of Germany and Austria after World War II, and sent troops to capture the airport in the capital of Pristina. Wesley Clark, the US general and future presidential candidate then running the operation for NATO, ordered troops to take the airport, setting up a potential battle with Russian troops.

Mike Jackson, a British general, refused the order, reportedly telling Clark, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” He weighed resigning if Clark, his superior in the NATO alliance, pressed the order. “For the first time in my almost forty years in the army I had been given an order that I felt I could not in principle accept,” Jackson wrote in his memoirs.

Even if Jackson hadn’t defied the order, lower-ranking troops apparently stood ready to. The British Army captain who would have been responsible for taking the airport was a young man named James Blunt, who would later become famous for tear-jerker singles like “You’re Beautiful” and “Goodbye My Lover.” Blunt has said in interviews that he was prepared to face court-martial rather than obey Clark’s order.

Now, maybe that’s just a pop star trying to make himself look noble. But I appreciate Blunt saying it all the same, if only as a signal to others in similar positions that staking out a similarly defiant position is acceptable and praiseworthy.

Everyday moral “saints”

I don’t have a broader point on the nature of the Soviet Union’s collapse or Gorbachev’s legacy here; you should consult actual experts, like Washington Post correspondent David Hoffman and Gorbachev biographer William Taubman, on those questions.

But I do want to argue that Gorbachev’s example (and Deng’s and Petrov’s and Jackson’s and Blunt’s) should give ordinary people, especially people working in large systems like militaries or government bureaucracies, some kind of hope that their work can yield profound moral dividends.

Gorbachev and Deng, of course, got lucky. Most functionaries in their national communist parties did not rise to their rank and get to make the kind of difference they did. But every beginning functionary had at least the potential, with skill and a great degree of serendipity, of rising to a position of that kind of power. A cynical read would be that doing so requires such moral sacrifices that anyone who makes it through that gauntlet will be able to change little. Gorbachev and Deng are illustrations that the cynical read is false. It may be extremely hard, but it’s nonetheless possible to spend your life in an institution, rise to lead it, and then turn it upside down, doing a lot of good in the process.

The Petrov and Blunt examples are even more inspiring, because there will be many people in their positions of authority throughout time. The world has many Army captains, albeit few who stood at an important historical crossroads the way that Blunt did. A cynic would argue there’s little capacity for choice in a system that regimented. Petrov, Blunt, and Jackson showed that there was at least some flexibility, some wiggle room with which to do the right thing.

The philosopher Susan Wolf once argued that the concept of moral saints — “whose every action is as morally good as possible” — is extremely unappealing; to actually be as good as possible is to live an impoverished life of self-denial, and often to be a bad friend and family member. I think there’s something to that; extreme altruistic self-sacrifice fairly strikes many as an impossible standard to live up to, even if it were a more appealing kind of life than Wolf depicts it as.

Gorbachev was not a moral saint by any means. He made countless mistakes. But he did more good, on net, than he would have done if he had tried to live as a certain kind of moral saint, avoiding the taint of politics and instead quietly helping others. His very imperfection put him in a position where he could ultimately have a profoundly positive impact.

That’s a hopeful example. I’m not a moral saint, and I don’t know any. But I might know a couple Gorbachevs, and it might be that the world’s survival and prosperity depend on them more.