Mikhail Gorbachev obituary

Jonathan Steele

NB: Mikhail Gorbachev was a historic figure, for his courage in steering the USSR toward democracy and the peaceful resolution of conflicts within and without its borders. It is another matter that the political forces at work in a decrepit state structure were too divisive and corrupt for him to forestall disintegration. Foremost among these was the lack of legitimate authority – after the Constituent Assembly election in late 1917, there was never a single open democratic election in the Soviet Union until Gorbachev loosened the Communist Party’s monopoly on state power, and inaugurated free elections in 1989.

The debate about his legacy will be prolonged, and it is ironic that he is derided in his own country: people like to find scapegoats for their own failings, and attach all blame to one man when several factors are at work in such complex situations. But it remains true that Gorbachev brought a dangerous situation to a relatively peaceful conclusion, a runaway train armed with nuclear weapons to a stop, rather than a conflagration. The world should bid this man a grateful farewell. RIP Mikhail Sergeevich. DS

Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died aged 91, was the most important world figure of the last quarter of the 20th century. Almost singlehandedly he brought an end to 40 years of east-west confrontation in Europe and liberated the world from the danger of nuclear conflagration. It was not the objective he set himself when he was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist party in March 1985, nor did he predict or plan the way the cold war would end, the haemorrhaging of the Communist party, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany or the break-up of the Soviet Union itself.

What distinguished Gorbachev from previous Soviet leaders was that he started a process of reform and did not try to reverse it once it threatened to spin out of control. The great facilitator, he carried on, even to the point of resigning with dignity as his power faded away.

In the aftermath of his downfall, as his successor Boris Yeltsin stumbled into market economics, it became fashionable in the west to sneer at Gorbachev as “just another communist at heart”. He was called a failure because he had not been willing to liberalise state-controlled prices, privatise industry and open the Soviet economy to outside forces as fast as the emerging Russian elite or Yeltsin’s rightwing western advisers wanted. He was ridiculed for trying to “reform” communism when he should have recognised that it was dead….