Gorbachev Is the Last 20th-Century Wilsonian

I first met former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in person in 1992 during a round-table discussion. Several months earlier, he stepped down from power. We all expected that Gorbachev, now freed from the burden of authority, would tell us what he was prohibited from saying earlier: the truth about events leading to the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he only spoke of the very things we had already grown so tired of hearing in recent years — of perfecting socialism and of the lost opportunity to preserve the renewed union.

The crowd gradually thinned as people lost interest, and I unexpectedly found myself alone with Gorbachev. Our conversation never touched on anything weighty, but from Gorbachev emanated a powerful charisma that seemed to envelop me. I still remember how it was impossible to avoid falling under his spell.

Seventeen years later, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I once again met with Gorbachev, this time intent on learning his views of those epochal events two decades ago.

I did not hear anything fundamentally new during our two-hour talk, but I think I learned the secret of his charisma. Gorbachev has a strong and healthy inner core. He was then, and is now, convinced of the correctness of his actions. It is not a merely intellectual conviction, but a moral one. Gorbachev did not have a transition strategy at the time, but he had an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, what actions were morally acceptable and which were not. The real mystery is how he retained his strong sense of values even while rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. However it happened, that moral force makes a strong impression, even if his views now seem out of touch with reality.

Gorbachev continues to admire Lenin and considers him a model politician — bold and full of conviction, yet flexible and capable of making major tactical shifts. He sees Lenin as the supreme innovator and Stalin as the ultimate tyrant.

Had a person with Gorbachev’s views and values rose to power in the 1960s — when the Soviet Union had more diversified economic potential and the public had not yet become so thoroughly cynical — maybe he would have had a chance to turn the country toward something more productive. But Gorbachev inherited a society that was no longer capable of reforming itself. True, he does not believe that himself. Gorbachev continues to blame just one person for all that happened — former President Boris Yeltsin. His anger is strong and very personal. He refuses to acknowledge that the Soviet economy was in shambles. Gorbachev still maintains that he lost not an economic battle, but a political one, and that if Yeltsin had not stabbed him in the back he could have overcome all the other obstacles in his path.

Gorbachev’s attitude toward the West differs from that of both his two immediate successors. The post-Soviet Russian stance has fluctuated between early Yeltsin-era toadyism and the defiant self-assertion of Vladimir Putin. The roots of both feelings can be found in a lack of self-confidence. Gorbachev did not suffer from that problem, nor does he now, despite his own political misfortunes and fall from power. He has retained a sense of personal dignity. He is also dumbfounded when he sees how the former Soviet satellites and Baltic states so eagerly handed over to Washington and Brussels the very sovereignty they had fought so hard to obtain from Moscow, even though it was Gorbachev who started this process by revoking the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Most Russians believe that the West reneged on its verbal promise not to expand NATO. According to Gorbachev, the accession of the newly unified Germany into NATO — the only expansion of that alliance discussed at the time — was not part of a separate deal, but part of an overall restructuring of Europe and the world. But those plans could not be carried out once the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Gorbachev’s plan was to convert the end of the Cold War — a unique confrontation that never degenerated into a direct clash — into a “joint venture” of sorts between two superpowers. But that never happened because, as it turned out, the Soviet ship, with Gorbachev as captain, sank.

Today, Moscow has once again become fixated on the idea of having a buffer zone along its borders. And that approach to ensuring national security is perfectly reasonable if you assume that it’s “every man for himself.” Gorbachev has a different approach — that of an integral and indivisible security architecture. It is no coincidence that he frequently quotes former U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “There can either be peace for everyone, or for no one.”

What Russians considered and still consider as Gorbachev’s naivete or even worse, his treason, is in fact a very conscious political idealism — one in which he, surprisingly, still has not lost faith. Gorbachev was the last Wilsonian of the 20th century. Like former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Gorbachev believed in “new thinking” in the name of global harmony. Having conceived the League of Nations, Wilson could not convince his own countrymen to support the concept, and that organization entered history as a symbol of helplessness. But that idea outlived its author and was finally deemed successful when the United Nations was created in 1945. The UN served as a stabilizing force in global affairs until the end of the Cold War, and it will probably regain this role in the future.

The world of the 21st century has not lived up to the expectations of Gorbachev or of those who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, proclaimed themselves the victors. Meanwhile, the new world order has not taken shape — at least not as it was envisioned by Gorbachev or by former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Like Wilson before him, Gorbachev witnessed the failure of his attempts to overcome superpower egoism for the sake of the common good.

Gorbachev’s and Wilson’s idealism remain milestones on the path toward progress. But the regularity with which politics chews up and spits out the latest idealist and then continues on with business as usual leads me to doubt whether any progress has been achieved at all.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.