The most important political leader in the world in the second half of the 20th century was Mikhail Gorbachev. He is the greatest reformer in the history of Russia. He resigned from the post of President at the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s role was decisive in making Russia a free country. The creation of a new atmosphere of tolerance and freedom in the country, the transformation of the foreign policy of the Soviet era, emboldening the people of Eastern and Central Europe to break free from the clutches of communist rule and denying the authority of Moscow happened during his time.
Gorbachev was the most pacifist of all Soviet and Russian leaders. When the Warsaw Pact countries were gaining independence in 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down in the same year, or when the two Germanys were reunifying in 1990—not a single Soviet soldier fired a shot.
A popular misconception among the West is that by 1985 the Soviet Union had reached a crisis and the Politburo of the Communist Party elected Gorbachev as General Secretary. Because he was a reformist. And therefore he had no choice but to accept radical changes. Any authoritarian regime is in deep trouble when no one obeys the law, when mass protests continue, and when divisions among the political elite are exposed.
But no such incident existed in 1985. Such discontent has not been seen in the years since the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika reform program. In fact the crisis existed deeper, leaving no alternative but to reform. And radical reform deepened the crisis. Gorbachev’s new freedoms were not effective after 70 years of repressive rule.
Gorbachev prioritized political reforms over economic reforms. However, he did not take any steps to change the informational economic policy of the previous era. The new political reality necessitated its elimination. There was a need to give people an opportunity to complain openly, not whispers, about the reasons for shortages in food stocks or long lines for rations.
In 1990, Gorbachev adopted market economy as a policy. He emphasized on social democracy. But it was too late. Gorbachev lost much of his political authority. As a result, he could not take the risk of using the market system to control the rise in prices of basic food products and services. So the Soviet economy ended up in a semi-scratch state. It cannot be called a centrally controlled economy, nor can it be called a market-driven economy.
The political reform programs that Gorbachev undertook were truly unique and daring. He was a very open man. That was unusual for a political leader. As the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, it is completely incompatible.
Gorbachev advocated a policy of glasnost, or liberalization, from the beginning of his leadership. His benevolence significantly increased the practice of freedom of expression and publication in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, publishing books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was a legal crime. After 1989, such books began to be widely published.
Dissidents who were imprisoned were released, those sent to exile or labor camps were brought back. Gorbachev also opened the door to new freedoms in communication. Removed restrictions on foreign media and eased travel and immigration.
In less than seven years, Gorbachev carried out reforms that no previous Soviet leader could do. In 1985, it would have been beyond the dreams of any Western leader to imagine such a change. Margaret Thatcher admitted it.
Gorbachev began his journey as a communist reformer in 1995. In 1988 he became a systematic convert. Gorbachev said in 1996, ‘Until 1988 I had the same illusions as the previous reformers. I believed the system could be improved. In 1988 I realized that we needed a systemic reform. The system itself has to be changed.’ Gorbachev’s realization is not a retrospective assessment of a past event. At a meeting of regional party secretaries in April 1988, Gorbachev said, “On what basis will 200 million people be ruled by 20 million (party members)?” He himself answered his own question, ‘We have assigned to ourselves the right to rule the people!’