In memoriam: Mikhail Gorbachev


Reams have already been written about the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union before its collapse.  I think one of the most appropriate thoughts comes from the blogger at HMS Defiant:

Two men encompassed the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan could not have accomplished the peaceful end without the grounded Russian realist who saw very clearly what the future held if the Cold War went on.  Mikhail Gorbachev must have seen not just the hand writing on the wall but the oceans of blood if the War went on as the Soviet Unions red star faded into the mist. He accepted reality.

There’s more at the link.

I can’t say much about Gorbachev as a person or leader.  I don’t know enough to comment.  Nevertheless, his death sent my mind way back to November 1989.  I was sitting in my apartment in Johannesburg, South Africa, when an urgent TV news flash interrupted regular programming.  Before my stunned, startled eyes, the image cut away to crowds of people demonstrating on both sides of the Berlin Wall in Germany.  As I watched, the protesters hammered at the wall with their fists, then with sledgehammers, then with commandeered construction equipment.  I watched as a group of protesters hauled themselves to the top of the Wall, hoisted others up to join them, then jumped down on the West Berlin side to embrace those gathered to meet them.  Cheers and tears were the order of the day.  It was euphoric.

What stunned me was that the East German border guards, who had killed and maimed literally thousands of would-be border crossers over the decades, sat back and did nothing.  Erich Honecker, as tyrannical a dictator as one could wish, would have shot down the demonstrators by the hundreds and thousands without a single qualm of conscience;  but he was no longer in power, having been removed only weeks before in an attempt by the East German regime to soften and improve its image.  They could not have done so without the tolerance (probably carefully verified beforehand) of the Soviet Union and its leader.  In other words, Gorbachev had deliberately chosen to restrain former Soviet instincts and strategic imperatives, and allowed the Berlin Wall to fall.

Understand, I’d been active in South Africa’s border war (and extended variations thereof) for a long time.  It was one of the hotter aspects of the Cold War.  I still bear the scars of those years in my body and mind.  I was accustomed to thinking of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact as the big, bad enemy, a major, terminally dangerous threat to my country and myself.  Suddenly, there was a new possibility;  the potential to resolve our external war peacefully, which in turn could possibly lead to an internal settlement of the national obscenity of apartheid as well.

I’d accepted for years that I was living on borrowed time.  The scars on my body reminded me of that anytime I forgot it.  Now . . . now, suddenly, I might have a future.  I might live to my next birthday, and even beyond.  Maybe I wouldn’t become just another casualty of the Cold War.

That was mind-blowing.  It was genuinely shocking.

And I owe that, in very large measure, to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.  One kept up the pressure and refused to be cowed.  The other succeeded to an office and a system that were both hopelessly compromised, but had the sense and the grace to understand that.  Gorbachev could have kicked against the goad like all his predecessors.  He could have sent the Cold War down to ruin in a last spasm of bloodshed and cruelty, as those who later rose up against him would have preferred.  Instead, he let his humanity overcome his politics, and rose above tyranny to allow people to “vote with their feet”.  Perhaps more than anyone realizes, he was the man who allowed the Cold War to end peacefully . . . and that has a lot to do with why I’m still alive today.

For that, Mr. Gorbachev, thank you very much.  May your sins be forgiven you, and may you rest in God’s peace.



  1. I forget which online comic it was that had an.. analog… of the Cold War… which came to and end… and the lines…

    "Who won the [NotTheCold] War?"


  2. John Paul II and Lech Walesa's Solidarity were the driving force that caused Gorby to start Glasnost. He wanted a Window Dressing for Communism but found the Window was closing in on him.

    If Putin were still a Communist, the media would fawn over him too. They believe Pol Pot was probably a nice guy.

  3. Putin has covered Russian socialism under the cloth of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has and always will be the KGB officer he started out as. Trust not in Princes yada yada.

    Gorby rode the failing state down in a controlled crash. It could have been much much worse. Kind of like watching Communist China thrash around right now but with Russian paranoia added on.

  4. Every generation has its defining moments. Pearl Harbor. The Kent State shootings. The Moon landing (I just barely remember that one). The Wall coming down was ours. There hadn't been a day in my life when nuclear annihilation didn't literally hang over my head (growing up within the radius of a 10 megaton warhead to the local Air Force base). And, just like that, it evaporated. A crushing weight I never knew I carried was taken from me. I cried. We all did. I'm crying now describing it. I carry that day with me, and the knowledge that it happened is the only reason I'm not a complete pessimist. Miracles can happen.

    Godspeed, Mikhail.

  5. Controlled crash is a good way to put it…a performance worthy of Chesley Sullenberger in its way.

    As others have noted, credit Reagan and St. John Paul the Great — and Thatcher — for helping bring it about, and others like Vaclav Havel, the major (Evdovkimov, as far as I can find) who chose to defend the Russian White House, and even the corrupt old drunk Boris Yeltsin, who rose to an occasion by climbing on a tank and making a speech when someone climbing on a tank to make a speech would have done some good, who helped make it stick.

    For a while.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *