Most reformers are not objects of love and devotion in their own countries. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms actually caused the collapse of his country, is a good example. But around the world, and especially in Europe, he is seen as a positive figure. Whatever your view of Mikhail Gorbachev, who turns 80 on March 2, the fact is he changed the world.
Playing it safe
Gorbachev's actions transformed his country beyond recognition. Yet, he is remembered more for what he didn't do at defining moments of his career: the beginning and the end.
Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in April 1985. But unlike his predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, he was not content to go with the flow. He wanted more than the cosmetic changes to the system that Yuri Andropov offered. He was determined to fundamentally reform the system because he understood that the country could not go on living as it used to live.
In the beginning, however, Gorbachev's intentions were not apparent. The winds of change were not very strong at that time, and Gorbachev even seemed determined to shelter the system from them, something he was criticized for by progressive intellectuals. But the reformer was playing a more complex game. Before he made his move, he had to consider the political reality and the balance of power in the upper echelons of the Soviet government.
The general secretary was not an all-powerful leader who could do as he pleased. After Stalin's brutal dictatorship and Khrushchev's unbridled "voluntarism," the men at the top of the party and the government sought to protect themselves by making the party boss the first among equals. It would be the collective leadership of the Politburo rather than one man that ruled the Soviet Union going forward.
The Politburo had its own checks and balances, and factions. It took Gorbachev several years to navigate this dangerous terrain, cautiously squeezing out enemies and rigid party doctrinarians who insisted, for one, that the CPSU platform spoke in no uncertain terms about "the advantages of socialism." At the same time, he was gradually building a base of supporters of meaningful change.
Nothing compelled Gorbachev to embark on his program of economic reforms, and even less the political reforms. Quite the contrary. For a man in his position, it would have been much easier to avoid any sudden movements. He had attained the highest position in the state and his authority - while limited - was not disputed by other Politburo members. He had no rivals to fend off. He could have reigned in peace, without getting off the couch. He could have played it safe, and the inertia of the system would have carried him a long way.
The president and the party
But Gorbachev chose a different path. He refused to settle for a secure position in the Politburo as the highest party boss and the chairman of the presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, a symbolic president of the USSR. He chose to become a real president. To do this, he set about reviving - or actually, building from the ground up - the structures of the Soviets, which had been treated as mere window dressing for party bodies. Gorbachev placed the Congress of People's Deputies and the USSR Supreme Soviet, which he chaired, at the top of this structure.
He was building an alternative to the vertical power structure of the party which ruled one sixth of the Earth's surface. He moved from the Congress rostrum right into the chair of the president, which was no longer a figurehead but a position of real power and legitimacy. He was elected president by more than two thousand deputies, many of whom had been elected by voters. In other words, they were representatives of the people rather than the envoys of obedient party bodies or members of the party's Central Committee or the politburo, who were accountable to no one.
Gorbachev would have achieved even greater legitimacy if he had called for nationwide elections, which he would have won easily. But such a massive undertaking seemed unnecessary to him, and there is little point in indulging in alternative history now.
As president, Gorbachev had room to maneuver. Some may say that he was guided exclusively by his lust for power. Show me a politician who doesn't lust for power! What is important is why he sought power. Obviously, it was not for his own comfort.
Gorbachev took great risks. Although he held on to the post of general secretary, he considerably weakened the party's power. At Gorbachev's urging, the Congress of People's Deputies removed the notorious sixth article from the Constitution, depriving the communist party of its "leading and guiding force."
Gorbachev rocked the boat so hard that it sank. He failed in his role as captain. The Soviet Union could not exist without the supporting framework of the party. Clearly, this was not the end the first and the last president of the USSR had envisioned. But by launching perestroika, he let the genie out of the bottle. He just couldn't even imagine what this would lead to.
A graceful exit
Gorbachev wanted to reform socialism. But it became clear in the process that the system was fundamentally flawed, and that reform entailed destruction. It was not the specific reforms Gorbachev sought that brought the system down, but the fact that he pursued reforms at all. The tectonic processes his reforms awakened proved to be too strong.
Despite the risk, Gorbachev chose to press on with his reform program. He does not regret his decision, even though it ruined his political career.
Gorbachev deserves credit for his graceful exit from politics. When Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich simply pulled out from under him the remnants of the Soviet Union that, by then, existed only on paper and in the minds of few fanatics, Gorbachev did not resist. And he certainly could have tried to cling to power, like Gaddafi now. But he did not even consider this option. He shuddered at the thought of civil war.
This is one of Gorbachev's greatest achievements. He was a reformer but by no means a revolutionary. He deserves recognition for this and for all his good intentions.
It would be inaccurate to say that Gorbachev "gave" us our freedom. But he was the man who ended censorship, for instance. Thanks to his efforts, freedom was given room to flourish. But he had no control over how ordinary citizens and politicians used their newfound freedom.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.