Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pausing to smile while chatting up press during a lighthearted moment in G7 meetings. Dirck Halstead/ Getty Images
Gorbachev’s Legacy

On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Within a few weeks, the full-scale reformation he attempted to carry out both inside his country and in its Cold War relations with the West, particularly the United States, began to unfold. Perestroika (“restructuring”)—as Gorbachev called his reforms—officially ended with the Soviet Union and his leadership in 1991. The historic opportunities for a better future it offered Russia—and the world—have been steadily undermined ever since.

Usually forgotten is that the wave of democratization at the end of the 20th century began in a place, and in a way, that few had expected: in Soviet Russia, under Gorbachev’s leadership as the head of the Soviet Communist Party. Indeed, the extent to which his democratic achievements during nearly seven years in power have been forgotten or obscured is a measure of historical amnesia.

Lost in historical misrepresentation are his two great achievements inside his country. By 1991, Gorbachev had led Russia closer to a real functioning democracy than it had ever been in its thousand-year history; and the parliamentary and presidential elections he introduced in 1989­­–90—in the then-Soviet system—remain Russia’s freest and fairest to date.

It seems especially important to remember this history now, when there is renewed talk about democracy and authoritarianism, and its roots and risks, and as the US shepherds countries along the presumed democratic path. Recalling Gorbachev’s evolutionary democratization reminds us that whatever the merits of various US pro-democracy programs aimed at Russia, they played no role in the onset or unfolding of democratization in Moscow. Indeed, when Russians used to say their country had more democracy under Gorbachev than later, they point out that Boris Yeltsin’s election as Soviet Russian president in June 1991 was the first and the last time in the Soviet Union’s history that the Kremlin allowed executive power to pass to an opposition candidate.

Read the full piece in The Nation.

More from