The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

"Gorbachev Failed. That's Why He Was Showered with Honors."


A good article today by Jeff Jacoby, about Gorbachev's complex life and legacy; not terribly new to those who followed the last years of the Soviet Union, but still well put. An excerpt:

Even if he could never bring himself to acknowledge the inherent evil of communism, it was to Gorbachev's lasting credit that when Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria chose to exit the Soviet orbit, he did not send in the tanks. That was the reason for all those prizes and awards, the reason he was so immensely popular in the West, the reason obituaries this past week have referred to him as a "liberator."

But he wasn't a liberator…. [C]hoosing not to commit mass murder or perpetuate slavery is not the same thing as choosing to save lives or free the enslaved.

And when it came to the former Soviet republics, Gorbachev's attitude was far less enlightened…. Gorbachev was not prepared to send tanks and troops to subdue Warsaw and Prague, but he had no such qualms—at least at first—closer to home [in the USSR's constituent "republics"].

"As early as 1986, nationalist protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, were put down with a massive show of force," recalled Leonid Bershidsky in a Bloomberg essay. "In April 1991, the Soviet military killed 21 protesters and wounded hundreds more in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi…. People were killed as they protested in Dushanbe, Baku, and Riga," the capitals, respectively, of Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Latvia. In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers moved directly into crowds of civilians demonstrating for freedom. Hundreds of protesters were wounded and at least 14 people — two of them teenagers — were killed.

Fortunately for the former Soviet republics, Gorbachev's tolerance for slaughter was low. He was too decent to successfully rule an evil empire.

For those who know Russian, here's a young Andrey Makarevich's "Give Lithuania Back to the Lithuanians," from 1991, which addresses Gorbachev directly; Makarevich is now a leading critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (see, e.g., here, though there are many other songs from him on this as well); here's a loose translation:

Onto the empty pages of Russian Imperial history
Sometimes in ash, sometimes in gold, are written our years
So give Lithuania back to the Lithuanians, Mikhail Sergeevich [i.e., Gorbachev]
We can't force you to be kind, alas, but blood isn't water.

That would be beautiful, worthy, it would be right
To say, by the highest decree we give you freedom
Give all the riot police a medal with the portrait of Nevzorov]
Treat them to a nice dinner, and then let them ho home.

There'll be new skirmishes—trust me, they'll find some reason,
And again the guy from Ryazan' will have a steady hand [presumably a reference to some then-current incident].
Free the Lithuanians—it will be credited and recorded for you
In any event they're as useful to us now, pardon, as trying to get milk from a billy goat.

We'll soon run out of bagel holes, forget even about the bagels!
Distrust of words is born of distrust of deeds.
Better a friendly neighbor than an enemy in the form of a "fraternal republic"
Free the Lithuanians—what have they ever done to you?

Questioned by their eyes you can only stoop
Perhaps we really are a big big family
But somehow the family can't live without tanks in the streets
Without having to pay for the air they breathe, without sentences to hard labor, and without lies.

I'd give a lot to see how all of this ends.
Free them with our blessing, and not later, but now,
Let them smile in return—how I would like that!
And then their smiles will make us happier.

Well, Gorbachev ultimately did do as Makarevich asked. And in a cruel century, in a cruel corner of a cruel world, that counts for a lot.