Mikhail Gorbachev is the first and probably last communist whose death I will have mourned.
The mourning had less to do with intentions than consequences--Gorbachev wanted to save a murderous Soviet system but ended up destroying it as surely as if he had been in the employ of the CIA.
He is also perhaps the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize for not doing something; more precisely for not doing what his predecessors periodically did, which was send in the Red Army when Eastern Europe threatened to break away from communism and the Soviet imperium.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the USSR have by now taken on a sense of inevitability, but that wasn't the way it felt back then. Ronald Reagan might have given speeches about how communism was about to be tossed into the "dustbin of history" (usually to sharp liberal disapproval), but no one was predicting when Gorbachev came to power in 1985 that Poland would have a Solidarity government and that the "Titan of the Carpathians" (Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu) would be lined up against a wall and shot by the end of the decade.
But Gorbachev was clearly a different kind of Soviet leader, and if there was a unifying theme that linked his reforms, it was "decentralization," defined as lifting the heavy hand of the Party from the economy (perestroika), culture and society (glasnost), and politics (demokratizatsiya). Soviet communism was almost perfectly designed to prevent transition to the post-industrial age, and it is to Gorbachev's credit that he had at least a hazy understanding of that.
In the end, his own ideological contradictions, manifest in a mismatch between ends and means, virtually guaranteed failure--he wanted the dynamism and innovation of capitalism but within a still centrally planned economy without real prices or private property; greater social and cultural openness consistent with the information age, but with the regime still determining what could and couldn't be discussed; and a greater degree of electoral competition while still preserving one-party rule.
Perhaps most important of all, his efforts to decentralize the Soviet Union fatally undermined what Vladimir Ilyich Lenin called the "prison house of nations" (which the Bolsheviks had put back together and dressed up in overalls). Gorbachev's reforms weakened the mechanisms of control necessary for Russians to rule over hostile peoples; at no point did he appear to understand that reform and preservation of empire don't go together.
Whatever (slim) prospects existed for salvaging the Soviet system eventually evaporated because of Gorbachev's stubborn refusal to fully renounce it. He didn't want multiparty democracy and a market economy as ends in themselves, only as ill-fitting means to bolster a failing Marxist-Leninist state.
The idea of "communism with a human face" remains a logical impossibility because the centralized political authority necessary to implement such a system is incompatible with democracy and human rights.
As the 1991 Soviet coup attempt began, I was taking up duties at Lafayette College, offering upper-level courses in both Soviet Politics and Soviet Foreign Policy. While Gorbachev was still under house arrest in Crimea, I remember telling my classes that what we were about to study might not exist by the end of the semester.
Because I had also recently published an about-to-be badly outdated book on the Soviet military, I was contacted by media sources wanting to know if the security organs would obey their superiors (the ministers for Defense, the KGB, and Interior were members of the "State Committee on the State of Emergency").
My answer reflected my belief that Gorbachev had changed the Soviet Union's political culture in such a way that even the military and KGB, crucial to the coup's success, would fracture rather than be used as reliable instruments of oppression.
My prognostication skills have apparently deteriorated over the last 30 years (I never saw Donald Trump coming, and thought Joe Biden was toast after the 2020 New Hampshire primary), but I got it generally right back in 1991--the refusal of military and KGB forces to follow orders greatly contributed to the coup's failure, and Gorbachev would end up formally dissolving the USSR before my final grades were due.
Gorbachev would attempt a comeback a few years later, when he ran for the Russian presidency in 1996.
He deserved better than 0.5 percent of the vote.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.