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Europe

Gorby, 10 Years Gone

Mikhail Gorbachev, whose brand of perpetual revolution undid the Soviet empire he had sought to save, resigned from office a decade ago today.

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Reviled and loved

When a star is born, it dazzles. When it burns out, it’s lost to memory. Mikhail Gorbachev, 70, was once a great red star.

But on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev resigned as President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it was a moment of little fanfare.

He had long ceased to dazzle at home, no matter that Western diplomats still swooned over him. Rather than making the Soviet people rich, Gorbachev’s "perestroika" reforms had left them with food shortages.

Boris Yeltsin, who in August 1991 had saved the president’s hide – and some would say Russia’s, too – by blocking an attempted coup d’etat, was the hero of the moment.

Demise of Soviet Communism

Six days later, December 31, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist, and the era of "newly independent states" officially began.

It was the death of Leninism. With Gorbachev’s resignation, the original Bolshevik lost his last grip on the Kremlin.

Control passed to Yeltsin, who confessed his own mind was "polluted" by Leninism. Many of those who idolized the new leader then would later come to agree.

But the change was clear. With it came a massive shift in global power. Soviet Communism, the self-proclaimed alternative to Western capitalism, was no more.

The Lenin myth dismantled

For seven decades the Kremlin had trumpeted Lenin’s name, constructing an atheist theology of "justification by faith" – a faith in Lenin, by which the Kremlin’s sins were forgiven.

Gorbachev, like Soviet leaders before him, had called for a return to "authentic" Leninism and an end to the inefficiencies and excesses of residual Stalinism. Perestroika aimed to make the bulky Soviet economy more dynamic, while "glasnost" led to political freedoms and multi-party elections.

Reverberations in the world

There were big consequences for world politics, too. The central and east European countries of the Warsaw Pact rebelled against old-style communism, mostly without bloodshed, and Germany’s western federal republic absorbed
the eastern socialist democratic republic, with Gorbachev’s blessing.

The Cold War ended.

But the Soviet regime proved too ill and gigantic to reform, and in its death throes it vomited up the leader who had forced medicine down its throat.

Looking back

Gorbachev has now had ten years to reflect on his rise and demise, to work on his pet projects of nuclear non-proliferation and environmental reform. He still aims high.

But he started low, as a political functionary from the Russian city of Stavropol. As a quick-thinking and pleasant personality, he rose to the very top of the Communist Party.

He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and continues to advocate new solutions to problems that dog the world.

Empty rhetoric?

As founder of a new Social Democratic moment in Russia, Gorbachev aims to put his ideas to practical use. But to many Russians, he has become a semi-tragic, semi-comic figure, capable of spouting idealistic platitudes but incapable of putting them to work.

"We need a new system of values, a system of the organic unity between mankind and nature and the ethic of global responsibility."

That’s the quote atop his online CV. The page has a function that automatically tells each visitor that it is "not possible to obtain Mr. Gorbachev’s autograph from this website." Obviously his Cyrillic scribble, at least, is still in high demand.

Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, with whom he was famously in love, died in 1999. He has one daughter and two granddaughters.



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