Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t the most impressive Russian I have met. That was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident nuclear physicist who campaigned bravely and tirelessly for human rights in the Soviet Union. Yet I would never have had the opportunity to know Sakharov, who died in 1989, if Gorbachev had not freed him from internal exile three years earlier.
The greatness of Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday, consisted in such acts. Under his rule, which lasted less than seven years, Russia became freer than at any time in its modern history. Without him, central and eastern Europe might have regained its independence at some point, but not as quickly nor as peacefully as the region did in 1989.
When Gorbachev came to power as Soviet communist party leader in March 1985, I was living in Moscow, working for Reuters news agency. Across the vast country of 11 time zones, the prisons and labour camps still held critics of Soviet power, though millions fewer than in Joseph Stalin’s time.
Not much changed in Gorbachev’s first 18 months in office. The brother of one of my close Russian friends was sentenced in 1986 to three years in a strict-regime Siberian labour camp for wanting to emigrate rather than do military service. When their father protested in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, he was arrested and put in a psychiatric clinic.
Sakharov had been banished in 1980 to Gorky, a city then closed to foreigners, for denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gorbachev ordered his release, thinking Sakharov could assist him in opening up and modernising life in Russia. But Sakharov was much too independent-minded to serve as Gorbachev’s cheerleader.
Despite fierce conservative opposition, Sakharov was elected in 1989 to the Congress of People’s Deputies, a new legislature set up by Gorbachev. One day, when Sakharov gave a speech proposing radical constitutional reform, Gorbachev, who was presiding over the session, tried to shut him up by turning off his microphone. That was the other side of Gorbachev. He never quite adapted to the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics that his own reforms spurred on.
The historian Ronald Grigor Suny once astutely observed that Gorbachev “desired to be both Martin Luther and the Pope, both radical reformer and preserver of what might be maintained”. If success meant keeping the Soviet Union intact while transforming it into a politically free, economically prosperous society, then Gorbachev failed. But it was an honourable failure, because when the Soviet system began to fall apart, he refused to use mass violence to hold it together.
In his early years, his strongest supporters were among the intelligentsia. Readers of the Soviet press, film-goers and television viewers were excited to discover what banned work of literature was now available or what crimes of Stalin were being exposed.
I recall coming across an excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoirs, published for the first time in the Soviet Union — of all places, in an obscure chess magazine. Censorship was still at work: the excerpt omitted a passage in which Nabokov mocked what he called the “mechanical” Soviet method of devising chess problems. Towards the end of Gorbachev’s rule, however, nothing was off limits.
Until the late 1980s, Gorbachev displayed skill in outmanoeuvring his opponents. In May 1987 Matthias Rust, a West German teenager, piloted a plane from Helsinki to Moscow, flying through the vaunted Soviet air defences and landing his Cessna light aircraft on Red Square. Gorbachev exploited the embarrassing incident to sack the Soviet defence minister and reorganise the military command.
I covered Rust’s trial in the Soviet Supreme Court, in which he was found guilty of “malicious hooliganism”. The fact that some western reporters could attend the trial, conducted in Russian and German, marked the new openness of Gorbachev’s time.
As a proponent of economic reform, Gorbachev said much but achieved little. Far-reaching change, while keeping the Soviet power structures intact, was probably impossible. But tinkering with the state-run economy as he did just made matters worse. The Soviet public never forgave him.
Yet in the end we should be grateful that he turned out not to have the “iron teeth” with which Andrei Gromyko credited him when he proposed Gorbachev’s election to the party leadership in 1985. If Russia ever again has such a humane, decent and non-violent man as its leader, it will be a fortunate country.