Flip through cable TV networks like the History Channel or Biography on any given weekend and there’s a good chance you’ll come across a documentary about the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse, arguably the defining moment of the 20th Century.
Most of them follow a now familiar track: Praise for President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for setting aside their differences and agreeing to abolish intermediate-range nuclear weapons in 1986. That’s usually followed by recounting Gorbachev’s historic domestic reforms known as glasnost and perestroika, which opened up the Soviet economy and gave new freedoms to the nation’s citizens.
Although it wasn’t necessarily Gorbachev’s intent, the greater freedoms led to the Soviet Union’s satellite states in Eastern Europe — like Poland and Czechoslovakia — to oust their heavy-handed Communist governments and embrace democracy. Gorbachev wouldn’t yield to hardliners who wanted to crack down on the nations and bring them back into the fold.
That, in turn, led to a failed coup at home and the Communist Party’s own downfall there, prompting the nation’s eventual dissolution in December 1991.
Younger readers might find it hard to believe, but there was a time when anxious societies around the world knew we could be just a half-hour away from utter nuclear annihilation and yet somehow went about their daily business.
To this day, U.S. conservatives love to mythologize this period and give most of the credit to Reagan and his ally, Britain’s stern Margaret Thatcher, for freeing the world from the Communist threat. In truth, however, the Soviet economy already was on its last legs and they merely hastened its final fall. Gorbachev could have dragged out the affair to a messier conclusion but chose a more rational course.
It’s interesting, then, to hear what this esteemed statesman has to say about current events in the United States and the world. Because many Americans typically don’t like to hear diametrically opposing views to their government, the former Soviet leader’s comments have gone largely ignored here.
Unlike Reagan and Thatcher, Gorbachev, at age 77, still is very much alive and well and somewhat active in politics in his home country. Maybe borscht is good for the heart.
Gorbachev is a frequent critic of the United States’ go-it-alone attitude in foreign policy absent a counter-balancing superpower to keep it in check. He vociferously opposed the Iraq War and believes our nation contributes to international disorder.
“What has followed are unilateral actions, what has followed are wars, what has followed is ignoring the U.N. Security Council, ignoring international law and ignoring the will of the people, even the American people,” he told MSNBC last year in a rare interview.
While we like to remember Gorby for having the balls to criticize the Soviet bureaucracy for becoming apathetic to its citizenry’s needs, he sees little difference with our government. In autumn 2007, he visited New Orleans to survey the lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina. Gorbachev vowed to return there in 2011 and start a people’s revolt if the government hasn’t fully repaired the levees by then.
While Gorbachev added that such action should be a last resort, he said most Americans apparently have forgotten that their nation was forged by revolution against established authority.
He also blasted U.S. influence in the South Ossetia War this summer between Georgia and Russia and how the conflict was reported by mainstream American media.
“Russia did not want this crisis,” Gorbachev wrote in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post. “The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president.
“The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.”
Throughout history, ideologues and true believers have been responsible for the biggest messes. Pure Communism helped deplete the Soviet Union and pushed it limping into the grave. Pure capitalism and rampant consumerism is now dragging down the U.S.
Like a cantankerous old uncle at a family gathering, we tend to shove away figures we once lionized when they tread into uncomfortable topics. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Gorbachev in this post-ideological era.
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