But Gorbachev set the stage for a dramatic change of direction for the two superpowers of the day, one that might never have taken place without so many elements of his rich and textured life converging during his six years in power. There would likely be no independent nation of Ukraine — or, for that matter, there would not be so many members of the NATO alliance today.
There is so much more that might have changed, perhaps for the better, doubtless for the worse, had Gorbachev never propelled himself into the leadership role. Little of this was what he set out to accomplish when he took power in the Soviet Union as general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985.
There remains a question — whether without Gorbachev and the manifold reforms he launched in the increasingly sclerotic Soviet system and the military and security apparatus that underpinned it, the USSR could have survived longer.
But he also recognized what it took to succeed. He needed friends and mentors in high places. One of these was Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB, who took over as the Soviet leader when Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. There were many who believed Andropov held the key to breaking up the bloated and corrupt apparatus that had led the Soviet Union since Joseph Stalin and that he would lead the USSR to become a viable competitor with its arch foe, the United States.
Andropov died suddenly in 1984 after just 15 months in office. Gorbachev waited in the wings as Konstantin Chernenko, a Brezhnev clone and Andropov’s successor, was anointed the new leader. But Chernenko lasted only months. In March 1985, after Chernenko died of a heart ailment and emphysema, it was Gorbachev’s turn.
But he did recognize one reality. What was really bleeding the Soviet Union, dry was the arms race. He had to find some way to put a stop to that.
But he left the American side utterly bewildered. What they had not seen coming was Gorbachev’s surprise proposal to end the nuclear arms race and dismantle the entire nuclear arsenals of both sides — zero nukes under one critical condition: Reagan would have to agree to halt any development outside a laboratory or deployment of his Star Wars anti-missile system that had been so close to the American president’s heart. Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union could never hope to match this system without a catastrophic level of expenditures that would utterly destroy the Soviet economy. Reagan refused.
Back home, Gorbachev set to work dismantling the system that had proved so dysfunctional in its first seven decades, clearly unable to meet the challenges of the modern world. He completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and told east European leaders they were effectively on their own.
While Gorbachev continued to express a belief in communism and its political party as a progressive force, after briefly surviving a failed coup attempt in August 1991 he was finally forced to resign in December of that year in favor of a feverish and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union collapsed a day later.
Gorbachev concluded the preface he wrote for our book with what might effectively be his epitaph: “What we need today is precisely this: political will. We need another level of leadership, collective leadership, of course. I want to be remembered as an optimist . Let us assimilate the lessons of the 20th century in order to rid the world of this legacy in the 21st — the legacy of militarism, violence against the peoples and nature, and weapons of mass destruction of all types.”
But one big question remains. Had Gorbachev not been in place to undertake his reforms, setting the Soviet Union on the path toward a dismantled Russian empire, would the way have been clear for a Vladimir Putin to arrive with his own even more toxic vision? As the war in Ukraine grinds on, it’s a question that hangs in the air.