Paul Kengor: Mikhail Gorbachev vs. the Evil Empire

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.]

The media jumps at anniversaries of historical figures and events. For those of us who write about history, we, too, seize these opportunities to teach history, especially history Americans should know.

Here's one such case: Can you believe it has been 25 years since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power? Gorbachev seized the reins of the Soviet state on March 11, 1985. As an illustration of how much the world has changed since -in part because of Gorbachev - I was reminded of this anniversary by a journalist from no less than Pravda; that is, the Slovak version of Pravda....

This brings me to Gorbachev. Liberals in the West woefully exaggerated Gorbachev's positions and role in ending the Cold War. Their misunderstandings and misrepresentations were based on a fatal combination of wishful thinking, partisan politics, and blind adherence to ideology - an irrepressible desire to credit Gorbachev at the expense of Ronald Reagan....

The most important thing that liberals got wrong-even as Gorbachev himself reiterated it a thousand times-was their failure to understand that Gorbachev's first priority, from the outset, had been to save and sustain the USSR, not to mention the entirety of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, to the point where he even initially opposed taking down the Berlin Wall. This fact is undeniable, as Gorbachev emphasized in his best-selling 1987 book Perestroika. To this day, he calls the breakup of the USSR his greatest regret. (See, for instance, "Soviet Union 'should have been preserved,'" interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, USA Today, April 6, 2006.)

At the same time, however, Gorbachev also sought to create a peaceful USSR. He vigorously opposed totalitarianism. To get there-and here's where conservatives need adjustments in their understanding-Gorbachev took several monumental steps that, unwittingly, led to the implosion of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc. These ranged from freedom of press, speech, assembly, and religion, to the introduction of political pluralism (democracy) by formally ending the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union's] constitutional monopoly on power. These were wonderful feats....

Sure, the Gorbachev story is complicated, a mix of the intended and unintended. Ultimately, however, it has a happy ending. To mark the birth of Mikhail Gorbachev's ascension to power is to also mark the death of Stalin's Evil Empire. And that's a moment worth celebrating.

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