Significance of tragic leader Gorbachev’s unfinished reforms

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Mikhail Gorbachev speaks during an interview in Moscow in 2009.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who died Tuesday age 91, initiated the end of the Cold War in a historic move at the end of the 20th century. However, the massive wave of reforms he approved brought about his downfall. His reforms were based on the principle of reconciliation with the United States and Europe, goals not shared by today’s Russia. The reforms ended unfinished due to the collapse of the state.

In 2009, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, I interviewed Gorbachev in his Moscow office. We talked for about two hours, and his recollection of a visit in June 1989 to what was then West Germany left a particularly strong impression.

When asked what his outlook for a divided Germany was at the time, he recalled, “I thought it was an issue that would be resolved in the 21st century.”

The Berlin Wall fell five months after Gorbachev’s visit, and Germany was reunified the following year. Gorbachev recalled the great wave “surged forward at breakneck speed,” easily surpassing his own time frame when he was at the forefront of the changes.

The direction and speed of the great wave could not have been controlled.

Gorbachev stressed that the purpose of initiating perestroika reforms were to “strengthen socialism and realize new developments.”

However, many people who were freed from oppression and fear of the Communist Party rule were galvanized by the unprecedented reforms and eventually moved to overthrow the Soviet system.

In August 1991, the conservatives of the Communist Party, attempted a coup that ended in defeat in a matter of days. People rallied around the then president of the Russian republic Boris Yeltsin, who called for and later initiated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was dismissed, an ill-fated leader who opened the door to reform but was left sidelined.

In Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s administration, the eras of Gorbachev and Yeltsin are seen as having weakened the nation.

However, Russia’s inability to halt the runaway invasion of Ukraine by its strongman leader is causing a serious crisis in the international community.

I want to believe that Russian people will realize afresh the significance of the principles set forth by Gorbachev.