Mikhail Gorbachev: The contradictory legacy of Soviet leader who attempted 'revolution from above'

Mikhail Gorbachev was a contradictory figure; his legacy, complex. Hailed in the West as a democrat and liberator of his people – which he genuinely was – he increasingly became despised by many within Russia for destroying the Soviet Union and dismantling a great power.

Either way, he was consequential. Indeed, his death at 91, announced by state media in Russia on Aug. 30, 2022, comes as the ripples of the transformation he helped engineer continue to be felt. The invasion of Ukraine is, in part, an attempt to reverse the loss of status felt in post-Cold War Russia by the disintegration of the Soviet Union that occurred under Gorbachev – something Vladimir Putin views as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” In a sense, the unraveling of the Soviet Union that began 30 years ago is still going on now, in the bloody war in Ukraine.

Of course, that is not how he is perceived in the West. After enduring Western suspicions when he first came to power that he was simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an insincere reformer who was really a hard-line communist, Gorbachev managed to convince the skeptics abroad of his sincerity. U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found in Gorbachev someone she could “do business with.” Then, through her, U.S. President Ronald Reagan came around to the view that Gorbachev was indeed an authentic dismantler of the Soviet command system.

Early fears in the West evolved into anxiety about Gorbachev’s survival as he embarked on his great project. He was a reformer aspiring to be a revolutionary from above, wanting to liberalize and democratize his country to save socialism.

But in the process, he ended up undermining socialism as the major alternative to Western neoliberal capitalism. His rushed reforms to modernize the Soviet Union were overtaken by developments on the ground that saw the socialist project fall, to be replaced by a new era in Russia marked by growing nationalism and renewed authoritarianism.