Who Breaks First?
It’s time for a big update on the war in Ukraine, but first, the news recently broke that Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died at 91 years old.
The general verdict on Gorbachev is that he was an accidental revolutionary. As Tom Nichols sums it up, “Gorbachev was great because he failed.” He tried to reform Soviet communism in order to save it, but he found that once he let people speak their minds, they thought that neither socialism nor Russia’s Soviet empire was worth saving.
Anne Applebaum has a good overview of how events spiraled out of Gorbachev’s control and also how they were shaped by the choices he did make, though often by default.
[A]ll of Gorbachev’s most significant decisions, his most radical actions, were the ones he did not make. He did not order the East Germans to shoot at people crossing the Wall. He did not offer the Polish communists a bailout as their economy crashed. He did not launch a full-scale war to prevent the secession of the Baltic states, or to stop the Ukrainians from declaring independence, or to prevent Russia from electing its own leadership too. He made some reactionary attempts to slow things down, and people died in the process, most famously in Vilnius and Tbilisi. But he was not as vicious as some of his predecessors and successors, and he did not, in the end, use mass violence to keep the empire together. Nor did he use violence to stay in power himself.
On a personal level, I vividly remembered the energy and exuberance of the Gorbachev years that I saw on my trips to Moscow in 1990 and 1991. There were hardships, to be sure; but there was also hope and discovery. The protest marches, the conferences and meetings where people excitedly discussed political ideas, the once-forbidden books and movies, the religious and cultural freedom (there was a Jewish theater! in Moscow!); the beginnings of a consumer culture; even the fact that, strolling along Moscow’s Arbat avenue, you could run into a person fearlessly selling a typewritten booklet of Gorbachev jokes and another offering to take your picture with a very lifelike Gorby cutout.
The fact that Gorbachev blundered into the end of Soviet tyranny has led some people to discount his role. But the decision not to send in the tanks and not to ship political dissenters off to the gulag was a very real and substantive decision. It was certainly a fundamental break with Soviet history. Gorbachev’s virtue is that he was not willing to commit mass murder to save a failing system, and many millions of people across the world are better off because of it.
As Vladimir Putin reminds us every day, another leader would have made very different decisions, so we should not take Gorbachev’s choices for granted.
Two Spent Swimmers
The first six months of the war in Ukraine are pretty well summed up by the sergeant at the beginning of Macbeth: “Doubtful it stood; as two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.” Despite all of its material advantages, Russia’s offensives stalled out, first on the way to Kyiv, then in their attempt to expand Russian control in Ukraine’s east and south. But Ukrainian forces were worn down by the fighting and proved incapable of exploiting Russia’s failures and destroy its army.
But the sergeant’s next lines describe how MacBeth charged into action, “carved out his passage,” and “doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe,” turning the tide of the battle. Can Ukraine do this?
They are certainly trying.