Goodbye Gorby

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most consequential personage of the 20th century’s latter half. And in a good way.

Now that is really saying something. The 21st century’s biggest personages (so far) are big not in good ways at all.

Just look at this verbiage from one report of Gorbachev’s death* — “vision of humane communism liberated millions, bridled the global arms race and knocked down walls dividing East and West . . . systematically dismantle[d] the machinery of repression . . . freed political prisoners, lifted the Iron Curtain, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts . . . forged disarmament treaties . . . removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships.”

And on the seventh day he rested.

But he was thrown out of power, and when he ran again for president in 1996, he got one percent of the vote. Gosh that tells us something.

What made Gorbachev’s story so extraordinary is that it went completely against the grain of the society and system that had produced him. It’s in the nature of human life to travel along the tracks on which you find yourself. Gorbachev had the insight to see where those tracks were leading, and he rerouted the entire railroad.

He was made leader following a succession of wretched characters, because by then the system had so run out of steam that it couldn’t see how to do anything else. With a dead ideology no one any longer believed in. Gorbachev was the one who said the emperor had no clothes. When Ronald Reagan, in Berlin, intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he did (in effect). He went to the UN and said the Cold War was over — and that the West had won.

What a vast blessing for humanity. And it was not inevitable. Nothing ever really is, my own study of history suggests. Individuals and their choices and actions make history, and Gorbachev was a singular exemplar. Absent Gorbachev, a far uglier story would have likely ensued.

But he was a giant among Lilliputians, evidenced by that 1% presidential vote, and his vision was eclipsed with him — a vast tragedy for humanity. What ultimately did follow was a reversion to form; indeed, with a vengeance. His successor Putin restoring, doubling down, the evil Gorbachev tried to end. As though there is some malevolent force operating that not even so protean a figure as he could truly defeat. Yet Russia getting a Putin was not inevitable either. It was a choice.

* By Carol J. Williams in the los Angeles Times.

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