Thomas de Waal: Mikhail Gorbachev ... Three Cheers for the Man Who Did Nothing

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book, The Caucasus: An Introduction, will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.]

Sometimes history should recognize the magnificence of politicians who, confronted with a difficult situation, decide to do nothing. The best exponent of this monumental restraint is Mikhail Gorbachev.

The achievements of Gorbachev, who turns 80 on March 2, look greater from a distance. Historians will surely ask how the Russian leader who presided over the biggest upheaval in his country’s history, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was also the leader with the least blood on his hands.

Working as a journalist in Russia in the Yeltsin era in the 1990s I was able to get closer to Gorbachev than I could have done when he was actually in power. I met him three times. I found a man whose faults I knew in advance: a rather woolly intellect, a didactic tone, a propensity never to use a sentence when a paragraph would do. But I was still greatly impressed. The steel was still there: this after all was the man who took on the entire Soviet old guard of the 1980s and defeated them one by one. And there was also immense energy, political acumen and—an extraordinary quality for a man who had held such a position—real human decency.

In retrospect it looks as though Gorbachev’s most frustrating character trait, equivocation, was also his redeeming grace. He was not decisive enough in fixing the growing ethnic and political challenges that erupted in the Soviet Union. In 1988, faced with his first big challenge, as violence sprang up between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, he issued a call for socialist solidarity in a barren “Appeal to the workers of Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Yet he did not, as others would have done, order mass arrests or call out the troops. By instinct, both personal and political, he did not want to see blood shed.

Compare that approach to both his predecessors and successors...

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