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Was Gorbachev really a hero?

Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan in Washington in 1987. Dirck Halstead/Getty

The West’s “amnesia” about Mikhail Gorbachev really is something to behold, says George Will in The Washington Post. The former Soviet leader has been hailed as a “visionary” for opening up the USSR to the world, precipitating its collapse. In reality, much like Christopher Columbus, he “stumbled into greatness by misunderstanding where he was going”. Gorbachev desperately tried to preserve the Soviet Union’s political system with a series of reforms. But these didn’t work because he failed to anticipate the whirlwinds that would be unleashed by his policy of glasnost (openness). Some visionary. It’s no wonder, as the political scientist Graham Allison has observed, that “when Xi Jinping has nightmares, the apparition he sees is Mikhail Gorbachev”.

Gorbachev’s mistake was to try to do “too much, too quickly”, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Rest is History podcast. His big idea was to devolve power from Moscow to the Soviet Union’s 14 other republics – this, he believed, would “invigorate the system”. But these disparate republics, stretching from Estonia to Tajikistan, had always struggled to suppress nationalism. And he chose to devolve power to them while pursuing glasnost – which allowed people to debate things more freely – as well as attacking corruption among the old elites. By doing all this at the same time, he unwittingly created “a breeding ground” for nationalists to thrive – planting the seeds of the Soviet Union’s demise.

He may have failed in what he set out to do, says Charles Powell in The Times, but the West can still mark Gorbachev down as a “hero”. He declined to intervene when the Berlin Wall fell, and didn’t send in tanks to “compel eastern Europe to remain tied to the Soviet Union”. For that alone – not to mention agreeing “far-reaching arms control agreements that made us all safer” – he deserves the world’s gratitude. He was a “decent” man too, with a good sense of humour. He once accused me of being responsible for making Margaret Thatcher so difficult. When I responded that the prime minister “needed no help with that, he winked and said the KGB had told him so”.