The one time I saw Mikhail Gorbachev in public was on November 9, 2014. I can pin the day down because it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were in a very large, very crowded Berlin reception room, and he was sitting at a cocktail table, looking rather lost.
Gorbachev had been invited to this event as a trophy, a living, breathing souvenir of the 1980s. He was not expected to say much of interest. The fall of the Berlin Wall had happened by accident, after all; it was not something Gorbachev had ever planned. He had not set out to break up the Soviet Union, to end its tyranny, or to promote freedom. He presided over the end of a cruel and bloody empire, but without intending to do so. Almost nobody in history has ever had such a profound impact on his era, while at the same time understanding so little about it.
Gorbachev was born in Stalin’s Russia, but he began his career during the post-Stalin “thaw,” a moment when it became possible to acknowledge some truths out loud, but not too many. While he was still a student at Moscow State University, one of his closest friends was a Czechoslovak student named Zdeněk Mlynář. Both believed that communism could be reformed, if only the corruption and violence were removed. Mlynář’s convictions led him to become one of the leaders of the Prague Spring, a 1968 movement that started out by calling for “reformed communism” and “socialism with a human face.” That movement was crushed by Soviet soldiers, proving that corruption and violence were intrinsic to a system with no human face. Even cautious Czech reformers could not remove them so easily. [Continue reading…]