Gorby the Democrat


Mikhail Gorbachev is a living negation of the axiom that history is written by the winners. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose existence he tried desperately to salvage, Gorbachev has improbably recast himself as a heroic democrat who, however imperfectly, brought down the edifice of communist repression and now champions democracy for his native Russia. Gorby’s revisionism can be wincingly embarrassing, but it does not necessarily tarnish his pro-democratic campaign – especially since his is one of the rare prominent Russian voices making the case for political reform.

Gorbachev’s op-ed in the Times today is a case in point, provided you can get past the self-serving historical exegesis. For instance, he depicts himself and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko as anti-ideologues and principled reformers, conveniently skirting past the fact that both were, until the bitter end, hidebound communists who simply hoped to return the Soviet Union to its foundational, Leninist roots but who failed to foresee the cascading consequences of their modest reforms.

Never mind that for the moment. What Gorbachev lacks in honesty about his own historical role he compensates for in an importantly candid critique of Vladimir Putin and the current Russian government. In essence, he argues that Putin’s Russia is starting to look very much like the Soviet Union of old. That is not an original view, exactly, but its airing, even in an American newspaper, has become an auspicious occasion as Putin’s government has silenced or marginalized what there was of a free Russian press.

Our country has not moved closer to that goal in the past few years, even though for a decade we have benefited from high prices for our main exports, oil and gas. The global crisis has hit Russia harder than many other countries, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Russia will progress with confidence only if it follows a democratic path. Recently, there have been a number of setbacks in this regard.

For instance, all major decisions are now taken by the executive branch, with the Parliament rubber-stamping formal approval. The independence of the courts has been thrown into question. We do not have a party system that would enable a real majority to win while also taking the minority opinion into account and allowing an active opposition. There is a growing feeling that the government is afraid of civil society and would like to control everything.

We’ve been there, done that. Do we want to go back? I don’t think anyone does, including our leaders.

I strongly suspect that Gorbachev is wrong about that last part. Based on everything we’ve seen from Putin, he very much does want to “go back” to Soviet times. Not in every respect – it’s hard to imagine even the famously ascetic Putin yearns for the grinding poverty of those days. But certainly Putin seems nostalgic for Soviet times in so far as they were free of the nuisances of democratic opposition, free speech, and independent political institutions.

Still, give Gorby credit. He is not my idea of a democrat and it’s a bit dismaying to see some Western historians romanticize him as a great statesman rather than the committed communist he was. But given the paucity of voices willing to challenge the regime openly, Gorby must be commended. For once in his political career he has done something right – and intentionally at that.