Gorbachev: Man of the Twentieth Century?

January 1, 2009

Regarded by emigre and domestic critics as a closet Stalinist and by Western observers as a closet reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, as the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, first resisted and then advocated the end of the party's "leading role". He called himself a Communist to the marrow of his bones, but urged the party to drop Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology, repeatedly fought a rearguard action to maintain party unity but eventually proclaimed the party dead and declared that its assets should be handed over to the state. He rejected the demand from the constituent republics for independence, but came to preside over the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Given such contradictions, the question mark in the title of Mark Sandle's book seems justified. Did Gorbachev change the world? End the Cold War? Liberate Eastern Europe and bring down the Berlin Wall? Was he a bungling despot, a confused Leninist, a democratic dictator, a flawed visionary? Was his meteoric rise from rural provincial life in the North Caucasus to the peaks of power in Moscow due entirely to his intelligence and ability, or his manipulative skills, or did good luck also play its part?

Surveying a wide range of sources, both non-Russian and Russian, emigre and domestic, as well as Gorbachev's own writings, Sandle sets out to analyse Gorbachev's career in the light of these contradictory evaluations.

Bearing in mind the conflicting facts of Gorbachev's profile, Sandle sets out his own paradigm of Gorbachev's values: he sees Gorbachev above all as a man of faith - faith in socialism, the party, the Union and Lenin.

Gorbachev remained attached to these articles of faith even when he was introducing the policies of glasnost and perestroika that would inevitably demolish them. Gorbachev's journey from Marxism-Leninism to humanism, from the party's monopoly to political and intellectual pluralism, from central planning to market economics, may be said to have begun in 1956, when Khrushchev made his "secret speech" at the 20th Party Congress attacking Stalin's abuse of power and, no less significantly, planting a fertile seed of doubt in the minds of many ambitious young men who were just embarking on their careers.

Whether or not it was morally admirable, harbouring this doubt while successfully pursuing advancement in the system was an entirely feasible attitude, and it was one that was characteristic of huge numbers of similarly minded young men in the satellite countries of Eastern Europe. When the old men of the Stalin era had either died or left the scene, and when it was obvious that the Soviet Union was in a condition of terminal stagnation, it was the turn of Gorbachev's generation to plan for deep reform of the system.

Addressing the question mark in his title, Sandle concludes that, given the balance of pros and cons, "there is no doubt that in any history of the twentieth century (Gorbachev) will remain a central character, whether that be as a victim, villain or hero". This book is a well-organised and useful guide to understanding the conflicts and ambiguities of his era.

Gorbachev: Man of the Twentieth Century?

By Mark Sandle. Hodder Education. 344pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780340761595. Published 29 August 2008

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