Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and Nobel Peace Prize winner, died on August 30 at the age of 91. Safia Swimelar, professor of political science and political studies, explains Gorbachev’s efforts to democratize Russia’s political system, his role in the breakup of the Soviet Union, and why Gorbachev’s legacy is crucial to understanding politics Russian and modern world, including the Russian-Ukrainian war.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was Gorbachev an important figure in world politics, especially in Russia?
“To start from the beginning, he was the most important because he recognized when he came to power in the mid-1980s that the Soviet Union was not the great empire that people had believed in. If you looked at the economy, and you looked at the lack of freedoms that people enjoyed, then it was pretty clear that it was stagnant and not able to compete with the United States. had claimed part of that was because he had spent so much money on the arms race and the weapons that he was not able to be economically strong and I think he acknowledged, as well as the first college-educated leader of the Soviet Union, that there needed to be reform – there needed to be improvements not only in people’s ways of life, but also in government in general.
He decided to open up the system, both economically and politically. It has enabled more economical market initiatives. It allowed for a more open discussion of political issues, political organizing and the media. And that opened the floodgates. He gave some openness and freedom in these areas to a system that was very, very closed. And it took on a life of its own because a lot of people wanted it. So that’s part of why he’s seen as the main cause of the downfall of the communist system and the system in the Soviet Union.
Under the Soviet system, Eastern European states that were not officially part of the Soviet Union – such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc. – were under his influence. In the past, if they wanted to go their own way, if they wanted to get rid of communism, get rid of authoritarianism and go to Europe and be more democratic, they really had no right to do that. The Soviet Union, the military in particular, would basically come in and crush any form of protest against the communist regime. They had done that before in the 70s and 80s. So what Gorbachev did, which was super monumental, was he basically said in terms of foreign policy, you can go your own way. If Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary, if you decide you want to do something different, we’re not going to come in with tanks and arrest you. And that was extremely important because those countries were also communist dictatorships.
Then they had a popular uprising – the rise of ordinary people in Berlin which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall where East Berlin and West Berlin were divided. The wall comes down, people can travel, visit their families on the other side of the wall. There were hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Prague in Czechoslovakia, the same in Poland, and so they were able to go their own way by completely peaceful means, get rid of the communist system that they had and become states democratic capitalists.
I’m not saying it’s only because of Gorbachev. Of course, this is thanks to the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people in these countries. But because it didn’t stop them from leaving, the most important thing it led to was Europe as a whole, not just Russia, becoming free and democratic from 1989 to 1991. And those countries then became members of the European Union. They became central players in the NATO military alliance, and so they created a more whole and undivided Europe.
Many people supported him and wanted things to go further. But also, there were a lot of extremist communists in his government who didn’t want any change. It became a fight within the Soviet Union between extremists who wanted no change and were anti-Gorbachev and those who wanted even more change. He just wants to reform it to make it work better. But when he begins to reform it, he threatens all the different parties.
The hardliners tried to take a coup on Gorbachev and get rid of him because they thought he was too progressive, too liberal. He and another Soviet leader, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, came in and saved the day and basically ended the coup, and Yeltsin was on the Democratic side instead. Gorbachev therefore had to leave office before the end of the Soviet Union. And Yeltsin took over by wanting to reform the whole system towards democracy. Gorbachev started it, but he didn’t take it to the next level. So, miraculously, without any major wars or revolutions, the Soviet Union collapsed into 15 countries. Ukraine is one of them.
How was Gorbachev a different leader from Putin?
“Many commentators and scholars see Putin’s attack on Ukraine and his 2008 invasion of Georgia – another former Soviet republic – as Putin’s attempt to start recreating this larger, broader Soviet system.
The other big thing, of course, is Gorbachev’s idea of opening things up. The idea of Russia becoming democratic was going the other way. It opens under Gorbachev, but closes under Putin. And you even have countries in Eastern Europe — which aren’t fully authoritarian governments, and they haven’t completely gone the other way — that have challenges to their democracy. These main countries that are in the EU would be Poland and Hungary, and they have been sanctioned and criticized by all western democracies for suppressing the media, human rights, independence and freedom of the judiciary – many fundamental things that democracy is supposed to have.
It should be added that it is not only Europe, it is the whole world. The Freedom House organization measures freedom and democracy around the world, and there has been a decline in the number of democracies every year for the past 15 years. In 1989 and 1990, when Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were evolving, we saw the number of democracies increase throughout the world every year. And now we see a decline every year, and that includes the United States, countries like India, and other major democracies. I’m not saying it’s going to collapse in the United States or India or places like that. But there is a kind of contestation from various political actors.
Do you think this is related to what is happening with Russia or just a similar trend?
“The anti-democratic tendencies in the United States are not directly related to Russia, but they are related to aspects of globalization that many people believe do not directly benefit them. Economic globalization and corporate power mean that the middle class is not doing as well as it once did in countries like France, the United States and perhaps even Russia. Changing cultural attitudes and immigration cause backlash, and then you just have a lot of populist leaders. Most of these populists are more on the anti-democratic side. They tend to be okay with rollback, civil rights, civil liberties, or media-related things. So again, it’s not directly related to Putin and Russia, but there are some similarities.
Why is this something Elon’s students should care or learn?
“Gorbachev is super important to everyone’s life in the United States because Elon’s students might ask their grandparents, or even their parents, what they remember about the Cold War – hiding under offices, fear of nuclear war, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to fund an arms race against the Soviet Union As a leader, Gorbachev helping to end this whole conflict is hugely important to the development of the United States and the fact that we didn’t have a nuclear war and that our system took over, so to speak, when the communist system ended. That’s the historical answer.
It’s also good for young students to remember that what they are seeing now with these anti-democratic tendencies, especially in Russia and Europe, was not always like this. Not so long ago there was another way, which means we shouldn’t assume that every Russian person is some kind of dictatorship supporter. Obviously Putin has a lot of support, but we can’t assume that everyone in Russia supports this kind of system.